This article originally appeared in Acoustic Guitar magazine. © String Letter Publishing, all rights reserved.
Peter Finger - 101 South
Peter Finger may be the hardest-working musician in the world of fingerstyle guitar. Aside from performing, teaching, and recording, he runs Acoustic Music Records (the source of scores of quality recordings, including 13 by Finger), publishes the German magazine Akustik Gitarre, and organizes the annual Open Strings Festival (see A.G. Letter, February '99). Finger's solo guitar work isn't widely known in the U.S., but those lucky enough to discover him are astounded by the power and precision of his playing and the depth of his compositions. His latest CD, Open Strings, includes "101 South," the melodic and challenging solo piece transcribed below. He named the piece, played in D A E G A D tuning, while touring in California.
Finger was born into a musical family in Weimar, Germany, in 1954. He began playing the violin and the piano at an early age. As a teenager, he won the prestigious Jugend Musiziert (Youth Playing Music) competition twice. His uncle gave him his first guitar just as his interest in rock 'n' roll was reaching its peak. "When I first played guitar, I wanted to get as far away as possible from classical music," Finger recalls. "It was kind of a rebellion. I had long hair, the hippie look, and it had more to do with that than with the music itself."
Finger eventually discovered acoustic blues and ragtime traditions, and it didn't take long for his focus to turn to solo acoustic guitar. He learned that Stefan Grossman, whose instructional books had been instrumental in Finger's blues guitar studies, was living in Italy, so he packed his guitar and hitchhiked off for a visit. A week later he had recorded his first album, Bottleneck Blues Guitar. "I was lucky that Grossman was actively looking for artists," he recalls. "He had just started the [Kicking Mule] label. He really wanted a bottleneck album, so I sat there for four or five days and wrote 20 pieces in open D and open G and cut the album. I would have done anything to get an album released in the U.S."
Although the album would become one of Kicking Mule's best-selling records at the time, Finger had just become a father and didn't feel prepared to make a living playing guitar. He enrolled in the music program at the University of Münster, where he continued his violin studies, and he began to write music for German TV and radio. Finger was once again immersed in classical music, but he kept performing country blues on guitar, usually utilizing open tunings. He realized, however, that his compositions were as much influenced by the works of composers such as Stravinski, Bartók, and Ravel as they were by his blues and rock heroes. His personal style began to emerge as a combination of rock 'n' roll energy and the folk themes and advanced harmonies he was hearing in classical music.
In the 1980s, Finger played solo and also led ensembles of sometimes unusual instrumentation. He performed as a duo with vibraphonist Florian Poser and as a trio with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and saxophonist Charlie Mariano. These experiences encouraged Finger to settle on one tuning in order to gain greater command over his instrument. "Florian kept saying, 'Why don't you improvise a little too?' and I simply couldn't, because I wasn't familiar enough with any of the tunings I was using," Finger recalls. "Another problem was playing standards."
Finger had never been comfortable in standard tuning and chose E B E G A D as his main tuning after a tour with French fingerstylist Pierre Bensusan, who had just started to use D A D G A D exclusively. "At first I thought that with one tuning everything would start sounding the same, but after a while I picked out this tuning, more or less randomly, and just worked on it for a while," Finger recalls. "I worked out all the harmonies, scales, chords, everything I wanted to know. I realized that you could do enough with that one tuning." Ultimately, Finger ended up settling on two tunings: E B E G A D and a variation with the fifth and sixth strings tuned down a whole step--D A E G A D (the tuning used for "101 South").
Finger began recording and releasing his own albums on his label in 1989. His latest, Open Strings, is a masterpiece of melody, texture, and rhythm. "I wanted to become a little more melodic and a little quieter," explains Finger. "I think I generally became a little quieter in the last few months . . . in concerts as well." The recording includes five miniature compositions, each ranging from 26 seconds to just under three minutes in length. "My [model] for these pieces is Bartók," says Finger. "I would like to write even shorter things in the future, things that are really more like fragments. I'll also keep working on my regular compositions."
Finger notes that when playing "101 South," it's helpful to realize that the tune is based more on chords than on single-note lines. He warns that the biggest challenges are keeping the melody fluid while making considerable jumps around the fingerboard and getting the rhythm right. He recommends slowing down to a comfortable tempo and using a metronome while working out the various parts.
Regarding his next album, Finger says, "I've made three solo recordings, and it's about time to do something with other people." He is also hoping to hire additional help for his record label so he can devote more time to playing and composing. "Right now, I try to take about an hour every day to play. That's enough to keep my chops and my repertoire, but it's not really enough to move on. I have to restructure the company so that I can just work eight hours a day and do music the rest of the time. Now, even if I tell myself to stop working at 10 P.M., I often find myself in the office at midnight working on things that need to get done." Finger is clearly absorbed in his work and glows with excitement when talking about his various projects. In the year 2000, he will produce Germany's annual Open Strings festival for the third time (scheduled for May 20 and 21), and he is scheduled to tour the U.S. as part of the International Guitar Night in the spring . It's a lot of activity, for sure, but nothing out of the ordinary for this restless ambassador of the acoustic guitar.
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