Though it’s rarely talked about, there are opposing forces at work in the art of the guitar. There’s the unstoppable force of technical skill, and the immovable object of poetic soul, and one often threatens to drown out the other. A lot of guitar wizards stake out a position in the technical camp, pouring down obscure chords and pristine solos like sheets of rain. Sensitive songwriters, meanwhile, are often skeptical of any tune with more than three chords, and prefer a raw, emotionally direct approach.
Bay Area guitarist Peppino D’Agostino, however, may be the man who finally brings both sides to the table, as he expresses his centrist approach with an eloquence that makes the age-old divide seem downright ludicrous.
“It takes both,” says D’Agostino. “If your technique is not refined, how can you express your musical concepts? If your technique is precise, but you have no musical concepts, what are you going to express?”
Spend a little time with D’Agostino’s music, and it quickly becomes clear that his work is the embodiment of that balance. A favorite of guitar geeks for his adventurous open tunings and the sheer range of sound he is able to coax from a single acoustic guitar, he is also recognized as the rare guitar virtuoso whose lush sound is as lyrical as it is well-engineered. He’s not a mathematician on the guitar, but a poet.
If that makes him sound like the kind of lackadaisical artiste who drifts through his days walking on the beach, keeping his mind clear for any sudden onset of inspiration—well, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’m one of those guys that goes to the airport three hours early,” admits D’Agostino. Last weekend, he flew to Florida to do more work for True Fire, a company that puts out guitar-instruction DVDs. He also just finished recording music for the upcoming Sims IV game. On top of that, he has finished his latest album, Penumbra, and has his tour schedule mapped out through the summer, including his show on Wednesday, April 9, at the Rio in Santa Cruz with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. These days, the life of a full-time musician is more about time management than bohemian rhapsody.
Okay, there’s a little rhapsody. “I do walk on the beach,” he says.
D’Agostino’s new album—which he will have for sale at the upcoming Santa Cruz show, though it won’t officially be released until August—illustrates his ability to take both a left-brain and right-brain approach to songwriting. Comprising instrumentals on a single acoustic guitar, some of the songs came about from what he calls “an instinctual, muscle-related way of composing.” He wanted to both explore new tunings and incorporate elements of baroque and minimalism.
“When you change the tuning of the guitar, the whole roadmap is gone,” he says. “I come up with a composition based on being in completely unknown musical territory.”
But other songs came from an entirely emotional place, including a couple he wrote with specific people in mind. He compares the process of writing them to a painter’s canvas, “where you know the colors you’re going to use based on their personality.”
His collaboration with Vignola and Raniolo at the Rio show is a guitar aficionado’s dream. D’Agostino has played with them before; at the Montreux Jazz Festival, for instance.
“Frank is one of the best jazz guitarists on the scene today, and Vinnie is equally good,” he says. “We’re going to play together—I don’t know what. But something.”
It’s easy to sense there’s more than just professional respect at work in this combo; there’s also genuine affection. “I actually babysat Frank’s kids,” D’Agostino says with a laugh. “They are so cute.”
Playful passion is what continues to drive D’Agostino’s exploration of the acoustic guitar, with a healthy dose of the childlike wonder he’s held onto from his days growing up in his native Italy.
“The guitar is a never-ending source of surprises,” he says. “This little box is a magical thing. It’s incredible.”
Peppino D’Agostino plays the Rio in Santa Cruz with Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo on Wednesday, April 9 at 7:30pm; $25.