Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine,
NOTE: This includes additional
material that did not appear in the
Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine interview.
Guitarist Tim Sparks had a banner
year in 1999 with the release of two
exceptional solo guitar albums. Neshamah,
released in August on John Zorn's Tzadik
Records, and One String Leads To Another,
on Peter Finger's cutting-edge guitar
label, Acoustic Music Records, show Sparks
at his eclectic best. Both projects,
recorded within a span of six months,
display the technique, and world view of
music that have earned Tim an
international reputation as one the most
innovative guitarists working today.
When John Zorn
contacted Sparks to propose the Neshamah
project, after hearing cuts from Tim's
second CD, Guitar Bazaar, he knew he was
speaking to a singular artist who
would be able to deliver a unique solo
guitar record of traditional Jewish music.
With a worldwide reputation as a
performing artist and musical innovator
himself, the mission of Zorn's Radical
Jewish Culture series is to present new
conceptions of Jewish music by
commissioning some of today's most
inventive composer/performers. What Zorn
got from Sparks was a collection of
soulful, ethno-jazz interpretations of
Jewish melodies from around the globe.
From Yemen to Krakow, to the Balkans and
Tin Pan Alley, the music follows a thread
through space and time.
Sparks, a past
member of Rio Nido and Jewish folk group
Voices of the Sepharad, sounds truly world
class on this solo guitar showcase
illustrating Jewish music's influence
around the globe. But unlike the bouncy
dance pieces we associate with Jewish
weddings and Klezmer concerts, Sparks
reduces these complex classics to their
harmonic essence, allowing the depth and
melodic beauty to be felt in new ways
through his gently dazzling fingerstyle
Leads to Another is the album that
guitar enthusiasts have been waiting for
from Sparks. After nearly a decade of
performing and recording ethnic music from
the Balkans to Brazil, (with some choice
classical cuts thrown in including
Nutcracker Suite), Sparks has finally come
home, musically speaking. While One
String Leads to Another is infused
with the many dimensions of Sparks'
indefatigable music excursions, you'll
hear it rendered in snatches along with
the blues and bluegrass of his childhood
in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Sparks
is currently at work on a follow-up CD for
Tzadik Records. He will be returning to
Europe in the spring. This interview took
place in the kitchen of his farmhouse,
located on a lake near Frazee,
Muckala: Let's begin with the kind of
guitar you are playing now.
Sparks: This is a 1954 Martin 0017. I
used it from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s
when I played a lot of five and six night
a week gigs. Then the bridge cracked so it
sat in an attic for about ten years. When
I sold my house a few years ago, I dug it
out and got it fixed. I went to Mexico the
following winter and took this guitar,
because it's old and a bit beat up. "I'm
not gonna worry about scratching it", I
thought. I mean, I don't neglect it, but
you know what I mean. My wife even put her
foot through the top once during an
BM: Can I have it?
BM: Well, it never hurts to ask.
TS: Anyway, it seemed better to take
the old Martin than one of my "Cadillac"
guitars. I thought it more suited to
stuffing in overhead bins and bombing
around the Sierra Madres. The funny thing
is, that I kind of rediscovered this ax,
and when I got back to the States, I just
kept playing it. It's particularly
resonant and responsive to string bends,
especially in the midrange. There seems to
be a real sweet spot on the 4th and 3rd
strings around the 5th and 7th frets. you
can hit a note A, bend it up half a step
and let it hang and it will actually get
louder. I found that I liked these sounds
and began to use them.
This is a
significant flavor in the Neshamah
material, as well as One String Leads
to Another. Actually, I evolved the
string-bending vocabulary on One
String material, and it carried over
into the arrangements for Neshamah,
where I was trying to emulate the
evocative sounds of crying, moaning,
laughing, etc. that one hears in Klezmer
violin or clarinet.
BM: I understand that you tune one step
down from concert and then capo at the
second fret. Why?
TS: I keep talking to guitar makers
about making a twelve fret guitar that
would mimic the qualities of this guitar.
If it was a twelve fret I could tune it
and not have to use a capo. It would be a
I broke my left
wrist when I was a kid so it doesn't turn.
I have to pull my arm around and tuck my
elbow in in a strange way. Maybe that's
another reason why I like working with
twelve frets. It's funny how much
difference that makes.
With my guitar
tuned down an octave, it's looser. I
prefer to do that with light gauge
strings, rather than at concert pitch with
extra light. I like the little more punch
and richness you get in light gauge
instead of extra light.
BM: At one time, you were using a thumb
pick, but you've abandoned that?
TS: Long time ago, yeah. Now I'm just
using these nails I glue on. Although I
had studied classical guitar, for steel
strings, I used to have my right hand more
flat and my pinky anchored on the top but
now it's in a more open classical
position. Several years ago I was doing
some things with Leo Kottke and noticed he
was playing that way I figured I should
try it. It was hell at first.
BM: A hallmark of your music is the
different chord voicings you use.
TS: I used to be in a jazz group, a
vocal group, that did really cool
arrangements by Slide Hampton. He's a jazz
trombonist and arranger. A lot of his
voicings were these clusters like B, C, E,
a minor 2nd, and a major 3rd, or vice
versa. So I would come across these
clusters in the process of trying to
decipher these things for the vocal group
and I kept using them. Of course, Lenny
Breau also did things like these same kind
of chord cluster voicings, and he's a big
influence on my style. I guess a big
component of this cluster idea is you end
up with some arpeggios, but with some
really big stretches. So working with
mainly twelve fret guitars, those
stretches are somewhat easier to play.
BM: How did Neshamah [it means
"soul"] come about?
TS: I sent John Zorn a copy of
Guitar Bazaar because I knew about
his music, and also that he had produced a
record by Duck Baker. One of the things
Zorn liked was my arrangement of Bela
Bartok's Rumanian Dances. He was
interested in a similar treatment of
traditional Jewish music. I initially sent
him a demo of a concert of Sephardic music
with oud, dumbeck, and vocals. He said
that was nice, but he was very firm about
wanting a solo guitar recording.
As far a putting
the material together, it was fairly
spontaneous, because I had already played
a lot of Jewish music. I learned a lot
working with Maury Bernstein and Mark
Stillman, two great accordion players
whose books covered every style
imaginable. They both had groups that did
lots of Jewish weddings, and that's where
I was able to get a feel for the Klezmer
I also played oud
and guitar with Voices of the Sepharad.
They specialized in the music of the
Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492,
and who carried their music to North
Africa, Bosnia, Turkey, even Iraq, the
Caucasus, Yemen... where it mingled with
the local flavors. It's a great musical
tradition, and I do a number of Sephardic
tunes on Neshamah.
I also worked with Belly dancers, a Greek
band and a Persian group with a singer
from Iran. They did a record I was on and
I didn't realize this - I was eating lunch
at the Caspian in Minneapolis, an Iranian
restaurant, and someone had taken a tape
and put it out as a CD. They had it for
sale. I was playing the oud and the saz,
which is a sort of long necked Asian
instrument, and I have sort of taken that
stuff now and put it back into the guitar.
And it's a more effective use of my
energy. I had reached a point where I was
at my maximum; I was playing so many
things I was getting meltdown in my brain.
I couldn't carry all these repertoires.
They're complex repertoires and I finally
had to take all that stuff and pull it
into this body of guitar music, which I
can keep in my head. Plus, it's more
interesting. I mean, I'm a better guitar
player taking those ideas than I'll ever
be an oud player. I can at best be an
okay, maybe folkloric oud player. Because
it's like flamenco guitar, you have to
start when you're four years old. You've
gotta play it all your life. I'll never be
a flamenco guitar player but I can use
flamenco voicings and do some interesting
things and things that people might not
have thought about using.
And so, with the
help of Duck Baker, I sent my Guitar
Bazaar CD to John Zorn and John
suggested the Neshamah project, a
collection of traditional Jewish tunes
done with my particular guitar spin. It
turned out that Neshamah was the
perfect vehicle to embrace all the
different genres from jazz, the Mideast,
Balkan, Central Asian, and Latin American
styles and tie it all together.
BM: How does a picker from Carolina get
a handle on Jewish music?
TS: Well, you know, technically
speaking, it makes interesting solo guitar
music, because it blends a fingerstyle
ragtime sensibility with classical music
structures and flamenco voicings. To me
that's the key to doing it. It's worked
perfectly. The flamenco players have a way
of doing arpeggios that make the gypsy
scales with chords that are a combination
of fretted and open strings. These chord
forms often embody the melody; it just
plays itself. For me, it seems to come
pretty naturally. I did a lot of
groundwork in Mediterranean music. Greek
music, gypsy music, Jewish music; it's all
cut from the same cloth in some ways.
Once again, I
revert to the model of Lenny Breau, who
freely adapted Flamenco ideas to his
jazz/country bag. I also took a cue from
Raphael Rubello, who blended Flamenco with
BM: How about the Brazilian band you
BM: Yeah, Mandala. You were on a record
with them weren't you?
TS: Yeah. That was a great band. I
played with them a whole lot. I learned a
lot of stuff playing with them.
BM: Are they still playing
TS: I don't think they play a whole
lot. The woman who started that band
started teaching full time. She has a very
rich thing going as a music teacher. Works
with a lot of troubled kids. She gradually
shifted from playing nightclubs to doing
residencies at schools, music residencies
until she finally does a full time job of
it. You know what I mean? People just kind
of evolve sometimes.
BM: Speaking of evolving, did you ever
play the alternating bass style? Is that
how you started?
TS: Oh yeah. Stuff like Victory Rag. I
played that stuff all the time. I always
do that in my shows to give people a sense
of where I'm coming from. It gives people
something they can connect to.
BM: Leo Kottke has called you the best
musician he knows.
TS: Well, Leo is a nice guy.
BM: You were commissioned by him to do
the arrangement for Jesus Maria.
TS: Yeah that was a tough arrangement.
I played it for Leo and he learned it and
recorded it. I don't remember if I wrote
it down or showed it to him.
BM: Where are the next fingerstylists
going to come from? Who's following close
on Leo's heels?
TS: I suppose when the younger audience
turns on to fingerstyle guitar they're
gonna have their own people they're gonna
dig. I think there's a definite phase when
younger people are into electric, loud,
more energetic music. You get a little
older and then you mellow out, a little
subtler. Don't you think?
BM: Yeah, but I think [Michael]
Hedges brought a lot of younger people to
fingerstyle guitar because he was a more
theatrical performer too and attracted
more young people to the genre.
TS: Yeah. Peter Finger started a
festival in Europe called Open Strings.
The first year he had Leo Kottke as the
Saturday night headliner and he had Robin
Trower, John Renbourn and Alex DiGrassi.
He had people like me and Woody Mann,
Jimmy Finley, Isato Nakagawa. The second
year he had a tougher time doing a show
because he couldn't find a headliner. He
did a great show. He had Vicente Amigo,
the new hot shot Paco de Lucia, and the
Assad Brothers - that's a duo from Brazil,
two brothers, about the best classical
guitarists in the world. But it wasn't as
successful a show. You gotta have a
popular headliner. He said there are a lot
of great guitarists but you got to have a
headliner. There aren't many Leo Kottkes.
There are not many guys like that. You
reminded me of Michael Hedges. He was a
guy like Leo who could do that.
BM: He was a headliner.
TS: Yeah. He had such an original style
and was such a charismatic performer. It's
kind of a dilemma in fingerstyle guitar
BM: How about you?
TS: I'm just kind of like a guy driving
a car whose brakes have gone out, trying
not to run off the road.
BM: One String Leads to Another
is quite different than your previous
TS: I wrote most of the tunes when I
spent a month in Mexico. I found myself
exploring the sounds of where I grew up in
North Carolina, you know, more native
American sounds, and cross-pollinating
them, if you will, with sounds from around
the world. Sounds I have explored in music
from other cultures.
BM: So what could one call the music
you are writing and interpreting now? Is
there a label that can be applied?
TS: Well, it's kind of an orphan genre.
It's not Jazz, and it's not classical, but
there are influences from both in there.
It's kind of a new thing. There is
sophistication akin to classical guitar. I
digest music, but I also digest cultural
things. Culture has architecture in it,
and you get it in the food or the language
or the music.
BM: The opening tune of Neshamah
is quite a stunner.
TS: The Baal Shem Tov's melody. I
learned it from a recorded version by the
Israeli violinist Yehoshua Rochman. I gave
it some jazz harmonizations to bring out
the haunting, bittersweet quality of the
melody. It almost reminds me of a Tom
Waits tune. My version is really more of a
riff on the theme of the original than a
note-for-note rendition. That's why I call
it "Meditation" on the Baal Shem Tov's