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Tim Sparks


Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine, May/June 2000

by Bruce Muckala
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 Neshamahwho 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 technique.
    One String 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 Tchiakovsky's One String Leads to Anotherentire 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, Minnesota.

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 argument. [Laughs]

BM: Can I have it?

TS: Ha!

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 little brighter.
    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 style.
    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 Brazilian forms.

BM: How about the Brazilian band you played with?

TS: Mandala?

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 together?

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 today.

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. [Laughs]

BM: One String Leads to Another is quite different than your previous releases.

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 Melody.


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