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Artist of the Month for August 2004: El McMeen

El McMeen

Age: 57

Sparta, NJ

Home Town:
Lewistown, PA (in central PA)

At what age did you start playing guitar? 17

What made you decide to start?
I can’t quite remember. I had sung, and played clarinet and piano seriously. I do recall that I liked the guitar playing of my roommate in secondary school, although I did become weary of “Sloop John B”.

First guitar:
An all-mahogany Gibson

Early Influences:
Folksingers Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush, Bob Dylan

Tell us about your early playing days. What motivated you? Did you have friends that played?
I find that one of the best ways to learn is to jam with people that are way better than you. Did you do a lot of jamming when you first started?

During college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960’s, there was a great folk scene, but at that stage I was playing 3 hours a day, in the solitary of my dorm room (and sometimes the stairwell), trying to improve my skills as a singer and player. I was much too reticent to involve myself in group things. I started to get some reinforcement for my singing and playing, when I did some informal performing outside in the Harvard Yard, and, amazingly enough, people actually gathered to hear me, rather than fleeing in every direction. Maybe the price was right.

It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that I thought about performing primarily instrumentals on guitar. At that time Stefan Grossman evinced an interest in my playing, and I subsequently did 8 one-hour audiocassette lessons, and three video lessons, for his workshop. I’ve also done 10 CD’s.

First gig:
My then singing partner and I won the Shade Gap, PA (best known as the site of a kidnapping later on of a young lady by the “Shade Gap Mountain Man”, later apprehended by the FBI) talent contest in 1968, and came in second in the central PA talent contest later that year. Neither was exactly Carnegie Hall…
My serious touring as a guitarist started at age 51. I’d recommend that people start earlier:)

Acoustic Guitars you own:
Two Martin OM-28V models, EI and Sitka; a 1984 Franklin Braz. and Engelmann Jumbo and a 2004 Franklin OM, Engelmann and Madagascar Rosewood; and a Baranik CX, Italian Spruce and Madagascar, Sunburst.

Favorite Guitar:
My current ones.

Your Style, and how you developed it:
I think my style, in the left hand, is reminiscent of the approach of a violinist (working the strings, creating texture and vibrato), and in the right hand, akin to the arpeggiated style of a harper. This style arose from my interest in the CGDGAD tuning, brought to my attention by the playing of the English guitarist Dave Evans, and my interest in Celtic harp music and songs. I recently completed a large book for Mel Bay called The Art of Dropped D Guitar. (I discovered, somewhat by accident, that my arrangements can translate well, and in sometimes interesting fashion, to dropped D tuning.) My book of Christmas transcriptions is done in CGDGAD and Dropped D tunings.

Practice Regimen:
2-3 hours a day, starting right after breakfast. During tours, I’m rehearsing my sets all the time, and not usually learning new material. When I’m not touring, I’m more relaxed, and open to inspiration by way of new music. When I find a new piece to work on, I beat it like a drum until I get it down. This approach has led to my two CD’s in 2004—Dancing the Strings and my Christmas CD, called The Soul of Christmas Guitar (to be released in October 2004).

Favorite Artist(s):
Fiddlers Mark O’Connor, Liz Carroll, and Natalie Mac Master; harpers Kim Robertson and the late Derek Bell; too many guitarists to mention, but including Messrs. Bensusan, Renbourn, McManus, Simpson, Baughman and Pattis.

What general suggestions would you give to someone who wants to learn to play guitar?
As my friend Stefan Grossman says…play LOUD and play slowly.

Check out El's website.
If you are a guitarist with a cd out and would like to be featured here please contact me.

AOTM Archives:

August 2008 - Danny Combs
March 2006 - Bryan Clark
Februry 2006 - Darin Leong
January 2006 - Andy McKee
December 2005 - Don Alder
November 2005 - Doug Young
October 2005 - Nancy Conescu
August - September 2005 - Warren Greig
July 2005 - Ian Melrose
June 2005 - Roger Lasley
May 2005 - Jim Tozier
April 2005 - Jessica Papkoff
March 2005 - Todd Habekost
February 2005 - Michael Hewett
January 2005 - Steve Barney
December 2004 - Tony McManus
November 2004 - Chris Newman
October 2004 - Kevin Kastning
September 2004 - Rick Duke
August 2004 - El McMeen
June-July 2004 - Charles David Alexander
May 2004 - Tony Capri
April 2004 - Shane Simpson
March 2004 - Bill Cooley
February 2004 - Greg Meckes
January 2004 - Gary Leek
December 2003 - Ernie Hawkins
November 2003 - Keith Knight
October 2003 - Jaquie Gipson
September 2003 - Chuck Durfor
August 2003 - Cathy Horner
July 2003 - Art Edelstein
June 2003 - Muriel Anderson
May 2003 - Clarelynn Rose
March-April 2003 - Steve Wildey
February 2003 - Rick Ruskin
January 2003 - Kerry Kling
December 2002 - Tim O'Brien
November 2002 - Howard Emerson
October 2002 - Dennis Roger Reed
September 2002 - Larry Pattis
August 2002 - Paul Asbell