AN INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN FERGUSON
Right out of nowhere, suddenly American guitarist Kevin Ferguson released a rather amazing solo CD on an independent label. Called "Strad to Strat", it offered awesome renditions of violin compositons on electric guitar. Right away, I decided that this new prodigy in the guitar world ought to be target of an interview of sorts. So, after requesting his permission, I assailed him with a file filled with questions, bidding him to be as verbose as he wanted to be. The result can be read below.
Can you give us a short biography of your life, education, work and social status?
Kevin: I was born on the 22nd of April, 1961 in Richmond, Virginia. I was raised in a very small town within a 40 minute drive of George Washington's birthplace. When I was 12 years old I studied Music Theory at a local community college. The instructor was a retired conductor from Broadway and used to play the organ for Radio City Music Hall. I felt quite fortunate to have him as an instructor. In my senior year in high school, my family moved to New York. This required a great deal of adjusting as not only was the culture very different, the math was more advanced but suprisingly, the English studies were inferior. I studied Advanced Music Theory and Composition from Julliard's Carmen Rodregiz-Peralta when I attended Stevens Institute of Technology. I have since obtained a Masters Degree in Engineering from Oregon Graduate Institute. My music education has continued through continuous self study and coaching from various guitarists I admire, including that in my interview with Steve Morse (to be found at http://www.teleport.com/~kevinf/morseint.html).
What do you do in everyday life?
Kevin: Basically, I'm an egghead; my day job is video and audio product design. I have worked for Bell Labs, IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, The Institute of Audio Research, a small biotechnology research instrument company, and currently work for Tektronix in Television Test. Out of curiousity, I took a summer job with the United States Electronic Warfare Department in 1981 and got to see first hand what a waste of resources the cold war created.
All the engineering work has given me knowledge to squeeze as much as possible out of modest recording equipment. I have given a seminar as a guest speaker on recording on a tight budget as a result. I also occasionally work as both a recording engineer and session musician in local studios, when musicians specifically request me.
How have reaction to "Strad to Strat" been so far?
Kevin: For an initial release of an independent artist, very good. It has only been out for about a month and it is getting airplay on college and community radio stations across the U.S., Canada and recently I've been getting requests from radio stations in Europe. The director of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday has expressed interest in using portions for production music. Aside from mail order in the U.S. through Locals Only (Portland, OR), a mail order company, ZNR records (Louisville, Kentucky), a distributor covering Europe, has picked it up. Folks from Europe and Japan are starting to become aware of it and ordering it. When I first played this music in a public performance about a year ago, the reaction was much more enthusiastic than I had expected. That and subsequent similar reactions lead me to believe that making a CD might not be a bad idea. I wanted to make a live recording, but the logistics became an obstacle. I tried to make the CD sound as much as the live performance as I could, actually recording direct to RDAT with no subsequent editing. The very positive feedback I've been getting from the CD is similar to that of the live performances.
Could you play the compositions on the album just on any guitar, or do you need some special tunings/stricks/picks?
Kevin: I definitely need a durable pick. I used to use a fairly common Fender plastic pick. On Paganini's "Perpetual Motion", for example, enough of that pick turned to dust half-way through the piece that it was no longer usable. It had nicks and the shape was bad to the point that it really slowed me down by snagging the strings. I now use .99mm Delrin picks (currently D'Addario, though I don't know if the brand name really matters). They take about 10 times longer to wear down. They still get nicked, but not as badly. After a set I can usually file it with a nail file just enough to smooth out the nicks. A slightly worn and filed Delrin pick allows me to play the fastest passages without much effort. I can be pretty hard on the strings when I want a certain urgent tone from the guitar. On the other hand, the 2nd movement of Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 leaves no noticable wear on the pick because it is a much more mellow movement.
I used no special tunings on STRAD TO STRAT.
For the 5 octave range of Paganini and Sarasate music, having a guitar that allows the highest harmonics to come through is a good thing. Some acoustic guitars I've played don't allow this. The Strat I play is harder to play a wide range on than some guitars with a full 2 octave fret board.
The only tricks have to do with technique, not equipment. However, when I started practicing the highest notes, I used a post-it with phantom fret marks on the pick guard under the strings to mark the positions of harmonics (and it's still there). Fast harmonics are played by shifting the pick from my index finger (and thumb) to middle finger (and thumb) so that I can pick both down and up while creating the harmonic with my index finger. I use two handed fretting on some of the very fast and wide runs.
I've been playing the same Strat since I bought it in 1974, so playing on other guitars is a small handicap. I do have other guitars, but for this music I like the Strat the best.
The '74 Strat you recorded the album on, have any of its bits been customised?
Kevin: Aside from the Post-It [:)], it has Lace Sensor pick-ups in place of the original weaker and noisier pickups. It has had a small bit from the nut repaired by a very good luthiar here in Portland by the name of Jeff Elliot. That's it.
What other equipment do you generally use (effect pedals, stack, that kind of stuff)?
Kevin: Much less than I used to: I use a Nady wireless system, a Fender Stage 112 Amp and sometimes delay. The Fender Stage 112 gets mic'ed and this signal passes through a delay before going on to the PA.
I usually do unusual things with the speakers, depending on the hall. In very live halls, I sometimes position the amp near a wall, facing it, so that it is mainly heard through reflections, including the far wall. In some halls, this gives a pretty big sound without much mucking with other electronics or even turning up the volume much. It really depends on the dimensions of the hall. I just use the speed of sound to estimate the delays involved. In some halls, I don't get to control the sound once the amp is mic'd. When the sound is direct from the amp, I usually add polyester filler between the speaker cone and the speaker grill. This helps reduce some of the harsh upper harmonics that the amp controls can't get rid of because they are caused by non-linearities of the speaker/driver combination.
Has "Strad to Strat" already lead to offers from bigger record labels?
Kevin: Not too many bigger record labels know about it yet as far as I know. I have not persued any, in any case. ZNR is the only distributor I have contacted, mainly because I can't cover countries outside the U.S. as well with the other folks I deal with.
Can we expect an, er, more regular album from you in the near future, perhaps one in a more 'Shrapnel' vein? I would surely like to hear you play your own hard rock compositions in a full band setup!
Kevin: It's possible, as I used to record such music and still play it. I'm having a lot of fun with classical orchestration right now, though. I also have arranged some bebop tunes that might show up on a CD.
I recorded my rendition of Deep Purple's "Woman From Tokyo" mixed with Saint-Saen's Bacchanale from the opera Samson and Delilah and called "Woman From Gaza" for a Deep Purple tribute compilation album.
I've sold my own neoclassical and jazz/rock fusion tunes on tapes before. I had my own band for about 8 years back in the New York City area. It was a 5 piece with more of your standard line- up including drums and bass guitar. I may re-record some of those tunes.
Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar?
Kevin: I learned violin at the age of about 4 or 5. Piano came next. I'm not particularly good at either, though I haven't forgotten everything. I used to play keyboards in bands. Played bass for a local band for a year until a year ago when I started focusing on the material for this CD.
Who played the synthesizers (or programmed them) on "Strad to Strat"?
Kevin: I sequenced them using "Encore" since I like to work in notation.
The inevitable question: What is your favourite guitarist? Is that also the one that influenced you most?
Kevin: There are many I admire, but Steve Morse still stands out as the guitarist who has impressed me the most over the years. He continues to improve his technique and try new things. He's played with the who's who of guitarists of most styles you can think of. I just started playing Tumeni Notes -- what a fun tune! He has influenced me as far as inspiring me by playing what he likes for so long, regardless of the commercial appeal. I like to root for the underdog! He's playing with Deep Purple now, but still does his own material on the side. His attitude probably influenced me as much as his music. When I met him for an interview last year, he showed such excitement when talking about the musicians who have helped him learn what he knows today. He is as unpretentious to talk to as he is amazing to listen to.
For STRAD TO STRAT, I was influenced mainly by violinists Heifetz, Ricci, Perlman, Shaham, and an early 1900's recording of Sarasate himself. Man! Sarasate was incredible! He was _too_ fast even for me to listen to.
What is/are your favourite music/band(s)?
Kevin: Instrumental, usually firey, fierce, fast, passionate, capricious, joyous and/or ominous:
Of course, all of the classical music I chose for STRAD TO STRAT and similar including Paganini's Caprice No.'s 13 and 22, Bach's Partita No. 2, Toccata and Fugue for Organ, Vivaldi's Winter, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, Sain-Saen's Rondo and Cappriccio... there are too many...
Steve's Tumeni Notes, Kat Food, Punk Sandwich, Pride O' Farm and Assembly Line, Eric Johnson's Cliffs of Dover, Dizzy Gillespie's Bebop, Hendrix's (and Stevie Ray Vahn's) Voodoo Chile Slight Return, Ron Thal's version of Chopin's Fantasie. Lanny Cordolla's rendition of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is real fun. Malmsteen's Far Beyond The Sun, Charlie Parker's Scrapple From the Apple, Duke Ellington's Angelica, Tony McAlpine's Albert's Fat Sister, Black Sabbath's St. Vitas' Dance, Jeff Beck's Scatter-Brained, most of Earl Scrugg's Breakdowns, J.L. Ponty's Egocentric Molecules, Pink Floyd's One Of These Days and Echoes, The Yellowjackets' Imperial Strut...
What kind of books/authors do you like reading? Which would you think anyone ought to have checked out?
Kevin: For inspiration, "William Wallace: Braveheart" by James Mackay, Mainstream Publishing (I haven't finished it yet...my grandmother Ferguson was born a Wallace). Also, Papillon, the French lifer who makes a career out of escaping.
For those who are pro- or anti-technology, "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintanence" has some good food for thought. Since reading it over a decade ago, it seems more pertinent than ever.
"The Financing of Terror" is a good book to read to get an idea about where money for illegal drugs can go.
Though a bit out of date (it came out in 1990), "Hit Men" by Fredric Dannen is an important look at the politics of the music business in the U.S. prior to the proliferation of independents. There is evidence that some things are still the same today.
I've been reading a lot of dry books which amount to world social studies: various countries' histories, demographics, economies, politics, culture, etc. The U.S. influence on much of the world makes it hard to see what lies beyond, sometimes, even when travelling abroad. I think some folks in the U.S. would benefit from this kind of reading, and in turn it could help many people of the countries we influence.
For eggheads like me, Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital" is a book that I agree with in many areas regarding the future and electronics in our lives. "Cybernetics" by mathematician Norbert Wiener avoids using math, for the most part, in explaining fundamental priciples that control just about everything in life. And for those who haven't read it, Einstein's "Relativity" is written in layman's terms and doesn't need an eggs-pert to interpret...
When, in many years, you'll eventually die, which song would you like to be played at your funeral service?
Kevin: One chosen by my survivors.
What is to you *the* music release of 1995 so far?
Kevin: I don't know yet. I think I'm about a year behind from working on STRAD TO STRAT. I keep reading about albums I'd like to hear that I haven't heard yet. About a month ago I discovered a CD released by Polydor, Japan in 1994: Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band. I really like their version of Dizzy Gillespie's Bebop.
What do you remember as the worst ever moment in your life?
Kevin: Probably right after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1989 when I was in San Francisco and my wife and child were in Walnut Creek on the other side of the Bay. For a while, I didn't know if they were alive or dead.
At first, I thought it was just another quake, though it did seem a bit strong. I was at work at 5:00 and normally I would have been ready to go home over the Bay Bridge, on the lower deck. I would have been there around the time that big section collapsed from the upper deck to the lower deck. As luck would have it, I had taken a class that was to have a field trip to a city on the lower penninsula, on the San Francisco side, that evening.
Since the electricity was out, I used a portable radio to try to hear if there were any damage reports. Scanning the channels yeilded an eerie silence in the place of the dozens of stations normally heard. So far, I wasn't alarmed, figuring it was just due to the power failure. From my view on the second story of the building, I could not see beyond a couple of city blocks, but they looked intact.
I decided to make my appointment in the lower peninsula and keep trying for stations in my car radio. Finally, after about 10 minutes on the road, I picked up a station 90 miles away in Sacramento. They were talking about cracks in historical buildings there in Sacramento! They had sent a helicopter to San Francisco to check for damage. It was the report from this helicopter that told me how much devastation the earthquake had done. After hearing about the structural damage and death on the east side of the bay (were my wife and child were), I had no way of knowing if they were alive or dead until the 3 hours it took to travel all the way around the Bay, seeing fires and exploding transformers along the way. We were lucky.
Suppose you could be Aladdin for a while. Which three wishes would you make?
Kevin: 1) To have more time (this takes care of many things!) 2) To have even more time (this takes care of even more things!) 3) To have still even more time...
If you were confined to a desert island and you could only take with you one book, five CDs and one luxury item (excluding the obvious CD player), which would they be?
Kevin: Book: "How to Get Off a Desert Island". CDs: I'd just grab the first 5 from the stack on my stereo, whatever they happened to be. Luxury Item: My wife.
What is your ultimate ambition, the thing you hope to be remembered by?
Kevin: I'm not sure they are one in the same: My ambition is to create in as many ways possible, hopefully in a useful and adventurous way. I hope to be remembered in a way that helps others to feel free from convention, vague as the that may seem. I guess there is some correlation there, since feeling free from convention can be conducive to creativity. Anyway, I hope I've still got a while for this...
Now for the words to react to. Feel free to associate all you want here...
Kevin: "Enjoy life and be a good person." I know him more for this and ALS than for his music. I'd still like to hear some.
Kevin: A business in the distance.
Kevin: "Far Beyond The Sun" is a blast to play on guitar. I like the live album.
Kevin: Beats the post office for mail!
The Fender Stratocaster.
Kevin: Mine may be as organic as an electric instrument gets. Usually harder to simultaneously get good tone and low action than most guitars. Mine has relatively high action.
Kevin: His music is fun to play! My dad wrote a book about him. His music has followed me around for a long time.
Kevin: Guess I haven't paid very close attention to them.
Kevin: Berklee, Dream Theater, Morse claims he has an incredible musical memory. Like the tight slowly metamorphic quick riffs.
Kevin: More mechanical than organic, more precise yet tonally less responsive than many other guitars. There are exceptions, of course. Usually easy to get very low action.
Kevin: Wealthy and sad.
Kevin: Musically very active. There seems to be room here for many types of musicians, though blues, jazz and "alternative" tend to dominate. I've found that audiences are often very attentive to musicians, probably because so many of the general population are closet musicians.
Kevin: Mid WWII.
Kevin: Used to be the "me too" guitar. I think they've gotten better.
Kevin: Polished sound.
Kevin: Vegamatic. Usually like the spirit, sometimes like the execution.
Written September 1995
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