Strings attached

To Ed Gerhard and Bill Mize (and audiences lucky enough to hear them), the ubiquitous sounds of the holidays hold a singular charm when ringing gloriously on steel-string guitars.

Collectively, Gerhard and Mize have played holiday music for more than 20 years. Gerhard has recorded two acclaimed CDs of seasonal sounds — Christmas (Virtue, 1991) and On A Cold Winter’s Night (Virtue, 1997). Mize, who made a guest appearance on Christmas and has been playing holiday concerts in Asheville with Gerhard for the past six years. His latest release, Coastin’ (Windham Hill, 1999), has garnered such praise as this, from Vintage Guitar Magazine: “Amazing touch, killer tone and a true sense of taste.” The pair are also featured on Windham Hill’s popular, critically acclaimed Guitar Sampler recording.

“I like solo guitar, but I also like the sound of a whole bunch of guitars ringing at the same time,” Gerhard explains. “There’s a version of ‘White Christmas’ that I use the lap steel on. [The song contains] a very sweet, nostalgic sound, so that guitar was well-suited for it. I’ve got a bunch of guitars [six-string, 12-string, Hawaiian lap -steel, Mando-electric], and I like to give them all a workout, to see which will complement the others on a tune. It’s fun exploring different combinations. … There’s a creative process in arranging each specific guitar part to fit in with everything else, and it’s fun to realize occasionally that less really is more.”

As for Mize, Acoustic Guitar magazine writer Dale Miller notes, “[Bill Mize] combines form and substance to create music so sublime and accessible I was almost singing out loud.” Bill Milkowski, writing in Jazziz, allows that Mize “goes beyond the mastery of such pioneers as John Fahey and Leo Kottke. … His touch is magic and his execution remains flawless.”

“Bill and I were on the Windham Hill Guitar Sampler,” Gerhard recalls. “I was playing a gig in Tennessee and remembered that Bill lived down there. So I got his number and we hooked up and played a show together. We’ve done some playing together every year since then — a lot of Christmas shows and other shows across the country. It’s been a nice, long association.”

Like Mize, Gerhard is among the most respected practitioners of steel-string, fingerstyle guitar. He remembers seeing classical-guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia on television, when Gerhard was only 9 years old. “He really moved me,” Gerhard relates. “I think a big part of that, aside from his incredible tone, was the fact that it was the first time I’d ever heard the guitar played all by itself. I’d heard pop and rock records, and there was always a million things going on — tambourines and screaming and stuff — but I’d never heard the guitar played in a solo setting. I was just floored. That sound has stuck with me ever since.”

But even as his ear geared toward classical guitar, Gerhard also developed a love of the blues. “Growing up in Pennsylvania, there didn’t seem to be any good classical instructors around,” he remembers. “So I started listening to records. I was interested in anything that had guitar on it. I heard Blues At Newport, 1963 (Vanguard), with Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Dave Van Ronk and a really young John Hammond. And it was mind-blowing, because you think of blues as one thing, and then you hear all these different blues singers with all these disparate styles of playing. It was a real eye opener, and I fell in love with the conversational nature of the music.”

Gerhard learned about experimenting with open and altered tunings from Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey. “That was an interesting approach,” he explains. “It made the guitar sound different; I was really into exploring the possibilities of how the phenomenon of sound in music can affect you, and tunings are a great way to get to that. Leo Kottke says that playing in open tunings is a trap, but I would counter that playing in the [standard] chord progression through your whole career would be a trap. There are many ways to approach it, and I think they’re all good — if they [coax] something interesting and unique and good out of the instrument.

“I don’t feel it’s fair for us, as guitar players, to impose rules on anybody else,” continues Gerhard. “The steel-string guitar is really one of the last strongholds of musical independence. If you take piano lessons, you gotta learn [certain chords]; if you take classical-guitar lessons, you gotta learn [certain chords]; and if you don’t fit into the Segovian method, you suck — no matter what you do. There are certain things that you have to achieve. But if you look at the steel-string guitar, and the incredible variety of stuff you can play on it, [you realize you can] make up your own rules and break them whenever necessary.”

Gerhard’s playing emphasizes textures and feelings, rather than flashy technique. “[I employ] technique, but on a whole different level,” he contends. “I almost don’t want you to hear the guitar, in a sense. I just want you to hear music. There’s so much you can uncover in terms of tonal shadings and emotional nuances. You uncover that by leaving other stuff out that gets in the way. I try to arrange songs so that there’s nothing extraneous. [It’s] almost like a Zen … approach, where there are very few elements. Segovia said the guitar was like an orchestra seen through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. In a sense, the guitar is a very small instrument, but within that microcosm, you can imply that there’s a lot more there. Part of that is the conversational nature of music, which is one of my favorite aspects of it. It becomes an exchange of energy. When [that] happens, there’s a real resonance that goes on.”

Gerhard’s latest release, The Live Album (Virtue, 1999), was recorded from various live shows around the country during the past two years. “It was fun making this record, because I got to relive that sense of inspiration,” he relates. “Some nights, you know that everything is just [coming together], and to be able to capture that on tape is a lot more satisfying than trying to conjure it up in the studio. On stage, you have to be present in every moment. I don’t walk through any performance, and every time I play something, it’s a little bit different. There’s a little roughness, a little looseness; that’s the way I play. Hopefully, there’s some real honest communication that comes across.”

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