5 QUESTIONS: Spencer Elliott on the Art of the Guitar


Spencer Elliott at work, acoustically. | RAFAEL BARKER photo

Spencer Elliott is the classic story of the top-tier musician based in West Virginia. He plays guitar like he just popped down from playing a club in Asgard, but still has to keep his day job because, well, life is like that. Meanwhile, his tunes thrill audiences in several hemispheres. I was delighted to witness him workshop some of the styles that have won him that international audience, back in the day at Third Eye Cabaret in Charleston WV, a haven for serious performers, which I had a hand in running. WestVirginiaVille tossed “5 QUESTIONS” his way, catching up with the remarkable tuneage he’s putting out into the world. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno


1.

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: First off, give us a string of words that describes the kind of music you make, since it sprawls across genres. You have both an acoustic/solo performer musical persona and the burning-down-the-house trio SE3, featuring Sean Sydnor on bass and Chris Hudson on drums. What are the missions/styles/aims of each?

SPENCER ELLIOTT: Progressive. Instrumental. Dynamic. Melodic. Unconventional. Fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Personally, I think my music sounds like a Frankenstein’s monster, comprised of everything that has ever inspired me musically, channeled through the vehicle of an unconventional approach to the acoustic guitar.  As a solo composer and performer, my goal is exploration, continuously trying to figure out what music I am capable of playing on the acoustic guitar.

The newest album, “SE3,” features the addition of bass and drums and transforms my solo compositions into more of a prog-rock animal.  But instead of settling for bass and drum parts that simply accompany me, we pushed for more meticulously crafted parts that serve the accents, rhythms and dynamics of the songs and also showcase the other musicians’ respective talents.  For me, it’s the natural evolution and presentation of what began as solo compositions.


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Spencer Elliott’s trio SE3 perform his composition “Torque,” heard on a new 2022 Candyrat Records recording.

2.

WVVILLE: Your music is heard on Candyrat Records, which predominantly features instrumental guitar artists. I have long wondered how to describe the percussive, rhythmic, whole guitar-body sound often found on Candyrat and which your work often showcases. What do you call it? And what can you say about composing for that style — it is almost as if the guitar is both instrument and percussion. True confessions: weren’t you woodshedding and working out some of the style at the old Third Eye Cabaret in Charleston WV, we all had a hand in making a happening joint for awhile?

SE: Some people call it percussive acoustic guitar. I find that can be a bit limiting as a description because the addition of percussion is just one aspect of the approach and not something I always employ.  I tend to call it ‘modern’ or ‘progressive fingerstyle.’ This tends to capture the continuation of the blend of unorthodox techniques attributed to acoustic pioneer Michael Hedges.

I love exploring the question of “what can this box of wood with strings do?” 

In the early 90s, I was familiar with Michael Hedges and his innovative approach to the acoustic guitar. But at that time it never occurred to me that anyone else could attempt a similar approach. There was a new wave of players in the mid-2000s — like Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour — that really caught my attention.  That was the inspiration that led me to purchasing sheet music and attempting to learn what is essentially a foreign language in terms of guitar technique.

As someone who had spent a lot of time in the punk realm growing up, I came up questioning everything. I love the fact one can take a conventional instrument like a guitar and question its purpose and its abilities.  I love exploring the question of ‘what can this box of wood with strings do?’  And yes, you graciously provided me many opportunities at Third Eye to try new things and fail, and to get back up and try again. That was an important time for me, as I was just starting to discover my own approach in this style of composition.


CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO

“There’s Something in the Airlock” by Spencer Elliott from the CD “Folding Space” on Candyrat Records.

3.

WV: One of your main acoustic instrumental guitars is quite a work of hand-made art, with a slightly torqued body and odd fretboard. Can you describe the instrument and what its design gives you that you couldn’t — or didn’t — find in off-the-shelf instruments?

SE: Right now, my main guitars are custom jumbo and baritone guitars made by independent Canadian luthier Trevor Kronbauer. Both guitars use a fanned fret (or multiscale) design. It is easy to picture a normal guitar fretboard with parallel frets like railroad ties. On my guitars, there is only one fret that sits perpendicular to the fretboard. The frets above and below fan out in opposite directions so that the low string is an inch and a half longer than the high string. This allows certain ergonomic advantages as well as the ability to drop the tuning of the guitar without a noticeable loss of string tension. The guitars also have custom spacing between the strings that makes them further apart, which is useful for me and my right-hand technique. There are no mass-produced acoustic guitars that offer all of the components I seek for my style of play. 


Screen capture image from video of Spencer Elliott and one of the custom guitars he features in solo acoustic performances, crafted by Canadian luthier Trevor Kronbauer.

4.

WV: We’ve talked about how hard it is for a serious instrumental player to have a stand-alone, touring career — the ‘I-better-keep-my-day-job’ syndrome of many an accomplished artist. What IS your day job? Then, talk about the international audience your music has. There was a funny musicians’  t-shirt some years back that said ‘I’m big in Norway.‘ Where are your cadres of fans internationally?

SE: I have been a practicing attorney since 1999, but have been composing music my entire life and have never stopped. I have much more of an international following for my music than I do on a local level. It’s quite humbling to have people reach out from all over the world — and even more so when kids put covers of my compositions on YouTube. I release all of the sheet music for my compositions and I have sales of those transcriptions as well as digital purchases from all over, including Japan, China, South Korea, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, the UK, Australia, Tasmania, South Africa, Russia — and yes, Norway.  It’s nice to see my music transcend culture and borders.


Cover to the 2022 Spencer Elliott release “SE3,” available for download on Candyrat Records.

5.

WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question you wish someone would ask you as an artist/performer— or that gets into something that’s on your mind. And answer it: 

SE: ‘Have you considered adding vocal to your acoustic compositions? ‘ There are probably two answers.  First, I spent a couple of decades writing socially and politically charged lyrics — and there is something freeing about just letting the music speak without putting a particular commentary in play.  Second, I try to put a lot of effort into creating melody lines in my compositions that are the musical equivalent of what a vocal melody might be.  So, adding vocals would likely clutter the piece. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future if I get inspired.


UPCOMING LIVE PERFORMANCES in CHARLESTON WV:

SATURDAY, MAY 7, 2022: Spencer Elliott performs solo acoustically opening for The Sea Sea, in the Walker Theater at the Clay Center as part of the Woody Hawley Concert Series. TICKET DETAILS: www.woodyhawleyconcerts.com

SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2022: SE3, Spencer Elliott’s trio, with Sean Sydnor and Chris Hudson, performs 8 p.m., at Sam’s Upton Cafe, 28 Capitol St., Charleston WV. WEBSITE HERE


FOR MORE ON SPENCER ELLIOTT AND HIS MUSIC, VISIT:
spencerelliott.net/
candyrat.com/artists/spencerelliott/


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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE.com | May4, 2022 ISSUE
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EDITOR’S NOTE: When it comes to West Virginia, what Bob Dylan said about something else. Plus, what’s up in the May 2022 issue of WestVirginiaVille.com

FIRST/PERSON: On the streets in “the capital of pain”: There are mayapples unfurling on the banks of the Kanawha River in the darkness of West Virginia’s capital city. There are humans sleeping there, too, on this cold and rainy April night, and we are among them. | by JAMES COCHRAN

5 QUESTIONS: On the Art of the Guitar: Spencer Elliott is a genre-defying solo performer based in Charleston WV, while also performing in the burning-down-the-house trio SE3. A look at keeping your day job while growing an international fan base.

CHARACTERS: ‘The Hobo Girl: She had many names and left many stories. The night ‘The Hobo Girl’ wandered into St. Albans, WV, like a footloose traveler from another time.

LISTEN/UP: Artists & Podcasters worth noting: From hip-hop innovator Shelem to podcasts worth hearing, a heads up from BLACK BY GOD: The West Virginian.

FIRST/PERSON: On Ukraine, Putin, Navalny & Zelensky: J. Michael Willard worked for Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller then went on to international career that landed him in Ukraine. Excerpts from his thoughts on Putin’s brutal invasion of the country where two daughters still live.

POETICS: Two by Colleen Anderson: Clean music. The notes fall one upon the other, / transparent. Closing my eyes on this city concert,/ I hear water, the song of melting snow on a hill / in Braxton County, in spring …

MAN/MADE: A brief meditation on ‘Reflected Glory’: A brief meditation on a shiny object in West Virginia’s capital city.

NOTE TO READERS: Since its founding in May 2020, WestVirginiaVille.com (a project of AmpMediaProject.com), has been a free online magazine of lively, opinionated & alternative writing and imagery about West Virginia. Help us stay in the business of offering ad-free, worthy content. CLICK HERE OR THE ‘Donate’ BUTTON TO SUPPORT THE CAUSE.

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