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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Robert Smith of Blue Stone, Jun. 2006
A Conversation With Michael Manring, Apr. 2006
A Conversation With John Michael Zorko, Feb. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Ken Bonfield
March 2005
So what does a guy who trained as a vocalist and has a lucrative
business career do? Well, start making some of the finest solo acoustic
guitar and acoustic ensemble records out there, of course. Since
guitarist/composer/producer Ken Bonfield's 1996 debut, Mystic Morning,
he has released a total of eight albums and has several more currently in
the works. His most recent album, Harbor Town, shows Ken to be in top
form and reintroduces his talents as a singer. Ken, as I found out from our
conversation, actually started his career as a singer/songwriter. As he writes
on his website: "I performed for over 15 years as a singer/songwriter before I
played an instrumental in front of an audience.'
Joining Ken on Harbor Town
is longtime musical partner, bassist Michael Manring as well as John
on fretted bass, Pete Malaquias on percussion, and Masood Omari
on tablas.

Besides Ken's busy recording and performance schedule, he's actively
involved in teaching - both privately and through his "Artistry of the Guitar"
program. Ken has also recently completed the first in a series of transcription
books, Artistry of the Guitar Volume 1: 8 songs in DADGAD and Related
. Volume two in the series of six books should be completed shortly
and will focus on songs in Standard and Dropped D tuning. I can definitely
understand why he says in our conversation: "I seem to go from recording
sessions to lessons to the computer to bed…"!

On a personal note, the bonfield & ebel record, Dancing With Shadows, is
one of my all time favourite discs. If you haven't heard that album, or any of
Ken's music, head over to to hear some samples and to
learn more about Ken, his music and "Artistry of the Guitar".

Ken Bonfield
"I do feel renewed and full of energy..." - Ken Bonfield
Jamie: You seem to have a renewed sense of energy. After a few years of laying low, you're touring again, you have new management and you've just finished Artistry of the Guitar: Volume 1, a book of transcriptions of your own music. And from talking with you on the phone, you sound extremely upbeat and positive. Was there a specific turning point for you, where you said I want to/need to get back out there?
Ken: I'm glad you noticed. I do feel renewed and full of energy, and the short answer is, there was no 'specific' turning point just as there was no specific point in becoming burned out. Both were a process that were years in the making.

It really took 2 or 3 years to feel the desire to get back on the road, and even then, if Coop, my manager and old friend, hadn't called when she did, I don't know if I could have made the push under my own steam. When we talked last July I was ready to perform, but I wasn't sure I was ready for the grind touring involves. When you've toured for a while, and I toured for 35-42 weeks a year from 1994-2001, you know how much work is involved, and I was DAUNTED by the prospect. But I really wanted to play for audiences again so maybe I would have made the move myself, but maybe not in as 'big' a way as I'm doing now. It makes a huge difference having her work on my behalf. I'm still very involved in booking and other parts of the business, but I'm involved in the big picture stuff and Coop handles the daily, time sensitive areas. This allows me more freedom to focus on writing, performing, and teaching which are where my energies are best put to use.

Another big part of the renewal for me was through my teaching practice; I teach 10-20 private students a week in a variety of styles of guitar; from Bach to Rock, and it was their enthusiasm for the guitar that made me perk up. I have only one rule about my teaching, and it's that I have to be better than the student. So when I got students who wanted to learn electric guitar I had to get one and started playing with a pick for the first time in 15 or 20 years. It was great, and playing electric fed and nurtured my own enthusiasm for playing the guitar that carried over to my acoustic work. I was refreshed, playing my music was fun again, and that ultimately brought back my desire to perform. When I'm performing my best I'm having fun, and when I started having fun again I new I was ready to start performing again.

And the students are the real reason the Artistry of the Guitar Series of books was launched; students asked for transcriptions of this music, and all I really had to do was organize them in some way that made sense to create a series of books. I just finished the rough draft of Vol. 2 which focuses on Standard and Dropped-D tuning so it should be done in couple of weeks, and Vol. 3 is scheduled for completion around April 15th, maybe sooner! And, since I have a bunch of beginners, I'm also writing 3 teaching books; one for kids 8 and under in open G tuning, one for beginning fingerstyle players in Standard Tuning, and one for beginning electric guitarists that will focus on blues progressions, power chords, and major and minor pentatonic scales. I'll have a whole series of books, all thanks to my students.
Jamie: Well, I think the old saying about the teacher learning (or gaining) as much from the student definitely applies to your situation. You also make such a good point about fun. Music isn't, or at least shouldn't be, "just a job". There nothing worse than seeing a performer "phone in" a performance…
Ken: This is intimate music performed in intimate settings and the audience deserves so much from us. How many people get applause just showing up for work? We, as performers, are so blessed.

Looking back, I didn't know I was burned out until long after it was a fact, and honestly, though I gave everything in my shows, I wasn't enjoying it - it was a grind, and ultimately that's what got me off the road. I mean, when a standing ovation doesn't move you, there's something terribly wrong. Teaching did a couple of things for me: 1) it kept me at home in one place long enough to realize I had some issues to deal with, and 2) as you pointed out, the teacher learned from the students just how cool playing the guitar is, and for me, what an honor it's been to play for audiences all over the country. It's hard work getting out of the house to go see a show, and I gained a different respect for audiences when I was away from them for a while. Isn't that theway of the world, we miss what we DON'T have!
"How many people get applause just showing up for work? We, as performers, are so blessed."

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: Since we're talking about teaching, you have a very interesting school program called, Artistry of the Guitar. The program is directed towards grades K-12 and as your website says, "Can be presented in a variety of formats". What can those schools that would like to book an 'Artistry of the Guitar' program expect to hear?
Ken: I tailor make this program for each school, and in fact, have added colleges to the K-12.

As an example, in some schools I 'just' perform for about 45 minutes, telling the kids a little about the guitar's history, and performing songs from different eras, really from Bach to Rock. I show them how far the guitar has come, both as a solo instrument and as an ensemble instrument. Right now, in terms of numbers, the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world, yet most folks just don't know how broad its capabilities are. You can play any style of music on the guitar.

I also work in smaller groups, and, in some classes, do something I call dreamweaving; I have the kids close their eyes, listen to the music, and then have them tell me what they 'saw' while I was playing a particular piece. Write a story about it. I've also played for art classes where kids drew what they saw in the music. The kids and the teachers love this aspect of it, and the classes always seem very energized by the experience. Kids don't get to use their imaginations enough these days, in or out of school, and when they do, they're blown away by what they can 'find' inside their own heads.

I also work with jazz bands, or guitar classes too. I'll play a little bit, describe my 'approach' to the guitar, and then open up the floor for Q & A; everything from how I play what I play to what life on the road is like. In some ways I try to be a mentor; some of these kids are going to grow up to be the next generation of touring and performing musicians, and I want to give them an understanding of what it's REALLY like to be a working musician; cause the odds are they aren't going to be stars or the next American Idol. I don't try to shoot down their dreams, on the contrary, I try to let them know you can have a life, and be a full-time musician; not something they hear at home or in school very often.

I'm going to be presenting Artistry of the Guitar for the first time at a college this spring in Arkansas for the guitar department at University of Arkansas/Little Rock. They've asked me to give a concert followed by a Q & A. I'm very excited by that, though there are probably more than a few of those kids who have chops I've never thought of having. But I figure if I've got the stones to share the stage with guys like Michael Manring then I'll survive this;).

I really feel like as much as anything, what I'm trying to offer the schools and the kids in them is musical appreciation. When I was a kid, granted it was a long time ago, we received more in the way of exposure to arts. I think what we all gained from that was an appreciation for just how damned hard it is to play an instrument well, and as a result we appreciated it more, we were better audiences then; we didn't need to have half-dressed men or women, and fireworks to appreciate a musical performance; only the music mattered. I don't mean to sound like an old fogy, but TV, MTV in particular, hasn't helped the live music business at all. I try to show kids that there's true art in a solo performance, and that there is value in a well constructed piece of music. The magic in music is the music itself, not the glitz that accompanies it.

Going a bit further with this; I remember reading a recent interview with guitar phenom Kaki King, a great young guitarist in the Michael Hedges vein who just happens to be a women in her 20's. She talked about how all her guitar peers are middle aged men, and she's right. When you think about us fingerstyle guys you think of Will Ackerman, Alex de Grassi, Don Ross, Ed Gerhard, Bill Mize, Harvey Reid, Peppino D'Agostino, Adrian Legg, John Renbourn, Pierre Bensusan, Duck Baker, and myself among others, and we're all in our 40's or 50's or beyond. The youngest person other than Kaki King out there is a young guy in Atlanta named Dominic Gaudious, and I think he's in his 30's, and the only prominent female fingerstyle guitarist I'm aware of is Muriel Anderson and she's in the same age group.

If this style of music is going to survive, it's because young people end up playing it; so I'm taking it to the schools in hopes that at least a couple of the kids will do what I did when I heard Leo Kottke and say to themselves: "That is the coolest thing I've ever heard. How the hell do you play like that?" And maybe then this tradition of fingerstyle guitar can survive another generation. And just maybe they'll come out and see me and help fund my retirement ;).
"If this style of music is going to survive, it's because young people end up
playing it..."

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: HaHaHa! That's great!

You make a good point about the taste/aesthetic of today's audience and how music education can play a role in helping the audience to better understand and appreciate non-mainstream music. But, and I'm playing the devil's advocate here, what do you feel the performer can do to better present their music to today's audience -- dare I bring up the term marketing -- because few people today seem to want to move beyond the mainstream or the latest cool thing?
Ken: First, I think that I'm dreaming if I think I can move my style of music, solo fingerstyle guitar, into today's mainstream. It just won't happen. I'm OK with that. It is what it is, and I know the value of what I do as both a composer and performer; but I'll never have my own ABC special.

I do believe that acoustic musicians, and those of us on the fringe, so to speak, should make more use of the tools mainstream music uses so well: and that's presentation. I've got a good friend from the BWE days, Kurt Bestor, who does a great job producing his shows in a 'TV friendly way'. Gorgeous backdrops, 'uniforms' for the sidemen, stage props that make it look like he's playing in a living room or cool parlor. And he does a great job of 'choreographing' the shows. Of course he can also fill up a 3,000 theater for 12 days in Salt Lake City, UT so he can afford the props and backdrops and multimedia displays.

The challenge, and it's one I've struggled with, is how to present the music in a TV friendly way to 30-200 people. Obviously finances prohibit the ability to do much in the way of backdrops, stage props, or multimedia. That being said, I think that acoustic musicians, especially those of us on the fringe of folk music, can dress things up a little bit. Ultimately, my goal in 'marketing' a performance is to create an environment that represents my music. Candles, soft lighting, appropriate dress on my part, getting the 'gear' out of the way so that what people see is just me playing the guitar. I don't want anything to distract or attract their attention from the music. Most of them don't want to see all the stuff that goes into making an acoustic guitar sound good when it's plugged in, and those that do ask me about it after the show.

On the performance side I think instrumentalists must show more of their personality in between songs. Early on in my career I toured with one guitar, played in 12-14 different tunings a night, and didn't use a tuner. I became very accomplished at telling stories while I tuned. I now travel with multiple guitars, use a tuner, but I've kept the story telling as an integral part of the show. And for the most part, I don't talk or introduce the songs more than giving their provenance so to speak: "That last tune was "Mirage", which appears on the bonfield & ebel CD Dancing with Shadows." The story telling has a point which is to engage the audience, to deepen our relationship, not to cover my tuning. A performance is a conversation between the performer and the audience, and when it really works the energy flows back and forth feeding both the audience and the performer. I try to set the stage for a comfortable dialogue.

I also think there are some key things I, as a soloist, need to consider in my performance; being in tune, knowing how to use my gear before the show, developing a shorthand conversational style with sound men so I don't spend a lot of time in between songs getting it right. In fact, I work hard to get it right in the sound check if at all possible. And choreograph the show: know what I'm going to play before I play it. I used to do most of my gigs without set lists: some were great shows, but others invariably had uncomfortable lags in them. I thought I was being artsy, and staying in the moment, playing what my muse directed me to, but honestly, I was just being lazy.

Since I began playing with set lists my shows don't lag; they move right along, and if I'm moved to play a particular piece of music that's not on the set list I'll do it: my instincts are pretty good about things like that, but then it's back to the set list. I keep set list info on my computer so I know what I played the last time I appeared at a particular venue and will plan a different set for the next show. I also like to keep old set lists around to compare how successful they are to others.

Since I've started using multiple guitars, one for standard through DADGAD, and one for C and G based tunings, I don't have to worry about the ramifications of tuning as much in my set. I still have a fairly hard and fast rule that I only change one string at time. This means that I may start in DADGAD, then go to double dropped-D, then dropped-D, then standard over a 4-8 song set on one guitar. It's easy to change the tuning of one string, the guitar doesn't freak, and by the time the audience is done applauding I'm ready for the next tune. I'm amazed when performers go from DADGAD to standard back to DADGAD and either play horribly out of tune because the guitar's freaking out, or take five minutes it get it right. Audiences want us to play in tune, our music demands it, but they don't want to hear it. I make sure that I'm muted when I'm tuning; it's easy to do.

All in all, I think that those of us who play smaller rooms should treat them like a big production; what would it look like to a TV audience. Would this work on PBS, or Austin City Limits? I don't expect to reach a wider audience per se; I want to treat the audience that I do have with the best possible ‘show' I can give them. Invariably what happens when I am able to create the right environment for the music, the props actually become transparent and the music becomes the show; which is what I'm aiming for all the time. But it takes work, and forethought.
"A performance is a conversation between the performer and the

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: That's such a great attitude and approach to live music! You are going to bring the show to Toronto, right? : )

So let's backtrack a bit... You have a few miles on your musical shoes -- sang in choirs, performed for years as a singer/songwriter. And you did all this before you started performing and recording as an instrumental guitarist. How did you get here from there?
Ken: Absolutely! Peter Janson and I are talking about some shows together in Canada, maybe we can work something out for the three of us?

My immediate response to "How did I get from there to here?" is, "My what a long strange trip its been."

On the more serious side, it all started when I recorded my first album, Mystic Morning. Up until then I split my shows almost equally between vocal and instrumental. Remember, I'm a Gemini. I didn't perform my first all instrumental show until 6 months before Mystic Morning was released. When I went into the studio ready to record, I went in with about 40 potential pieces; almost half songs with words. Richard Birt, who engineered and co-produced the CD, and I demoed about 15 or 20 songs, again about half vocals, half instrumentals. And then we listened. I gave some of the demos to friends and peers in the Asheville, NC area where I lived at the time, and the consensus was that an album of all instrumentals was more cohesive.

Asheville was, and is, one of the strongest areas for singer/songwriters in the country. Although folks visiting NAR might not recognize the names, my friends and peers in Asheville, Christine Kane, Chuck Brodsky, David Wilcox, and David LaMotte are well known on the folk circuit and are featured performers at places like Kerrville Folk Festival, Rocky Mountain Folk Festival, Telluride, and Falcon Ridge to name just a few. They thought I would be offering the region something different through an all instrumental CD (I think they were just afraid of the competition). Richard and I also believed that the instrumentals were the strongest of the lot, they had a finished quality to them, and I still think we were right.

When I began touring behind Mystic Morning vocals were still a part of my show. I would sing 3-4 songs an evening. I've always believed that folks who come to a solo guitar show really have incredible stamina and powers of concentration. It takes a lot of concentration to really get everything I do in a solo piece. I'm not a flashy player by any means. I prefer subtlety, so audiences really have to listen hard to get the nuances. I found that the songs with words 'broke up' a solo show, gave the audiences a breather so to speak, and kept them fresh for the instrumentals.

At the time Mystic Morning was released in 1996 I had designs on my next CD being all, or almost all vocal. At about the same time I was planning that CD, BWE records heard about me and asked if I was interested in a label contract. This was 1996, the Internet was still a foundling, and BWE was talking about becoming the next Windham Hill; a label I've always respected, but by 1996 weren't interested in signing new acts. I was intrigued, but they were only interested in promoting the instrumentals; they didn't bother to even listen to the vocals, but they were offering enough money for me to 'look the other way'. As I began to put the material together for Homecoming I started touring with an array of ensembles, and, since I had other ways to give the audience a'‘breather' with added instrumentation, I dropped the vocal part of the performance. I recorded Homecoming in the fall of 1997, released it to great success in 1998, and began touring with Michael Manring and then Joe Ebel. That duo or trio continued to tour heavily throughout 2001 until bonfield & ebel dissolved. We were billing ourselves as a "New Age Power Trio" and vocals didn't really fit with our ‘mission statement'.

It was 2002 before I played another solo show and sang again! The audiences really enjoyed the vocals. I was always told I should sing more, and I was frequently asked if I had recorded any of the vocals. As I started plans to record my first solo CD since 1998's Winter Night, I considered adding vocals. It was the first time in 5 years that I had sole decision making power over what material went on a CD, and I decided what the hell: let's give it a go! Harbor Town, which had a working title of Renaissance, was the result, and it's evenly divided between vocals and instrumentals. Although the album hasn't been heavily promoted yet, we'll go to radio later this year, the initial response has been wonderful.

Based on the strength of Harbor Town, I was asked to appear as a featured performer at the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (known almost exclusively as a singer/songwriter venue), Wind & Wire gave it a sterling review, and it's been featured on Echoes. Harbor Town's stylistic diversity, something the record label was loath to contemplate, has opened up many opportunities for me that my other CD's haven't. With the release of Harbor Town, I feel that I've come full circle, and it includes my best work as a composer/arranger for instrumental ensemble and solo guitar, and vocals.

That being said, I have no immediate plans to record more vocals (remember, I'm a Gemini). My next project will be a solo guitar record that I'm planning to release early next year, and I'm very excited by the project. I've never really marketed myself as a guitarist to the ‘guitar' market, and my manager and I think it's about time, but we need the solo record to do that. I'm going to re-approach some songs I've recorded previously, "Mystic Morning", "Ella's Labor Day Blues", "Andy's Song", "Steel String Surprise", and "Summer Rain" as well as include arrangements of a Bach prelude, a Sor study, and another five or six solo pieces I've written in the past year or so. I will also release an accompanying book of transcriptions with music for all the songs. Then I'm going to take a deep breath and finish composing a full out ensemble CD that will include electric guitar as well as acoustic steel string and nylon string guitar. I'm hoping to learn how to play bass for that record too; Manring beware! I've got about 1/3 of that album written, so I expect to record and release that by early to mid 2007.
"I prefer subtlety, so
audiences really have to listen hard to get the nuances."

- Ken Bonfield

"With the release of Harbor Town, I feel that I've come full circle"

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: That's a record I'd love to hear! But don't bench Manring, I think you guys sound great together.

I'd like to delve a little deeper into your compositional and recording process -- how you go about taking a music idea from initial conception to something a listener hears, either on record or live. Obviously, your pieces with vocals have certain demands that don't exist in instrumental music (i.e. lyrics), but is there a conceptual shift for you between your singer/songwriter, solo instrumental and ensemble music?
Ken: I'll never bench Michael, he's a god on bass, but I want to learn to play some 'footballs', really textural bass parts, and let Michael concentrate on the cello-like lines he's so great at. Plus, I believe that learning rudimentary bass will help me as a composer, and make me a more complete musician overall. Bass players really fill such an important role in the musical mix: they are a bridge from the rhythm section to the melodic section, and add such incredible texture to a piece of music. They may play fewer notes than anyone in an ensemble, but you could argue they're the most important notes played! I've had the opportunity to work with a number of bass players over the years, and my experience is that they have been the most ‘sensitive' musician in the group. Maybe not the best technical player in the group, but, without question, the best listeners, and the most helpful in arranging a piece of music.

Now, down to the real question: "How do I go about taking a musical idea from initial conception to something a listener hears, either on record or live?" Although I've written my pieces in a variety of ways and numerous styles, the heart of every piece is its emotional genesis. That's the reason the piece exists, and that's what I try to capture in a studio and present in a live setting. Was I happy, sad, awestruck, angry, or confused when I wrote the piece. I want the music to convey that, so the piece has to sell me on its emotional honesty before anyone else hears it.

For example, when I first started writing "Cats' Pause (Suite for Three Dead Kitties)", one of my favorite tunes from Kadotume, I wanted to capture both the angst of losing my three feline friends, but also celebrate their spirits; it
had to be reflective, joyous, and sound like it was about cats. It took almost 6 years, from 1993-1999, to finally put all that together. On the other hand "Dreamin'" from Mystic Morning, "Wiseman's View" from Homecoming,
"Dancing with Shadows" from the Bonfield & Ebel CD of the same name, and "Nocturne (For Brendan)" from Harbor Town, were all written in about the time it takes to play them. They captured the emotional heart with no real work or thought on my part. They were, in a sense, downloaded straight from my heart to the guitar. I've written other pieces because I thought an album needed a particular sound, tempo, or texture. Because composing these pieces is more intellectual than emotional they have been the most difficult for me to produce in the studio and perform on stage.

"Mirage" is a piece that immediately comes to mind when I talk about this style of composition. It was relatively easy to write, but until I found my own emotional place in the song, I had a hard time performing the piece. It's now one of my, and my audience's, favorites. Most songs are written with a little bit of both techniques: an emotion will spark something on the guitar, an 8 bar phrase or a melodic theme, and then it's time to sit down and puzzle out where the piece will go from there. An ounce of inspiration plus a pound of sweat!

Now let's take a piece from composition through studio production, and finally the stage. I think a great example would be "Nocturne (For Brendan)" from Harbor Town. I wrote it the evening I found out that Joe Ebel's son Brendan was killed on Father's Day 2002 by a drunk driver. I loved Brendy; he was one of the finest people I've ever met, he just lit up a room when he entered, and he was every bit the musician his father is. I was devastated by the news. I remember that for weeks I would just burst into tears when I thought about him. He had become a part of my life, and his loss left a vacuum in a part of me that will never be replaced. I wasn't consciously trying to write anything when I picked up the guitar, but the guitar has always been my haven when I've experienced deep emotions, and songs occasionally appear when I'm in that 'place'.

As you can imagine, this was, and still is, a very difficult piece for me to play: both emotionally and technically. I can't, nor do I, trot it out on stage very often, but there are times when it's important for me to do so. When I recorded "Nocturne", I used the same technique I've used ever since Joe and I recorded Kadotume; I play it solo all the way through, in one take, with no edits, and no punch-ins. I want to capture the whole piece creating my own dynamics, responding to my emotions in that moment. I learned from my experience with the BWE trio of CD's that I hate click tracks and I hate punching in. It saps all the emotion out of a piece of music for me. I'm a pretty decent rhythm guitarist and people don't seem to need a click track to play along with me, and when I punch in trying to create the 'perfect' take I lose the dynamics and they have to be added at mixdown. Not any more. It helps that I have my own studio. I can play as many takes as I want without fear of economic reprisal, but, since I've used this technique, I rarely play more than one or two takes to get one that works.

Most of my work in Kadotume was recorded in one day, the main guitar parts on Harbor Town were recorded in three days, and Dancing with Shadows, a live, in-studio, ensemble album was recorded in just 4 days. A take may not be technically perfect, but if it's got the right emotional feel then it's the right take.

At this point I should probably address the solo vs. ensemble and instrumental vs. vocal aspect of my writing. To me they are all songs, and whether or not they are solo, ensemble, or vocals depends on what the song needs to tell its story most effectively. Some of the vocals started out as instrumentals, and some of the instrumentals started off as songs, but they all started as solo guitar pieces. Once I've got all the central guitar parts and rough vocals recorded I burn a CD and start listening. Active listening, with no interruptions, no other considerations; just me and the music. I'll also put a CD in the car and go for a long drive. I really want to immerse myself in the music: know it inside and out. Then I let my imagination run free.

Since I do have my own studio, I'll start putting down whatever I hear. I own an effects box that allows me to synthesize guitar sounds to create bass, string, or even drum sounds, and I'll add whatever I think the song is asking for, or needs to tell its own story. I spend a lot of time with this stage, again, doing active listening with these new parts added. I find I edit a lot out, I tend to like sparse versus dense arrangements, and then I call people into the studio and knock it out as fast as I can.

Once I make the decision of what to add and what the instrumentation is going to be I work fast. I trust my intuition, and I've always had the philosophy of hiring musicians to do what they do. I don't tell anyone what to play; I don't direct more than to say "Rolling 1's and 0's (digital speak for rolling tape)". I find that although some musicians are uncomfortable with this approach, the majority loves it, and I get great performances from them because they're not second guessing me; they're playing what they hear. I also feel no guilt in editing out something I don't like, whether it's something I've done or another musician has done. I trust my instinct. On "Nocturne" I knew Michael Manring could add the melancholy quality I was looking for tell it's story. But that's all it needed, just guitar and bass.

Now, as we go from the studio to the stage, things can get tricky. I've always fallen back on something I learned in a conversation with a great guitarist named Ed Gerhard. I was planning my first CD, Mystic Morning, and I thought it was going to be a solo guitar album because that's they way I performed live. Ed suggested this: "An album and a live performance are two distinct art forms. Make the best album you can, and give the best live performance you can; they don't have to, nor should they be the same." Thank you Ed, what great advice that was. And it's because I've heeded that advice that it's taken so long to put together enough material for a solo guitar record that I believe will tell their stories adequately.

When it comes to putting together a stage show the material depends on the setting; solo, duo or ensemble. If it's a solo show, I put together a set that I know, or at least believe, works for solo guitar. With "Nocturne", that means that I have to be emotionally ready, and willing to explore the piece, as well as be ready to handle the technical demands of the piece, in fact all the pieces on the set list. My experience tells me that "Nocturne" works well as a solo or duo piece live, so I can include it in a set anytime I'm ready for it.

I start working on a set list weeks before a performance, and at this time I'm putting together set lists for a series of shows I'm playing in Arkansas in April. That means there are some songs I won't play solo; they just don't work in that setting; songs like "Centerline", "Church St", "Road to Hana", "Our Love", etc. just don't work solo and others need to be arranged for solo performance. I know that some people are disappointed by that, but I have to feel confident that a piece will work in whatever setting I find myself in, and again, I trust my instincts. One of the reasons I love to tour with an ensemble is that it allows me to play my best solo pieces and my best ensemble pieces. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to pay the bills associated with a touring ensemble, so I tour and perform primarily as a soloist. The economics of music sometimes really sucks doesn't it? If we travel around the world, we almost have to be able to do so as soloists.

Hope this answers a very complex question.
"...the heart of every piece is its emotional genesis."

- Ken Bonfiel

"...the guitar has always been my haven when I've experienced deep emotions..."

- Ken Bonfield

"A take may not be technically perfect, but if it's got the right emotional feel then
it's the right take."

- Ken Bonfield

"But it's becoming increasingly difficult to pay the bills associated with a touring ensemble, so I tour and perform primarily as a soloist."

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: It really does and you're right, it is a complex question. You're lucky that you have a multitude of performance options. Many artists, myself included, don't have the degree of flexibility that you have. I think this is good time to do some shop talk -- of course, I always think it's a good time to talk about gear : ) I know, I know all the non-guitarists out there are starting to glaze over already...

So here's another open-ended complex question: What do you look for in an instrument (or instruments)?
Ken: Believe it or not, I think this one might be easier to answer, at least for me. Right now I have 5 acoustic guitars, although I am selling a beautiful 1989 Santa Cruz Koa H model if anyone's interested. I digress. Given that I play almost exclusively solo, fingerstyle, and in a ton of tunings, I look for a guitar that can handle lower tunings without 'woofing' out on me, and I look for a guitar that is well balanced with a bright, yet round tone. I want a guitar that's comfortable for both right and left hands, I prefer a wider neck, at least 1 & 3/4", but up to 1 & 7/8". The shape of the neck is important too, I prefer a flatter feel over rounded, and I really have come to terms with the fact that I just like OM size guitars: anything else is just too big.

For the past decade I've played and toured exclusively with Alan Carruth guitars. Alan builds about 18 instruments a year, I have 3 steel strings and 1 nylon string guitar. All are a bit different, though they share all the traits I mentioned above.

The first guitar I got from Al was a prototype/experimental OM with 14 frets clear of the body. It's got a massive neck, with a nut width of 1 & 7/8", a cedar top, and mahogany back and sides. I used this guitar for 2 years as my main stage instrument, and I used it to record all the high-string guitar parts on Homecoming and Winter Night. I also used it to record "Mesa Rag" and "Renaissance" on my most recent CD Harbor Town. This guitar really seems to like Standard and Dropped-D tunings best, and when I'm able to use multiple guitars in shows I use it exclusively for those tunings.

About a year after I got my first Carruth, Al contacted me about making, what in his words would be a more attractive guitar; he thought the prototype OM was too plain looking for my stage show. We talked about some design ideas, I'd long been intrigued with 12 fret guitars and Al agreed to try that, and then I asked him to design a cutaway that took away'‘less' of the top because I needed easy access above the 12th fret without losing tone. He built an amazing looking and sounding instrument; OM size, 12 frets clear of the body, Engelmann spruce bear claw top with curly mahogany back and sides, and the most amazing pearl and abalone rosette. The rosette alone took 32 hours to finish. This has been my main studio guitar since 1997, and I toured with it through 2002 until a battery got loose and ripped up the pickup wiring. I got a little freaked out, pulled the pickup out and ‘retired' it to life in the studio. I've just gotten over the trauma, will be putting an LR Baggs hex pickup in it this month and will be touring with it again next month. This guitar loves to go 'low', and on stage I'll use this guitar for C and G based tunings. In the studio it does everything well, no matter what the tuning; microphones just love this guitar, and almost everything from Homecoming on has been recorded with this guitar. For those interested in taking a peak at this instrument it's the one featured on my web site in all the guitar shots.

My main touring guitar since 2002 has been another OM 12 fret from Al with a Cedar top and Brazilian Rosewood Back and sides. This guitar is amazing live! I've never had a guitar sound so good plugged in, and I also used this guitar to record "Andy's Song", "Centerline", and "Segovia's Bad Day" on Dancing with Shadows. This guitar seems to like DADGAD best, although I've used it for all tunings for the past couple of years as my only stage instrument. When I go back to a multiple guitar set up next month this guitar will handle everything from standard through open D tuning.

The fourth guitar from Al is a prototype, archtop nylon string OM 12 fret guitar. It was damaged on its return trip from being featured in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and after Al fixed it he gave it to me as a Christmas present. It's a very cool guitar and I'm trying to figure out how to put a Baggs Hex pickup in it so I can use it at gigs at least around New England; I won't fly with this one. I used this guitar on "Our Love" on Harbor Town and I expect this guitar will appear on the solo CD and be heavily featured on the ensemble record. I really love the way nylon and steel string sound together.

So, that's my take on guitars.
"For the past decade I've played and toured exclusively with Alan Carruth guitars."

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: The business side of the music industry is, to me, equally fascinating, irritating, challenging and rewarding -- and there are probably a few other descriptors I'd use, but this is a PG rated website! When I started releasing records, I had no idea the amount of business (and I essentially look at anything nonmusical as business) that was involved getting my music "out there". You've seen the record industry from a number of angles: signed artist, independent, part of a duo, etc. What's right with the record business, what's wrong with it and how, if you could wave your magic wand, would you make the business more artist-friendly?
Ken: Ouch, this is the tough question. I think in some ways what's right with the business is also what's wrong with the business. There really aren't any multi-act labels other than Windham Hill and Narada investing in this music, and Windham Hill is really a compilation label at this point. As far as I know they haven't signed a new act in years. With the advent of the Internet, home digital recording studios, and options for duplication houses, the 'record' business is much more democratic. Anyone can record, duplicate and distribute a CD. This is both a good and a bad thing.

When I started in the music business in 1976 there were about 3,500 albums released. In 1996 when I released Mystic Morning, there were over 35,000 CD's released. We didn't have any more radio stations in 1996 than in 1976. In fact, in terms of owners of radio stations, there are far fewer today than in 1976, and there are fewer record stores than there used to be. Of course with the advent of the Internet, there are millions of potential 'stores', but the issue is: How do we get heard? How do people find you? And that's the hard part. I'll be turning 50 this year, and I'm one of the more computer literate people of that age I know. My biggest worry is that although the Internet is a great way to 'pitch' my music, it may not be the best way to reach my demographic; 35-on up. They aren't nearly as many computer literate folks 35 and up as there are in the 19-35 demographic; one that my music only seems to touch on.

In the past, one of the best ways to get people to hear your music and promote a CD was at live venues, but that's really getting hard. Venues are closing all over the place, and those that are staying open are less open to instrumental only acts than they used to be. There seems to be a narrowing down in the folk and acoustic concert series, especially for solo, instrumental acts. I've been very lucky and had the chance to play at some of the very best acoustic venues, concert series, and festivals, but I think that's as much because of my storytelling abilities as it is my skill as a composer/guitarist. If I had to say 'what's wrong' with the business, it's mostly on the live side of things. If I could wave a magic wand, it would be over this side of the business. I'd like venues to become more open-minded, and be better promoters. It seems that there's been a shift from venue driven promotion to artist driven promotion, and there are many artists who just aren't up to the task of promoting themselves, and as a result we're missing out on a lot of fine music.

The saddest thing I see in the business is that those who are the most successful performers are the best at self-promotion, not necessarily the best musicians. It's a fact that to be successful as a musician you also have to be a good businessperson: at least if you're trying to do it under your own name with your own music. I find the most difficult part of my business is ‘pitching' myself and my music to promoters. The trick for me is distancing myself from myself, looking objectively (if possible) at myself as a 'product' and pitching myself with detachment. It was much easier promoting bonfield & ebel than it was and is promoting Ken Bonfield. It's one reason I'm so excited about taking 'Artistry of the Guitar' on the road. It's much easier for me to promote a group, even if I'm in it, than me solo. I even considered creating an alter ego, Stephen East, to be my promoter/manager, and work under that name to the outside world, but I just couldn't do it.
"I think in some ways what's right with the business is also what's wrong with the business."

- Ken Bonfield
Jamie: Lots of good points... I think I know what you mean about promoting yourself. It can seem unseemly. Unfortunately, unless an artist is one of the very few lucky ones who can afford support (management, legal, personal assistant, promotions, etc.), the business side of music is also left up to them. That's just the way it goes. My guess is that independent artists have always been on the lookout for a solution to this "problem" (I know I am), but I think it's difficult to say if an answer will be found. I suppose it's just a balancing act of sorts and how much the artist is comfortable with.

So what are you listening to these days? Any records making you sit up and take notice?
Ken: The quick answer is not enough. I seem to go from recording sessions to lessons to the computer to bed and don't make enough time to really listen. So, after I spank myself for being a bad musician I'll put a CD in;)

On the instrumental front my most recent listening sessions that got me excited have included your CD, My World, solo guitarist, Peter Janson's catalogue, and Acoustic Eidolon, a duo that includes guitjo (a double neck 14 string creation of Joe Scott's) and cello.

On a recent trip to Wisconsin I listened to a bunch of singer songwriter material, friends of mine Christine Kane and Pierce Pettis, and a great Wisconsin writer named Marques Bouvre. I also always travel with some Pink Floyd and Allman Brothers. I love jam bands, especially when I'm driving. When I drive around in our old VW without a CD player, I listen almost exclusively to an album by Curanduroo which features Miguel Espinoza on guitar, Ty Burhoe on percussion, Kai Eckhardt on bass, and features guest Bela Fleck. Truly east meets west stuff!

I find that although this music covers huge stylistic ground the common ingredient is that it's all strong melodically and emotionally. The writers are all able to get you to join them in that emotional moment. These are the people I learn from and hold my compositions up to.
Jamie: Wow, what a diverse selection of music -- Pink Floyd to Peter Janson. And thanks for mentioning my new record! That really does mean a lot to me…

Thank you for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to write such thoughtful responses in this artist-to-artist conversation. It's been great getting to know you better and hearing about your approach to a life in music. Best of luck and please stay in touch!
Ken: No, thank you. This has been a great experience for me, and in some ways as insightful for me as I hope it is to your readers. You asked such great questions, questions that made me look hard at myself, my music, and my approach to music; kind of a personal audit. It helped me reflect on where I've been with my music and where I'm going to go with it in the future. I hope your readers enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed being a part of it.

Peace, kb
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