Walter Strauss – Ishi

One of the fascinating things about acoustic fingerstyle guitar is the variety of individual styles possible. For this reason I created the ‘Fingerstyle at FARwest 2009–Six Approaches‘ video, which captures intimate performances by six different fingerstyle players filmed at the the annual Folk Alliance Region West (FAR-West) last November. Of the six guitarists presented, Walter Strauss has the most unique style. With strong compositional skills at his command, Walter makes use of techniques he has developed based on West-African music. Performing frequently with Malian harp player, Mamadou Sidibe, Walter has thoroughly absorbed the feel of this music and informed it with his own feel for modern fingerstyle.

I wrote about Walter previously in a post about Stevie Coyle’s ‘Ten-in-One’ CD. Walter was involved both as producer and accompanist. I was impressed with his playing on the CD and onstage with Stevie’s ‘Ten-in-One’ band at the CD release shows. At the FAR-West conference in 2009, Walter was a featured performer. His impassioned and masterful performance of original material earned him a standing ovation–not that common an occurrence, given the sophistication of the audience of fellow musicians. These were not the easily impressed. But with pieces like the one he played for my camera, the sublime ‘Ishi‘, Walter overcomes the ‘seen-it-all-before’ attitude, and amazes with powerful rhythms and intricate picking, with no need for flashy pyro-technics. You can watch my video of Walter in this page or on my YouTube channel.

Playing on an Oneida Guitar also gives Walter a special sound. His model of this decidedly modern instrument made by violin makers Ithaca Stringed Instruments, is a closed-top guitar, with no sound hole–an ‘un-holy’ instrument as Walter likes to joke. This Oneida acoustic/electric is made to be played amplified, but un-plugged it has a certain, woody, muted resonance that is suited to Walter’s style. The drier sound of this instrument allows his complex rhythms and flowing cascades of notes to be clearly heard without the guitar sounding over-driven.

The song, ‘Ishi‘ has a 6/8 feel, and Walter makes good use of triplets, executed with guitar rolls, either adapted from Malian guitar, or of his own creation. The thumb gives the first note and then two fingers for the remaining notes of the triplet. There is a staccato feel to these rolls, especially on the theme. But, since this could get too predictable, he switches things up on the more open feeling B section, which then gives the theme more power when he returns to it. For a long piece, over five minutes, he manages to maintain interest with variation, energetic playing, and a strong compositional element. 6/8, a common meter in African music, is a great for fingerstyle, but few ever attempt it. Our western 4/4 feel prevents most of us from hearing this time-signature outside of the Irish jig cadence we most commonly associate with it.

With the guitar tuned in DADGCD, Walter also makes use of certain ‘harp effects‘, playing melodic lines by alternating fretted notes with notes on adjacent open strings and allowing the open string notes to wash over the fretted notes. He also creates the distinctive mood of the piece by playing in G minor, not the most obvious choice in that tuning, then emphasizing the D minor and the low D string on the B part. This helps keep the piece from sounding too droning or modal.

Walter is touring nationally and has a busy performance schedule. His shows are intense, while his music is imbued with a certain spirituality. It comes across in ‘Ishi’, a piece dedicated to the man who was last member of the Yahi Indian tribe. Songs from his CD ‘Pulling Shadows‘ are on his website. That project includes Malian artist Mamadou Diabate on kora, as well as bassist Rich DePaolo and drummer Bill King. He has another collection of songs which should appear in 2010.

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