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Tim Sparks


An Interview with Tim Sparks
Acoustic Guitar Review
The newsletter of The Acoustic Guitar Workshop - home of acoustic blues tuition online.

An Interview with Tim Sparks
by Steve Elliot

Right, now then, every once in a while a guitarist comes along who steps from the ruck and shines out with an intense light that dazzles, delights and leaves an indelible mark on anyone who hears them. Blind Blake, Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix (among others of course) were in that mold. I believe that on acoustic guitar at least, Tim Sparks is of that rare breed. He certainly lit my fire. Not only is he an exquisite guitarist, with a sure and pure touch whether playing with muscular intensity or delicate finesse, but he is also an extremely clever arranger.
    Anyone who attempts to arrange The Nutcracker Suite for acoustic guitar must be either a nut or a genius! Sparks is the latter. And there seems to be virtually no guitar style that he hasn't brought his considerable talent to bear upon. Jazz, Blues, Rock, Classical, Tim Sparks can do them all. In recent years he has focused much of his attention on the music of the Balkans and Middle East. His latest album "Neshamah" pays eloquent homage to the quixotic beauty of Jewish music. Being a bit of a flibberdi-gibbet, I rarely listen to an album all the way through, but Neshamah had me pinned in my seat from the first note to the last. You can listen to a Real Audio track from this album, and one from his other just as tasty recent album,"One String Leads To Another" on our site at
    In short, Tim Sparks transmits something very special through his fingertips.

AGR: What and/or who was your earliest musical influence?

TS: I was self taught with a little help from my older brother Bill who showed me the Travis pattern and my Uncle Bobby, who "learned me" things like '"When the Saints Go Marching In" and Earnest Tubb's "Filipino Baby." My Grandma played gospel piano and strange pop tunes from the turn of the century. She also played fingerstyle guitar in a kind of a rolling pattern, a bit like banjo, very different from Travis style.
    Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith was an early influence. He had a regional musical variety show that was televised in North Carolina. Another TV favorite when I was a lad was Flatt and Scruggs' Martha White Biscuit Hour. Both shows featured guests like Chet Atkins and Doc Watson. Doc Watson was a real big early influence. I remember listening to Doc and Merle in an impromptu session late one night in the parking lot of the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention. There were only a half dozen people standing around, very cool.
    When I was 14, I got into the North Carolina School of the Arts on a scholarship and studied with Jesus Silva. Silva was a protege of Segovia and Manuel Ponce and I was able to attend a few Segovia master classes. I was really into classical guitar when I met Duck Baker, who promptly exploded all conventions about nylon strings, guitar and music in general. Duck's arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton were a revelation.
    After graduation, I banged around for a while, wound up in a funk band that played a club circuit around Chicago and the upper midwest...I settled in Minneapolis in the mid 70's and eventually got back into solo guitar, playing a lot of ragtime. I met Pat Donahue and we always liked to trade ideas and try to impress each other. Pat hipped me to Lenny Breau and Ted Greene. I also listened a lot to Ed Bikert. I had a jazz vocal group, Rio Nido, from about 76 to 86. We did lots of vintage jazz, from the Boswell Sisters and Cat's and the Fiddle to Lambert Hendricks and Ross. It was a popular band that worked 5-6 night a week gigs for years. I learned a lot of harmony and comping. There was no piano, just guitar....

AGR: Other guitarists?

TS: Lenny Breau was and is the shit. I remember a live LP from Shelly's Mannhole in LA. My fave recording of Lenny is "5 O'clock Bells." He plays this incredibly cool solo for a few minutes and then pauses and the engineers says "are you ready to do a take"? The thing that I dig about Lenny Breau is his blending of different guitar genres into one fabric, like his deconstruction of Wildwood Flower, playing Bach with Buddy Emmons...especially his appropriation of flamenco licks. In that regard he was way ahead of his time. Rafael Robello was another great fingerstylist who used this approach. I have definitely taken a cue from both of them on Neshamah, which turned out to be a great project in purely guitaristic terms because Jewish music connects to so many musical vocabularies.
    I met Leo Kottke about 12 years ago. Leo saw me playing on some cable TV thing and called me because he wanted to learn some jazz voicings. He had a cassette of this scratchy LP by Carla Bley and Jimmy Guiffre with a version of Bley's "Jesus Maria" which he had wanted to figure out since he was 14 and playing trombone. He asked if I could arrange it, which I at first thought would be simple. But as I got into it, I realized that the bridge modulated up a tritone. I wanted to put the tune in a good acoustic key for Leo like E or A which meant either the head or the bridge would be in E flat or B flat, making for a rather gnarly left hand configuration. I was stuck until the solution arrived via a version of Jesus Maria by Gary Burton. When Burton went to the bridge he used an inversion with the seventh in the bass. That voicing was real natural for guitar, sounded great and solved the problem.
    The great thing I learned from Leo was the way he works the middle voicings and low register, building counterpoints. I also have been influenced by touring in Europe with a number of guitarists on Peter Finger's Acoustic Music Records. Franco Morone, Peppino D'Agostino, Jaques Stotzem, Sandor Szabo, Jamie Findley, Tomaz Gaworek, Isato Nakagawa, Woody Mann, and Peter Finger, of course...I steal from 'em all!

AGR: You first started playing as a youngster while convalescing from a serious illness. Tell us about this.

TS: I had spinal meningitis and encephalitis when I was 9. The fever was so high it kind of fried my brain and left a scar. This left me with epilepsy for a number of years. I couldn't play sports 'cause I was brain damaged so I took up the guitar.

AGR: Can you remember the first tune you learned?

TS: I think the first cool tune that was a real guitar instrumental was Maybell Carter's Victory Rag. I learned blues from Brownie Mcgee and Lighten Hopkins. I really loved Mississippi John Hurt and fashioned a slide to mimic his style. I liked Charlie Patton.

AGR: Early on you played in a rhythm & blues band and worked as a session guitarist. How did these experiences help (or hinder)! your development as an acoustic guitarist?

TS: Playing rhythm and blues was some of the most fun I've ever had. After high school, I went on the road with a club band, Yesterday's Children, they played the Midwest and a lot around Chicago. That was in the early 70's, what I call the pre-Disco era. It was a cool repertoire: Tower of Power, Buddy Miles, The Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye...we played a lot of tunes from Stevie Wonder's Talking Book Album. Playing rhythm on that stuff aquatinted me with II-V-I progressions and also the variety and interchangeability of Major 7, Minor 9 and Dominant Sus voicings and scales
    Years later I had a wonderful regular gig at the "Spruce Club" a black Masonic Lodge in South Minneapolis. It was kind of a bar inside of a house, if you know what I mean. The band was Danny McGhee on tenor, Billy Holliman on B-3 Organ, Donald Thomas on drums and vocals. They played the entire black musical tradition- Duke Ellington, Bebop, R&B, Blues, James Brown, Funk...right up to Whitney Houston. The place was packed. It really was a scene! Brother Jack McDuff would always turn up and play a set. All kinds of locals or musicians coming through town would sit in. The audience taught me a lot. It's definitely not what you play but what you you play it.
    I was rehearsing with Jack McDuff once and took an overly be-boppish solo on "Tobacco Road". McDuff stopped everything, looked me dead in the eyes and said, "Son, do you know the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit?" He would get on people's case about their playing, like a Ninja Master of Jazz. I learned a lot from it though. In order to play a guitar solo over a big fat B-3 sound, you have develop strong ideas and deliver them with authority. In other words, play straight ahead with good tone. It takes a big sound to cut through the wall of overtones coming out of that Leslie Cabinet. Even though I was using electric guitar with a plectrum or thumbing a la Wes Montgomery, this was a valuable lesson to distill into my solo guitar, even though it's a different genre.

AGR: Do you play much electric guitar these days?

TS: I have a well traveled 1948 Epiphone which I love to play, but my focus for the last few years has been solo fingerstyle acoustic music.

AGR: You are at home in a bewildering variety of styles - jazz, blues, classical, bebop, etc., and these have all gone into the melting pot to create your style. Was this a conscious decision, a method, if you like of creating a unique sound and style of your own?

TS: I think it's a product of making a living as a journeyman guitarist in many different genres and settings. I always pull these experiences back into solo guitar vocabulary. I think of music as architecture and mix and match different elements in a scheme I heard from Joe Pass, which is basically: every melodic and harmonic situation can be identified in one or more of three categories: Major 7, Minor 7 or Dominant 7. I've found that very helpful. I have also long admired and emulated Dean Magraw's genre-bending approach.

AGR: You won the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship with your arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite. This sounds like an awesome undertaking. How did you go about it and how long did it take you? It must have driven you nuts at times.

TS: I saturated myself by listening to the dances over and over again. Then, I worked from a tape and a piano score. The whole process took a few months. I made a demo, then eventually got bored and dropped it. A few years later, Peter Finger called and asked me to record it. He had got hold of that original demo by way of Duck Baker and John Renbourn. I worked it back up to make the recording and added a number of voicing and fingering improvements.

AGR: You have arranged a great deal of Balkan and Middle Eastern music for the guitar. What draws you to this music and what technical difficulties does it present for the guitar in terms of tunings and such like?

TS: My first disc for Acoustic Music Records included both "The Nutcracker Suite" and "Balkan Dreams." To tell the truth, I had just about forgotten the Nutcracker when I had a call from Peter Finger. It was his idea to pair the Nutcracker with the Balkan suite.
    This project led to a tour in Europe with Peter Finger, Jacques Stotzem and Dean Magraw, all incredible composer/performers of the guitar. That tour prompted me to switch from nylon to steel strings. I began to think "outside the box", composing with complicated rhythms while mixing things up in a more playful spirit. The compositions on Guitar Bazaar are the fruit of a hectic period in the early 1990's when I worked simultaneously in Jewish, Greek, Brazilian, and Middle Eastern ensembles along with the regular weekend gig at The Spruce Club. It wasn't unusual to play six or seven gigs on a weekend. I recall going from a jazz club to a belly dance show to a Jewish wedding to a bar full of Greeks smashing plates on the floor to a Persian Winter Solstice celebration and so on.
    Eventually this melange began to percolate through my brain. In the resulting solo guitar compositions, eclectic harmonic and melodic ideas merged with asymmetrical dance steps from the Balkans and Middle-East to create a hybrid. My desire has always been to create new work of lasting value for the guitar repertoire. I try to avoid reinventing the wheel or recording the umpteenth version of something that's been done to death.
    The process whereby these elements have been appropriated and combined is covered in detail in the Guitar Bazaar Workshop Video. Every song from Guitar Bazaar is written in a so-called "odd" meter. It's amazing that Peter Finger went out on a limb and let me record such a crazy collection! Irregular dance rhythms from the Balkans and Middle East are like a lopsided samba or a waltz with an extra half beat. Being an American accustomed to 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, etc., these exotic meters really messed with my mind. They make for intriguing fingerpicking arpeggios.
    The method I used to learn the meters comes from Bela Bartok, who recorded and notated a large collection of folk tunes from Eastern Europe and Turkey at the beginning of this century. For example, Bartok would write 5/8 as 3+2/8. You can grasp the rhythmic architecture better by breaking these odd meters down into groupings of two or three notes. My advice is to try counting it out loud. For example, 5/8 would go one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, etc. The key to playing and improvising in these meters is to hear how each one has a special lilt and to get that "feel" under your belt. (Before composing and jamming on these patterns, I logged many, many hours playing oud and guitar with assorted ethnic combos).

AGR: How much do you practice? At your level of playing it must be very hard to make improvements. How do you see your playing evolving in the next few years?

TS: I've been living on a small farm and remodeling the house with lot's of work outside. Sometimes I do a lot of composing in my head and grab the guitar for small snatches. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and the outline of a song is there in my head, full blown. If I can hum it, I can play it. Other times it's a lot of tinkering and chipping away and in the end you find it's just not gonna fly so you collect whatever bits and pieces might be useful for something else and move on.

AGR: What guitars do you use and what setup, amps, effects, etc., do you favor for live playing?

TS: I use a 1954 Martin 00-17 a Sunrise Electromagnetic Pickup. I run it through a Boss pre-amp with reverb and chorus effects. I believe it's a Boss AD-3? That and a good external mike.

AGR: Do you have any advice for guitarists trying to master the difficult art of fingerstyle?

TS: Not really...if you're good, you don't need my advice and if you're not, all the advice in the world won't help. I know of a great Gypsy guitarist who tells the story of when he got his first guitar. He was about 4 or 5? very young, and his father, a famous gypsy performer in Granada, gave him the guitar and his first lesson. A week later, the youngster came back for lesson 2 but it became apparent he'd forgotten most of lesson number 1. Seeing this, his father took the child's new guitar, smashed it into pieces and told the kid he would never be a guitar player and to forget it! Of course, this kid went on to become a virtuoso.
    He's known as "Chuscales" and whether the story is true or not, it makes a good point don''t you think? If, on the other hand, you want to enjoy fingerstyle guitar, I do think in this day and age one has so much more to learn from in the way of published music which wasn't available 10-20 years ago. It's quite a fluorescence don't you think? I mean, guys my age, had to "wear the grooves off the vinyl" to glean these mysteries, it's much easier to learn now. In practical terms, I think playing in ensembles of different styles makes one a much better and well-rounded solo player. Especially in one's sense of time, which improves by working with bass and percussion. Also, as I mentioned before, soloing over an ensemble gives one a sense of poise and attitude. Your sound aquires a certain definition. It's true that some of the most notable and successful fingerstylists, like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, were principally soloists, on the other hand, Chet Atkins, Paco De Lucia...all the flamenco cats, Lenny Breau, Charlie Byrd, Joe Pass....some of my favorite players like Dean Magraw, Woody Mann...lot's of the great soloists have honed their "mastery" as accompanists.

AGR: I know that you have the odd guitar lesson or two up on, but is there any other Tim Sparks tuition material available and if so where is it? Acoustic Music Records has some of your guitar transcriptions ("Guitar Bazaar" and "The Nutcracker Suite" ), but frankly this material is going to be beyond all but advanced fingerstyle guitarists. As Leo Kottke says, it's difficult stuff, made to sound easy.

TS: I have published a number of lessons in Guitar Player Magazine, they are listed on my web page along with books, videos etc. The address is:

AGR: What recording and other musical projects have you got on at the moment and what's planned for the future?

TS: I have spent the winter getting together another project for Tzadik, tentatively scheduled to record in New York in June. I'm also halfway through tabbing out all the Neshamah material and hope to have published with Mel Bay in the next year or so. I've been working with Bruce Muckala who is editing the rough drafts and also maintains my web page.

AGR: Tim, many thanks for being so generous with your time and | giving such fulsome and interesting answers to our questions.
Used by permission. Copyright 2000 Acoustic Guitar Review


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