ONTO the stage strides an enormously tall man. With his beard and long, long, sandy coloured hair, you’d swear Thor had just entered. In front of him are five guitars. What’s he’s about to do with them is like nothing you have ever seen before.
He straps on his acoustic but instead of his right hand strumming and picking, and his left hand fretting, both hands are over the neck - pulling, snapping, tapping, and plucking strings in a riot of rhythm, with his right hand dropping every now and then to strum or hit the guitar body a percussive whack.
This is Preston Reed - one of the most astonishing and creative guitarists currently at work today - and he is returning to Galway to play the Róisín Dubh on Friday November 14 at 8pm.
“I will be doing some new tunes which I will be playing in my unique style,” he tells me during our Wednesday afternoon interview. “I will be on five different guitars including a Resophonic steel guitar I got from a company in Prague. I’ll be playing ‘Franzel’s Song’ on it - a tune I’ve previously played on a Stratocaster - but this will be closer to the guitar on which I originally recorded it.
“I will be doing a new tune on 12 string guitar called ‘Warm Up Song’. There may be a new jazz improvisation, but the backbone will be my percussive acoustic stuff.”
When Preston describes his style as “unique”, it is neither arrogance nor a boast - it’s fact.
Preston grew up in Armonk, New York, the youngest of three children in a family that loved music. Preston’s own guitar journey began, indirectly, courtesy of his father and sister. “When I was eight my father started showing my sister Susan guitar chords,” he says. “I didn’t even know he had a guitar - but when I found out I wanted to jump in.”
It became obvious to his parents that Preston’s talent was a natural, God given one, and they got a classical guitar teacher for the youngster, thinking this would help - it was a plan that backfired though. His teacher was overly strict and nearly put Preston off guitar for good.
“It was more about me than him. He was just typical of that era - ‘Play this, don’t play that’, ‘Do it this way not that’,” says Preston now. “It was very much about reading music but I didn’t enjoy that. I was a composer and I’m creative and that goes to the core of my being. If I’m forced to think a certain way it doesn’t work for me.”
Thankfully Preston was turned onto the instrument again at 15, when he heard Jefferson Airplane’s roots/blues offshoot Hot Tuna. “I went to Hot Tuna with Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane,” he recalls. “He was a finger picker and they got me excited again about the guitar and I’ve been that way ever since.”
Two years later, Preston was to play his debut gig - alongside none other than the great Beat poet Allan Ginsberg. How did the show come about?
“My eldest sister was living in Washington DC at the time and had come home with a friend of hers,” says Preston. “My parents threw a party and I was asked to play a couple of tunes. A couple of weeks later I got a call from my sister’s friend. It turned out she was the special events co-ordinator for the Smithsonian Institute. Allan Ginsberg was booked there and he had requested a local musician to do the show with.
“At the show he improvised poetry and I sat alongside him. He also had a harmonium like instrument which he would play during his poems and sometimes he would ask me to pay along. He also liked this groove I was playing and he began to improvise poetry over that. So it wasn’t just me opening for him, I was taking part with him!”
Preston released his first album in 1979, but the innovative guitar style he is best known for - the over the neck fretting and double handed work on the guitar neck - came later, and changed everything.
“If I ever stopped to think about how it looked when I’m doing it I would never have done it,” he says with a laugh.
“For me, it’s like sitting in a car,” says Preston of his unique style. “You start with a rhythm and get that going first. It’s become natural for me to have the left hand over the neck and for my right hand to strum and use the body as a drum. It gives me more mobility to play percussively.
“The tuning I use is a G tuning that goes C, G, D, G, G, D. That gives me a power chord for a big fat rock sound and a harmonic development. The tuning and my style of playing divides the guitar into two modal areas and makes it like piano.
“People ask ‘Where did you get it from?’ I say it was from the music and it was developed through that. A lot of guitarists won’t see through the technique, but for me the most important thing is the music. The technique is just the way to get to it.”
This idea is at the core of Preston’s approach to and philosophy of music. While his technique is universally admired, for Preston it is a means to an end. He explains this approach further when I ask him what advice he has for guitarists who feel their playing is going nowhere and want to re-ignite their creativity.
“The most important thing is to try to stop playing for a minute and ask yourself where do you want to go,” says Preston. “Ask that not about the guitar but about the music. What music do you want to play?
“It’s important to forget it’s a guitar or else you will be stuck in the same thing. Get the guitar to get you the music you want. That’s what helped me. Otherwise it’s losing music in the effort to perfect technique. It’s ironic but it’s true that if you focus too much on technique you loose the point of it. You have to stop and get the music and be in charge of everything and technique will follow from that.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.