Guitar Player Magazine; Holiday 2010
by Barry Cleveland
KEVIN KASTNING HAD JUST RECEIVED HIS NEW “CONTRA guitar”— a 14-string
extended-range instrument co-designed and built by Dan Roberts, formerly of
Santa Cruz Guitar Company— the day before our interview. The Contraguitar joins
the Santa Cruz KK-Alto, DKK Extended Baritone, and DKK-12 12-String Extended
Baritone guitars in Kastning’s pantheon of unique stringed instruments. Although
Kastning studied classical and jazz composition formally—including taking
private lessons from Pat Metheny while attending the Berklee College of
Music—and is fluent in both traditions, the music he plays on these guitars is
as singular as the instruments.
Kastning’s latest release,
Returning [Greydisc], represents his fourth
collaboration with virtuoso Hungarian acoustic guitarist Sándor Szabó. As on the
duo’s previous albums (Parabola, Parallel Crossings, and Resonance), the music
is entirely improvised—though it nonetheless possesses such inherent
compositional integrity that one might reasonably question the spontaneity of
its origins. Szabó’s acoustic 12-string baritone guitar interweaves almost
supernaturally with Kastning’s extended-range instruments to create a sort of
impressionistic neoclassical folk music of such consistency and emotional depth
that it would still be astonishing even if it had been painstakingly composed
rather than manifesting mysteriously in the moment.
Besides channeling The Source in real time with Szabó, Kastning has composed
numerous piano sonatas, string quartets, and other classical works, as well as
collaborating with acoustic guitar innovator Siegfried on several recordings,
and contributing to 2008’s Unplugged & Unfretted: A Collection of the World's
Acoustic Fretless Guitarists (he also plays fretless acoustic). Kastning is
currently recording with legendary cellist David Darling, and a mostly
improvised album with English electric jazz guitarist Mark Wingfield is in the
offing for 2011.
The music on your albums with Sándor Szabó is entirely improvised, yet most of
it sounds composed. How is that possible?
I will tell you as much as I know about the process. All of the albums were
recorded in a single day. That’s how well we play together. On the first album,
we brought little sketches that were a couple of bars long, but we abandoned
that fairly quickly because we were thinking so much alike and our interaction
felt really natural. For example, pieces would begin and end in unison. We might
discuss some things ahead of time like, “I’m going to begin this piece in 5/4,
give me two bars up front,” or “You start in that register and I’ll start in
this register”—but that’s about it. And on some pieces one of us would just
begin playing without any discussion at all, and we would go from there. A lot
of people say they’re surprised when they find out that those are all improvised
What does improvisation mean to you?
I don’t think of it so much as improvisation as I do real-time composition. You
pick up a score of music and there was a time when that was improvisation.
Written music is really just frozen improvisation. When I’m playing solo pieces,
I’m thinking about the form. But when I’m working with Sándor, I’m just
listening to him and getting a sense of where the composition is going. After
that, I just stay out of the way and let the music go where it wants to go. I’m
not thinking about scales or harmonic structures, I’m not thinking about
transitional moments or sections in the piece— I’m just sensing the piece as a
whole, letting it go where it wants to go, and giving it all the space and
nurturing it needs to do that.
You speak of the music almost as if it was an entity. How do you conceptualize
the source of creativity?
I feel that music comes from somewhere else. I don’t pretend to create it. I
just allow it to come through. A lot of times I’ll listen back to a recording
and there will be a tremendous amount of stuff that I don’t remember playing or
even recognize as me. It sounds like a very spiritual thing to some people, and
maybe it is, but I think it’s something that’s not really of this physical
plane. That source could be God, or something so deep within the artist that
they’re not even aware of it, or it could be nature. And it is also partly the
chemistry between two or more people. It’s a big question, and I’m not that
smart of a guy [laughs].
Talk a little bit about your primary instruments and tunings.
Nothing that I’m doing now involves a 6-string guitar in standard tuning. I do a
lot of practicing on classical guitar, but I don’t record with one, and I do
most of my composing on piano. I have three main instruments, and a fourth
arrived yesterday. The first three are the Kevin Kastning series instruments
that I developed with Santa Cruz, specifically with Dan Roberts when he was
there. Dan and [Santa Cruz Guitar Company founder] Richard Hoover really made
these things happen for me. The DKK Extended Baritone has a 28.5"-scale and is
tuned to F#, in other words a whole step above a bass, though for the Retuning
album it was tuned to E. The instrument I consider my main guitar is the DKK-12
12-String Extended Baritone, which is a 12-string version of the same
instrument, also tuned to F# . Most baritone guitars are maybe one or two whole
steps below concert pitch, but these are a full 7th below. The third guitar is
the KK-Alto, which is another 12-string instrument that’s tuned to A, a fourth
above standard tuning.
The fourth instrument is the Contraguitar?
Yes. I wanted an instrument that could go down to E without being a bass, and
also go well into the alto range on the top—that sort of upper cello register
sound. I also wanted to have more than six courses of strings, and the final
instrument has seven, for a total of 14 strings. Dan and I worked out the
details over a tremendously long time, so that by the time we had nailed down
what it was going to be, he had started his own company, Daniel Roberts String
Works. The Contraguitar has a 30" scale length and the nut is 3.25" wide. Right
now I have it set up in octave tuning from E to A. I’ll start using some of my
personal tunings with it once I get acclimated to playing it. The voicing and
textures are orchestral in scope.
Describe your picking technique.
Recently I’ve been playing almost entirely with my fingers, using what is
essentially classical technique, which partly came out of frustration with the
pick. First of all there’s something between you and the string. Also, when you
play a chord on a piano, you’re hearing all the notes at once, and on the guitar
you don’t always, because you tend to strum bass to treble across the strings.
That has always bothered me. With my fingers, if I’m playing a four-note chord
voicing I can grab all four notes at once and it sounds like a complete harmonic
structure. Also, a lot of my lines are angular, with leaps of an octave or more
inside of a line or a phrase. While I can do that with a pick, it happens much
more instantaneously and cleanly with my fingers.
When I do play with a pick, my technique tends to confound other guitarists—and
I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way [laughs]. I hold the pick backwards
using the rounded edge, and at a 45-degree angle rather than parallel to the
strings, so I’m not picking with a direct attack. Also, I hold the pick between
my thumb and first two fingers, and I just brush the strings instead of pounding
the sound out, which makes it tend to sound more like fingers than a pick
Is your left-hand technique also rooted in classical playing?
While I was in high school I would watch cello players. Cellists keep their
thumb in the middle of the back of the neck at all times, which provides
tremendous reach with their fingers, and opens up a whole world of chord
voicings that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Of course, the technique is common
with classical guitarists, but I didn’t know that at the time. That approach
doesn’t work with the Contaguitar, however, as the neck is so wide that I wind
up placing my thumb more under the treble strings than in the middle, and to
reach the bass strings it comes out from behind the neck entirely, at which
point I use it more like an additional finger.
What are the most important things you took away from studying with Pat Metheny?
The first had to do with my time. I had already been playing professionally when
I began studying with Pat, and nobody had ever suggested that I needed to work
on my time. But in a very genuine way he told me my time was inexcusable, which
really got me thinking about time and rhythm in ways that I never had, and that
had a tremendous impact on me. The second really good thing was more spiritual
and emotional. It was early in my first semester, and I was depressed because I
felt like all of the teachers and students were these killer musicians, and I
was just kind of hiding behind the furniture wondering when I was going to be
found out. Pat must have picked up on it because at the end of the first lesson
he said, “You probably hear a lot of guys with great chops at Berklee, but I
want you to completely ignore them, because they’re not your competition. I’m
your competition. You just worry about me.” I felt a lot better after that,
because rather than comparing myself to others I could focus on what really