-- Career: Technical/Technique --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the technical aspects of his playing.

  • 2 November 1981 -

    Some odd & ends - comments that defy classification

    Q: A real practical question: playing fingerstyle, slamming the guitar, how do you keep your nails? The Pete Townsend school of manicure...

    BC: Well put... I coat them with Crazy Glue. You have to be very careful... you've got to make sure you don't get it anywhere but where you want to put it... when I first started doing it, I glued my fingers together...

    Q: It doesn't have any bad effects or anything?

    BC: It appears not to... I'm a little hesitant to recommend it to people...It does work, it makes them really strong. You can see this crusty little layer on here... it doesn't actually soak into the nails, but it really keeps them hard.

    Q: Practical question. What's the symbol on the back of your album (Inner City Front)?

    BC: That's not a symbol, that's actually a [stove heating] element. It's one of a series of photographs by this guy named (???)... he did a series called elements in which he has those things in various settings, skyline in the background.
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview, Old Waldorf, San Francisco," transcribed by Charles Wolff, from a tape of an interview with Bruce Cockburn on November 2, 1981 at The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA.

  • Spring 1993 -

    James Jensen: Was an acoustic guitar your first instrument?

    BC: Well literally it was but I was interested at first in playing electric guitar and as soon as I could convince my parents that I should get a guitar I got an old Kay arch-top which, in fact, was an acoustic until I put a D armond pickup on it. I always maintained a certain amount of interest in the acoustic side of things. This was when I was fourteen and I was interested in playing Rock 'n Roll but the guy I was taking lessons from was more of the Chet Atkins school.

    JJ: That's where the fingerstyle came from?

    BC: No, I didn't learn any fingerstyle from him it was all with a flat pick but that style of music was sort of injected into the equation, the sort of country swing kind of thing that led to my introduction to Jazz and other types of music. I was still thinking of only electric guitar but late in high school I fell in with a bunch of folkies who were into country blues and ragtime and that kind of stuff and that's when I started to fingerpick. My picking style hasn't really changed at all, the right hand technique is the same as it was then. My style is basically a combination of Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt or Mance Lipscomb...

    JJ: The monotonic bass?

    BC: The thumb drone or an alternating bass. You sort of have one or the other and Mississippi John Hurt was a great source of direction, I guess would be the way to put it, because of the beautiful and simple way he used to put the melody over the alternating bass. I mean he just played the melody of the song, and that was like no body else I had heard, it wasn't just licks, it was the actual melody. That sort of opened up a whole new thing and because of my interest in Jazz and other types of music that all got added in so when you take that same sort of right hand technique and apply it to a more complex musical approach you end up with something like what I do.

    JJ: Was most of your playing at that time [circa album: Bruce Cockburn] in standard tuning?

    BC: Yeah, I used then, and still do, alot of dropped D but it is usually one or the other. There are a couple of other tunings I use but they came later. On "Sunwheel Dance" the title track [Sunwheel Dance] is in Open D (DADF#AD) where another influence came into my style and on the album "Night Vision" there is a similar instrumental tune called "Foxglove" (see transcription). Both of those were inspired by a guy named Fox Watson who played fiddle tunes on guitar with the alternating bass and used open tunings to very good effect. Eventually I guess he felt that the fiddle tunes were better on a fiddle than the guitar and he started playing fiddle instead. I haven't seen him for a really long time but he was a very fine guitar player and that opened up another door for me and that's why I titled the song "Foxglove" to honor him.

    JJ: Your guitar arrangements were very dense [circa 1977]compared to a lot of singer/songwriters of that time, was that just your style or did you feel that you had to keep it busy being a solo?

    BC: Well it was both, when I first started playing things like Beatles songs solo you had to think of some way to make it move the way the record moves or it's really boring if your just strumming chords. I tried to make the guitar function as a band as best as I could so that's part of the thinking and the fingerpicking and the development of my style. That actually has led to a peculiar relationship with bands that I do have because I still basically work that way when I write a song so when I invite other people in to it to play they have to find a way around that busy guitar part which causes difficulties sometimes but usually produces some interesting results.

    JJ: "Skylarking", an instrumental on "Joy Will Find A Way" is in open Eb tuning?

    BC: Well it's actually in standard tuning except that the A string is tuned to Bb and the E string is tuned to Eb so you have bass notes of the key of Eb under your thumb and the rest of it's played on standard tuned strings.

    JJ: That piece has a mix of picked and strummed notes, do you use a flamenco style rasqueado strum?

    BC: I don't know that term, I whack the strings! But it's controlled, I keep my hand kind of curled up and brace my little finger on the top, the thumb is picking bass notes .

    JJ: Do you ever use a plectrum?

    BC: I never use a pick.

    JJ: For single note runs...

    BC: I'll use whatever is handy, if my thumb is busy playing bass notes I'll use my first two digits but otherwise I'll use my thumb and index finger for a single string run.

    JJ: Why do you brace your little finger on the soundboard?

    BC: That's what all the folkies did and that's what I did. It's not just a bad habit, I used to think for awhile it was a bad habit and tried to correct myself of it at one point but I gave up on that because the feel of that kind of fingerpicking needs an anchor, the thumb has to be so rock solid and able to come down on the strings in a way that if your hand is free floating .....I might be missing something, but I can't recall anybody I've heard that doesn't brace getting that feel.

    JJ: That's what I've been doing wrong.

    BC: That's probably what it is. You gain alot more mobility by not bracing though. I find it a nuisance in the finger part of the picking because it's hard to get at the strings but the trade off isn't worth it, I'd rather not be able to do the runs and get the feel.

    JJ: Going back to songs like "Dialogue With the Devil" your playing a jazzy/bluesy lead on top of a pounding bass, was that independence hard to master?

    BC: Well you take your basic country blues and stick more notes in it. It did take a long time to get and I am basically an undisciplined person so I spent quite a while trying to fingerpick before I actually understood what the thumb had to do to make it work. At first I had a kind of wishy washy style that was good for a certain kind of effect like if you wanted alot of flowing arpeggio stuff it worked but I never could get that rhythm happening. I don't remember the source of the discovery for me that the thumb had to be solid for the rhythm but I remember when the Kweskin Jug Band was happening Jim Kweskin was known as Led Thumb cause he had this rock-solid thumb thing happening that you almost didn't have to put something on top of because it would cook so hard. It is still an ongoing quest to keep the feel going and do other stuff on top and depending on what your doing quite challenging.

    JJ: "Hand Dancing" on "Joy Will Find A Way" is a fun piece with alot of that solid thumb bass and lead on top picking.

    BC: That was sort of an instrumental piece with lyrical accompaniment.

    JJ: "In The Falling Dark" has a couple of instrumental pieces; "Giftbearer" sounds like your just playing rhythm while the horn is taking the lead.

    BC: Well, actually through all the improvised part I was playing the rhythm but (demonstrating the piece on his dobro) I was also playing the lead on top of this pattern although the horn tends to hide the guitar part.

    JJ: The song "Joy Will Find A Way" has an interesting rhythm pattern.

    BC: That is actually based on an Ethiopian thumb harp piece.

    JJ: That brings up another question; alot of your songs feature a fairly complicated rhythmic pattern with your right hand, does that create difficulty when you sing on top of it?

    BC: Not once you learn it (laughs) there are things that are hard to sing and play at the same time but it's usually because the singing is demanding something that takes your mind off the playing more than the other way around.

    JJ: The live album that this first group played on "Circles In The Stream" contained a couple of fresh guitar solo instrumentals.

    BC: "Deer Dancing around a Broken Mirror" is dropped D tuning I think capoed at the second fret and "Cader Idris" is a piece I really like and I don't know what you'd call it but the G string is tuned down to F#.

    JJ: You used that tuning on "Fascist Architecture" and "Badlands Flashback".

    BC: On the "Big Circumstance" album I used that tuning on "Understanding Nothing" and "Don't Feel Your Touch".

    JJ: Was "Cader Idris" a very difficult piece for you to play?

    BC: I don't think so because I got used to doing that arpeggio thing with the fingers and something else with the thumb and they are reasonably independent. "Foxglove", for instance has all those triplets over an alternating bass that to me was an obvious thing to do but some people find it challenging but maybe that's because they're learning it after the fact. "Cader Idris" is basically the same thing except it's in a different time signature so they're not triplets they're eighth notes and the thumb instead of playing an alternating bass is playing a harmonized melody.

    JJ: "Further Adventures Of.." features the instrumental track "Red Ships Take Off In The Distance" with acoustic bass and guitar..

    BC: Bob Boucher the bass player and I did a lot of touring as a duo around that time and we developed some duet type pieces which that was one.

    JJ: You only dabble in alternate tunings any particular reason?

    BC: Yeah the reason is that a lot of the people I heard using alternate tunings were very boring because they used the same fingerings and the same picking patterns in all their tunings and used the tunings to get variety which is a kind of specious way to get variety cause you end up with a sameness to the style and I found that I didn't gravitate to the tunings for that reason. It is not that I refuse to use alternate tunings it's just that I didn't find them attractive for that reason partly.

    There is one tuning that I use a lot of and that's open C (CGCGCE) tuning that I got from the Rev. Gary Davis. I used that tuning on "Foxglove" and "Soul of A Man" from the last album, "Rainfall" on "Further Adventures of..." it's a rich sounding tuning and you get a lot of octaves naturally so you can get a kind of twelve-string effect without the clumsiness or cumbersome nature of that instrument. It's a tuning I was told by a Chilean friend of mine who thought he was introducing me to it when he said, "I've got this tuning from the south of Chile and only women use it" and it was the same C tuning, so I guess if I use it down there I'd have to apologize first.


    Bruce Cockburn's two main acoustic guitars are a "Dobro of recent manufacture" which he used on "Nothing But a Burning Light" and makes extensive use of on the upcoming "Dart To the Heart", and a custom made 6-string by Toronto luthier Linda Manzer (send $3 to PO 924 Stn P, Toronto, Canada M5S272 for her self proclaimed "propoganda packet"). Linda told me that Bruce's guitar is pretty much like her normal model with the exception of the body depth being extended by about an inch. The guitar has rosewood back and sides and a cedar top which was colored by the addition of blue dye in the laquer. The cedar she used on his guitar was from a large piece she found rolled up on the beach of British Columbia on her last day of apprenticship with Jean Larrivee. The fret position markers on his guitar are taken from Mayan calender notation. The guitar is fitted with a Fishman piezo pickup for live performance.

    Bruce never uses a plectrum or fingerpicks and plays very hard so he treats his fingernails regularly with Crazy Glue the application of which he warns with a voice of experience should "not be done when you're drunk."
    --from an Interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa Spring 1993.

  • November 1999

    Steve Lawson: Was electric guitar an anathema - with prog rock etc.?

    BC: I used it a bit - all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don't forget, so there was good guitar around of the sort that I related to as roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in there where I didn't listen to much rock or jazz - I completely missed David Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and discovered the rest of what he'd done. Then I started to look into rock music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.

    SL: So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City Front...?

    BC: Inner City Front was really the big one. There's electric guitar on many of the earlier albums, but it didn't start to take over until I was playing with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar - to hear myself on stage for one thing - but also to keep up in intensity with the other guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but there's a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the feel for it.

    SL: Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?

    BC: The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn't thought about it but I guess that's true, it does contribute to it, though unconsciously - I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn't unconscious the connection was...

    The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you're gonna love your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can't love them in the abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the album Humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and Italy - the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics, and that carried through into Inner City Front, and all through the 80s.

    SL: Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the world's singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period -

    BC: I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a little embarrassment, but only a little - more the live gigs that the records 'cause there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.

    SL: Influence of the Stick?

    BC: That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone who played it. With Hugh Marsh I'd explored the possibilities with Violin and Guitar, then Hugh's brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don't hear Tony Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big deal.

    During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I'd rented a little office space that I'd go to to practice and or write each day, and I had a little drum machine so I'd set up drum rhythms, and I have the lyrics and I'd be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts that would go with the guitar parts, and then I'd modify the guitar parts if he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in there early on in the process of building up to 'Stealing Fire'.

    SL: There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick -

    BC: ..and then when you start adding drums to that, the trick is to get people to start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.

    SL: Guitars - who were you listening to?

    BC: I don't think I was really listening to guitar players much through there. Since about 1960 I haven't really tried to learn anything off a record in a 'OK, how he's doing this' kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.

    SL: And that helped to maintain originality?

    BC: It has had that effect, I don't think I did it on purpose that was, it's just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any time I heard one I'd either find a way to do it my way or it would just become a kind of general influence - there were lots of people, Mark Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound like Mark Knopfler - there was already one of him and we didn't need another one.

    SL: You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to that? Naiveté?

    BC: There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick - there was no reason to. I'd played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s, and I'd had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But through the 70s I'd developed enough facility with the guitar that it just seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the end of the 80s I'd sort of almost learned how to do it!!

    SL: It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and acoustic.

    BC: They're not polls apart ..

    SL: ..sometimes it's pretty hard to tell which you're playing.

    BC: yeah, depending on which guitar I'm using - the National Resophonic that I've got is an electric guitar but I've got it strung with acoustic gauge strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an acoustic.

    SL: What electrics were you using in the 80s?

    BC: I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups, but I've always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics 'cause the necks are to flexible and I'd always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard, whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn't present that problem so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger friendly, more like the acoustic.

    SL: A kind of natural compression to the sound...

    BC: yeah, so it suited... it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you're used to an acoustic, whether it's fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant historic examples of that is Django Reinhard - when you listen to his records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He's whacking the shit out of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on certain guitars than on others.

    SL: now your on Rykodisc [editor's note: The Charity of Night/Breakfast in New Orleans,Dinner in Timbuktu] - it sounds like your back in a love affair with the guitar...

    BC: It's what came out of the experiment - it starts with Dart, or maybe even Burning Light. It's like I said, but the end of the 80s I'd finally learned what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the records, and it continues, I'm still learning all the time - the more I learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn't feature that much electric, there's a couple of prominent bits, but the The Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It's the first time I've felt confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record - I'd always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though on the new album it's not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals have a lot of improvising in them. I'm just letting myself play - we'll see what happens when we put the band together to tour...

    SL: The record [editor's note: Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu] sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.

    BC: There wasn't much restraint - the restraints on me are my technical ability more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn't stop at the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.

    SL: your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?

    BC: I had a Larivee - I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made. Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, 'n' all that. And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee's apprentices for a while - there were three of four of them who were spawns of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop thing, with helpers - not a factory as such, but more like that than it was. Linda continued to make guitars on her own.

    I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play electric guitar - my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were really pissed at that, and were yelling out 'acoustica, acoustica!!' They didn't want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn't believe that my guitar had been burnt - they thought I was putting one over on them.

    Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I'd experimented with a few commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn't like any of them - that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make room for finger-picking. When I got it that's what I wanted, but over the years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so it wasn't such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I developed a problem over the The Charity of Night tour I started getting a problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of the extra body depth - we're only talking about a 1/4 inch but with a guitar that's significant - the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves in my forearm and over the 10 years that I'd played the guitar it had started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that's sort of wedge shaped - narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more live anyway - very few people even know how to mic one anymore... The wedge shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than the bass end! That's what I used at Greenbelt - it's slight, and not really noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that it doesn't put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn't having any trouble playing that so duh! Make the connection, it's obvious! But so ended up with the new Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that's in it, it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest generation of piezo. It's got a really nice neck - it's a beautiful guitar to play.

    SL: Mic and line in the studio?

    BC: Normally I would just mic it - we probably did some of it plugged in, but we never used it, it's kind of more for safety - if we get a little noise on the mic, or we have to punch in...

    But I don't really like the sound of it plugged in when you don't have to have it - it's there live because there's no other way, but the new Manzer is not what appears on the new album - that's a Collings that I have that I've had for three years. It's the one that like D28, big body. You hear that on the The Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green - it hadn't opened up yet...

    SL: Electrics on the album?

    BC: On Blueberry Hill, it's a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, and a Strat that a friend gave me that she'd had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.
    - from "Bruce Cockburn Interview", Guitarist Magazine, November 1999, by Steve Lawson.

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    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.