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Kevin Roe – Eloquence in Guitar

No tricks. No master plans. No BS. Just one man. One guitar.

Fingerstyle guitar is an art that goes way back by way of its own tradition. After all, it’s probably pretty fair to assume that the guitar was developed prior to the development of the guitar pick. (Which means that the earliest guitarists never had to survive the misery of losing – and not being able to find their plectrum.) From classical players like… Scarlotti, Segovia…to…new agers such as the late Michael Hedges, Pierre Bensusan…to great jazzers like Paco de Luca and Alex De Grassi, the fingerstyle approach to the guitar is always in transformation.

It is one of the last – in my humble opinion – hands-on arts going today. One cannot get paint on their hands when using a computer. One cannot feel the way your instrument vibrates back to you if it’s a computer. Fingerstyle guitar is still the earthy, feet-in-the-mud-so-you-can-feel-the-earth kind of art form. Sensuous in fact.

Kevin Roe is a superb musician with a grand articulation for the fingerstyle approach to guitar. He’s been playing in a number of bands for years here in the Central New York area. He took a few minutes to tell us about it.

Chuck Schiele: How did you get started in music?

Kevin Roe: My older brother Howard bought a $15 Stella guitar when I was 10 years old. I was fascinated by it, and when he went out I would sneak into his room, pick up the guitar and try to make some noise that sounded good. I stumbled onto an E minor chord by trial and error, and was hooked – played that chord for hours and eventually discovered a few more. Howard upgraded about a year later and sold me the Stella for the same $15.

CS: How did you come to the fingerstyle approach you wear so well?

KR: It is a combination of a lot of different influences. It started with my brother again. He was six years older, so I looked up to him. Whatever he listened to and played, I listened to and played. In the beginning, that was early ‘60s acoustic folk – Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger – and that featured fingerpicking accompaniment. So, from the start, I was doing that.

When I was around thirteen, a new music store opened in my hometown (Corning, NY) and the owner became an early mentor. He had played guitar in Chicago for years – had his own radio show, did studio work, and played clubs. He liked the way I played, took me under his wing, and gave me free lessons. He explained harmony and chord theory and taught me out of a book of standards by the Brazilian guitarist, Laurindo Almeida. That was my introduction to true fingerstyle, chord-melody arrangements. I learned arrangements of Over the Rainbow (which I still play today), The Shadow of Your Smile (which I have mostly forgotten), and several other tunes. That got me using my right-hand fingers in more ways than standard fingerpicking. Instead of just keeping the beat with my thumb alternating on the bass notes and filling in with the other fingers in a repeating pattern, I learned to find the right strings with my right hand to play partial chords, individual melody or bass notes, pinches, arpeggios, and that kind of thing. It opens up a lot of possibilities for your left hand when you don’t have to worry about all six strings being part of the chord.

I also picked up a Christopher Parkening book of Bach compositions arranged for guitar, and learned a few classical pieces, like Bach’s Boureé, and a couple of Minuets. I only dabbled in classical guitar – I didn’t pay much attention to technique – but learning those pieces helped to develop finger independence with both hands.

Another big influence was Bruce Vanderpool, a singer/songwriter that I met when I was about seventeen. He was a contemporary of my brother, and they each had a weekly gig in the local hippie bar that had music six nights a week. Bruce was the best guitarist around, and I followed him around and bothered him until he agreed to give me some lessons. He introduced me to a number of alternate tunings. He was a fan of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn from the British band Pentangle, and I started to listen to those guys – both great fingerstyle players. Jansch had a solo album called Rosemary Lane that listed the guitar tunings for each song on the liner notes. That’s how I discovered DADGAD tuning, which I use quite a bit. It works really well for fingerstyle playing.

The most recent piece of the puzzle was meeting Loren Barrigar after I moved to the Syracuse area. I met him at the very first meeting of the Syracuse Guitar League. He has been incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge and more than a few licks. I have had the good fortune to play a number of gigs with Loren, and learned a lot about fingerstyle playing from him.

CS: Please share your music path with us.

KR: I did not start playing in public until I was 23, and once again, my brother Howard is the star of that story. I had lived on the West Coast for a couple of years in the mid-‘70s and, when I decided to return home to Corning, I went by way of New Mexico so I could spend a few days with my sister, Dianne. Howard had decided to visit Dianne at the same time, so we arrived within a couple of days of each other. We went out to the local roadhouse one night for a beer and the owner was just locking up when we arrived. Dianne told him that Howard and I would play him a song if he opened back up for us. We played a song that Howard had just written, and the guy hired us to play every Friday and Saturday for the next six months. That was the start of my public performance career. I continued playing in a duo with Howard for a couple of years after we returned to Corning, until he relocated to Oregon. He put together a great band out there and was well-known in the region. We lost him to COVID last August, so these memories are fresh in my mind.

I took a break from playing for a few years in the ‘80s, when I went to law school in Syracuse and then worked for a couple of years in Albany. After returning to Corning, I resumed playing in a variety of formats with a terrific singer and guitar player named Stephen Peao, who I had worked with before in a couple of bands. I moved to the Syracuse area in 1995, but Steve and I continued to play together in a four-piece rhythm & blues/Americana band called the Rain Dawgs until the pandemic shutdown. In addition to Steve and me, we had Phil Smock on drums and Mark McCarty on bass, dobro, and guitar. We played mostly in the Corning area but played a couple of times a year at the Brae Loch Inn in Cazenovia.

In addition to the Rain Dawgs, I have played for several years in an acoustic band called The Unstoppables, with Joanne Perry, Wendy Ramsay, John Dancks, and Tom Finn. That band features original music by Joanne and Wendy, along with some unusual covers. I am hopeful that we will get that going again once things get back to normal. Currently, I am in a project called Colleen Prossner & Friends that is playing the last Sunday of every month at the Brae Loch. In addition to Colleen on vocals, we have drummer Jason Jeffers, John Dancks on bass, and two of my favorite guitar players – Mark Hoffmann and Loren Barrigar. So, there’s a lot of guitar playing going on in that – I just try to stay out of the way.

CS: Do you like playing electric guitar?

KR: I often say that an electric guitar might as well be a clarinet. For some reason, I am just not comfortable with it.

CS: What are some of the highlights in your own music career?

KR: A few come to mind. When I was living in Albany, I played at a couple of open mics at the mecca of folk music, Caffe Lena, while Lena was still alive. She liked my playing and gave me a spot in a showcase. That was a highlight in itself. But a couple of years later, after I had moved back to Corning, I showed up for another open mic. Lena was sitting in the back and could not see very well by then. I started playing a song that I knew she liked, and I heard her say, “Is that Kevin?” I was thrilled that she remembered me and recognized my playing.

Another highlight was a concert that my brother and I participated in with four other songwriters from the Corning area. We put together a two-hour show of all original music, with all of us backing up whoever had written the song. We didn’t know if anyone would show up to listen, but we ended up with a crowd of over a thousand people and had a great show.

And I played guitar with Bonnie Raitt for about 10 minutes once. A friend was opening for her, and I had just finished putting on a new set of guitar strings for him in the green room. She walked over with her acoustic guitar and said, “Let’s play,” and we did. She did not invite me to join her band.

CS: Who are the guitarists with whom you resonate most?

KR: I have the best vibe with my long-time collaborator, Stephen Peao – meaning that we each instinctively feel where the other one is going. He is such a terrific lead player – he will take you for a ride if you pay attention. When I play with other people, I want to feel that we are making music, not just playing music. I always get that from Steve. And I love playing with Loren for the same reason.

As for guitarists I admire, my accompaniment style takes a lot from James Taylor and Paul Simon. The other acoustic guitarists I love to listen to include Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Smith, John Knowles, Doc Watson, Molly Tuttle, and Tony Rice. Mark Knopfler, Steve Howe, David Gilmour, and George Harrison make me wish I could play electric guitar. CS: Your thoughts on CNY Music community?

KR: Community is a good word for it. The musicians I know are all rooting for each other, supporting each other. I didn’t know anyone when I moved here, but as soon as I met one or two, they were very generous in introducing me around, including me in the jams, inviting me to sit in. And the talent level is as good as you will find anywhere.

CS: What are you involved with now and what do you see in your near future for music?

KR: I am always working on learning new things. The group with Colleen covers a lot of standards, which is a new genre for me and one of the reasons that the project interested me, aside from the opportunity to play with some great musicians. That’s the only active project right now. John Dancks (everybody’s bass player) and I just started working on a duo guitar and bass thing. The Unstoppables have been chatting about getting that project back on track. But none of us has been chasing gigs since the shutdown. I hope that will change soon.

CS: Please offer a tip for the budding guitarists out there.

KR: I think it is really important to learn how chords are built – what makes a C13 chord, a diminished chord, a major 7 chord, etc. It is not hard, and once you know that, complicated-sounding chords won’t be so intimidating. In most cases, it is no harder physically to play a fancy-sounding chord than the ones you are familiar with – it is just one more grip to add to your muscle memory. And you can make your playing much more interesting by sprinkling those in here and there. There is room for an F#7b5 chord in a folk song.

CS: How can we stay in touch with you and your music?

KR: I don’t maintain a website or a mailing list, but if I am playing somewhere, I will post it on Facebook.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.