The Interviews - Teja Gerken INTERVIEW - By Ace Batacan (a.k.a. Eiko)
06/02/05
The Collings Forum Home

Jun 2, 2005
Question and Answer session with Teja Gerken conducted by Ace Batacan (a.k.a. Eiko)

Teja: The Gear Editor

Ace: People say that we are in the golden era of guitar making with a lot of good individual luthiers, boutique makers and big factories. Do you think it’s true?

Teja: I do think it’s true. The overall level of guitars, particularly steel-string guitars, is probably higher than it has ever been. There are certainly more guitars being made than ever before. The overall quality on all levels is really stunning, I think. There are certainly fantastic vintage examples from the 20s, 30s, 40s, but it’s really only the best of those that are as good as the best ones being made now. There are so many more being made now and at all levels. I think we have amazing guitars for $200-$300 and the high-end ones from the luthiers, who are doing really innovative work.

Ace: When you compare and evaluate different guitars, what are the biggest differences you find from boutique makers like Collings, Santa Cruz, Huss and Dalton, Goodall, Lowden etc. to bigger factories like Martin, Taylors, and Gibson etc.? And how do they compare to individual luthiers like Olson, Ryan, Thompson, McCollum etc?

Teja: I definitely think that the high-end of the factory makers is at an even quality, from a purely utilitarian point of view, with the boutique makers. But I think you definitely get something that’s more unique, more handmade, has more of an individual character by going with a boutique maker. I think where the boutique makers shine is when you have specific needs that you want to have, like a custom neck shape, inlay, etc. It all comes down to individual tastes. I think that is reflected in what professional players play. You can find just as many or more playing high-end factory guitars as you find boutique guitars, and they all sound great with them.

On the other hand, I think we have to think we have to thank the boutique makers for bringing up the overall quality level of the factory guitars. It’s partially because of Collings, Santa Cruz, and others that companies like Martin, Taylor, and everybody else have had to try and get up to that level themselves.

Ace: Tell us about the best guitar you ever tried/played. What is it?

Teja: I’ve played a lot of guitars. There are a couple of guitars that I think about sometimes when I think of the best guitars. One is a Franklin that belongs to Woody Mann. It’s a weird one, made from wenge wood. It’s between an OM and a Jumbo and it’s just one of these super responsive guitars that really sound amazing. I’ve gotten to play Martin Simpson’s Sobel once, and that’s an amazing guitar. It’s one of those where he has it set up with heavy strings but it’s not hard to play.

I also hang out at the Eric Schoemberg’s shop and I’ve gotten to play some of his old Martins, and you know he has this old OM45 deluxe that’s unbelievable. A fantastic playing guitar. I was over there with Franco Morone once and you know he doesn’t get to see a lot of vintage guitars in Italy. He played it and was just blown away.

Ace: Interviewing and seeing so many great luthiers, is there any common characteristic you find in them?

Teja: I think they all share a dream and amazing ability to realize it. All the ones that are successful had to go through a lot of ups and downs to make it happen. Particularly, I really admire some of the younger luthiers. I think to get going now as a luthier you have to be a little crazy to do it really. Some people do it. What always impresses me is some of the people who have been in it for a long time, how little ego there is involved. They have nothing to prove anymore. Being in it for 20 or 30 years, they love what they do. They create amazing work. It’s a passion, but no one is getting rich at it. That’s the common thread – doing it for the love of it.

Ace: Many years ago there’s been an article about a Guitar Vibrator that age guitars instantly. What do you think of it? Does it really work?

Teja: I haven’t used it, and I have not played a guitar that had the treatment done to it but from what I hear, it seems to work. I think Rick Turner was involved in one and he said that they did a guitar, I think it was a Taylor that belonged to Laurence Juber, and he said that it really did open up. Some people put their guitar in front of a speaker and rattle it that way. Maybe it works, but you don’t hear much about it now.

Ace: When you are evaluating different guitars, how can you determine the quality and characteristic of each? Is there any specific method or approach you have during your evaluation in order to come up with a more subjective and true review?

Teja: The biggest thing that I think of when I evaluate a guitar is “who would this be good for?” I have to separate myself from whether I personally like the guitar or not. I think ultimately it’s more important to determine what features in a guitar would do well. This is instead of me saying I liked it or did not like it because I’m only one player. Something we’ve also done is having other people in the office try it because we have a variety of different playing styles. I look for craftsmanship. I look inside with a mirror. I check to make sure the craftsmanship is clean. Some of these things don’t really matter, I mean, you look at some of the expensive Spanish guitars and they have glue drips all over the place but they’re great guitars. However, I tend to think that if the craftsmanship is really clean inside, it also shows that care was put in elsewhere. I also make sure that the neck angles are correct. I check how low or high the action is. We tweak the truss rod when we need to. I look at the quality of the wood, from a cosmetic side. I look at the finish because that’s really one thing where you can really tell differences, even in high-end guitars. You can often see lacquer build-up like at the neck and body joint or on the fingerboard extension. Again, those are cosmetic points but they are indicators.

Ace: How much time do you take?

Teja: We usually have review gear for four to six weeks before we send it back to the manufacturers. Often I take the gear home and play it on my own time. Sometimes I even take it to a gig, because there are other people there that can give me their input.

Ace: Any tips you can give us when choosing our guitar in the shop? How can we make sure it is the one we want and won't regret after we take them home?

Teja: Spend enough time doing it. I think it’s really a good idea to take someone else with you who plays. Then you can trade playing and listening to the guitars. I’m often amazed at how different a guitar sounds from up front than when you’re playing it. That’s something to keep in mind. If you will be playing the guitar in your living room, it has to sound good to you. If you will perform with the guitar, ultimately, it should sound good to the listener. Check everything like what I talked about when I review a guitar. If the strings are old, have the retailer change them to new ones. Make sure you get a guitar that matches your style. Find a shop that you can have a relationship with is a good thing. Set yourself a budget. It’s easy to snowball into something you’re not ready for.

Ace: Do you believe in exotic and rare woods? (like Brazilian Rosewood, Adirondack Spruce etc.) Do you think guitars with those wood were often more superior?

Teja: I definitely like them. I think they make a difference in sound, but it’s hard to say whether different is necessarily better. You can argue about this all day. They certainly look great and sound great. I do think that the maker and the construction of the guitar are much more important than the type of wood that was used.

Ace: What do you think of the different Internet forums that going on at the moment? Do you think they are one of the key driving forces of the guitar industry? Or do you think they actually harm the industry?

Teja: I don’t think they’re a driving force but I think they’re great. In the July issue of AG, there was story based on guitar maker’s roundtable discussion we hosted at NAMM, and the topic of forums came up there. Overall, it’s created a whole community. People have jams because they met on the forum, for example.

The Internet in general has been a great thing for the independent artist because suddenly, you don’t have to have a distributor. You can do it all on-line. Some of it is connected to the forums. Just getting the word out has been easier. I think the dangerous thing about the forum is people play less guitar because they spend all their time on the forum so much! (Ace’s note: we both crack up on this one…)

Ace: No, no. Most of us do the forums while we’re at work so we can still play enough guitars when we get home.

Teja: Ok, I guess that’s the ideal way. (we’re still laughing)

Ace: You enjoy reading the posts?

Teja: Yes, for the most part. In my case, it really is part of my work... I visit Guitar Talk a few times a day. I obviously have other work to do as well, but it’s fun.

Ace: Have you ever think of having an article in AG Magazine to talk about all the Internet forums about acoustic guitar?

Teja: We did that when the Internet first started, a long time ago. Now that we have a forum, that’s where we do that, and it happens on-line. I think the print magazine and the forum thing are separate that way.

Ace: How long have you been with the magazine?

Teja: Almost eight years. For a guitarist, it’s a great day job.

Teja: The Fingerstyle Player

Ace: Do you primarily play fingerstyle?

Teja: Yes. Never played with a thumbpick. My right hand technique was derived from playing classical.

Ace: Do you use natural or fake nails?

Teja: I used acrylics for a while. When I played flamenco, I did. I did them myself which probably meant I wasn’t doing it right. Finally, I took them off before a vacation and my nails seemed to have grown back stronger so I have not done it in a few years. I think because I have a day job, it’s ok. If I were touring and playing a lot more, I’d probably have to go back to acrylics because my nails would wear out.

Ace: When you were growing up in Germany, learning the guitar, who were you listening to?

Teja: Back then, my Dad listened to John Renbourn, especially with Pentangle, and others. We also had some records of some European players doing some Bossa Nova and Latin-inspired tunes. I heard that a lot.

Ace: After coming here in the mid-80s, who did you listen to then?

Teja: I came here in 1986. I got a little more serious then. Learned to play rock and blues with an electric guitar. I had a good teacher, George Quinn. That was really fun. Then when I was in college, I studied classical guitar with a guy named Peter Greenwood in Sonoma, California.

Ace: I met Duck Baker in Nashville last year. So you studied jazz with him? How was that?

Teja: I studied a little bit of everything with him. He’s so versatile. I was aware of him even back in Germany. I was studying with Peppino D’Agostino for a while and he was the one who hooked me up with Duck. I’ also worked with him on some of my originals. He’s been really supportive.

Ace: How long did you study with Peppino, and how was it?

Teja: He was great. We primarily worked on my own compositions. Sometimes I would go in there with half an idea and he would finish it. You show him something you’ve been working on then pretty soon he’s playing what you were playing and also improve on it.

Ace: Does anything stand out with what you learned from Peppino?

Teja: I’ve been really lucky that some of these mentors that I’ve had sort of took me under their wing in a way. Peppino had me open shows for him a few times. Those kinds of things have made a difference and gave me a bit of a jump start. That was great. You learn about the business that way. You absorb a lot from your mentors. It goes beyond the lessons. It’s nothing you can pay for. It has to come from them.

Ace: You’ve played with some of the best players out there. Do you have a favorite?

Teja: As far as having fun, probably Claus Boesser-Ferrari is one of my favorites. We just really hit it off. We’ve played gigs both here in the States and in Germany. I just played with him over there this last April. Peter Finger and Tim Sparks as well. It’s amazing just to be in the same room with those guys, and it could be easy to get a little intimidated. I would never say that I’m on the same level with these guys even though we’ve been on the same bill. Again, it’s about the support. When you’re playing with really good players, you become a better player.

You have to also realize that if you’re playing after someone like Peter [Finger], you’re not going to impress anybody from a technical point of view. You have to think about that with the kind of material that you play.

Ace: I know you play a lot but do you have a practice regimen of any kind in between gigs?

Teja: I don’t, unfortunately. The magazine work keeps me pretty busy, and I also commute. I try to get in an hour of playing when I can but there are times when I go without it for a couple of days. I play enough to keep my chops up but it’s difficult to learn new material so I need to set aside time for that.

Ace: How do you document them while composing?

Teja: I make scratch recording of things. Sometimes I tab things out. I’m just now putting it down on Finale on the computer. I have a little cassette Walkman, which is handy to have around. I also have a hard disc recording system, and I recorded the new CD myself. I’m not fast at writing tunes, sometimes it takes several months.

Ace: On your first CD “On My Way”, the song "Her Red Hair" was great. May we ask who your inspiration was when you wrote that song?

Teja: It’s dedicated to my sister, Maja. She lives in Germany, and we didn’t spend too much time together growing up. She came over here about ten years ago and that was the first time we really spent some time together, so I wrote that song for her.

Ace: I actually liked the live version track at the end. You played it with a lot of feeling behind it.I think the short section that had a somewhat Spanish flair to it was clever.

Teja: That was fun. That live track was from a show I opened up for Peppino and Mike Marshall here in San Francisco. That’s actually a tune Peppino helped me with, putting some of the sections together.

Ace: My favorite is “Pretty Girl Milking a Cow”. I think that was the only one on nylon strings. I tend to gravitate to songs played on them. A beautiful piece. It almost has a classical feel to it. I might want to learn that one.

Teja: That’s Duck Baker’s arrangement. It’s an Irish traditional tune. A lot of people have recorded, even Pat Kirtley and his is on DADGAD. Mine is just like Duck’s and it’s on Drop D. It does sound nice on nylon strings, which I also used on the tune “Freight & Salvage Improv” on the “On My Way” CD.

Ace: How long did you work on your new CD - Postcards?

Teja: I’ve had some of the tunes for a while. I started recording it in May of 2004. I recorded it at my parents’ house in Mendocino; it’s really quiet there out in the country. I recorded it on a Mac PowerBook G4, with a MOTU 828 and two Røde NT5 mics. I did in on weekends when I’d go up there. It took a while, but I finally did the last session this past February.

Ace: Any highlights?

Teja: Any time you get a good sound and you know you got a good take. Those were the highlights. I guess the big surprises were the opening song, 5927 California Street, because it’s my newest tune. When I started working on the CD, I didn’t have that song yet.

Ace: Which guitars did you play?

Teja: Most of it was done with a ’99 Lowden O10. Last November, I got a Custom Shop Martin OM, and I used that on the last three tunes that I recorded. I used a Taylor 712c on one tune and a Taylor 355 12-string on one. The nylon string cuts were done on a Kenny Hill Robert Ruck model guitar. A pretty good variety.

On the next CD (I’m already thinking about the next one), I think I might want to do it all on one guitar though. It think it would be nice to have the same sound on every track, but then I kind of want both steel and nylon, so there goes that idea…

Ace: How were they recorded?

Teja: They were all stereo miked. For the steel strings, the mics were a couple of feet away from the guitar, one pointing at the bridge, and the other pointed at the 12 th fret, more or less. With the nylon string, that setup ended up being too boomy, so I ended up with an X-Y position by the sound hole.

I mixed in a studio (MuscleTone in Berkeley, CA) and the engineer used some TC Electronics spacial expander effect on the two nylon-string tunes, which, added a really nice stereo image into what was kind of narrow before. It worked out well.

Ace: What is the release date for Postcards?

Officially, it’s July 2 nd. We’re doing a CD Release show at the Freight & Salvage, here in Berkeley. I’ll probably have it up on CD Baby and Amazon by then as well.

Lastly, on this new CD, I recorded a bunch of tunes by other Bay Area guitarists. The idea behind that is I really believe in creating some community around the guitar. There are a lot of fingerstyle players in the area and a lot of them don’t know each other. That’s also one reason why I created the Acoustic Guitar Showcase at the Bazaar Café (www.bazaarcafe.com) so I could invite a couple of players every month. I think playing each others’ tunes is a great way to advance the state of the instrument.

I have tunes on this CD by Duck Baker, Steve Baughman, Patrick Francis (of the San Francisco Guitar Quartet), Pete Madsen, and Dale Miller. I figured I might as well learn tunes written by friends of mine. That way, it also gives them exposure. It can only help everybody out.

 

Ace’s notes:

This interview is a little longer than the others mainly because we interviewed Teja Gerken regarding his two “roles”, gear editor and fingerstyle player/artist.

I would like to thank Teja for being kind enough to spend some time off of his very busy schedule to do this interview. It was my first time to meet the “gear man” himself. He was very gracious and answered all the questions candidly. This interview was conducted for the benefit of our Forum members (and visitors). Please note that because of Teja’s job being the gear editor for Acoustic Guitar Magazine, we could not ask him questions specifically about Collings guitars only. It was a great pleasure conducting this interview. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did doing it. Thanks.

 

(Left: Teja Gerken's Latest Album "Post Card")

Hal Leonard just published a book:

The Composition, Construction, and Evolution of One of World's Most Beloved Instruments

Author: Frank Ford
Author: Michael Simmons
Author: Richard Johnston
Author: Teja Gerken

Teja will be teaching a workshop on altered tunings at the big Healdsburg Guitar Festival in August (Healdsburg, CA).

Please visit Teja's Website for more details

 

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