One of the things I like about most music streaming services are the suggestions that pop up for you based on previous music you have listened to. Or in the case of YouTube, videos you have watched. Awhile back, a video of a guitarist named Matt Palmer showed up as a suggestion for me. He was playing the Bach Chaconne, one of the great pieces of music in the violin repertoire which has been transcribed and performed by many guitarists. So I clicked it and was instantly impressed by the performance. Mr. Palmer plays with great emotion and passion, and is clearly a virtuoso on the guitar. I watched the Chaconne several times, and then explored other performances he has on YouTube. Many people commented that he is a well known and respected guitarist. I had not heard of him, but of course, being curious by nature when it comes to understanding what makes artists tick, I decided to try and contact Mr. Palmer to see if he would grant me an interview. I was very happy he returned my e-mail and agreed to talk. I called him on a Saturday morning after he went to his son's soccer game.
TH You answered my interview request yourself….I was expecting a manger perhaps. Do you have an agent?
MP No, I just do it myself.
TH Cool. Where do you live?
MP I live just outside of DC, on the Maryland side…a place called Bowie.
TH Have you ever been to KC before?
MP Yes, I played there about 3 years ago…with the Kansas City Guitar Society and Doug Niedt.
TH A good friend of mine, John Svoboda, studied with Doug Niedt.
MP I know that name...I’ve heard of his work.
TH What brought me to you was a video that popped up on my YouTube suggestion list….your performance of the Bach Chaconne. That blew me away. Did you hear classical music or guitar music in your home as a youngster?
MP No I didn’t. It was all later. My first exposure to classical guitar….do you remember those subscription deals for CD’s where you could get 5 CDs a month or something like that? My mom had one of those…
TH Yes…Columbia House club.
MP Yeah...that’s what it was. And so she was on that and occasionally she’d get me something. It was kind of hit and miss if I would listen to it or not. She got me this classical guitar CD...a Christopher Parkening two disc set from that. It’s true…I’ve said it before…I put it in my closet and didn’t listen to it…didn’t even open it. I was in high school at this point…16-17 years old, and at that point I was all in on electric guitar and heavy metal, hard rock. I was in a band playing bars, having a great time with it. I’d say I was a very serious guitarist at the time. I played all the time. If I went to a party in high school, I’d show up with my guitar. Everyone knew me from that. But maybe two years later, I’d gone through a phase where I was listening to new music…it wasn’t new at the time, but new for me…some Al Di Meola…that thing where he played with Paco de Lucia…Friday Night in San Francisco. When I heard that, I was hearing nylon strings, and it sparked my interest a bit. But then I recalled the CD my mom had given me and I got it out and listened to it and it was a “eureka” moment. Hearing Asturias and Recuerdos de la Alhambra…these staples in the classical guitar repertoire that can easily draw in an audience …that’s what drew me in...Asturias and Alhambra and other tremolo pieces. At the time, I didn’t read music or anything. This was before you could look up tabs on the internet, so I just did it the old fashioned way and transcribed them by ear.
TH When I first heard these pieces…with the tremolo technique, it sounds like two people playing rather than one. How were you able to pick that out?
MP Well, at first I thought it was two people (laughs) but I read the liner notes and found out it was a technique. The way I originally did it was wrong. The tremolo is a sequence…its thumb, ring, middle, index…thumb playing the bass notes and the three fingers playing the melodic tremolo line. I mistakenly thought he was playing thumb and pinky together…thumb and pinky together and then ring, middle, index after that. So I learned it all by ear…I didn’t have a teacher...and I grew my nails out about an inch long. I auditioned for college with Recuerdos and Asturias and the BWV 1001 Fugue for violin by Bach. All by ear.
TH You did not know how to read music at all?
MP I was not able to read music, but I could read tablature of course, but classical guitar in tabs at the time was basically unheard of.
TH Did you still keep your feet in the electric guitar world at that time?
MP There was a period when I first started doing this...I was approaching twenty, probably nineteen… when I started doing this. I was out of high school. I wasn’t going to college…I had no plans on going to college and I was still in a band playing shows. I was moonlighting as an aspiring classical guitarist just working out the fundamentals of finger-style guitar and learning these great tunes that I had fallen in love with as soon as I heard them. Not very long after that I learned that you could study guitar in college or at a university. I learned through my brother that Bill Yelverton at Middle Tennessee State University was holding auditions for guitarists in his studio. The audition went OK. I don’t recall him being particularly impressed…and I don’t blame him. He’s listening to a guy with one-inch long nails and no real training.
TH You weren’t the next Segovia at that point? (laughs)
MP I was not (laughing), but I did get a small scholarship that I was very happy to have received.
TH I’m struck by how late you really got your start with classical guitar. There are eight year-olds who can read music and have had more formal training that you had at twenty.
MP I think it was late. For instance, by the time I was good enough to do well in competitions, I didn’t want to do it anymore. (laughs) I was past that competitive phase. By the time I got good enough I just wanted to make music. When I started my Doctorate I was almost thirty years old. A lot of other guys were a few years younger than me.
TH How old are you now if you don’t mind me asking?
MP I’m thirty-eight.
MP After MTSU I went to Boone, North Carolina to study at Appalachian State University. And I got my doctorate from the University of Arizona. Professionally, in the last 3-4 years, my performance career has taken off in a more substantial way. With other guitarists, this may have happened some years earlier.
TH You mentioned hearing the Christopher Parkening CD was a watershed moment. What was your first real memorable musical moment?
MP I had a few. I was exposed to guitar in general. My dad was a guitarist. He played a 12-string guitar, harmonica and sang…more of a folk-style. So I always did enjoy hearing that as a kid. He died when I was young, just before I started to play. Right around the time I was ten or eleven years old was when Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses) came out. My older brothers and I were immediate fans and we had to have a guitar that Christmas. Fortunately we got one and we shared it.
TH What kind was it? Was it a Les Paul like Slash played?
MP (laughs) No…much cheaper. I think it was an Applause. We loved it. We didn’t know the difference at the time. We were just happy to have had it. Eventually we all had to have our own. Pretty soon after that I did hear Randy Rhoads...Ozzy Osbourne’s Tribute Album. For years, Randy Rhoads was my favorite guitarist. I learned that entire Tribute Album and played it from beginning to end right along with them…barely hanging on with him. He was a great player…very inspiring. Who knows, maybe that very early seed of classical guitar was planted by him because I did play that song he wrote called Dee. I did play that but I just kind of hacked my way through it…it was a little classical tune he wrote.
TH He’s an example of a musician who found his way to classical music. Ozzy has said if Randy was still alive, he might very well be a classical guitarist now.
MP I think very likely. I think he did have plans to hang it up (rock) and study classical guitar at a conservatory. Early on I really sucked (laughs). My brothers were sure to tell me that too. They were a little older and caught on a little faster. I remember just trying to play some songs but nothing seemed to be clicking. I was frustrated over some silly song I was trying to play...hard rock song…it was just basic power chords in open position. I couldn’t even do that. I remember sitting on the couch one day watching TV…I must have been eleven or twelve at the time…and I was thinking about this song that I couldn’t play, but I really wanted to play it and I just started working my fingers playing air guitar. And within a moment I realized I had it. And I’ve always thought of that as one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve ever had on the guitar…playing air guitar.
TH A breakthrough because of air guitar!
MP Yeah…and honestly from there I never really felt completely frustrated over anything after that. There’ve always been challenges. At the time I had a grim outlook about my future on the guitar, but after that moment…never. I could always do what I tried to do after that.
TH I know in the violin repertoire, there may not be anything more difficult than the Bach Chaconne. Is the same thing true for this piece on the guitar?
MP I think the Chaconne, and violin repertoire in general, fits my playing style really well. I definitely acknowledge it’s a difficult piece, and I enjoy playing it. The main difficulty for me is that it is very emotionally draining. During a performance I am putting everything I have into every note that goes by, and I get to the end and I really feel it. You have to take a deep breath and let your mind rest a bit.
TH It’s exhausting as a listener too. It is a transformative piece. I remember a great video of Itzhak Perlman playing it. When it’s over, he is covered in sweat and he is completely spent. It’s such an emotional piece.
TH What other classical guitarists would you say have been influential for you?
MP My original influence was Parkening, who was a student of Segovia. And there’s a Brazilian guitarist, Fabio Zanon, whom I had a CD of playing the complete works of Villa-Lobos that was very important to me. Julian Bream is another special player…always emotional and entertaining…never a dull moment when you listen to him. Some other players over the years who have inspired me would be Lorenzo Micheli, and Matteo Mela, whom I just had the privilege of hosting here at my guitar festival over the weekend. They play a duo now, but as soloists, they were some of the first guitarists I heard play. Another player would be Aniello Desiderio. And then of course my main teachers, Bill Yelverton, Doug James and Tom Patterson, who each gave me the exact guidance I needed during their time. All the guys I’ve mentioned I think also introduced me to the concept of “being your own artist.” Find what you do well and focus on that and go all in. You develop a vision for every piece you are going to play and you go all in, despite what anyone else might say. My Chaconne for instance may be a good example. I think from chord one, you know you’re hearing something different.
TH I was impressed with your technique and speed.
MP That comes from the seeds of playing thrash metal. I always tell my students, to play fast you have to be able to think fast. And growing up, I always heard things really fast.
TH Now that you are successful and spend your time making a living as a musician, do you still enjoy listening to music?
MP I do enjoy listening to music. Not a lot of classical guitar these days. If I listen to classical guitar, I feel like I’m almost doing research. I also record too…I engineer all my own recordings...it’s one of my hobbies. I’ve always been a do-it-yourself kind of guy. So I find myself listening to sound quality…
TH You’re analyzing it…
MP Yeah, it’s hard to separate from that when I listen to guitar. Often I find myself just looking for songs I might want to play myself. I may listen to more piano music than I do guitar. I listen to a lot more Tom Waits than I do anything else. I am captivated by his music. It’s very emotional and poetic.
TH I love his tune “You’re Innocent When You Dream.”
MP I have probably 25 Tom Waits albums. I can say I really like a lot of artists, but I am a Tom Waits fan.
TH Do you still listen to Guns N’ Roses, or Zeppelin?
MP I don’t. I still have a pretty decent collection…some friends were in town recently and we pulled out some of those albums. It’s surprising how much you remember of that when you haven’t listened to it in twenty years…you still know all the lyrics and I could probably pick up the electric guitar and still play it, but I don’t revisit that stuff very often.
TH When was the last time you played your electric guitar?
MP I still have my electric guitar. I did go a period of about ten years without touching one at all. I made a deal with myself that I have already broken, that I would pick it up once or twice a week and practice on it. There is something about that left hand…when you play an electric guitar… that ease of motion that I think you get away from on a classical guitar because it’s a more difficult instrument to play physically. I found practicing on an electric guitar can really free up my left hand on the classical. I just don’t have the time to devote myself to that.
TH I am happy to hear you still like to listen to music. I’ve talked with many musicians who tell me the last thing they want to do is listen to music because that’s what they do all day long. I think that’s kind of sad. So if you had to go to a desert island and could only take the work of three composers, who would they be?
MP I’d bring late Beethoven String Quartets. I would bring solo piano works of Scriabin. And the Shostakovich String Quartets too. And Tom Waits.
TH Do you transcribe music?
MP Yes…in fact I transcribed a few pieces by Scriabin. One of the Canons I did of his is on YouTube. But a lot of the great stuff by Scriabin wouldn’t really fit the guitar. The harmonies are so extended and they require quite a few notes or multiple voices. There have been arrangers and transcribers who have captured the essence of a lot of the great composer’s works, and that’s at the heart of making a great transcription…to capture that essence. But the essence of some of the composers I like isn’t often in harmony. Some of those harmonies are impossible to play on the guitar unfortunately. And some of the counterpoint too. But I have some pretty good Tom Waits arrangements that I’ve done as well.
TH There’s a French guitarist who has done some amazing transcriptions…Roland Dyens. He has a wonderful version of Tchaikovsky’s piece “June” from the Seasons.
MP I have that actually…I have the score. I hope to learn it at some point. It’s a really beautiful piece. That type of piece fits well on the guitar…melody and accompaniment; that’s what the guitar does the best. And romantic style harmonic languages fit really well on the instrument.
TH With your schedule these days, do you still have much time to practice.
MP As a student, I would practice 5-6 hours a day…without fail for 20 years.
TH No wonder you turned out as good as you are!
MP These days, since finishing my doctorate and teaching a lot, it’s a little different. But I take every opportunity I’ve got…even the middle of the night when the kids are in bed I can find a couple of hours. My key to maintaining a decent practice schedule is to sleep less (laughing).
TH Do you work out or do anything special to keep injuries away?
MP I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have anything major happen. I occasionally get a little concerned with soreness or a tingle here or there. I always have to make sure I am positioned correctly on the instrument. And I gauge the amount of practice time I’m getting. And never jump into a new piece too fast before training my fingers what to do. That’s when you expose yourself to injury…making a big shift or quick move without being mentally and physically prepared. And I try to stretch before I start playing…and making sure my hands are warm before I get started.
TH Do you enjoy playing with an orchestra…i.e. the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez?
MP I think I might be better as a soloist, but I do enjoy playing with an orchestra. I’ve played the Rodrigo three times. And the Brouwer Elegacio Concerto. Here’s a great story. I was playing the Brouwer at Milligan College in Tennessee, and there is a big thunderstorm outside. We make it to the first cadenza…everything is really going great….I’m really enjoying playing with the orchestra, but right after the cadenza, the power goes out. Its pitch black except for a light off stage. Complete darkness for everyone else. So the orchestra does not come in on their entrance, so the maestro announces to the audience, “it’s obvious that Matt can play his part in the dark, but the orchestra cannot.” He knew I had a solo repertoire I could play, so I ended up playing about 45 minutes in the dark…solo…for the audience. It ended up better that way. I was getting a standing ovation after every piece! It’s a great story. Everyone who was there will always remember that much more than a regular concert.
TH They will remember that forever! Did the power come back on?
MP It did. We started right where we left off…..but the highlight was the power going out.
TH Here are some non-musical questions for you. Are you a coffee drinker?
MP I’m drinking coffee right now!
TH Do you like good coffee…I mean not Folgers etc…
MP I like really good coffee. I’m not super picky about it as long as it’s decent. I’m drinking some Chock Full O’ Nuts right now. You get this huge can at Costco…
TH Do you grind your own beans?
MP I like to do that too. I think I could get into roasting my own beans. I just played a concert in Michigan over the summer where a guy I met who definitely was a coffee aficionado roasted his own beans. I could totally get into that.
TH Do you drink beer?
MP I do drink beer…not as much as I did in high school. I am more of a craft beer drinker now.
TH And I see you are sponsored by a guitar string company? Do you want to put a plug in for them?
MP Yeah…I am sponsored by D’Addario.
TH What gauge or type do you play?
MP Right now I’m playing their Dynacore basses. And two of the carbon trebles and my high e string is a titanium treble. A mixed set.
TH Have you played Carnegie Hall?
MP Yes, three years ago as part of the D’Addario concert series. I took that gig on four days’ notice. I was down in my basement fixing a wall in my recording studio and the next day I was on a plane to New York. (laughs)
TH What an amazing honor to be playing at Carnegie Hall I would say.
MP It was great and the people there were so supportive. It was such an honor for me that D’Addario invited me there to play.
TH How were the acoustics?
MP It was a really clean and pure sound. Not too much reverb coming back or sound bouncing around. And I’d do it again…on even a day’s notice!
TH Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a real treat to speak with you.
Matt Palmer's website is: http://www.mattpalmerguitar.com/
Here is his performance of the Chaconne by J.S. Bach: