L.A. Guitar Festival Artist Spotlight: Acoustic Fingerstylist Peppino D'Agostino

An interview with Peppino D'Agostino, the 2007 "Acoustic Guitarist of the Year" winner in Guitar Player magazine's Reader's Choice Awards.

I first met Peppino at the Lord Of The Strings Concerts acoustic guitar series in south OC a few years ago, and I'm pleased to be presenting him in the festival—an artist that was named "Guitarist of the Year" in 2008 by Fingerstyle Guitar magazine and the 2007 "Acoustic Guitarist of the Year" in Guitar Player magazine's Reader's Choice Awards. Peppino kicks off the second day of the this Saturday August 25 at the . For more information, visit laguitarfestival.com.

By Al Rudis

For 45 years now, Peppino D’Agostino has been dancing to the music of time, with the conductor in his arms.

He’s been whirled in many directions since he started playing guitar when he was 10 years old in Turin, Italy, and his waltz shows no signs of slowing.

“I think that the conductor of all this is really the guitar, the music and the passion behind it that I have always had,” said D’Agostino in a telephone interview from his home outside of San Francisco.

“It made me come to the States, made me a living and introduced me to my wife,” he said. “The instrument is really what made it happen, and the fact that I love the guitar.”

At the 2012 Los Angeles Guitar Festival, D’Agostino will be performing with Jeff Campitelli, whose regular gig is as drummer for Joe Satriani. “He’ll be playing a regular drum kit,” said D’Agostino, “but also electronic drums and a cajone, which is like a wooden cube. The percussionist sits on top of it and makes different sounds depending on where he hits it.”

D’Agostino will be playing with a guitar synthesizer and also an acoustic guitar or two, because he plays with both steel and nylon strings. He may even sing, both in English and his native tongue. His set may include styles as varied as classical, fusion, Italian, ballads and, uptempo numbers.

If he draws from his experience, there’s really no telling what he might do, because he’s done so many different things in his career. Here are a few of them:

--Became an autodidactic virtuoso. “My cousin came to the house a few times, and he showed me a few chords and how to sing and strum,” he said. He taught himself everything he learned after that, except for attending an occasional master class.

--Heard a record that changed his life. It was titled “Leo Kottke/Peter Lang/John Fahey” and came out in 1974. Someone played it for D’Agostino in 1975. Before hearing it, he had been obsessed with the playing of Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and had even cut his hair short like McLaughlin. After he heard it, his obsession became Leo Kottke.

“McLaughlin and Santa play single lines, but this guitarist was playing in a polyphonic way, and you could hear bass lines and chords and melodies at the same time. I completely fell in love with that style, and I bought other Leo Kottke records, like the famous one with the armadillo.

“I thought it was impossible to do what he was doing, and then I discovered he was using open tunings, which I had never heard of. I had always played with the standard tuning.

--Was part of a hit bluegrass band – in Turin, Italy. “I saw this famous French guitarist, Marcel Dadi, on TV one day, and he was using finger style,” said D’Agostino. “I thought, wow, with that style, you give the impression of two guitars happening. Leo used finger picking style, but he was more complex.

“Dadi was a big fan of Chet Atkins, Doc Watson and Merle Travis, so he basically re-recorded their songs in Europe. Inside the record, the music was written in tabs, so I learned how to read tablature. I started playing duets with a friend of mine, and he also started playing banjo. So my friend, Enzo Ponzio, and another friend, Alfredo Morabito, and I created this group called Bluerba, which means bluegrass in Italian.”

The members, all in their early 20s, wrote original material and played in clubs in Turin. One of the club owners knew the owner of a record studio, so they recorded an album. “That kind of style had become popular in Italy because of the movie ‘Deliverance,’ and we started playing in bigger and bigger places,” he said. “I remember one time we were the opening act for Stefan Grossman, John Renbourn and Duck Baker in the biggest theater in Torino, which holds like 2,000 seats.”

--Met an American woman on a train. Bluerba had split up amicably when the other two members got involved with girlfriends, wives and babies. D’Agostino fell in love with the train passenger and flew to America to see her. When she didn’t pick him up at the airport in New York, he realized something was wrong, and he was also stranded without knowing English.

Luckily, he had the numbers of some New Yorkers he had met in Italy, so he took a train to Manhattan from JFK and stayed with them for a couple of weeks. Then he took a Greyhound to Maine to visit some friends there. “There I played my very first public gig in America, which was two songs in a bar,” he said.

“I had no intention to come to the States because I thought that the level of playing here was too high for somebody like me,” he said. “But then I started listening to what was happening. I remember going to a coffee house and hearing people playing, and they sucked. So I thought it’s not true that in America everyone is like Leo Kottke.”

He managed to connect with the object of his affections in Ann Arbor and ended up driving with her to San Francisco, where she said goodbye. They would get together again, but each time it never worked out, yet she was the impetus for his move to the United States.

Alone in San Francisco, he looked up Duck Baker, who had lived in Turin and taught a master class that D’Agostino had taken. He stayed with Baker a week and then flew home.

He continued playing in Turin, alone and with his friends, and worked in a music store. “I was selling strings and cleaning up pianos and still living at home,” he said, “and sort of getting tired of playing in bars and little festivals.”

His American friend suggested they try again, and on the second visit, he decided to stay. “I was able to save money from my job at the music store and the gigs I was playing,” he said, “but I had to start looking for jobs. I remember in Los Angeles, I painted a house that was owned by this blind woman. At the end, she said that I did a good job. I think I did a horrible job, but she was blind.”

--He met some musicians on the streets of San Francisco. They were Barbara Higbie and Mike Marshall of the Windham Hill band Montreux. “They realized I was Italian and my vocabulary was very poor, but they liked Italy, so they invited me to their concert,” D’Agostino said.

“Barbara loaned me an amp, and I started playing in the street for tips. There was one area in Fisherman’s Wharf where I had to go through an audition first.” Eventually he moved up to restaurants, mostly in the North Beach area.

As he connected with musicians in San Francisco, he began socializing. At one party, he was attracted to a community college teacher named Donna, and this time things worked out. They married and have a daughter, Elia.

--He met other people who helped him. One saw him play at a coffee house in San Rafael and introduced him to a New York agent who helped him get his first American recording contract. The manager of Montreux also became his agent.

When he opened a concert by Paraguayan harpist Carlos Reyes, someone in the audience owned a record company and liked his set. “I had signed with a German record company and came out with a record, but I didn’t have a record company in the U.S.A,” said D’Agostino. The American company put out the German album, which did well enough for him to do a second album.

While demonstrating guitars in Canada, someone approached him who knew guitarist Steve Vai, and said Vai was starting a record company. D’Agostino submitted some recordings, and eight months later, Vai called and signed him to his new label.

Some Germans who had seen him perform in Europe called him and said they wanted him and another San Francisco guitarist to perform together at their festival. The other musician was David Tanenbaum, who was the chairman of the guitar department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “I had never met him,” said D’Agostino, “so they made us meet 6,000 miles away. That’s when I got exposed to classical music.”

Working on a benefit for his daughter’s school, he met guitarist Stef Burns, who collaborated with him on another album for Vai and introduced him to another neighbor, Jeff Campitelli, the drummer who’s with him at the guitar festival.

“Stef plays with Huey Lewis and the News,” he said. “In fact, he’s on tour with him right now. But his main gig was in Italy with Vasco Rossi. Rossi is the biggest rock star in Italy. They play only stadiums from 30,000 to 100,000.

“A while ago, I was in Ireland, and I was inspired by what I was seeing in that beautiful country. I came back and wrote a piece for the guitar. I played it for Stef about eight years ago, and he said, ‘Peppino, this could become like a rock song that my boss in Italy could do.’ So we changed a few things, added lyrics and went in the studio with the bass, the drums, the electric guitar solo and the acoustic guitar.

“Eight years later, Rossi recorded the song. He wrote Italian lyrics, and it’s called ‘Stami Vicino.’ There’s even a video you can see. It became one of the songs on his latest CD, which became a triple platinum record. He actually ended up using the original demo acoustic guitar track that I recorded eight years ago. So I also get some credit as a musician.”

D’Agostino continues to move in new directions. He and Tanenbaum have created a guitar ensemble with eight guitarists. All but D’Agostino are either faculty members at Tanenbaum’s conservatory.

“We play Bach, Mozart, Brahms, all arranged for guitar, but also music that I write for the ensemble and also minimalists like Terry Riley. The CD should be out in September, and we have a tour in October.

“It’s back to my journey here in the U.S. It’s like, yeah, sure, I’ll play with Eric Johnson, I’ll play with Tommy Immanuel, I’ll play with David Tanenbaum. I like to work with musicians that are masters in their fields. Because they share the same passions that give me joy.”

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