Go 'Behind the Guitar (and Kalimba)' with Trevor Gordon Hall

Posted by Gerard Longo on

On Tuesday, Jun. 9, PBS39 will welcome another lineup of artists to the studio for a special day of taping Behind the Guitar. One of those artists, Trevor Gordon Hall, sat down with Speak Up to tell us about himself, his music, and his innovative "kalimbatar."

Tickets to see Trevor at 10 a.m. and Stefan Grossman at 3 p.m. are still available. Get tickets now!

First, how did you find out about Behind the Guitar, and what made you want to come in for a taping?
I was invited by Dick Boak from Martin Guitar to be a part of the series, and I knew it would be a blast! He told me some time back about Behind the Guitar and we stayed in touch. I’m very happy to be a part of the show.

You’ll have the distinction of being the youngest guest to date on Behind the Guitar. Talk about that distinction, and what it’s like to be part of the same series as folks like Laurence Juber, G.E. Smith and Roger McGuinn.
It’s pretty awesome to be part of the series in many ways, but especially being with such fantastic, classic and innovative players. For me personally, I appreciate the guitar tradition with deep reverence, while working hard to move the conversations into different directions and follow the inspiration wherever it leads. It keeps me feeling fresh; whether it’s fresh for others is up to them!

I think these players in the series are great examples who push themselves to their potential, always adding new flavors and spices into the great guitar conversation. I hope to emulate that in my work.

When did you first pick up a guitar? What made you want to learn to play?
I didn’t grow up in a musical family, but I always loved music. My parents played a lot of different music in the house growing up. Something about it affected me deeply in ways that, years later, I still can’t articulate. For as long as I can remember, music was something I wanted devote my life to. It’s what helped me make sense of the world, and the safe place that always had more territory to explore.

I wanted to play guitar for years as a kid, but my parents were smart and had me try a few other instruments first. So, by the time I got my first garage-sale-special guitar, the connection was immediate and the road to getting it was long. Piano, trumpet and drums just didn’t ignite me the way the guitar did. The feeling I got from those first few moments of getting to know the guitar is something I try to always keep alive.

Talk about the work that has gone into mastering the instrument as you have, to the point where you have become an innovator.
From the beginning of playing music, I was interested in tinkering with sounds. I would watch a movie as a kid and figure out the themes on the piano, and eventually do the same on the guitar. Something about constructing collections of sounds to convey a mood or mental picture was always a fasciation. So, I just kept going down that path and stayed open to wherever it could lead me. Punk, folk, classical, metal, rock, jazz – I just loved it all. It was never hard to spend long hours exploring with my guitar, and at times, it seemed to be the only thing that made sense!

I love the sound of ringing metal, so when I came across the kalimba, I immediately lit up. Here was an instrument that seemed so simple, but could give such a big, unique sound. Years ago, I bought a small one from a local music store that only had a few tines or keys on it. It was quiet, so I tried putting it on various boxes and surfaces to see if I could get it to resonate more. The idea of putting it on my acoustic guitar was hidden in plain sight for me, but once that idea struck it started a long process that is still unfolding today. I had a new sound to experiment with, right in line with my initial love of sound as a kid.

I met Dick Boak from Martin Guitar not long after that, and he helped me think through some issues and sketches for expanding the note range, sent me off to some various guitar builders, and here we are today! I have developed my own tuning layout, kalimba designs, shapes, resonances, and it has been a huge project requiring lots of manpower and energy. But again, it has all been to capture that initial excitement of organizing new sounds.

Talk a bit more about that moment you discovered the kalimba.
I had seen the kalimba here and there for a long time, but I really heard and saw it for what felt like the first time years ago at the Philadelphia Art Museum. There was an African art exhibit and concert where I saw a guy playing it, and it just blew me away. Combining the guitar with the kalimba seemed like a good idea to me, only because it helped me feel fresh and excited to explore something new for myself.

The kalimba is a descendant of the ancient lamellaphone family of African instruments, and the tradition is pretty interesting. The concept of the instrument with tines or wooden sticks varied by village, and all were arranged in a tuning unique to the particular tribe and folk traditions in a gourd or box to amplify the sound. From the start, this instrument was about evolution and change. I also grew up in the post-Michael Hedges era of acoustic guitar, which was about exploration and change. As I got deeper into the project of getting the kalimbatar just right, I realized I was right in line with the deep history and spirit of the kalimba and guitar traditions.

With the kalimbatar, you’re essentially playing two instruments at once – and making it look easy. Was it challenging to pick up at first?
It was extremely difficult! It still is for me – I have to practice a ton! I have always felt like my ideas are far past my abilities, and I have to work hard for my technique to catch up. But, that always launches me forward. I remember getting the first wide-range kalimba design done and in hand, and staring at it for a few days not sure what to do with it. I composed a lot of music away from the instrument so I wouldn’t fall into any guitar-ish type patterns with it. I have since done a lot of various things with it, from independent melodies mixed with the guitar to make harmonies, all the way to arranging classical piano pieces for kalimba and guitar as solo duets. Yes, it’s very challenging, but I’m just trying to explore sounds I love.

The two-handed independence thing is in full bloom in great piano players. Then, look at organists and drummers, who can use 4 limbs independently to achieve a musical moment. That amazes me. My kalimba and guitar combo is greatly inspired by watching and hearing those great instruments at work!

You released an album last year, titled “Mind Heart Fingers.” Tell us about the creative process, including the writing process and who worked with you.
This album was a unique experience for me. I grew up listening to Michael Hedges and a lot of artists from a label called Wyndham Hill Records. The guy who started that, Will Ackerman, impacted me in many ways with his own records, as well as the records he produced. I had the amazing opportunity to record with him in his studio in Vermont. The collection of tunes were special to me, and were kind of a “this is what it’s all about” group of songs. I have started traveling internationally a lot over the last few years for music, and this was the first project that really started to capture those places and experiences. I am really proud of that record, and the experience I had making it really affected how I think, act, feel and play.

Interestingly, it put me back in touch with those first few moments of discovering the guitar for the first time. It’s funny when you end up right where you started in life!

For those who haven’t heard the album, what can listeners expect?
The album has a lot of range to it. I think they can expect a lot of melody. I am a melody addict, and I love making the guitar sing as best I can. There are some upbeat, percussive tracks, some kalimbatar tunes and some straight-ahead, naked melody ballads. It’s a special record that captures a sort of returning to the essentials for me.

I have heard a good response so far, so I hope more people can dive in and find something meaningful in this album and my others.

Looking through the years, dating back to 2005’s “Portraits of Imagination” to the present day, how would you say you’ve evolved as both a recording and performing artist?
First and foremost, my songwriting has changed a lot! Back then, I was really learning how to explore different techniques, and I would come up with a bunch of ideas in a key and stick them all together. That form is really fun, but I have come to really appreciate developing ideas throughout a piece, and not just sticking them together. I have a more theme-oriented approach now.

My music basically catalogs my life at that point. I studied theology and philosophy, and I still keep up on those areas. Albums are like journal entries, and sometimes I listen to things I did back then and say, “Geez, what were you thinking Trevor?” Other times, I rediscover something tucked in the notes that remains true to me to this day.

The music has also become more live-focused, as I tour a lot more now. I like the experience that is captured on an album, but I also love the experience of the live show, and I have come to appreciate that as a separate experience now. Instead of trying to “play like the CD,” I really try to re-envision the tunes each time I play them in front of new faces and places.

What can those in attendance at Tuesday’s Behind the Guitar taping expect from your performance?
Hopefully a great time! I love to talk about inspiration, music, philosophy, science, theology and how all that relates to guitar for me. We will explore some techniques, and I will play a few tunes. It should be great!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for doing this interview. I had a blast!

Enjoy "The Meeting at the Window" from Trevor Gordon Hall below:

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