Fingerstyle Guitarist Ewan Dobson

During the early era of YouTube, there were several fingerstyle guitarists who had viral videos of highly technical acoustic guitar performances. Today’s guest was among some of the earliest guitarists of this medium. His music arrived on the scene around the same time that guitarists (and CandyRat label mates) like Andy McKee and Antoine Dufour were experiencing viral fame. Having grown up inspired by Ewan’s videos and performances, I’m really honored that he has decided to talk to us today. Ewan, thank you for doing this man! Would you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us what you do?

I go between recording guitar music, reading, feeding birds and traveling to do performances. I presently live in the countryside of New Brunswick in Canada.

Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?

My grandfather played guitar and so did my mother a little bit. There was a guitar she had called a “Pan,” I think it was made by Aria. She taught me a few chords when I was quite young, probably 8 years old or so. Shortly after, I started lessons. The first music that motivated me to attempt learning guitar was rock music. The distorted guitar riff in “Kickstart my Heart” by Motley Crue really excited me and made me want to learn how to play just like that.  I am not quite sure there was a choice between this path or others for me. It seemed to me that playing guitar for my life was like room 1408, even if you try to leave, you end up realizing you never left and can’t leave. Circumstance insisted that I would play guitar and pursue this particular path.

JED: Man that is a recurring theme with that question, it doesn’t appear to be a ‘choice’ for most serious musicians or creatives. They HAVE to pursue a creative endeavor in some capacity.

Ewan performing at the  Xingfuli Bar in Luoyang, China on October 18th 2014.

Being someone who has pursued guitar for most of my life, it opened the door to meeting all sorts of fantastic guitarists. All of the accomplished guitarists I have met also share this same view. None of them say that some other career seemed promising and they decided against it for some reason. It seems as though the circumstances of life insist that music be pursued and worked on.

JED: What are some of your favorite albums, and how do they influence your work?

I used to listen to metal, so I would have answered this question differently ten years ago.  I used to listen to bands like In Flames, Children of Bodom, Unleashed, Pantera, Sepultura, Metallica, Megadeth etc. When it comes to guitarists, I was inspired by Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Ygnwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert among others. Metal and electric guitar artists influenced me so far as to pursue the intensity of guitar artistry and push the playing to as high of a level as I was capable of at the time. The high level of playing that certain metal guitarists achieved then showed me the path towards classical playing, since a lot of electric guitar artists play classical music to challenge their technique. These days I am listening to other types of music. For example, right now I have the complete works of Scarlatti on my mp3 player played by Pieter-Jan Belder. In addition, I like Paganini’s works as well as Rossini overtures.  Paganini’s earlier works such as the Lucca Sonatas have helped me gain some understanding of introductory classical romantic composition. I am reading a book called “Domenico Scarlatti” by Ralph Kirkpatrick to get some background on Scarlatti, one of my favorite composers next to Paganini. There is a chapter called “Anatomy of a Scarlatti sonata” which outlines his composition form which I hope to learn from and expand my ability to write. The composition style of Scarlatti is very concise and moves brilliantly between keys as it demonstrates outstanding musical sequences.

JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

The point where inspiration or muse is active can be the most enjoyable, since the music flows effortlessly as though one is discovering it pre-written.

JED: Oh man, can you expound on this a bit? Are you saying you’ve found a method for somewhat consistently channeling inspiration?

Photo by Ewan.

There is a part of inspiration that “feels” good, where the music seems to line up and roll out from within. Certain pockets are hit and there is an increase in the energy of enjoyment. This seems to have a definite lifespan and cannot exist in perpetuity. When the inspiration or “feeling” of excitement dissipates after a cycle of creation, then comes refinement of the work. There may not be a method for absolutely channeling consistent inspiration, but I would say that forcefully trying to summon it with directed will doesn’t work. For me it comes when it wills, so to speak.  One time I copied some early Paganini works to my mp3 player and found one track in particular that inspired me to learn it, which happened to be “Divertimenti Carnevaleschi.” The “English Country Dances and Variations” sounded very joyous to me and I wanted to try and make a guitar rendition of it. On another occasion, I was going through some YouTube videos and heard Tengyue Zhang play Sonata K 53 by Scarlatti which reinvigorated my passion for Scarlati which was lying dormant for a while.

After the initial inspiration, comes further refinement and recording preparation which feels more like work as opposed to fun. Then, once that is finished, I pick certain pieces to prepare to play live and work on those to make them playable standing up. Then, live performance becomes more enjoyable as I refine the new pieces I have brought into the repertoire.

JED: So you’d say the most enjoyable element of your musical experience is preparation for live performances?

As a whole, the preparation to the performance of them, the entire cycle of that.  Once it goes from preparation to successful enough performance, I feel it is a job well done.

JED: What are three musicians today that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

There are plenty of musicians and composers who may deserve more recognition, but with the more specialized forms of music the fanbases are smaller. I went and had three lessons recently with Remi Boucher who is a French-Canadian guitarist. He composes for guitar and has won numerous awards.  He presently teaches at the Conservatory in Quebec. Not a lot of people know who he is in circles outside of the classical guitar community, I would recommend checking him out. As for others, I’m quite sure since I don’t necessarily listen to specific guitarists presently. I listen mostly to classical recordings.

JED: Who are some musicians or artists outside of the guitar world whose work you admire?

I like Stefan Milenkovich’s playing of Paganini.  I have a cd of his playing all Paganini works and it really is a great recording.  I also like hearing Scarlatti played by Scott Ross and Pieter-Jan Belder. I consider some authors to be artistic.  I enjoy reading Schopenhauer, I recently read his complete essays. I also very much enjoy Carl Jung and recently read, “Modern Man in Search of a Soul,” “Psychology of the Unconscious,”  and “The Undiscovered Self.” RIght now I am reading “Domenico Scarlatti” by Ralph Kirkpatrick.

Photo by Ewan.

JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?

For classical guitar I have a Tonedevil classical guitar, for flat-picking I use an Ibanez AE900-NT or a Stonebridge 23CR, and live fingerstyle I use a Godin Multiac Duet Ambiance. I usually go through an AER Domino 3 directly into the board and use the amp as a monitor. For pedals, just a Boss chromatic tune and a delay DD-7 for one song. If I am playing overseas or in a situation where I can’t bring my amp, I will use the Tonebone PZ-PRE along with the pedals I mentioned as well as a Boss Digital Reverb pedal.

JED: I had the opportunity to catch your performance during the 2009 Walnut Valley Festival’s Fingerstyle Guitar contest. You were playing a dreadnought guitar with an enlarged soundhole. I don’t see a lot of fingerstyle guys using dreads. I wanted to know what drew you to that guitar? What made you want to use it for the contest, and what led you to quit using it?

Believe it or not, I was playing a Martin D28-CW. I tried it at a guitar store in Toronto called “The 12th fret” and really liked it. I stopped using it because I began to prefer a thicker neck. Also, the glue on the fretboard kept coming loose which required a few reglues.

JED: Gotchu. If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?

I haven’t given that idea thought.  I am not sure I have a dream album. I just record music as it comes to me, and once I reach 70 minutes give or take a few minutes I compile it on to an album.

Ewan also captured this incredible shot.

JED: Would there be any artists that you would like to collaborate on an album with if you could?

I am working on a song I am going to send off to Marty Friedman to see what he thinks of it. I was given a theme by Michael Angelo Batio that he originally wrote on piano to write a set of variations on. I have it mostly written and it may be a while, but I plan on finishing that and recording it sometime to show appreciation for his work. I used to listen to his albums when I was younger and I met him while touring China once. We had a great time and had dinner with another guitarist at the hotel in Shanghai. We kept in touch and he gave me this theme to work on and write variations for. It was an idea for it to be on his latest album, but it was decided that it was too different in terms of style and would have stood out as an oddball track. Asides from that, I would like to do educational meetups. For example, I would like to prepare a few Scarlatti sonatas and play them for a master harpsichordist and receive instruction from their perspective on how the ornamentation and interpretation should be.

JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

They were all stages of development, I tend to like the most recent one I have done. In this case, “Little Angels.” I have been releasing albums for over ten years so in some ways I am not riding the same vibe of excitement I once did for my older material. When I hear some of my older recordings I think, “I remember being excited about that… lol”

JED: How do you feel like your taste, or in this case; “what excites you about your playing,” has evolved over the last decade?

In my previous wave of playing, I was using these fingerpicks made by guptill music called “fingertone.” They enabled me to produce a unique sound which was derivative of Leo Kottke’s style. It was very exciting at the time to use them and drive this very energetic rhythmic sound through a PA system. Eventually I switched back to my classical training and now use fingernails. The fingerpicks when used quickly and aggressively can eventually cause a soreness in the forearm that signals injury if you don’t back off. I enjoyed my time in the sun with the fingerpicks, but in order to not succumb to an injury I stopped when I noticed the problem and changed my approach. There is a story online you can find if you search for “Leo Kottke Frets Magazine tendonitis,” something like that. He had an issue using the fingerpicks and it happened to him during a show in Colorado. I stopped before it got to that level and I knew I would have to change my approach to avoid the same outcome. I now pursue 3 avenues: playing with a plectrum, playing classical guitar, and playing fingerstyle guitar with more or less classical technique. I let go of the frantic manic video game sound, and chilled it off a bit. I am no longer as excited about that sound, but I keep a few of the songs for live performance. I just play them with the fingernails instead which means they sound a different color than they used to. I have pieces I am working on right now with a few more partially written fragments in my “idea bin.” One is a fingerstyle song, the other is Sonata K 11 by Scarlatti.

Ewan is quite the bird-charmer.

JED: What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on ideas I have put into Guitar Pro and trying to work with finishing them.  I am looking at ways to finish the partially completed pieces I have written. Today I finished inputting nearly 3 minutes of an unfinished piece into Guitar Pro. Now, I have to think of how to expand it and finish it. For classical study, I have recently learned and recorded Scarlatti sonatas K 477, K 53 and K 491. Next, I want to learn K 11. One learning experience I would like to pursue would be to play some Scarlatti sonatas for a master harpsichordist and ask for their input on ornamentation and interpretation. I recently sent an email to a teacher at a university to inquire about this.

JED: Guitar Pro is a tab software for computers, right?

Yes.  I still think Guitar Pro 5 is the easiest and most convenient version to use, although they are up to version 7 now.

JED: Ewan I am really glad you took some time to talk to us about your story and your music. We’re looking forward to the next viral fingerstyle video!

Keep up with Ewan on his website, Twitter, and YouTube channel. Featured article photo via Ewan’s “Time 2” video on YouTube.

Some of Ewan’s recommended videos;
Scarlatti – Sonata K53
Little Angels
A Lovely Light