The Acoustic Ninja
From the September, 2017 issue
The solo acoustic guitarists who perennially take the stage at the Ark--the dry Londoner Adrian Legg, fearsome Australian finger stylist Tommy Emmanuel, and the king of them all, Leo Kottke--tend to be of a certain age, playing quietly in idiosyncratic styles that they've developed over the years. Their shows haven't drawn youthful crowds as a rule. But enter Boulder's Trace Bundy, guitar virtuoso to the millennials. He calls himself the Acoustic Ninja, and he lives up to the moniker. Bundy has a worldwide fan base and a young Korean disciple named Sungha Jung.
The term "razzle-dazzle" applies. Bundy, like guitarists all the way back to the Renaissance, uses the fund of common popular song for source material, but he tends to choose songs, like "Sweet Child o' Mine," that would seem impossible to render on a single guitar. The musical gap is bridged through spectacular techniques, old and new, including the use of harmonics and a collection of capos that make almost any sequence or stack of notes possible. One of his original pieces is called "Hot Capo Stew"; he begins with five capos on the neck of his guitar, unsnapping them and tossing them away as the piece proceeds. Online commenters say it could be done with fewer, but as a piece of showmanship it's compelling.
Another Bundy trademark is the frequent migration of the right hand to the fret board, producing temporary textures that are almost keyboard-like. It's striking how often his left and right hands seem to create little worlds of their own, making sounds uncannily like a whole band. He explores the effect in his original, "Dueling Ninjas," where each hand is a ninja: one agile and quick, the other big and powerful.
Bundy bills himself as an acoustic guitarist, but as so often these days, there's electronic and digital intervention. He often takes the stage with a little pedal setup (or an iPhone) that can generate harmonic or rhythmic loops. When he plays
music based on a repeating harmonic pattern--like "Sweet Child o' Mine" or Johann Pachelbel's Canon, another of his favorites--the gadgets give him a base that allows still greater elaboration in the layers crafted by the hands.
There's a good deal of stage business that goes along with all this, and the crowds clap along and respond with big cheers. Bundy may indeed be an acoustic ninja. But even those who learned to love guitar music in the time before the word ninja became common currency are likely to find much in his bag of tricks to admire. He comes to the Ark September 23.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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