December 18, 2008

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Creating a six-string tradition
Guitarist Ed Gerhard’s 26th annual holiday concert
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

New Hampshire guitar virtuoso Ed Gerhard has been composing intricate and expertly constructed instrumental music for nearly two decades, and for nearly that long he has performed an annual holiday concert, which has become a musical tradition in the state. Now in its 26th year, the concert will take place on Friday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Portsmouth’s Unitarian Church.

Though Gerhard says that the concert is geared toward Christmas selections, he says he also will be performing some non-holiday material. He says that this year’s performance will be particularly special because it will be a completely solo show.

“I’ve usually had someone guesting with me,” Gerhard said. “But playing this show solo has a special degree of intimacy for me and for the music. You really have to respect the songs, so I don’t go too experimental with them — I try not to veer too far off the road, but there still is a lot you can do with these songs. I don’t just play them — I really do think about the material and the stories behind them.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Gerhard has made the Granite State his home and has enjoyed success since his debut album, Night Birds in 1987, which was chosen by the Boston Globe’s Critics Poll as one of the top ten albums of the year.

Shortly after the album’s release, Windham Hill Records included Ed on its Guitar Sampler (Vol. 1) with the song “The Handing Down,” an extended third movement of the Night Birds composition “Suite.” His 1993 release, Luna, made the Record RoundUp Critics top ten albums of the year, and his first holiday album, Christmas, was chosen by the Boston Globe as the best folk holiday recording in 1991.

Gerhard began playing guitar at the age of 14, finding inspiration in the music of guitarist John Fahey. He soon started experimenting with open tuning, a technique that inspired him to start composing his own guitar pieces and allowed him to create a variety of sounds. 

“I’ve tried just about every way to tune a guitar,” Gerhard said. “I went really crazy with tunings back in the ’90s, but not so much anymore. I’ve found that open tuning is really good for writing music.”

Playing six-string, 12-string, slide guitar and even Hawaiian lap steel guitar, Gerhard has made a name for himself with his fingerstyle technique, which uses no picks or other guitar accoutrements.

“What really makes it happen for me with fingerstyle is that you can make bass lines, trebles and harmonies happen all at the same time,” Gerhard said. “Each finger acts as its own little guy — each one doing something different. It makes the guitar sound three-dimensional and really complete.”

Gerhard received a Grammy Award in 2004 for his work on the Henry Mancini instrumental album Pink Guitar which won Best Pop Instrumental Album. That same year, Warner Brothers released Ed Gerhard: The Guitar Songbook and his guitar work was featured in the Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain. His music has been featured on the albums Guitar Fingerstyle: A Narada Collection and Masters of Acoustic Guitar. Gerhard even has his own guitar, the “Ed Gerhard Signature Model,” which was released by Breedlove Guitars and won the “Player’s Choice Award” by Acoustic Guitar Magazine. In 2006, he released his eighth album, Sunnyland, an homage to his early blues heroes.

“There used to be a time when I wrote really long pieces that went all over the place,” Gerhard said. “Now I find myself focusing on staying in one place because it keeps your attention. I don’t try to over-experiment the melodies — I try and keep it pretty lean and spare and as strong as possible. Though it’s a fairly compact style, it allows me to be very expressive and more direct with the audience, and they seem to really respond to that.”

Local audiences have also responded to his annual holiday concerts, which have become a holiday tradition for them and also for Gerhard.

“There are people that have come every year,” Gerhard said. “The whole thing started as an offshoot of a Christmas tape I was working on and I started to incorporate the songs into some of my concerts around that time. It’s really fun music to play and has become a tradition. People ask me how I celebrate the holidays, and this is it.”