Despite suffering hearing loss and a bout of tendonitis that affected his playing, Leo Kottke remains one of the most celebrated acoustic guitarists still active – even if he remains largely unknown to the general listening public.
Acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, USA. Beginning his musical life as a youngster getting to grips with the trombone, Leo persisted until the age of 15 before discarding brass in favour of the guitar.
However Kottke’s musical career stalled in his late teens while he served as a US Navy submariner – damaging his ears whilst firing a machine gun (a childhood misadventure with a firecracker had previously affected his hearing).
Inspired a variety of musicians (including Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt and Kim Fowley) Leo’s debut album was recorded live in a Minneapolis coffee house and released in 1969. However “Six and Twelve-String Guitar” would go on to sell over half a million copies and see him land a major label deal.
A dozen Kottke originals were presented, along with two Bach interpretations – recorded in the sequence they appeared on the record and completed in three and a half hours.
A marketing man’s nightmare, Leo’s virtuoso recordings have variously seen him categorised under jazz, blues, new age and folk, although in truth he inhabits his own genre and discourages attempts at musical pigeonholing, commenting that , “I can’t label anything, especially myself, without feeling like a Nazi.”
Performing solo throughout his career (“so good he didn’t need a band“, said Rolling Stone Magazine), Leo has enlisted backing musicians on recording dates, whilst also collaborating with the likes of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), singer/songwriter John Gorka, Rickie Lee Jones and Mike Gordon (Phish).
The 1980s saw Leo modify his distinctive finger-picking playing following problems with pain in his arms, switching to a fingertip style after three years of struggling that led to his contemplating retirement. With more than 30 albums to his name, Kottke remains outside the mainstream, but to those in the know, a startlingly original innovator – and not just for his unique between-song banter at live dates.
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And here’s some footage of Leo in action: