Interview with Fernando Perez
When did you start playing guitar and why?
I begun playing guitar when I was seven years old. My parents had a Spanish guitar at home and I always wondered what was that instrument. Back then my sister and I were very musical already, spending the days dancing around and singing. My parents where singers in a Classical choir so we used to spend lots of time in their rehearsals too. But that guitar… I was really curious about it.
It was at that age that my parents handed me the guitar along with some books to help me learn how to play it. My father used to tease me saying: “If you play a piece without looking at your fingers I will give you 5 cents”. I would go and practice; not for the money but because I really enjoyed it; and when I returned to my dad and played the piece he would say: “That is ok, but I raise it to 20 cents if you play it without the score. And there I would go to practice again.
Soon after I started lessons at the music conservatoire which happened to be right around the corner from home.
I don’t have a special reason why I picked up the guitar. I just liked it, loved music, and that was the instrument I had near me.
With what guitar do you play and have you played with?
Although I begun with and studied classical guitar for many years I have also played many types of guitars. While in the middle of my classical studies I already picked up electric and acoustic steel strings guitars. During my years working as a session musician in Los Angeles I played all types of guitars from Classical and Flamenco to electric models like Strats, Teles in Blues, Rock & Roll, Country, Jazz, Soul and Funk, Ibanez Jem models or Washburn N4 for different types of Hard Rock. And of course other types of guitars like National Resophonic and Dobro; tricones as well as single cones. Pedal steels, Hawaiian lap steels; electric as well as acoustic like Weissenborn guitars. And other special instruments like fretless guitars, Indian slide, or guitars with microtonal frets.
Nowadays I use two main models of guitars, both of them my own designs; which is the combination of several guitars in one. I found very difficult to travel with so many instruments so I decided to design these guitars in order to travel lighter and still have all types of guitar sounds available. These guitars are a nylon version of a multifretboard guitar which allows me to play Classical, Flamenco, fretless, and different set ups with microtonal frets. Hence I can play music from places like Persia, Turkey, South America, Spain, etc.
The other model is similar but has steel as well as sympathetic strings. I use this one for music styles requiring the steel strings type of sound, like Blues, Celtic, Country, Indian, West African.
These models can also be played lap style and I use them for Hawaiian, Bluegrass or even Chinese traditional music.
These are my two main instruments when touring, but when possible I prefer to use the specific guitars of every style, like a resophonic for Blues, a Gypsy guitar for Manouche, etc.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
As I mentioned before I begun as a self-taught guitarist but soon enough I joined the music conservatory. Even after starting my formal studies I never stopped learning on my own. I used to get many books and take any opportunity to pick up tricks or knowledge from other players.
Formally speaking I could say I went thru the conservatory, although in a very unorthodox way. What happen is that as a child I grew up several years in a kind of monastery with monks. They were Italians and were very devoted to Classical music, my real music lessons happened there among them. Once or twice a year some other kids and myself were taken to the city in order to attend the official exams at the conservatory. After those years I studied in different places, went to modern music schools in Barcelona or Madrid (Spain) to study things like Jazz, orquestration and arrangements. Then I moved to California and studied at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. There I had the chance to learn directly with guitarists like Scott Henderson, Norman Brown, Keith Wyatt, Paul Gilbert, and a long etc. It was in Los Angeles where I really begun working as a professional musician. Some years later I realized I enjoyed more learning than just playing. So eventhough I have been since then a professional musician I still continued (and continue nowadays) studying and learning new things.
This attitude took me to move to places like Hawaii where I studied Hawaiian traditional music and the different types of Hawaiian guitars. India, to learn Hindustani music and Indian slide guitar; also known as “Mohan Veena” or “Chaturangui”. In Egypt I attended the music conservatory to study Arabic music applying it to fretless guitar.
Greece, where I studied at the wonderful Labyrinth Center. China, for traditional Chinese music at the Shanghai Music Conservatory. Istanbul (Turkey) for Turkish classical music. And of course other places were music didn’t have “official studies”. In those cases I would go and learn directly from local masters, like in Senegal (West Africa). I also did something similar with the music of Persia, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. These last cultures due to their countries unstability I had to meet my teachers in more “neutral grounds”.
What were and are your main musical influences?
I couldn’t say I have a main music influence. Or maybe I should say music itself is my influence.
Any musical sound that reaches my heart influences me. It could be a Classical music composition; which doesn’t have to be for guitar; or just a folk song from West Africa or India.What I really look for is the soul of the music.
Another great influence for me is just plain people from different places. It might not look like a musical influence at first sight but think about it… music is a language so we need to have something to say. I like learning from other peoples lifes to improve my own and this influences the music I do.
Watching your discography and your website it seems that you have decided to dedicate yourself to world music, why?
Well, I am not sure I could say I decided to dedicate my life to world music. My musical life; as well as my everyday life; has always been changing. I spent many years playing the common styles for guitar. I was making a career out of that when I lived in Los Angeles. But then I decided to continue traveling, living in different places. My intention was not to become a world music guitarist. I just follow my bliss. I like to say I am on my “pursue of wonder”. But let me explain…
Like any guitarist I just love when I hear a new sound, a note, a trick, just something that makes me wonder. Just to hear something and go WOOOW!!!
That is the beauty of art and is what I decided to dedicate myself to.
On my early years I found it in Classical music, Rock, Blues, Jazz, etc. Later it was in the music from different cultures but I wouldn’t be so sure to say it will be like that for the rest of my days.
I like to play fretless guitar, I saw you have made an interesting book about this kind of instrument “Arabic Music for Fretless Guitar, how does it start this interest for you?
My first contact with fretless guitars was playing Jazz. But it wasn’t until I lived in the Middle East that I got deeper into it. It just happened by necessity. When I first arrived to a Middle Eastern country I didn’t know much about microtones. I went to an Arabic music conservatory with my normal guitar all happy thinking I could play Arabic music on it. But after a first frustrating lesson I realised that they use these microtones and the frets on my guitar were not helping. So I decided to take them off. Next day when I went to my second lesson things were quite different, much better.
From there I moved to other styles were you need to use fretless guitar in order to reach their pitches, like Turkish or even Chinese music.
What do you think are the best suggestions you can give to the musician who would like to start to play a fretless guitar?
Fretless guitar is similar to a normal guitar… but is not. First we have the right hand. Depending on what kind of music you want to play you might need to get good using a pick, all your fingers or just your thumb. Yes, your thumb. But not the traditional thumb used in classical guitar. There are many specific techniques for the thumb but you will only find them in certain styles of music.
The choice between these three depend on the type of sound and style.
But the left hand is different. When we play normal guitar working in the intonation is a small task. Although we have to keep in mind some details, these are not as many as when playing fretless.
Many people work intonation on a fretless guitar by repetitive practice on where to put your finger.
But that is an approach coming from normal guitar and it doesn’t work so well for fretless.
The beauty of the fretless is that you can fine tune much better, giving accuracy hence beauty to the music. But in order to do that you need to focus more on the fingering and most important on what the music is doing. By doing so you will save many hours of frustrating repetitive practice which will not prepare you for the real wonders of fretless playing.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the Classical or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, Jazz, Contemporary, etc.?
Improvisation equals pumping life into music. It is the closest to real music alive. When we play written or fixed music we are interpreting it. This means we are only conveying our understanding of it. If you take a look at the different music styles from around our planet it is mainly the European styles that try to fix music as much as possible. It is a reflection of their society. Based on a system always trying to keep control. But the further you go from European roots the more freedom; translated into improvisation; we have. For instance, in Jazz the European roots can be seen in the fixed chord progressions and structures but what African-Americans brought was improvisation over all of that. If you go to further away places like India you will find that 3% of the music is fixed while the other 97% is improvised.
In my lessons I always like to teach that improvisation is like composing but in real time.
So referring to your question improvisation has been a very important tool for my music reasearch.
Now about using improvisation in Classical music, it is possible. It is just a matter of taste and your set of musical values. Classical composers might not like someone improvising over their work but it doesn’t mean is not possible. If you think about it, even Classical music comes from folk music. Folk is always first in any music development. And Folk is many times full of opportunities to improvise in different ways. So regardless of what people might say it is the artist’s choice to improvise over Classical music or any other genre.
At the end of the day I think that is what differenciates a mere musician from a true music artist. The moment of transcending concepts and just making your own music.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
Error is your best friend, best teacher, best critic, best measurement tool. In error is the door to discovery and new life.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
That is the cracking of the egg. We come out of one and soon after we build another around us. It takes a season of crisis for you to break it again. Crisis is a good sign, meaning you are into something. Nowadays people speak of it as “going out of your confort zone”. When you step out of it you enter into a crisis. It is the unknown where you have to figure out things again. But it is here where new things can happen.
Berlioz once said that composing for classical guitar was hard to do because you first had to be a guitarist, and these words were often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar compared to other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time these words seem not to be so important in the contemporary music’s world where guitar (either classical, acoustic, electric, midi) seems to attract a lot of attention. As a composer, do you believe that there is still something true in what Berlioz said?
I find Berlioz’s words quite true. The guitar contains a whole universe inside it. In order to compose something meaningful for the instrument it is important to know it. The guitar´s universe is very special. It doesn’t show itself to just anybody. Some people connect with it and others don’t. So a composer definitely needs to connect with it in order to bring the wonders this instrument conveys.
When it comes to contemporary composers it is still too early in the contemporary guitar life to tell.
In my humble opinion it is good they don’t hesitate to compose for guitar. But it will take some more time still to hear contemporary guitar compositions that really tap into that sound universe offered by the guitar.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
You know I have actually done that! In several trips I took to live in quite isolated places. When the moment to pack came I thought of your question and the answer was quite different than anyone would have expected. I ended up taking nothing. I though how cool would actually be to listen to silence. And during the experience I found out music is everywhere, even where there are no CDs or musical instruments. This is even more important if you are searching for new music. You won’t find it unles you let go.
I remember while staying in West Africa I used to wake up really early in the morning to just listen to the birds. It actually helped me to understand very interesting things about music. Music comes from nature and most of the time that is all you need to make it. No schools, no theories, just feel and be tuned to it.
Who would you like to play with and what kind of music would you like to play?
I would like to find other musicians in different instruments being well acquainted with world music traditions. Those would be the kind of people I would like to play with. And the kind of music I would like to play is original compositions based on the knowledge I mentioned.
What music do you usually listen to?
I listen to different things. It depends on my daily mood. But if there is something I really enjoy it is listening to music with no guitar. In one hand it helps me disconnect from the instrument. On the other I like to find things that doesn’t belong to the guitar but could be really cool played by it.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I have several researches open at the moment. I am researching and getting in touch with musicians and experts of different styles like Japanese traditional music, Jazz Manouche and Romanian music.
But this doesn’t mean they are going to be my next releases. I am constantly curious about new things. The results I can only tell once they are done because during the proccess I don’t even know myself what is going to come out of that.
One thing I can say for sure is that I am always on the look for interesting musicians and projects to get involved with.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
Well, I would say both are important. To vision and talent I would also add lots of work.
My vision… it might be difficult to explain. It looks like people always go after physical things like money, objects, comfort. Others become attracted to what surrounds a certain profession. In music could be fame, recognition, etc.
In my case I play guitar since I was a little kid. It is something I have always done and enjoyed. Like I mentioned earlier I like following that sense of wonder in what happens in life. Not just wonder about music or sound but for cultures, people and the way they are. Places and what they make you experience.
I would like to bring those feelings and wonder to other people. Trying to fill the gap between them and the real experience.
Along with that I would like to help other guitarists who share the passion and love for different styles of music, or just for the guitar. When I decided to step out of the common ordinary guitar world I found myself alone with little help and limited resources to learn other styles on the guitar. Now I am working on making books and educational material, coaching other musicians, hoping that they will take things a step further from what I have done. Hopefully they won`t have to start from zero like I did.
Also I do hope thanks to these things the guitar continues growing and being such an interesting instrument. Never dying in the boredom of monotony.
My vision is in the present moment. To continue doing just that and enjoying it until all this is over.