by Lisa Cordaro My love affair with fingerstyle guitar began in 1987, and I owe it all to a university friend, Chi. While our contemporaries were listening to The Smiths, Chi was the first person I’d met who was not only a true audiophile, but thought out of the box musically. He owned a Sondek turntable and other ludicrously expensive separates, and being dragged around the Linn shop was not uncommon. At the time, The Blue Nile were signed to Linn Records and their tracks used for in-store demos, (they went on to be the stuff of legend, of course).
Chi’s collection of esoterica on vinyl was an Aladdin’s cave to someone like me, although I cut my musical teeth conventionally on pop, punk and new wave. One evening, rifling through his record boxes, he pulled out a disc, popped it on the turntable and asked: ‘So, how many people do you think are playing?’
Having played guitar since the age of seven I knew a little about the instrument, but this foxed me. ‘I’ve no idea,’ I replied. ‘Three, four maybe?’
He handed me the sleeve, it was one man: Michael Hedges on the album Aerial Boundaries, released in 1984. Stunned, I’d never heard anything like it. I went out and bought Live On The Double Planet, and was blown away all over again; ‘Woman of the World’ is my favourite song on the album, and a thing of beauty. But for goodness’ sake, how on earth could one man sound like a guitar orchestra?
Aerial Boundaries is generally considered to be a groundbreaking album, and rightly so. What’s intriguing about fingerstyle is that it works the instrument in a totally leftfield way – add a harp guitar to the mix, like Hedges, and you have a radical result. Using the whole physical body of the guitar for percussion, harmonics and other effects, it’s a technique that produces completely different textures and moods from a standard classical or acoustic instrument.
Fast forward to 2002, and the cellar of a Cambridge café for a gig headlined by Eric Roche. I hadn’t heard his music before, but I knew about him from musos who raved about his talent and insisted I see him live. A diminutive, blond Irishman with a babyface took to the stage, lit a joss stick, and blasted off with a feisty, irreverent arrangement of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
This man had a sense of humour. I knew instantly I was going to enjoy the ride.
As I also came to learn, the joss stick wasn’t emblematic of a spiritual bent – although this was a part of Eric’s life – call it more of an egg timer. Rather than consulting his watch, when the incense burnt out, the gig was over. He was so damn brilliant that I went home and considered chopping up my guitar for firewood. However, I realised quickly that, what I had been doing all these years was playing, not practising, and it was a sharp reminder that in order to master an instrument, you have to put in the graft. Eric was just a few months younger than me, and that level of commitment and dedication had taken him to a much higher place.
Over the years I saw Eric live a good few times, and on one occasion hung out with him and friends afterwards drinking beer and chatting about music. What struck me was, although he had a passion for what he did and was incredibly accomplished, he was also very modest and unassuming. He encouraged me to take up my study of the guitar again; a natural teacher, his role as Head of Guitar at the Academy of Contemporary Music suited him well. So I tracked down his fingerstyle tutorial, The Acoustic Guitar Bible, got hand-ache and sore fingers from the exercises, swearing at their fiendishness. Then I gave up kvetching and laughed. This, I understood, is what it takes to improve.
For me, one of his most inspiring compositions is the title track ‘Spin’ from the 2001 album. Rather than employing loops to reproduce the complex hammer-on, hammer-off fret work throughout the track, which he could have done very easily in a studio, he plays the song live all the way through. No separate tracks or overdubbing, just bold, staccato bursts of notes and harmonics layered over the top to form the melody. Put simply, it’s a staggering performance, showcasing the consummate skill of fingerstyle as well as the classical training informing his work.
Eric passed away seven years ago in September 2005 at the criminally young age of 37, taken by a rare form of jaw tumour which had become metastatic. Earlier that year, in remission and ostensibly on great form, he was still giving concerts and writing his column for Guitar Techniques magazine. He returned to the UK one weekend in January, having taken a red-eye flight from the States, and went straight to headline a benefit concert in Cambridge without any rest. Even in the face of life-threatening illness he continued to show great generosity; only the juggernaut that is cancer finally stopped him a few months later. I was at that gig: on stage, he was fizzing with energy. There was something about his being that night, his performance had the pride and grace of a matador, an indomitable spirit. It touched me deeply.
The guitar world was shocked and saddened by his loss. Twenty of his fellow musicians created a tribute album, ‘For Eric’, in dedication to him. The Academy of Contemporary Music was renamed the ACM Eric Roche Guitar School in his honour. His admirers are far and wide across the globe; he touched the lives of many as an inspirational teacher and virtuoso. Long may his memory and music live on.
Lisa Cordaro, August 2012