Guitar virtuoso is a better title than rock star for Harvey Reid
Like many of us, Harvey Reid sometimes fantasizes about what it would be like to be a huge rock star.
It always gives him the cold shivers.
“I’ve been under the radar for more than 30 years, and I like it there,” said the accomplished acoustic guitar singer-songwriter, who will be performing his solo act at Lake Tahoe Community College’s Duke Theater on Saturday. “I’ve never wanted anything to do with the mainstream, as you can tell by my home address. I live as far away from L.A. and Hollywood as I possibly can.”
He’s not kidding. Reid lives in a southern coastal village in Maine with his wife, Joyce Andersen, and their 2-year-old son, Otto.
“It’s been a grueling tour and I can’t wait to get back to them,” said Reid, who has one more stop in California after Lake Tahoe before he heads home. “I kind of scheduled this tour without thinking ahead. Although I love Tahoe. I’m really looking forward to performing there again.”
If you’re a fan of instrumental acoustic guitar, no doubt you’ve heard of Reid, whom Acoustic Guitar Magazine called “one of the true treasures of American acoustic music,” and of whom the Boston Globe wrote “Unlike some virtuosos, he brings wit and panache as well as technique to his music.” And if you haven’t heard of him, you’re in for a real treat.
“There’s a myth out there that all musicians are just waiting to be harpooned by a big corporation,” Reid said. “People think that there are only two kinds of musicians, those who are starving and those who are famous. But there is actually quite a bit of room in the middle for people like me. I love my life and the choices I’ve made.”
Reid grew up in a number of places around the nation, but was living in Maryland when he became infatuated with the guitar when he was about 17.
“I was fortunate in that there was a good music scene there, and that fed my interest,” he said. “Underground FM radio was also an influence, because that was back in the days before large corporations moved in and began telling people what to play. When FM started, you had DJs with huge record collections playing a wide variety of things.
“My friends and I just hung out listening to FM radio and playing the guitar all the time. It was an exciting period.”
Unlike a lot of musicians, Reid wasn’t urged to take up the guitar from childhood.
“There were no instruments around; my interest in it was a mystery,” he said. “In fact, my parents tried to talk me out of being a musician. But I just had this internal itch; I must have been wired for the guitar.”
Reid has gone through many incarnations as a writer-performer, including an eight-year stint in which he played nothing but bluegrass, having become an expert on the six-string banjo. His 19 recordings on Woodpecker Records showcase his mastery of many other instruments and styles of acoustic music, from hip folk to slashing slide guitar blues to old-time, Celtic, ragtime, and even classical. He began as a street musician, has played his share of bars and nightclubs, and comes from, as he puts it, “the low-brow side of the tracks.”
But these days the steel string guitar is the center of his world, and it is on that instrument that he is best-known. His innovations include the partial capo, which is a strap that is fitted across the guitar neck to change the pitch so that the musician can sing in another key.
“It’s a pretty obvious thing,” he said. “It was already common to use a strap to cover all the strings, I just took it to the next step, and covered some of the strings. That allows you to use dozens of different combinations so that you can really change the musical landscape.”
The partial capo is beginning to catch on worldwide — even many musicians who might not have heard of Reid are using his invention.
Surprisingly, Reid doesn’t read or write music. But he is one of the few guitar instrumentalists who both performs and composes his own work at a very high level. That’s rare, even among some of the greats of mainstream guitar.
“I’m a big Doc Watson fan, but he doesn’t write his own stuff,” Reid said. “And Bob Dylan is obviously a great writer, but not so great a guitar player.”
Among other performers whom Reid admires are Jesse Winchester, Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. He lists Glen Campbell as one of the greatest guitar players ever, and has a soft spot for John Hartford (writer of hits such as “Gentle on My Mind,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).
And of course John Fahey, who “pretty much started everything,” he said. “He was the first to compose instrumentals for the steel guitar, in the 1950s.”
But his act isn’t just for old-timers. Reid is encouraged by the number of young people who have been attending his concerts.
“It’s a great trend,” he said. “There was a real drought in the 1980s, but young people are starting to get interested in acoustic music again. Part of it I think is the emergence of Internet radio and the satellite stations. It’s a crack in the wall that lets the independent music back in, like it was in the early days of FM.
“It’s like old times, and that’s really good to see.”
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