Muriel Anderson: Beyond Classical Guitar

Muriel Anderson Photo By Bryan Allen
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON

Muriel Anderson is sitting onstage in an art gallery in Salisbury, North Carolina, talking to a group of guitarists who have come for a master class, a few hours before her own evening performance. She’s relating to them how, one day while she was playing a small gig in Chicago, Jimmy Page, lead guitarist and founder of the heavy metal band Led Zeppelin, came and sat to listen to the music. They ended up passing the guitar back and forth. “I asked him, ‘Teach me a song you wrote,’ and he showed me this…” And she begins to play to the master class the opening lines of “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s most famous tune.

It’s a funny moment. The song is so overwhelmingly popular, especially among young men enamored with learning to play rock guitar, that some exasperated music store owners are reputed to have posted signs in the electric guitars section, saying “No ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”

But it’s particularly odd to hear that song at a master class given by someone with such heavy credentials: She studied with Christopher Parkening, has recorded more than a dozen albums, as well as instructional CDs and songbooks, and was the 1989 National Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, to list just a few of her accomplishments. But for Anderson, it was just another encounter with fellow amazing guitarist. The list of people she has sat in with is staggering—Doc Watson, Parkening, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Earl Klugh, and Les Paul among them.

In fact, another encounter, similar to the one with Page, resulted in an entire album of music in the flamenco style. Anderson was in Europe attending a music festival and walked by a booth promoting the signature line of guitars of the German flamenco duo, Tierra Negra. Tierra Negra’s Leo Henrichs relates that, “When we got there one morning, we found Muriel with one of our guitars playing her song ‘Angelina Baker.’ We immediately grabbed guitars as well, and started jamming with her for the very first time. You could say that the first communication between the three of us was nonverbal—it was musical.” Their connection was strong enough they ended up making an album (2009’s New World Flamenco) and going on a 50-show U.S. tour together.

As her concert begins a few hours later, Anderson is back onstage with two instruments: a thin-bodied, flamenco-style guitar made of cypress, and a 21-string harp guitar. Anderson also plays steel-string guitar, although on this tour she is using only the two instruments onstage. Her performance is a tour de force of guitar music and more: Pieces include many of her own compositions, as well as works from George Harrison, J.S. Bach, Don McLean, and Isaac Albéniz. At one point, she plays a Japanese folk song, making her guitar sound like a koto, the 13-stringed instrument of Japan. She later plays her guitar like the individual instruments in a bluegrass band—guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle.

Clearly, this woman has the talent to be a standout in any genre of guitar music she might choose. But her appreciation of music is so universal she would probably be hard-pressed to confine herself to any single one.

She agreed to answer a few questions about her music and her particular approach to it.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Where did you obtain your classical guitar training?

MURIEL ANDERSON: DePaul University [Chicago, Illinois], where I studied with Leon Borkowski, a former student of Christopher Parkening. Leon Borkowski was a good teacher for me, as he gave guidance yet challenged me to find techniques and interpretation for myself.

CG: I understand that you also had Parkening himself as a teacher?

ANDERSON: I took master classes from him in Bozeman, Montana. He was very inspirational and musical in his instruction. I have great respect for him as a person and his virtuosity on the instrument—a true master of phrasing and tone on the guitar. Later, he invited me to give a master class for his students at Pepperdine University in California. That was a real honor for me, and a testament that he appreciated a variety of musical styles, and was open to showing other styles and techniques to his students.

CG: You’ve played in a wide variety of musical genres. Do you find that some of your techniques for one type of guitar playing carry over to another type? For example, things like rasgueado, slapping, or golpe are common in flamenco, but not so much in classical or pop. Do you ever find yourself dropping something like that from classical or flamenco into something like a Beatles tune?

ANDERSON: Only when the music calls for it. I use any of the techniques that I have learned—in any style—to get a certain feel or sound. If I don’t have a technique that will get the desired effect, I will work until I create my own technique. Some of these I have on my YouTube channel, and some are in my TrueFire DVD 50 Right Hand Techniques.

CG: Similarly, when you are composing a piece, do you restrict yourself to a particular style, or do you pull from every style you have available to you?

ANDERSON: When I write a tune, I tend to transport myself to a time or place. So, for instance, in the new tune I call “The Matador,” it’s mostly Spanish and flamenco techniques. The one in 5/8-time inspired by Bach, “Prelude to a New Morning,” is all classical technique. And the ragtime tune, “A Fine Pickle” is pure fingerstyle, also using a thumb technique I learned from [American acoustic guitar master] Leo Kottke. In the Japanese piece, “Sakura,” to get the koto sound, I use a combination of a classical vibrato and a rock up-and-down vibrato, in addition to playing off the “wrong” side of the nail and an attention to placing the beat slightly behind in places. So every tune is dramatically different.

CG: You play both nylon- and steel-string instruments, as well as harp guitar. Do you play all three in concert, or do you concentrate on one or two?


ANDERSON: I play primarily nylon string. This tour, I am traveling with my 21-string harp guitar, as well as a flamenco guitar. Usually I have a smaller harp guitar on tour, yet this current tour is all by land—or sailboat—and I get to travel with my favorite instrument. It is a Doolin custom harp guitar with nylon strings on the guitar part and sub basses, and steel strings on the super-trebles. If there is a local guitar-builder at my shows, I enjoy playing some tunes on his or her instrument, which may be a steel string, or, in the case of the recent tour through Switzerland, a harp guitar that folds into a backpack!

CG: Yes, I was looking at the Facebook site for the maker of that harp guitar—Brunner, in Switzerland, I believe—and they have a video of you that’s had over two million views!

ANDERSON: Fun, that’s the first time that’s happened. I just played a classical-style arrangement of Mark Knopfler’s “Why Worry?” on the Brunner folding harp guitar, he posted it once, and it took off.

CG: Is it hard for you to change from one instrument to another, particularly during a performance? Are the necks of the instruments shaped similarly in order to make the transition easier? 

ANDERSON: I think of them kind of like different instruments, and my hands adjust to the different neck widths. The hardest part is that my harp guitars have different numbers of bass strings, which puts the sub-bass notes in different places.

CG: Do you have any difficulties with trimming your nails to accommodate both nylon and steel strings?

ANDERSON: I use the Luthier Cloth Nail Files to get the edge of the nail very, very smooth. When I’m playing a steel-string guitar or steel-string super-trebles, I have to sand my fingernails more often, because even the smallest rough spot can quickly become a larger nick. If I get a tear in the nail, I use five-minute epoxy instead of superglue. The epoxy is slightly rubbery, and it doesn’t damage the real nail u nderneath. I try to keep the very edge of the natural nail if possible. After a few days, I will peel up the epoxy and apply new, until the nail has grown out. If I break the entire nail off, I’ve found the press-on nails with glue already on the nail—aided with a small piece of surgical tape over the top—will usually last for one concert, or about three days of rehearsing.

CG: Do you have any pedagogical advice for aspiring classical guitarists?

ANDERSON: It is your job not only to keep this beautiful style of guitar-playing alive, but also to add something to the world. Many classical guitarists tend to play the same beautiful old pieces everyone else plays, or modern dissonant tunes that are, for most people, not enjoyable to listen to. If you have something unique to say with your music that improves the quality of people’s lives so much that they would want to pay money to hear it in concert or in a recording, then you have really found a path. There are beautiful pieces that are not getting out for people to hear, like pieces by Jorge Morel for instance.

CG: Any particular compositions of yours? I see that almost all your compositions and arrangements are available on the sheet music page of

ANDERSON: I’d be happy to see more classical players doing “Prelude to a New Morning,” “Arioso,” or “Parisian Waltz.” There are a fair number of Japanese guitarists now playing “Bells for Marcel” or “Hometown,” and a few guitar and cello duos have discovered some of the tunes from my New Classics for Guitar and Cello album.

CG: Any words for people learning to play guitar on the importance of practice?

ANDERSON: I like to be a listener as well as a player at all times. Enjoy the sound of your instrument, and listen for where the music wants to go. It’s never too soon to put the emotion into the music, even if just playing a scale. If you don’t have a drummer to play with, a metronome is a really good idea. [Bassist] Victor Wooten practices with putting the metronome not only on the beat, but also on the off-beat and any beat of the measure, and even on the “swing” of the off-beat. That’s amazing control of rhythm and I wish I did that more when I was first learning.

CG: What do you think of the concept of learning guitar online? There are a lot of methods out there—any thoughts?

ANDERSON: Now there are online and DVD courses that can offer a lot. Personally, I learn best from a human being, one-on-one.

CG: How about something like Skype?

ANDERSON: Yes, I give personal Skype lessons, and I took a couple of Skype lessons from Claude LaFlamme to learn “Eleanor Rigby” on the harp guitar.

CG: You’ve recorded a wide variety of music with an amazing spectrum of musicians—country, bluegrass, pop, flamenco, classical. Are there any limits to what you’ll play?

ANDERSON: Yes. I don’t play music that doesn’t stir me or make me happy in some way.

CG: Your album, Nightlight Daylight, is an amazing piece of work. You’ve got two hours of music on a double CD, plus fiber optics built into the cover so people can press a space on it and see the evening sky light up in the picture. Plus a little business card inside the album that’s actually four pop-out guitar picks. This was obviously a labor of love, and you’ve received a number of awards for it. What motivated you to put all this in one package?

ANDERSON: You’re right in that it was a labor of love, kind of my expression or gift to the world. I wanted it to be a whole experience—one album to relax to and one album to wake-up to. When I wanted strings, I hired the Nashville Symphony string section at Oceanway studio. When I wanted some jazzy back and forth fills, I asked [guitarists] Stanley Jordan and Earl Klugh. I didn’t even keep track of expenses; I just did everything to make the music come alive. Every minute of recording was a joy. I realized that every person involved in the project was not only a great artist but also a great person. That energy goes into the music.

CG: Yes, and obviously people can feel it, as witnessed by the awards.

ANDERSON: Some of those awards are for the artwork as well as the music. But more importantly is that, in the process, I found my soul mate in Bryan [Allen] the photo-artist, and we are now touring together with an audio-visual show we call Wonderlust.

CG: So what’s next for Muriel Anderson?

ANDERSON: I have new tunes that I have written for the Wonderlust show, and I’m waiting for it to all fall together in an organic way into a bigger picture much like the Nightlight Daylight CD did. I can feel that’s just around the corner.

                                                  #                                                                    #

As a special treat for all of you who are guitarists, Muriel Anderson is offering a FREE download of the sheet music for her composition Prelude to a New Morning. To access it, click here, then click “Add to Cart,” and then enter the coupon code “CGM.”

Photo by Chuck Winans