Driving north on I-87 the traffic from NYC fell away, yielding miles of open highway, punctuated by occasional salt encrusted SUVs with tags from NY, MA, and VT.
The terrain changed too, rolling hills and open fields, stands of deciduous oak and maple increasingly populated by conifers. Temperatures dropping as elevation and latitude lifted. Snow covered peaks of the Catskills materialized against blue sky, breathtaking in bright late afternoon sunlight.
Enclosed in a warm comfortable bubble of plastic and steel, the wind from 80 mph travel chilled the windows, my fragile human exhalations forming fine condensation on the inside of the glass. I concentrated on nailing the phrasing, my voice in melodic sync but the nuances of timing eluding me, ears and body feeling for the syncopated pulse of jazz drumming. Over, again.
I missed the highway exit.
GPS rerouted me sinuously through mountain roads enclosed by dark forest and rock outcroppings, my reward for musical focus a twilight arrival and additional half hour of singing. I stepped from the car to the packed snow parking area, guitar case in hand, feeling the crisp bite of altitude deep in my chest.
Ready for band camp, with Animals As Leaders.
PHOTO: Matt Gartska (below) demonstrates paradiddles for odd time signatures: LRRLLR. Essentials, when playing in 5/4 or 13/7.
PHOTOS: Evan Brewer (middle) walks students through chord formations and modal relationships, Orchid bass awaiting play by Geo Huete (above).
Hey Rick, I've been tied up with school and never got a chance to thank you for coming to the camp and letting us all play your guitar. It was really inspiring to see such an innovative instrument that really pushes all the ideas that can be done when creating an instrument. I also took an extreme liking to Evan's bass, especially the way the neck was formed, it was surprisingly comfortable. I hope to someday meet up with you in the near future when I have the money to purchase one of your awesome instruments.
PS: Thanks for having me on your website holding Evan's bass!
— Geo Huete
Invited as a guest, rather than attending as participant, I wandered freely from session to session, sitting in on classes for drums, bass, and guitar.
The depth of music theory knowledge for all of these guys — Tosin Abasi, Javier Reyes, Matt Gartska, Evan Brewer — is intense, matched to the musicianship you hear in their recordings or performances. There is mastery of physical technique, but also the tonal palette as referenced through composition understanding. When you have complete physical control and complete technical understanding, what is left?
What causes Art?
In Fretboard Literacy class with Tosin & Javier, I asked Tosin about his inspiration: "I am fascinated by your song titles. They are evocative of moods and hint at underlying themes. Where do they come from?"
His eyes lit up. It turns out he is an incessant reader, everything from science fiction to modern industrial farming. To write interesting music, you must first be an interesting person. Life outside the fretboard creates stories inside the fretboard.
Tosin used the song Isolated Incidents as an example. Panned hard left and right, the opening notes of the song represent two separate and distinct tapped rhythms on the 8-string guitar: entirely isolated, each an incident.
They wrote that piece by overlapping multiple tracks on the DAW. Composing in the computer — a theme that emerges in their artistic process. Making cognitive leaps to explore new spaces, then figuring out how to replicate those sounds within the limitations of their human hands.
PHOTOS: Fretboard Literacy class with Javier Reyes and Tosin Abasi in the Barn (above). Evan Brewer brings Orchid bass to the mix, sitting in with Animals As Leaders at the Roadhouse (below).
During dinner on Thursday, Tosin asked if I would be willing to give an impromptu talk about my approach to lutherie. Roast chicken midway to mouth and caught totally by surprise, I said the first thing that came to mind: "Okay...but I left my lecture notes at home."
"You mean you forgot your teleprompter!" Evan quipped. Never underestimate the bassist.
As a final field test for S2 guitar development, I had brought that instrument along figuring let's take the Element™ aluminum guitar neck and subject it to temperature transitions from car-trunk-cold-mountain-air to warm-teaching-studio to hot-onstage-lights. So we could talk about that.
I really just wanted to say thank you for allowing me to spend a good amount of time with the guitar, it truly is a work of art. You alone made this whole trip worth while, definitely a memory I'll always keep with me. I look forward to one day purchasing one of your fantastic instruments! So glad you came out.
The first thing that caught my attention was the thin, solid aluminum Element™ neck. My hands have never moved so effortlessly across a fretboard! The headless design leaves hardly any room for disaster, being that the headstock is the most fragile area on a guitar. The sustain is almost never ending, and the harmonics this thing can produce will put you into a trance...both of which are unique and quality characteristics the aluminum neck brings out. The fanned frets make those hard to reach fingerings near the bottom of the neck comfortable and easily playable.
The body of the guitar is shaped to fit snug against my torso whether sitting or standing, and the neck tilts in an upward direction rather than parallel with the ground; alleviating a lot of stress on my hands and tendons that may result from improper positioning.
The DiMarzio passive pickups have the clarity of single coils but the silence we all look for in humbuckers. With its five way pickup selector in combination with the studio grade stepped EQ by Stellartone, the tonal possibilities are endless. Sonically this guitar covers the full spectrum, ranging from rich, lush highs to a booming low end.
I would love for more people to know your name and your goal with guitar building. It's an extremely innovative approach and I really respect your attempt at stepping away from all wood guitars for the sake of preserving nature.
— Gabe Lopez
Also. There is no better science lab than surrendering two instruments to the ravages of several dozen intently curious guitar players and asking for critique. I appreciated the many thoughtful and intelligent questions during our half hour Q&A.
Hi Rick, I don't think I got to talk to you about your guitar that you brought on the weekend. I tried it the Friday night after you had left. Thank you for allowing me to play such a flawless piece of art.
I am absolutely in awe of this guitar. There is simply nothing else like it, and that's what makes it so unique sounding and distinguishable. The Element™ aluminum neck is astonishingly thin! The endless musical possibilities that you can achieve on this neck are unprecedented. It not only is thin, but also has a relaxed and comfortable feel thanks to the fanned frets and arched top. Also, the bridge design is nothing like I have ever seen before, achieving way more sustain than any other guitar I have heard.
The Dimarzio pickups are perfect for this guitar, giving an extremely desirable tone in conjunction with the pickups selectors, volume and frequency knobs.
I have never layed hands on a guitar that has inspired me so much to the point of staying up all night through to the morning playing it! Thank you for creating such an amazing guitar, and I hope to possibly own a custom some day!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Aluminum is an element, hence: Element™ guitar neck. Most commonly found metal in the Earth's crust. Recyclable. Astonishing tone.
PHOTOS: Gabe Lopez treats us to a performance of his original compositions (above). Roopam Garg makes classical look easy, even after flying in from Singapore to attend (below). Video stills from recorded performances.
Instead of asking AAL for video recording time, I thought it would be more honoring to them to feature some of their students. The act of teaching drives human culture and helps preserve the legacy of those who share their knowledge.
As you can imagine from a master class, the talent level of the attendees is consistently strong. In the limited time I had to listen, two students immediately caught my ear: Gabe Lopez for his beautiful original compositions, and Roopam Garg for his blistering rendition of Asturias (Isaac Albeniz) as well as fascinating microtonal playing using Indian scale structures. Thank you both.
MVP thanks also to Monster and Dan Klein for invaluable production assistance.
I want to especially thank you for coming all the way here, letting me and the others try your exquisite guitar, sharing your perspective on music and luthiery, and by simply being with us. I too felt mesmerized by the instrument. It is the best guitar I've ever laid my hands upon and I mean it. I was honored when you offered me a chance to feature my style on that guitar on video, I am really excited and looking forward to the outcome. I hope one day I'd be able to own such a pristine instrument.
The guitar is unworldly. The innovation and philosophy behind the instrument is truly portrayed through the feel, timbre and response when you're playing it. I felt more connected with this guitar than I have with any other instrument out there. It was really hard to go back and grasp my own guitar after performing on this great invention.
Amazing work Rick.
— Roopam Garg
Personally found it fascinating to watch and listen to Tosin, Javier, Evan, and Matt deconstruct, demonstrate, then perform song sections — if I detached myself from the instruction and just listened to the sound in the room, the music absolutely filled those spaces...bringing joy and inspiration to my spirit.
PHOTOS: Dan Klein, owner of Port City Amplification provided his hand-wired personal prototype amp to demo with. I love his philosophy of circuit minimalism. All controls set neutral and volume half way the S2 combined with the Port City Pearl rocked gorgeous shimmering tone through the Roadhouse, rafters to deep foundation.