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Guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke learned from his father's bad decision and made a better choice for himself.

Solo Guitar


To hear him tell it, Leo Kottke's acoustic guitar career grew out of two defining moments. The first occurred when, as a 10-year-old, he was sick and his mom brought him a toy guitar to lift his spirits. The second resulted from his dad's decision to turn down a shot on the professional golfer's circuit for a steady job with a dependable paycheck. The toy guitar showed him music could be fun, Kottke says, while his dad's choice eventually taught him that life is too short to give up your dreams. "[Before the guitar] I didn't know I wasn't having fun," Kottke says from his Minnesota home, as he describes his previous musical struggles with the violin and trombone. And though the toy guitar fell apart about the time Leo learned his first chord, Kottke was hooked. When time came to decide whether to play music full time or pursue vague notions of a future as a high school English teacher, Kottke says he remembered his golf-loving dad's decision. "I remembered that…what a price that extracted from him," the 55-year-old Kottke recalls. "I used that as a negative example." By the time Kottke faced this life-shaping choice near the end of the '60s, he'd already spent years discovering all types of music. As a kid, he listened to his grandmother's Chopin and John Philip Sousa 78 r.p.m. records. Later, as an underage teen newly fascinated by the guitar, he discovered the Washington, D.C., jazz club scene, as well as the earthy joys of a North Carolina amateur music festival. He never really tuned in to the popular guitar bands of the day, turning instead to instrumental sounds performed on solo guitar. After a stint in the Navy and college, Kottke began sending tapes of his music to record labels, hoping to interest someone in his fingerpicking style. All he found was rejection. But one night at a party, he heard a recording by John Fahey, a well-known-in-certain-circles, Oregon-based musician who was also playing instrumental guitar in a bold and unique fashion. Kottke thought he'd discovered a kindred spirit and sent him some tapes, even though he was still uncertain whether his future was as a teacher or as a musician destined to "live in a Dumpster." But Fahey recorded Kottke. The recording found an immediate audience, and the two played gigs together on the West Coast until Kottke's guitars were stolen. With little money but the record doing surprisingly well, Kottke knew it was time to put up or shut up about the full-time music pursuit. Remembering his dad's decision to forgo his dreams, Kottke bought a new guitar. His choice proved correct when a major record-label deal soon followed. Kottke was off on a lifetime of performing his unique guitar sounds for fans throughout the United States, Europe and Australia. With tempos and guitar tone ranging from the dulcet to the downright daring, Kottke weaves an aural attack that's full of humor, melodic complexity and soul. His instrumental and vocal artistry emerges in an almost stream-of-consciousness flow, as his fingers run the fret board and the songs spill forth, each tune a unique glimpse of mood that reflects no shortage of inspiration. Kottke still marvels at his life's path. "I was … allowed into the sound stream. To be in a position to join up with that was irresistible to me. And it still

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