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You Can’t Get the Sound from a Story in a Magazine

The first thing you notice when watching Spencer Elliott play the guitar is the peculiar positioning of his hands. Traditionally, a player will hold the bottom of the neck while his fingers curl up from below to press the strings. This leaves his other hand free to strum. You’ve all seen it. You can picture it easily. Now imagine this: Elliott reaches up and over the top of the neck with his left hand to pluck the strings with individual fingers or tap at the whole lot of them with an open hand. Some times he will leave the strings entirely to use the guitar body as a drum, providing percussion. And that’s just his left hand. His right hand might be high on the neck as well, plucking and tapping on their own sound or somewhere else on the instrument entirely.

It's so different than anything that I’ve seen performed live that when we sit down to talk in his dining room, I ask him to explain it to me.

Spencer at Taylor Books

“There’s no rule book. I mean, I don’t have a single composition in this genre that’s in standard tuning for a guitar. This has disrupted the convenience of easily reaching all the notes in the scale. Standard tuning is a good set of relationships that lets you reach the chords, scales, modes that you want easily. {When tuning the way that I do} the guitar becomes a brand-new instrument. With any new tuning I’m using, it’s like learning a foreign language. The skill set and techniques are not natural, and sometimes I can’t get to the note I’m hearing in my head, so I’ll reach over and tap that note with my hand like a piano.”

This makes sense as the piano was the first instrument Elliott learned to play when he was 6 years old. “I’m always searching out interesting relationships by changing the pitch of the strings to see what materializes and what kind of new relationships can I create. Every time you change the tuning, the chord formations that worked for this piece or that piece, you have to throw them out the window. It’s discovery.” The result is a beautiful, melodic tune that sounds as if it’s an entire band. The product is so complex, hands flying everywhere, notes and tones and beats coming at you from all directions, that it might remind someone of jazz (but it’s not at all jazz), and I presume Elliott must be improvising. Instead, Elliott informs me that every note and drum beat is composed, precise and exacting, and the process is a lengthy one. “I drive my wife, Anne Marie crazy because it takes me 3 months to write a song. I work it and work it, find variations, different ways to approach a thematic idea.” The music is large and expansive, as if it was composed for grand expeditions over time and space. The titles of his pieces play into the sound with monikers such as “First Flight,” “Last Two People on Earth,” and “There’s Something in the Airlock”. This way of playing is called progressive finger style, and Elliott is following in the foot steps of its earlier masters, Michael Hedges among them. His early influences are varied, inspired in high school by George Winston’s musical landscapes before digging “deep into the realm of punk rock, eclectic, edgy, socio-political commentary type of music like The Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and Minor threat. “

Mother Nang's Brian Young, Deron Sodaro, Spencer Elliott and Jay Lukens

He had just turned 18 when he hopped into his VW Camper van and went on tour for 3 weeks with his punk rock band Further Thoughts where he described himself as “lead yeller.” He didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 18 and played rhythm guitar and sang in various alternative rock bands, among them Mother Nang and Whistlpunk.

But while stating his influences and past career as a punk artist can help a reader imagine his current sound in a tangential way, even Elliott is unsure how to describe it. In fact, during a gig at Taylor Books, he appealed to the crowd asking, “If any of you can think of a way to describe this music, I’d love to hear what it is.” I figure he must have formulated language about his style after playing this way since 2007, so during the interview, I press. Amiably, he explains that he is fine with an ethereal description of his work. “In this day, when so much has been done and said, I like resisting some convenient


classification. That feels refreshing to me. We [his trio SE3] have our foot in a lot of different genres, and we could be the opening act for any reggae, metal, jazz, jam band, or alternative band. We would be right at home in any of those environments. I note that he’s billed himself as an opening act. This kind of humility by someone holding this much talent is surprising. Because of his style of playing, Elliott needs to re-tune his guitar before almost every new song. He spends the time bantering with the crowd. He’s charming and self-effacing, lets us in on what he visualizes when he’s writing and performing. And there’s plenty of time to notice Elliott’s outfits too. If you’ve seen him about town, he has a kind of uniform, a dozen versions of the same outfit that nods to his punk background but also communicates a successful-adult aesthetic: Bella Canvas Organic t shirts in a variety of colors, cashmere sweaters, also in a variety of colors, knee length cargo shorts, meggings beneath the shorts, quality socks, and a well-kept pair of Vans.

Elliott’s fourth album SE3 dropped April 8th. It takes 8 previously released solo compositions along with two brand new compositions by Elliott and adds drums by Chris Hudson and bass by Sean Sydnor. If his solo work sounds like an entire band, the addition of bass and drums ups the energy three-fold. “In more aggressive pieces, when I composed them, they already sounded this way in my head. Chris and Sean excel at their disciplines, and what they have added is the highest and best interpretation and presentation of those pieces of music. Everything that I have done musically, the piano composition, the singing and playing in punk and alternative bands, and then the development of composition through this style acoustic guitar, it all lead to this project with SE3. I’ll still write and perform solo, but being able to take all of those different elements and wind up here? That’s what I’ve been developing towards all along.” This latest album does indeed feel like a culmination of a life’s worth of practice and craft. It captures an artist that is at his peak, and I don’t see Elliott descending from that mountain any time soon. You can hear Elliott’s new album SE3 on all major streaming venues, check out brand new videos on Youtube, or attend any of the following live events. Then post in the comments section how you’d describe Elliott’s style.

Upcoming live events:

  • May 7th at The Clay Center Woody Hawley Series with The Sea, The Sea

  • May 21st WV Pub Fest in Beckley, WV

  • May 28th at Sam’s Uptown Café, SE3 CD Release Party

  • June 4that Eclipse Music Company, Athens, Ohio

  • June 9th at Folk on the Hill Festival with Jacob Ferry Stragglers



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