-- Career: Technical/Technique --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the technical aspects of his playing.
2 November 1981 -
Some odd & ends - comments that defy classification
Q: A real practical question: playing fingerstyle, slamming
the guitar, how do you keep your nails? The Pete Townsend
school of manicure...
BC: Well put... I coat them with Crazy Glue. You have to be
very careful... you've got to make sure you don't get it
anywhere but where you want to put it... when I first
started doing it, I glued my fingers together...
Q: It doesn't have any bad effects or anything?
BC: It appears not to... I'm a little hesitant to recommend it
to people...It does work, it makes them really strong. You can see
this crusty little layer on here... it doesn't actually
soak into the nails, but it really keeps them hard.
Q: Practical question. What's the symbol on the back of your
album (Inner City Front)?
BC: That's not a symbol, that's actually a [stove heating] element. It's
one of a series of photographs by this guy named (???)... he
did a series called elements in which he has those things
in various settings, skyline in the background.
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview, Old Waldorf, San Francisco," transcribed by Charles Wolff, from a tape of an interview with Bruce Cockburn on November 2, 1981 at The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA.
Spring 1993 -
James Jensen: Was an acoustic guitar your first instrument?
BC: Well literally it was but I was interested at first in playing
electric guitar and as soon as I could convince my parents that I
should get a guitar I got an old Kay arch-top which, in fact, was an
acoustic until I put a D armond pickup on it. I always maintained a
certain amount of interest in the acoustic side of things. This was
when I was fourteen and I was interested in playing Rock 'n Roll but
the guy I was taking lessons from was more of the Chet Atkins school.
JJ: That's where the fingerstyle came from?
BC: No, I didn't learn any fingerstyle from him it was all with a
flat pick but that style of music was sort of injected into the
equation, the sort of country swing kind of thing that led to my
introduction to Jazz and other types of music. I was still thinking
of only electric guitar but late in high school I fell in with a
bunch of folkies who were into country blues and ragtime and that
kind of stuff and that's when I started to fingerpick. My picking
style hasn't really changed at all, the right hand technique is the
same as it was then. My style is basically a combination of Big Bill
Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt or Mance Lipscomb...
JJ: The monotonic bass?
BC: The thumb drone or an alternating bass. You sort of have one or
the other and Mississippi John Hurt was a great source of direction,
I guess would be the way to put it, because of the beautiful and
simple way he used to put the melody over the alternating bass. I
mean he just played the melody of the song, and that was like no body
else I had heard, it wasn't just licks, it was the actual melody.
That sort of opened up a whole new thing and because of my interest
in Jazz and other types of music that all got added in so when you
take that same sort of right hand technique and apply it to a more
complex musical approach you end up with something like what I do.
JJ: Was most of your playing at that time [circa album: Bruce Cockburn] in
BC: Yeah, I used then, and still do, alot of dropped D but it is
usually one or the other. There are a couple of other tunings I use
but they came later. On "Sunwheel Dance" the title track [Sunwheel Dance] is in Open D (DADF#AD) where another influence came into my style and on the
album "Night Vision" there is a similar instrumental tune called
"Foxglove" (see transcription). Both of those were inspired by a guy named Fox Watson who played fiddle tunes on guitar with the
alternating bass and used open tunings to very good effect.
Eventually I guess he felt that the fiddle tunes were better on a
fiddle than the guitar and he started playing fiddle instead. I
haven't seen him for a really long time but he was a very fine guitar
player and that opened up another door for me and that's why I titled
the song "Foxglove" to honor him.
JJ: Your guitar arrangements were very dense [circa 1977]compared to a lot of
singer/songwriters of that time, was that just your style or did you
feel that you had to keep it busy being a solo?
BC: Well it was both, when I first started playing things like
Beatles songs solo you had to think of some way to make it move the
way the record moves or it's really boring if your just strumming
chords. I tried to make the guitar function as a band as best as I
could so that's part of the thinking and the fingerpicking and the
development of my style. That actually has led to a peculiar
relationship with bands that I do have because I still basically work
that way when I write a song so when I invite other people in to it
to play they have to find a way around that busy guitar part which
causes difficulties sometimes but usually produces some interesting
JJ: "Skylarking", an instrumental on "Joy Will Find A Way" is in open
BC: Well it's actually in standard tuning except that the A string is
tuned to Bb and the E string is tuned to Eb so you have bass notes of
the key of Eb under your thumb and the rest of it's played on
standard tuned strings.
JJ: That piece has a mix of picked and strummed notes, do you use a
flamenco style rasqueado strum?
BC: I don't know that term, I whack the strings! But it's
controlled, I keep my hand kind of curled up and brace my little
finger on the top, the thumb is picking bass notes .
JJ: Do you ever use a plectrum?
BC: I never use a pick.
JJ: For single note runs...
BC: I'll use whatever is handy, if my thumb is busy playing bass
notes I'll use my first two digits but otherwise I'll use my thumb
and index finger for a single string run.
JJ: Why do you brace your little finger on the soundboard?
BC: That's what all the folkies did and that's what I did. It's not
just a bad habit, I used to think for awhile it was a bad habit and
tried to correct myself of it at one point but I gave up on that
because the feel of that kind of fingerpicking needs an anchor, the
thumb has to be so rock solid and able to come down on the strings in
a way that if your hand is free floating .....I might be
missing something, but I can't recall anybody I've heard that doesn't
brace getting that feel.
JJ: That's what I've been doing wrong.
BC: That's probably what it is. You gain alot more mobility by not
bracing though. I find it a nuisance in the finger part of the
picking because it's hard to get at the strings but the trade off
isn't worth it, I'd rather not be able to do the runs and get the
JJ: Going back to songs like "Dialogue With the Devil" your playing a jazzy/bluesy lead on top of a pounding bass, was that independence hard to master?
BC: Well you take your basic country blues and stick more notes in
it. It did take a long time to get and I am basically an
undisciplined person so I spent quite a while trying to fingerpick
before I actually understood what the thumb had to do to make it
work. At first I had a kind of wishy washy style that was good for a
certain kind of effect like if you wanted alot of flowing arpeggio
stuff it worked but I never could get that rhythm happening. I don't
remember the source of the discovery for me that the thumb had to be
solid for the rhythm but I remember when the Kweskin Jug Band was
happening Jim Kweskin was known as Led Thumb cause he had this
rock-solid thumb thing happening that you almost didn't have to put
something on top of because it would cook so hard. It is still an
ongoing quest to keep the feel going and do other stuff on top and
depending on what your doing quite challenging.
JJ: "Hand Dancing" on "Joy Will Find A Way" is a fun piece with alot
of that solid thumb bass and lead on top picking.
BC: That was sort of an instrumental piece with lyrical accompaniment.
JJ: "In The Falling Dark" has a couple of instrumental pieces;
"Giftbearer" sounds like your just playing rhythm while the horn is taking the lead.
BC: Well, actually through all the improvised part I was playing the
rhythm but (demonstrating the piece on his dobro) I was also playing
the lead on top of this pattern although the horn tends to hide the
JJ: The song "Joy Will Find A Way" has an interesting rhythm pattern.
BC: That is actually based on an Ethiopian thumb harp piece.
JJ: That brings up another question; alot of your songs feature a
fairly complicated rhythmic pattern with your right hand, does that
create difficulty when you sing on top of it?
BC: Not once you learn it (laughs) there are things that are hard to
sing and play at the same time but it's usually because the singing
is demanding something that takes your mind off the playing more than
the other way around.
JJ: The live album that this first group played on "Circles In The
Stream" contained a couple of fresh guitar solo instrumentals.
BC: "Deer Dancing around a Broken Mirror" is dropped D tuning I think
capoed at the second fret and "Cader Idris" is a piece I really like and I don't know what you'd call it but the G string is tuned down to
JJ: You used that tuning on "Fascist Architecture" and "Badlands Flashback".
BC: On the "Big Circumstance" album I used that tuning on "Understanding Nothing" and "Don't Feel Your Touch".
JJ: Was "Cader Idris" a very difficult piece for you to play?
BC: I don't think so because I got used to doing that arpeggio thing
with the fingers and something else with the thumb and they are
reasonably independent. "Foxglove", for instance has all those
triplets over an alternating bass that to me was an obvious thing to
do but some people find it challenging but maybe that's because
they're learning it after the fact. "Cader Idris" is basically
the same thing except it's in a different time signature so they're
not triplets they're eighth notes and the thumb instead of playing an
alternating bass is playing a harmonized melody.
JJ: "Further Adventures Of.." features the instrumental track "Red
Ships Take Off In The Distance" with acoustic bass and guitar..
BC: Bob Boucher the bass player and I did a lot of touring as a duo
around that time and we developed some duet type pieces which that
JJ: You only dabble in alternate tunings any particular reason?
BC: Yeah the reason is that a lot of the people I heard using
alternate tunings were very boring because they used the same
fingerings and the same picking patterns in all their tunings and
used the tunings to get variety which is a kind of specious way to
get variety cause you end up with a sameness to the style and I found
that I didn't gravitate to the tunings for that reason. It is not
that I refuse to use alternate tunings it's just that I didn't find
them attractive for that reason partly.
There is one tuning that I use a lot of and that's open C (CGCGCE) tuning that I got from the Rev. Gary Davis. I used that tuning on
"Soul of A Man"
from the last album, "Rainfall" on "Further Adventures of..." it's a
rich sounding tuning and you get a lot of octaves naturally so you
can get a kind of twelve-string effect without the clumsiness or
cumbersome nature of that instrument. It's a tuning I was told by a
Chilean friend of mine who thought he was introducing me to it when
he said, "I've got this tuning from the south of Chile and only women
use it" and it was the same C tuning, so I guess if I use it down
there I'd have to apologize first.
Bruce Cockburn's two main acoustic guitars are a "Dobro of
recent manufacture" which he used on "Nothing But a Burning Light"
and makes extensive use of on the upcoming "Dart To the Heart", and a
custom made 6-string by Toronto luthier Linda Manzer (send $3 to PO
924 Stn P, Toronto, Canada M5S272 for her self proclaimed "propoganda
packet"). Linda told me that Bruce's guitar is pretty much like her
normal model with the exception of the body depth being extended by
about an inch. The guitar has rosewood back and sides and a cedar
top which was colored by the addition of blue dye in the laquer. The
cedar she used on his guitar was from a large piece she found rolled
up on the beach of British Columbia on her last day of apprenticship
with Jean Larrivee. The fret position markers on his guitar are taken
from Mayan calender notation. The guitar is fitted with a Fishman piezo
pickup for live performance.
Bruce never uses a plectrum or fingerpicks and plays very hard so he
treats his fingernails regularly with Crazy Glue the application of
which he warns with a voice of experience should "not be done when
--from an Interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa
Steve Lawson: Was electric guitar an anathema - with prog rock etc.?
BC: I used it a bit - all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don't
forget, so there was good guitar around of the sort that I related to as
roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in
there where I didn't listen to much rock or jazz - I completely missed David
Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and
discovered the rest of what he'd done. Then I started to look into rock
music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the
freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the
influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.
SL: So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City
BC: Inner City Front was really the big one. There's electric guitar on many of
the earlier albums, but it didn't start to take over until I was playing
with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it
was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar - to hear myself
on stage for one thing - but also to keep up in intensity with the other
guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got
away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was
applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but
there's a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the
feel for it.
SL: Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?
BC: The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on
it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn't thought
about it but I guess that's true, it does contribute to it, though
unconsciously - I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn't
unconscious the connection was...
The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with
my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly
triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking
at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it
was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of
relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you're gonna love
your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can't love them in the
abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the
album Humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and
Italy - the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater
understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics,
and that carried through into Inner City Front, and all through the 80s.
SL: Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the
world's singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period -
BC: I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a
little embarrassment, but only a little - more the live gigs that the
records 'cause there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.
SL: Influence of the Stick?
BC: That had something to do with it as well. That was the thing that interested
to me about the Stick. I was excited when I discovered that I knew someone
who played it. With Hugh Marsh I'd explored the possibilities with Violin
and Guitar, then Hugh's brother Ferg (Fergus Jemison Marsh), turned out to
be this incredible Stick player who was very Tony Levin influenced with the
bass strings, but added on all this treble stuff that you don't hear Tony
Levin doing, and it seemed to me that there would be incredible textural
possibilities with that part of the stick and guitar. So that became a big
During the period that I was writing the material for Stealing Fire, I'd
rented a little office space that I'd go to to practice and or write each
day, and I had a little drum machine so I'd set up drum rhythms, and I have
the lyrics and I'd be pulling at the lyric and the rhythms and that would
spawn the guitar parts, and I got Ferg coming over and work on Stick parts
that would go with the guitar parts, and then I'd modify the guitar parts if
he had something better than I did. So the presence of the stick was in
there early on in the process of building up to 'Stealing Fire'.
SL: There are strong polyrhythmic possibilities with the Stick -
BC: ..and then when you start adding drums to that, the trick is to get people to
start leaving things out because you can get so many things going at once.
SL: Guitars - who were you listening to?
BC: I don't think I was really listening to guitar players much through there.
Since about 1960 I haven't really tried to learn anything off a record in a
'OK, how he's doing this' kind of way. I get influenced by the feel of
things and I sort of take what my ear will grasp and then I mess with it, so
the learning process has been slow, but also kind of less conspicuously
influenced by any one person that it might other wise has been.
SL: And that helped to maintain originality?
BC: It has had that effect, I don't think I did it on purpose that was, it's
just my nature to do things that way. I would hear things I like, and any
time I heard one I'd either find a way to do it my way or it would just
become a kind of general influence - there were lots of people, Mark
Knopfler was the most conspicuous fingerstyle electric player around, but I
was always sort of slightly uncomfortable with that, even though I really
liked his records, everyone would be telling me that I played like Mark
Knopfler, once I started playing electric guitar, and it kind of was a
little irritating, so I made a conscious effort where possible not to sound
like Mark Knopfler - there was already one of him and we didn't need another
SL: You started fingerpicking on the electric before Knoplfer, what lead to
BC: There was no question in my mind of ever picking up a pick - there was no
reason to. I'd played electric guitar when I was in rock bands in the 60s,
and I'd had lots of experience playing electric guitar with a pick. But
through the 70s I'd developed enough facility with the guitar that it just
seemed like OK now how do I apply this to this other instrument, and by the
end of the 80s I'd sort of almost learned how to do it!!
SL: It gave you a unique sound, and a continuity between the electric and
BC: They're not polls apart ..
SL: ..sometimes it's pretty hard to tell which you're playing.
BC: yeah, depending on which guitar I'm using - the National Resophonic that
I've got is an electric guitar but I've got it strung with acoustic gauge
strings and it has this chunky sound that has much of the attack of an
SL: What electrics were you using in the 80s?
BC: I had a couple of Strats, and a couple of hand made flying Vs, made by Emory
Deyong, in Canada. They were really nice guitars, with humbucking pickups,
but I've always had a problem playing Gibson style electrics 'cause the necks
are to flexible and I'd always bend them out of tune, I grab them too hard,
whereas Fenders, or anything with a Fender feel didn't present that problem
so I tended to lean that way. Also the attack on Fenders in more finger
friendly, more like the acoustic.
SL: A kind of natural compression to the sound...
BC: yeah, so it suited... it easy to overplay an electric guitar when you're used
to an acoustic, whether it's fingers or a pick. One of the most flagrant
historic examples of that is Django Reinhard - when you listen to his
records on electric guitar they sound horrible next to the genius tone, not
to mention the content of his acoustic playing. He's whacking the shit out
of the electric and it hurts! And I did the same thing -everybody that
switches, has to overcome that same tendency which was made easier on
certain guitars than on others.
SL: now your on Rykodisc [editor's note: The Charity of Night/Breakfast in New
Orleans,Dinner in Timbuktu] - it sounds like your back in a love affair with
BC: It's what came out of the experiment - it starts with Dart, or maybe even
Burning Light. It's like I said, but the end of the 80s I'd finally learned
what to do with an electric guitar, and you can start to hear that on the
records, and it continues, I'm still learning all the time - the more I
learn, the more I want to do with it, though the new album doesn't feature
that much electric, there's a couple of prominent bits, but the The Charity of Night features some extended leads and stuff. It's the first time I've felt
confident enough to allow myself to do the jazz part of the record - I'd
always imported other people to do that, you get John Goldsmith on
keyboards, or Hugh Marsh on violin adding the jazz into it, but as of the
Charity of Night it was time for me to try and do some of it myself, though
on the new album it's not so much on the electric but the two instrumentals
have a lot of improvising in them. I'm just letting myself play - we'll see
what happens when we put the band together to tour...
SL: The record [editor's note: Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu]
sounds unfettered. Fun, passionate and full of energy.
BC: There wasn't much restraint - the restraints on me are my technical ability
more than anything, and I suppose ones technical ability limits to some
degree what you can imagine, at least in my case it does! It doesn't stop at
the same place, but you hear things projected from what you know how to do.
SL: your guitar now is a Linda Manzer, right?
BC: I had a Larivee - I had the first cutaway guitar that Larivee ever made.
Larivee was the first Canadian guitar maker to work with steel string
guitars, and he developed a whole style of guitar making that owed nothing
to Martin or Gibson, having a different concept of bracing, 'n' all that.
And Linda along with a couple of other people was one of Larivee's
apprentices for a while - there were three of four of them who were spawns
of the original Larivee thing, only Larivee has moved into more a shop
thing, with helpers - not a factory as such, but more like that than it was.
Linda continued to make guitars on her own.
I had two Larivee guitars, and a David Wren, who was another Larivee
apprentice. I had two Wrens, one got destroyed in a fire, at a rehearsal
space, which was right before one of the tours of Italy, so I had to play
electric guitar - my telecaster was all I had left, and the Italians were
really pissed at that, and were yelling out 'acoustica, acoustica!!' They
didn't want to hear me playing electric at all, and didn't believe that my
guitar had been burnt - they thought I was putting one over on them.
Anyway, I ended up moving from that to a Manzer. I'd experimented with a few
commercial guitars that people were trying to get me to use, and I didn't
like any of them - that was in 86/87. The guitar that Linda made me then I
had until the beginning of this year and I traded it back to her for a new
one with slightly different characteristics. It was a particularly deep
bodied guitar with a cedar top, slightly wider than average neck to make
room for finger-picking. When I got it that's what I wanted, but over the
years as I started switching back and forth between electric and acoustic
more often, I started wanting my acoustic strings to be closer together so
it wasn't such an adjustment moving back and forth. I found to that I
developed a problem over the The Charity of Night tour I started getting a
problem with my right hand fingers, and what had happened is that because of
the extra body depth - we're only talking about a 1/4 inch but with a guitar
that's significant - the top corner of the guitar was pressing in the nerves
in my forearm and over the 10 years that I'd played the guitar it had
started to cause problems with the nerves in my arm. So I approached Linda
about getting another one from her and she makes a kind of guitar that's
sort of wedge shaped - narrower on the bass side. You sacrifice some bottom
end tone, acoustically, but no-one listens to guitars acoustically any more
live anyway - very few people even know how to mic one anymore... The wedge
shaped one is not extra deep, mainly because survival is more important than
the bass end! That's what I used at Greenbelt - it's slight, and not really
noticeable to the casual observer, but it does have enough of a slope that
it doesn't put pressure on that particular spot. I knew this from playing
the Dobro which has a very thin body and I wasn't having any trouble playing
that so duh! Make the connection, it's obvious! But so ended up with the new
Manzer, which I really love. As I said, it sacrifices a slight amount of
bass tone acoustically, electrically, with the fishman pickup that's in it,
it sounds as good as any other guitar with a Fishman. Just the latest
generation of piezo. It's got a really nice neck - it's a beautiful guitar
SL: Mic and line in the studio?
BC: Normally I would just mic it - we probably did some of it plugged in, but we
never used it, it's kind of more for safety - if we get a little noise on
the mic, or we have to punch in...
But I don't really like the sound of it plugged in when you don't have to
have it - it's there live because there's no other way, but the new Manzer
is not what appears on the new album - that's a Collings that I have that
I've had for three years. It's the one that like D28, big body. You hear
that on the The Charity of Night and on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in
Timbuktu, because the new Manzer was still too green - it hadn't opened up
SL: Electrics on the album?
BC: On Blueberry Hill, it's a black and cheesy Charvel Surfcaster, and a Strat that a friend gave me that she'd had lying around is doing a lot of the leads of the album.
- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview", Guitarist Magazine, November 1999, by Steve Lawson.
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.