1 November 1999 -- Bruce Cockburn's guitar playing is a large part of his appeal to many of us, I would guess, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see him interviewed by Steve Lawson in this month's issue of the British Guitarist magazine. Introduced by Lawson as "one of very few singer/songwriters to last 30 years with no embarrassing period whatsoever," Bruce talks about the evolution of his unorthodox and eclectic guitar style.
"The finger-picking was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb and other old blues guys like that, but I'd also learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berklee, majoring in composition with guitar as my instrument, I thought I'd be a jazz musician but soon realized I wasn't prepared to do the work needed to pursue it the way they were teaching it. I still loved jazz and whenever there's an opportunity, jazz creeps into my music - more now than ever"
His later move towards electric guitar was for practical reasons as much as musical. "The electric came to the forefront when my band got heavier in the early 80's, and I needed to play electric just to hear myself on stage and 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 was a lot of learning going on live. I was applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on acoustic, but there's a big difference in touch and it took some time to get a feel for it. It's easy to overplay on electric when you're used to an acoustic, whether it's fingers or a pick."
After an 18-month songwriting "dry-spell", the beginning of the 90's saw a temporary simplification in Bruce's playing style. "During that time I realized I had virtually no songs that an untrained guitarist could sit down and make work, which I thought was bad. So I made an effort to write songs that you didn't have to play like I do to make sound good; you could just strum the chords and they'd still work. Child Of The Wind was like that, and most of the other songs on 'Burning Light' fit that description. That approach carried over into the next album, 'Dart To The Heart', then I got bored with that and dropped it!"
These days it appears that Bruce loves playing the guitar as much as ever, and is still developing. "The more I learn [what to do with an electric guitar], the more I want to do with it. It's also the first time I've felt confident enough to do the jazz part. I'd always imported other people to do that, but as of 'The Charity Of Night', it was time for me to try some of it myself. I'm just letting myself play - we'll see what happens when I put the band together to tour"
The full interview is in the November edition of Guitarist.