It was about 3 a.m. one night in the ‘70s, when a song came on the radio that changed Dave Fritz’s concept of what a guitar could do. It was so different from the kind of simple strumming he’d been doing since he was 9 years old. This sounded like at least two people playing guitar, but it was just Leo Kottke playing fingerstyle on a track from “the Armadillo album,” so called for the armadillo pictured on its cover.
“Wow, I didn’t know you could play like that,” says Fritz, sitting beside the Riverwalk in downtown Reno in dark jeans and a shirt with a subdued tie-dyed design. Drawing from Kottke—and later, John Fahey and Pepino D’Agostino—Fritz devoted himself to playing fingerstyle (using small picks attached to the fingers) on 6- and 12-string guitars. It’s a style that takes full advantage of the guitar—making every string count and heard.
He released an album in 1978 called The City and Tree, but he spent most of the following years playing electric bass in rock bands, oldies bands, big bands and orchestras.
He’s now re-released The City and Tree, having had it remastered at Tanglewood Productions in Reno, and is once again playing solo and writing music on his acoustic guitar.
“Soloing is a little lonely,” he says. “But as I played in more bands, I knew this style came from somewhere deep within that the others didn’t come from.”
Fritz doesn’t really stand out in a crowd but for his graying lambchop sideburns and expressive, thick eyebrows. He pulls out his guitar—a honey blond six-string Guild—and draws a handful of picks from his pocket, slipping them on three fingers and his thumb. He begins to play. Even then, few onlookers pay him much attention—this is not showy music, after all—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
He lightly touches the higher registers of the neck as part of a melodic song called “Freeway,” with fluid phrasing and a gentle but driving bass line. Elements of blues, soft rock, jazz, classical and ‘70s guitar instrumental music are found here. It’s relaxing music with little moments of suspense and playfulness.
“The rhythms are where you find the styles—the classical, the jazz,” he says.
Fritz is a truckdriver—part of a “drastic change” he says he needed in the 1990s after years of computer programming. (He’s always had a day job.) His route stretches from Reno to Los Angeles, and it’s inside a truck that many of his songs are “written"—or at least conceived. That likely accounts for his music’s calm sense of movement, of travel, of wheels turning steadily on asphalt.
It’s easy to overlook a musician like Fritz. There are no gimmicks here. He’s not a showman. He talks and plays softly. His music, for better or worse, is what many refer to as “background” music. But he hopes that those who do listen get some of the feeling from his songs that he had when he wrote them.
“I want them to get a good feeling, maybe appreciate instrumental music a little more,” he says. “Maybe give people new ways to look at things and draw attention to things they may have missed.”