Rosetta for rosewood
Acoustic guitarist and teacher Mark Hanson decodes the mysteries of the fretboard
Playing the guitar, for the most part, is a very private affair. Despite the instrument’s quite public reputation, to learn the nuances of picking and strumming, you must hunker down in secret. There you sit for hours, hunched over the instrument’s hull-like body while engaging in an unrelenting tactile quest, on the fretboard, to find and replicate sounds.
It’s called woodshedding, and Mark Hanson knows a lot about it. “I learned that very early on,” he says. “You have to work, work, work.”
Hanson, a tall, 49-year-old Minnesota native who lives in suburban Portland with his wife and two daughters, is a gentle master of the acoustic guitar, with a few instrumental folk-style recordings—solo and with other players—to his credit.
Hanson is also a publisher, and his Accent on Music company specializes in instructional guitar books that use tablature, a system that spells out how to play not by standard notation, but by indicating where the fingers should go—what string, what fret—as a song progresses. For such a simple system, you’d be surprised how difficult to follow many tablature books can be; Hanson’s innovation, aside from his clean graphic interface, is that he indicates thumb strokes with boldface type.
Which may sound kind of dumb, until you try learning to play finger-style guitar from scratch. Strumming a guitar is basic. Flatpicking, or playing with a pick, adds a certain complexity. Fingerpicking is a decidedly more Byzantine affair, although once you break it down to components it’s pretty simple. And most instrumental songs in the style, however complicated they may sound, are built from relatively prosaic chord progressions; even the picking patterns are no mystery once you train your ear to suss them out.
What Hanson’s books—The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking for starters, The Art of Solo Fingerpicking after that—can do is make the intricate sonic arcana of, say, Leo Kottke a lot easier to comprehend. Hanson has also published a number of other volumes, including a book of alternate tunings, a couple sets of Kottke transcriptions and a recently issued instructional for the Hawaiian slack-key guitar style; most come with a CD that features the songs played in regular time and at half speed.
While Hanson lists a fairly typical progression of influences for aspiring boomer guitarists in the ’60s—Kingston Trio to Beatles to Paul Simon to Moby Grape and Buffalo Springfield—when he dialed into such British folk virtuosi as John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, it put him on a different path. Hanson also had a knack for figuring out how to pick guitar parts off records, which made him a go-to guy for guitar-playing pals. When Kottke’s 6- and 12-String Guitar record came out in 1970, he had his work cut out for him. “I can remember listening to that,” he says, “and there were a couple of songs on there that I just could not figure out. People would say, ‘Oh, figure this out for me,’ and I’d sit down, and it was too hard for me at that time.” Eventually, Hanson decided to write a book on the subject. Then, a few more.
It’s in his capacity as a teacher that Hanson and another guitarist from the Northwest, Doug Smith, will conduct two workshops Sunday morning at the Fifth String Music Store. The 9:30 a.m. session is for beginning pickers; the 11:30 a.m. session is for intermediate and advanced.
You don’t have to be an aspiring guitarist to enjoy Saturday evening’s program, however. Also at Fifth String, Hanson will join with Smith in a program of guitar duets, much of it from their just-released Solid Air Records CD, The Power of Two. Hanson and Smith were here in late spring as part of the four-man group Acoustic Guitar Summit. Witnessing the interplay between Hanson and Smith is akin to watching high-level psychic communication. If you love acoustic guitar music, you won’t want to miss it.