When the readers of Guitar Player magazine named English guitarist Adrian Legg's 1992 album Guitar for Mortals the acoustic record of the year over competition that included the Eric Clapton disc Unplugged, many of them probably assumed that Legg had roots in the art-rock supergroups of the Seventies. But Legg, who's in his mid-forties, is no Robert Fripp--and neither does he have much in common with highly respected sidemen such as Pete Cosey, James Burton or Dave Tronzo. "I hope it's not a letdown when you find out I'm not famous at all," Legg says between bursts of hearty laughter.
In fact, Legg's reputation in his homeland has little to do with his recordings; he's better known there for penning popular, very technical articles on guitar modifications for several influential British publications. "I retreated from playing for a while and hid in the instrument industry," he notes. "I got to do lots and lots of terribly technical things to guitars there." He oversaw the creation of an Adrian Legg signature series of acoustics that Ovation marketed in 1993 (they retailed for $3,500 each), and he continues to play customized versions of the company's products. According to him, "Ovation is very patient with me. I go in there and have some crazy ideas, and we make things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but the ones that do work are very gratifying. The one I'm on the road with now has a vent in the treble-side shoulder. That's an unusual place to put it, but I didn't want to break the top. I'm absolutely amazed by it. I don't use any EQ--it's just straight in with the reverbs and stuff. It's wonderful."
Legg's interest in making his own instruments dates back to his youth--a period when what he calls "all this dreadful, appalling beat music" was coming to the fore. "Everyone was very disturbed by it, and my parents didn't want me to have anything to do with guitars. So I had to make my own guitars, or what I thought could be used as a guitar. I didn't have any idea how to make one, so I kind of just guessed, putting together whatever materials I could find that would go 'twang.'
"Lots of us did this," he continues. "It was a very innocent, naive time. A lot of us learned things wrong, so we created styles and things. My whole style is based on incompetence: I don't know how to play a guitar properly, but a lot of originality comes out of that kind of incompetence. If you don't go through some method, you're limited by a lack of technical skill, but you're also freed by not having preconceived ideas forced upon you. I actually owe a lot of what I do to somebody called Snuffy Jenkins, who originated the idea of putting extra tuners on the banjo so he could retune as he played. Whenever I do a clinic or give a lesson, I always say that the most important thing that you can do is look away from the guitar for ideas. Go and look at other stringed instruments, somewhere other than the damned guitar, because the guitar's gotten boring. It seems that when we started, my generation, we had to make things up. Maybe that's how it should be."
This willingness to experiment is a key to Legg's albums. He first came to the attention of American audiences in 1990, after signing with Relativity Records. His debut, Guitars and Other Cathedrals, won praise from critics and musicians alike, and from this acclaim blossomed a cult following that grew with each succeeding release. Following Guitar for Mortals, he made three more recordings for Relativity: 1993's Mrs. Crowe's Blue Waltz and Wine, Women & Waltz, and 1994's High Strung Tall Tales. His latest disc, Waiting for a Dancer, was issued last month by Minnesota-based Red House Records, and it's a beguiling showcase for Legg's creativity; he wrote all of the songs and took the photographs that appear on the CD's cover and liner. It's a first-rate package, but Legg finds it difficult to come right out and say that he likes it.
"I'm very ambivalent about recording," he admits, "because music is something that you do in the moment. It's there and then it's gone; it's not something you repeat. So I've never been happy with albums. But then, every time I moaned about how it wasn't real, how it was phony and how it just wasn't true, people would say that I should look at it as another form. So I did. And I realized that you can go into the studio and put things together that will make a piece of music that you can't play in one go by yourself. I think recording music is much less fun than live music, but you can use it to have a bit of fun on an album that you can't have on stage. A different kind of fun.
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"I was reading a book about photography, and it said the essence of a good photograph is that it has images in it that cannot be done in any other medium," he continues. "And that seemed to be, to me, a viable analogy for a recording. If you want to make a recording into a different form, you can do things on it that you can't possibly do any other way. So you exploit the medium and have some fun with it."
As for the inspirations behind his compositions, Legg prefers to keep their origins to himself. "I think that if you try to explain music too much, you can actually destroy the potential that it has--or some of the potential--because everything that happens in music happens in somebody else's head," he says. "If I play a piece of music, whatever happens doesn't happen in my head. That's all about delivery and performance and the actual technical business as well. No, it happens in the head of who is listening. I might make a piece of music out of a very specific emotional experience, but what it's addressed to is the generality of that kind of emotional experience. The whole point of playing music, in any style, is that somebody else is supposed to feel something. It's that simple. Something nice or bad or whatever has to happen. It doesn't matter how you make that happen, but it matters very much that you make that happen."
Although this explanation makes Legg sound overly philosophical, the guitarist is far from being a stuffed shirt. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor that enlivens both his albums and his conversation. "I can't say that what I've got to offer is better than what else a guy might do," he concedes. "I mean, he might go out to a pub and meet a really nice woman and have a great time--and that would be infinitely more preferable than having sat in front of a guitarist and listened to him all evening. So I don't know: Maybe if you were going to go out and meet some really nice person or a new lover or something, that would be much better than coming to listen to me. But on the other hand, you might go out and have a really crappy, boring time. Then you'd have been better off coming to hear me. You don't know, do you? But you might meet that one person, that next lover, at my gig. So what's it going to be?"
Adrian Legg. 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 13, Little Bear, 28075 Highway 74, Evergreen, $8 in advance/$10 day of show, 674-9991; 8 p.m. Friday, March 14, Wildflower, 50 West Main Street, Lyons, $8, 449-6007; 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 16, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $8-$10, 830-