His original compositions draw on styles that are common enough in contemporary guitar music—traditional jazz, ragtime, blues and classical—but the instrument he plays them on is anything but ordinary. First built by Joe Scott and Steve Mesplé of visionary Colorado guitar experimentalists Wind Machine, the Guitjo looks like a guitar, but actually consists of five strings strung like a banjo and two extra high strings on a guitar body. The resulting sound has been compared to that of a dulcimer, with a tonal range that is “resonant and melodic, and gives it almost a cascading effect.” Steve VanDewater’s Guitjo is one of three specimens known. We contacted him recently at his home in Denver.
The obvious question, of course is: Why the Guitjo? How did you come to wield this magic axe? Basically the Guitjo just kind of fell out of the sky into my life—almost like I was chosen to own one. I’ve never been very strong in music theory, so when I heard that [Wind Machine’s] Joe Scott had attended the Guitar Institute of Technology, I signed up for theory lessons on the guitar. After a few months of lessons Joe asked me if I wanted to buy his original prototype Guitjo. He had had one custom built and was also having a double-necked version built, too, so felt that he could let one go. I had no clue what the instrument was about, but decided to buy it anyway. That was about 10 years ago.
Would you like to see more Guitjo players out there, or do you take a certain amount of pride in being one of the very few doing what you’re doing? I’ve never thought of it that way, but I do feel blessed to own the prototype, and it is nice to see people’s reactions when they first hear it. Most people don’t notice that it’s a different type of instrument because at first glance it looks like a guitar.
Do you personally think the Lord looks upon all musical instruments with equal favor, or are some more and less praiseworthy in His sight? I think that primarily God looks at the hearts of His children. I feel that it is what we do with the gifts He has given us that counts. I sometimes struggle in this area because I love to play heavy, screaming guitar music and I wonder what He thinks about that.
If life is a journey, what sort of musical signposts have shown the way for you? When I was a teenager, Steve Howe was one of my main influences. His versatility and the fact that at that time he owned and played 52 different stringed instruments blew me away. I still own the original vinyls of the first five or so YES albums. I’ve been playing since 1970 so there have been numerous influences: Chicago Transit Authority, YES, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, and so on, then Rush, Van Halen, Boston, etc. Later it was Eric Johnson, Phil Keaggy, Uli Roth, and Steve Morse. Through my older brothers, I was also exposed to a lot of the ’50s and ’60s stuff.
What positive things can you find to say about your absolute least favorite kind(s) of music? Do you think that we can learn something from even the cruddiest mass-produced MTV-ready rock and pop? I hate to admit it, but I don’t have cable TV so I’m out of touch with the MTV scene. I do hear the stuff on the radio that the kids listen to so I can give you a somewhat general answer. You must remember that when I was in high school Peter Frampton was huge. The lyrics were tame and there was no profanity or abusive language. It was a different era for our culture. I guess that thing that strikes me about what I hear today is that the artists seem very angry on some of the stuff. I like music that is raw and has energy. At the same time, I love melody and mellow stuff. But if the lyrical content is about hurting each other that’s not hip to me.
In your mind’s eye, are you more likely to see yourself playing in front of a sold-out Carnegie Hall or a sold-out Madison Square Gardens? Short-term, I’d like to finish the CD I have started and explore some new live venues. Long-term. I look to God for the answers. I feel that He has blessed me with many gifts and I trust Him to guide me into the future, whatever that may look like. When I was younger I thought that fame and stardom was the goal. I want to keep the passion for music alive in my life, but also keep things in perspective. It is important to dream, but I want to me realistic about where God has me right now.
Who, with an entire world of acoustic and electric guitarists out there to choose from, would you most like to invite over to fool around on your Guitjo? I would probably choose Bela Fleck to play the Guitjo. It’s played with finger picks and Bela’s the man. I’d like to see whether Bela would be inspired by the Guitjo and hear what kind of sounds he would create.
When, perhaps in the not so distant future, we hear that Steve VanDewater is composing a motion picture soundtrack for Guitjo, what’s the movie going to be about? Thank you for the thought-provoking questions. I don’t always ask myself these kinds of things so it’s been challenging and exciting to contemplate my answers. The movie would probably be about a person who is on the wrong path in life and gets a second chance. I think we all dream about what our lives could be and look like. It would portray the struggles and victories that come with living life to its fullest in all circumstances, good and bad.
Steve VanDewater will perform at New Hope Christian Fellowship (345 S. 5th W.) this Saturday at 8:45 p.m. The concert is FREE and refreshments will be provided.