Ken Bonfield's Artistry of the Guitar Blog

Variety truly the spice of life


Lately I’ve been thinking about how important variety and change are to me as a person and artist.  I’ve always bored easily with the status quo, and not only embrace change, but I try to make change happen.  For those of you getting to know me, this is the first sign that a human being is eccentric. Most humans abhor change-just look what happens to Facebook when they change something. Most people freak out. I don’t.  I need my routine to vary, so it’s not all that routine. I’ve found that doing the same things over and over, in the exact same way turns my day into a factory-like setting, and while it’s incredibly efficient, it’s mind-numbingly boring for me. I actually get less done, and what I do get done isn’t always my best work. Change and variety energize me. 

I can’t tell you how much respect I have for people who work 8-5 jobs and do the same thing every day. I tried that as a corporate head hunter until my mid 30’s when I grew so frustrated and depressed I truly wanted to die. I’m just not capable of that kind of lifestyle over the long-term.  Once I started playing music full-time I realized I’d found the perfect job. It’s almost never boring, and it requires me to use a tremendously wide skill set. Remember that I not only compose, perform, and record my music, but I also produce the albums, put together the design team for CDs, book/produce and promote my own solo concerts and Artistry of the Guitar in-the-round shows, as well as manage all my travel plans; and sometimes others.  I also manage my own website, teach privately, and am the personal concierge to my 17-year-old daughter who is a junior in high school. And let’s not forget that I play the guitar about 750 hours a year.  My days are varied, and instead of having a booking day, or web day, or rehearsal day, I try to incorporate multiple tasks each day. My focus is better on a given task because my mind is fresh,  and I find I get more done, and the work I do is better.

So how does this need for change manifest itself in my music and gear? Well, some are obvious such as my penchant for experimenting with alternate tunings or my 5 concert/recording instruments which are all quite different from one another.  These have truly unique voices: 1) a 12-fret OM my only standard guitar,  2) a 14-fret OM high string: the three lowest bass strings are replaced with treble strings tuned an octave higher,  3) a 26″ scale Small Jumbo guitar for alternate tunings tuned down a whole step from standard, 4) a  28″ scale Small Jumbo baritone tuned 2 & 1/2 steps below standard, and 5) an 11-string harp terz guitar with the guitar portion tuned up a whole step.  The only thing these guitars have in common is that they’re strung with steel strings and made by the same man, Alan Carruth.  These guitars allow me to have very different sounds-this is great for audiences because I can ‘move their ears around’ but it’s also a treat to my ears and hands as well.

This need for change also shows up in the variety of styles in which I compose. Celtic, folk, blues, bluegrass, jazz, and rock all play a role in my compositional ‘style’.  And it shows up in my set lists on stage.  Last month I played four concerts on back to back Fridays and Saturdays. I played totally different sets for all four shows.  While this was challenging, it was also exciting because it made me play some material that hasn’t or doesn’t often make it to the stage. And for some reason I play a song better if I haven’t beaten it into the ground. Remember, I’m listening to what I’m playing, just like the audience is, and if I’m bored with it, there’s no way I can bring the energy and passion the music and the audience deserves.

Part of my need for change is fueled by an insatiable desire to sound better and yet make my ‘rig’ simpler with fewer points of failure. But sometimes I do make changes just for change sake.  Why?  Well other than the fact that I get bored, I find that I’m more creative when things are shaken up, I write more, play better, feel more alive in general. As with so many things, I’ve taken this to the extreme in some aspects of my playing; like cutting off my nails and using finger-picks, or using a thumb pick instead of my thumb nail. Another example. From 1989-2012 I played the guitar on my right leg with a foot stool, considered folk style, except for the harp guitar which I got in 2010 and found I could only play with the guitar on my left leg in classical position also on a foot stool. Since January of 2013 I’ve started using Neck-Ups to replace my foot stool, and placed both my six-string guitars and my harp guitar in classical position on my left leg. My willingness to change was so great in this instance because it helped solve some right-hand/shoulder problems I was having, as well as helping to relieve a tremendous amount of stress on my lower back. Over the past year I’ve gotten so accustomed to this style that I couldn’t imagine ever going back.  This is one instance. I’ve had so many opportunities like this in the past to change or stay the same. And in almost every instance when I made the change it was worthwhile because even when the end result didn’t pan out, I learned something.

I have a very normal wife and family who quite naturally abhor the changes I so often seek out. My wife still thinks I’m nuts, even after almost 20 years.  But thankfully she’s come to expect the behavior and has learned to laugh most of it off; especially since I promised to never ever shave my head again. I wasn’t always this way. I was raised in a very strict, routine oriented household, and I tried to do it the ‘normal’ way until I was in my mid-30’s.  Ever since I’ve owned this is who I am I’ve had a much better go of things; personally and professionally.

So, even though you’re probably not like me, God forbid, if you ever find yourself in a rut, try changing things up-it will probably be uncomfortable, but you just might have some fun and enjoy some of the changes along the way.

Cheers, kb