This month marks the 10-year anniversary of my debut album, Geetar, released in July 2008. I still sell copies of this album at shows, and perform songs live off this album such as harmonica tunes “Jukebox Shuffle” and “Smokestack Shuffle,” and slide-guitar tunes “The Lonesome Cowboy,” “El Paso Blues,” and “Swampy.”
I composed the majority of these songs between the ages of 18 and 22, from 2001 to 2005, while attending college at The University of Texas at Austin. I picked up guitar when I was 15, so by the time I was in college, I was still learning and honing the craft of composition and performance. Up through college, I was a bedroom player since I didn’t have a car to drive anywhere around town. I was lucky that The Cactus Café, a legendary folk venue where musicians such as Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Shawn Colvin, Abra Moore, and Ani DiFranco launched their careers, was located right on campus.
On Mondays, I would walk from my dorm, guitar in hand, to The Cactus Café to play their open mic. Prior to hanging out at the Cactus Café, I played mainly electric guitar, and was into classic rock, alternative/grunge music of my generation, heavy metal shredding, and electric blues guitar. Attending the Cactus Café open mic and free concerts they had (I got to see Tucker Livingston, Abra Moore, Monte Montgomery, Rhett Butler, and David Garza for free 😀) exposed me to a whole new world of singer/songwriter, folk, and Americana music. The first time I heard intricate fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar was at the Cactus Café. The first time I heard wailing blues harmonica was at The Cactus Café. The first time I heard a screeching slide guitar was a Bonnie Rait style player who signed up at the open mic.
With the exception of J-Blues, all the songs on Geetar I wrote in college. J-Blues is a jazz song I wrote in high school, intended for a 3 piece band (electric guitar, bass, and drums). However, after discovering fingerstyle playing in college, I came up with a fingerstyle arrangement of J-Blues, which is what appears on Geetar.
After hearing blues harmonica playing for the first time, I returned to my dorm and researched anything I could find on blues harmonica playing. I went to the university library, and checked out the 2 albums available with blues harmonica frontmen, “King Biscuit Time” by Sonny Boy Williamson, and “Live at Antones” by James Cotton. After absorbing those albums, I attempted to teach myself blues harmonica from various online instruction, but couldn’t figure out note bending, wah effect, shuffle rhythm, and how to make the harmonica wail. Luckily, the university offered “Informal Classes” on harmonica instruction taught by J.P. Allen. After taking several lessons, I went on to write “Jukebox Shuffle” and “Smokestack Shuffle.”
The same thing happened when I heard slide guitar for the first time. After some research, I went to the university library and checked out “Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings” and “Guitar Slinger” by Johnny Winter. I loved both these records, especially Winter’s fiery electric slide guitarwork. However, Ry Cooder would eventually become the most influential on my slide playing. While teaching myself slide guitar, a friend heard me fumbling. He leant me a compilation Ry Cooder CD, and I liked how Ry could conjure visual rural landscapes in your head just from listening to his music. I discovered more of his music in the movie Crossroads with Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai, which I liked even more than the compilation album. After going through these albums, learning the open G guitar tuning, and teaching myself slide guitar, I wrote “The Lonesome Cowboy,” “El Paso Blues,” and “Swampy.”
My arrangement of “Noel / Silent Night” happened late fall Junior year of college. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and I wanted to arrange my own Christmas song which evokes the warm fuzzy feeling of spending time with your family and peace on earth. I ended up merging two Christmas tunes into one continuous arrangement. Musically, my guitar-work on this is influenced by two Eric Johnson songs I was learning at the time, “Manhattan” and “Song for Life.” The way Eric voices chords with wide intervals to give it an open sound is something I mimicked in my arrangement. After some practicing, I debut my arrangement at a November Cactus Café open mic. One audience member who liked my arrangement so much wrote on loose piece of paper how much she enjoyed listening to my arrangement, and handed me her note before exiting the Cactus Cafe. This is technically my first fan mail, and knowing how my playing really helped someone feel better encouraged me to keep working on music. My love of Christmas music would eventually lead me to record a Christmas album titled “Fireplace Christmas Tunes” released in 2012.
The last songs I wrote for Geetar were “Giddy Up” and “The Old Cotton Rag.” I wrote those songs during my senior year of college after being exposed to the fast fiery guitarwork of Tommy Emmanuel. How I discovered Tommy Emmanuel is a story of itself:
Up until this point, I owned an Ibanez RG120 electric guitar, but not an acoustic guitar. I borrowed a friend’s or roommate’s acoustic guitar everytime I wanted to play a song at the Cactus Café open mic. By junior year of college, I had saved up enough money, and decided I wanted to buy an acoustic guitar for myself. I wanted a real nice acoustic guitar, not an entry level model, and all I knew at that time was that Martin made top quality acoustic guitars. I was walking past the classified boards in the student union, and saw an ad posted by another student selling his Martin 000-15 guitar in pristine condition for $400, and it was autographed by Tommy Emmanuel. After some research, I discovered that the Martin 000-15 is ideal for fingerstyle guitar playing, which I was already into. The price was also within my budget. At the time, a new Martin 000-15 sold new for $800, so getting it for $400 was a deal. One thing that bothered me though, is I had no idea who Tommy Emmanuel was. I didn’t want to play publically with Tommy Emmanuel’s autograph on my guitar if I didn’t like his music. The University library didn’t have any of his albums, so I decided to download some of his music off Napster. I figured, if I didn’t like his music, I’ll think of a way to remove his autograph from my guitar.
I downloaded some Tommy Emmanuel songs off Napster, such as “Mombasa,” “Luttrell,” “Train to Dusseldorf,” “Biskie,” and “Tall Fiddler.” I was absolutely floored by his overall musicianship, the speed and ferocity in his playing, and his ability to shred melodically while playing the bass and rhythm parts without a backing band, via his fingerstyle technique. I had never heard the acoustic guitar played in this fashion before. I was exposed to intricate fingerpicking like “Dust in the Wind,” and Eric Johnson’s “Song for Life” and “Song for George,” but Tommy Emmanuel’s fingerpicking was a whole other universe. You could say that if I hadn’t had bought a guitar autographed by Tommy Emmanuel, my guitar playing might be different today.
My introduction to Emmanuel’s music inspired me to take my guitar playing to the next level. I subsequently wrote rapid-fire fingerpicking tunes “Giddy Up” and “The Old Cotton Rag.” Being that I was a young musician trying to gain respect and make my mark on the world, I included “Giddy Up” and “The Old Cotton Rag” on my debut album to showcase my chops.
In 2005, I graduated from The University of Texas with a degree in electrical engineering and moved back home to my parents in Houston TX. In 2006, I landed a job in Washington DC. By then, I owned a car, so I could drive to any open mic or gig I desired. I wanted to start gigging as many places as I could in my new hometown of Washington DC. I knew I had to record an album of my original music.
It was not until 2008 that I stepped into the studio to record Geetar. It took me 2 years to get acclimated to living in DC, to navigate the DC open mic and music scene, and to save up enough money to record an album. Mind you, this was my first job, I had student loans to pay off, and it was my first time embracing adulthood roles like cooking on my own, paying taxes, etc.
I was lucky to meet producer Jesse Tomaino. At that time, he finished up recording engineering school, decided to change careers from being a restaurant chef to a recording engineer, and opened his first recording studio outside of DC. Because his studio was new, he was actively searching for clients to record, and offering his services for an introductory rate of only $20 an hour, which was within my budget. In addition, Jesse is also a talented multi-instrumental musician who played upright bass and drums on Geetar. This saved me from having to pay for studio musicians. I was blessed to meet the right producer at the right time catering to my artistic and financial needs, while still producing a professional quality recording.
Ten years later, Geetar is still an album I am proud of. It is my debut album that captures my early influences, which have molded me into the musician I am today. Geetar is my starting point in my ever evolving music journey. It is my roots of where I come from musically.
Buy Geetar herehttp://www.stevehungmusic.com/Store.html