Mike Nelson Interview
By Rick Ickard (Richard Alcoy)

Appeared in the AFG Sound Hole - Issue 11 (September 2000 - editor: Burt Zeldin)

Mike Nelson has been a member of AFG a few years now. He's an interesting character because he seems to have come so far in his playing since he started. His original tunes are getting better, and we hear a little more confidence with each performance. Guitarists like Richard Alcoy, Stephen Bennett, and Dimitri Diatchenko are playing his tunes. What's the deal with this guy?

Mike Nelson

Where do you reside now, Mike?
La Mesa, CA, just east of San Diego.

Do you come from a musical family?
Everyone plays music except my dad. My grandfather was the best. He played Swedish folk songs and dances, all from memory on the piano. He also played guitar. I also had an uncle who played classical guitar.

In what part of United States were you born?
I was born in San Diego.

How were you influenced, musically?
The piano was played in my home a lot growing up, and I had a couple of years of private lessons. My dad liked Johnny Cash (we're talking mid sixties), Herb Alpert, the pop stuff of the day. Mom had classical guitar albums of Segovia and Parkening.

What got you interested in guitar, in particular?
Why guitar? The sound. Take an acoustic or classical guitar, a little natural reverb. How could I resist?

How old were you when you started?
11 years old

Are you still studying with Celin Romero?
I'm not studying with him, currently.

I've learned that you speak Spanish. Does it bring you closer to the classical guitar world?
Spanish helps because there are so many Spanish terms and composers in classical guitar study.

How did you learn to speak Spanish?
I studied Spanish all through school. It just seemed logical, living so close to the border.

Tell us what your job is and if you use Spanish in the work place.
I work in a Marie Callender's Restaurant & Bakery. My specialty is food production. I work closely with Hispanic people, and it helps to speak the language.

Are you enjoying having two careers at the same time?
(exasperated sigh) Working two careers is tough, especially on weekends. I work at the restaurant during the day and play guitar at night. It can make for a long day.
You really write wonderful music. What type do you specialize in?
Thanks, Richard! Style-wise, I don't have a specialty. I like to find a melody and put it in a style that fits.

Which do you write more often, songs or guitar music? What's your technique?
For as long as I could play, I've tried to make things up -- songs, instrumentals. I studied song writing for awhile. It's good because it helps to understand structural form. There are so many ways to organize a piece. I always strive for a strong melody -- something you can sing back after you listen to the piece. Then, find a “groove” or style that fits the melody. Sometimes, I find a good “groove” first, and the melody spins off from it. I like to take a rhythmic pattern from the intro or from the main theme and keep using it in other parts of the piece. This is what Beethoven did. Worked for him! It helps unify the piece. Think about the structure. Everybody does verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. I do too at times, but sometimes, the song wants to go somewhere else, and you need to let it. One great technique, if you can pull it off, is to start with a groove, then maintain elements of that groove while putting more “on top.” That way, you create the illusion of two or more guitarists. Almost all writers and arrangers for guitar try to do this. Much easier said than done!

Speaking about guitar compositions, did you go to a conservatory and have formal training?
I studied music at San Diego State University. I had lots of theory there, which helped me to understand the classical pieces I was working on at the time. You try to make every note count.

You mentioned that you took a master class with Andrew York. is he a big influence on you or is there any resemblance of your music to his?
I studied jazz and composition with York. He has a signature style. I call it "Contemporary Renaissance." I haven't tried anything like that, but what I do follow is his approach to phrasing. There is a statement, then a response. Make a phrase. OK, answer that phrase.

What made you interested in acoustic guitar?
The sound.

If you had the opportunity to write more guitar music, whose styles of music would you prefer to create?
York, Tarrega. Dang it Richard, you're making me think! I'd say all kinds. I will always try out different styles.

Do you use alternate tunings?

I only use drop-D now and then.

There's a significant difference between classical and acoustic. How do you manage the two styles? Do you integrate the two in your compositions?
The more I practice, the easier it is to change style. It was only difficult when I started out using a thumbpick in '97. I borrow classical writing techniques to use in fingerstyle and jazz tunes. In particular, I don't often use full chords. I use fragments. That way, I have room to build up if I need to. If you play a song with all six strings ringing and you want to get louder, how do you do it?
You tell me! (...laughter)

We have never seen you play electric guitar. Are you planning to play one?
I have a Kirk Sand on order and I'm buying one of Jim English's jazz models.

How has the music of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed influenced you, musically?
Those guys paved the highway for us. A brilliant performer, a brilliant writer. How can we add to the legacy?

What other fingerstyle guitarists have strongly influenced your music?
Richard Alcoy, Pat Kirtley. Both have really bent over backwards to help me out. Tommy Emmanuel has also influenced me.

When did you start going to the AFG and to the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Conventions?
I went to a Doyle Dykes clinic at the San Bernardino Guitar Center in early '97, and found out about AFG. I learned about CAAS then, too.

Who played guitar with you?
Richard Alcoy.

Have you had some memorable experiences?

Oh, man. Recent stuff with AFG/CAAS, or overall? Well, all the opportunities and friendships that came from AFG and CAAS in the past 3 years have been great. Jamming with Steve Bennett at CAAS this summer was a blast.

You have a blues selection in your CD. What influenced you to play blues?
I started listening to blues and playing it very early on.

What can you say about jazz?
To me, jazz is the final frontier. It's been the hardest to understand and play. You have to be a complete musician to do it well. But I've been gradually learning more and more.

Who is you favorite jazz player then?
Joe Pass.

What role does your music play in your life?

My music is my life's work.

Some players find practicing boring. Do you like to practice? If so, how many hours a day?
I usually love it, but sometimes I have to force myself to practice. I guess about 6 hours a day.

What are your musical activities at the present?
I just started an Elements of Jazz class at SDSU, which is just what I need right now. I play guitar regularly with Tom Boyer, Jim English, and Richard Glick.

Are you playing somewhere?
My bread and butter gigs, right now, are private parties. I get work directly from the Hotel del Coronado and from Quantum Productions, a booking agency. It's great. You dress up nice, show up on time, play guitar for 2 to 3 hours, and get a very nice check in the mail.

Tell us about your favorite guitars.
You sure you want to get me started? I'll try to keep it short. I
have a 20 year old classical, a Hirade (top-of-the-line Takamine) that's been my main gig guitar. It had a huge neck, which Jim English shaved down this year. I use Savarez Alliance super hi tension strings, and get a great high end response out of it. I have a Taylor 612c acoustic, which had a very tinny pickup system. Now it has a Highlander dual source pickup. All of a sudden, I have low end! What a concept! Since I got serious about jazz, I borrowed one of English's Jazz King electrics. I love it. Since I won't be giving it back, to preserve our
friendship, I will have to give him money.

What's your advice for aspiring players?
Educate yourself fully. Give yourself the necessary tools you need to communicate what's inside of you to the world. It helps to be obsessed with the guitar.

Where can someone find your CD?
Go to (Larry Kuhns' website), to Online Music Store at http://www.olms.golinq.com (note - seems to be defunct - ed)

What are your plans for the future?
I'm planning on creating a new CD by summertime, expanding my client base for private functions, learning jazz, writing, etc.

Any suggestions on how to improve the Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists?
I'd like to see more jamming at our AFG functions.

Thank you for your time Mike!

Thank you, Richard. Thank you AFG, it's an honor to get to speak!


2000 - Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists