from the Irish News Nov. 24th 2007, by David Roy
Acoustic Guitar Hero
Thomas Leeb is one guitar virtuoso who definitely has to be seen to be believed. He doesn’t so much play his guitar as tease, cajole and spank sounds out of it, creating a mesmerizing mix of melody rhythm. The Austrian born, California based musician returns to Northern Ireland tomorrow for a week of gigs and workshops.
David Roy spoke to him about his unique craft.
While lots of people learn to play guitar as teenagers, few make it past the stage of clumsily emulating rock heroes. If Thomas Leeb hadn’t grown up in the remote mountains of Carinthia, Austria, he too might have been relegated to endless bedroom recitals of Enter Sandman.
Luckily fate had other plans. Left to his own devices, the self-taught Leeb was able to develop the fantastically energetic “extreme finger style” acoustic guitar skills he keeps audiences enthralled with today. However, even he had to start at the beginning.
“The first thing I learned was power chords because I loved Guns n’ Roses and Metallica so much,” laughs the 30-year-old.
“The thing was because I lived on top of a mountain there were no drummers or bass players to make bands with. So, I switched over to the acoustic. With an acoustic guitar, you can play everything yourself.” It’s this statement which is key to understanding the root of Leeb’s unique playing style. He creates a full spectrum of sounds by slapping the body of his guitar in between running both hands up the neck to create ringing harmonics, melodies and strong rhythmic phrasings.
“Even though I was crap to begin with, there still something in me that made me think maybe I could get quite good,” he explains, “From then on, I just focused all my energy on playing.:”
Once Leeb discovered unconventional acoustic maestros like Michael Hedges and Preston Reed, the die was cast that set him off in pursuit of his own version of their distinctive two-handed percussive style.
“It made me realize there was another way of doing things.” he comments. “it was then I wrote all the material for the album Riddle which came out in 1999. it’s still very popular with people. I was chuffed to hear it described as a ‘lesser know landmark for the guitar.”
However, by this stage the fledgling virtuoso had already released a couple of albums-artefacts he’s somewhat less than proud of. “ I think one day I’ll buy back all the copies I sold of my very first two albums, build a giant bonfire and then sit back with a beer and enjoy a job well done,” says Leeb with a chuckle.
Having developed his technique over the past decade, the California based Leeb now finds himself in demand for concerts all over the world. However, he always finds time to share his skills with others by holding workshops and even running an annual week long residential “guitar boot camp” in his native Austria.
“I tell people that if they don’t have tears falling on their bleeding fingertips they aren’t trying hard enough,” chuckles Leeb.
“The thing with what I do is that at the end of the day, I’m only cooking with water. I’m not doing anything that exceptional. It’s all about breaking things down into bite sized pieces, If you do that, my stuff is probably easier to learn than what some of those electric guitar shredders do.”
Indeed, his fans have proved only too eager to break out their own guitars and attempt to emulate his playing, as evidence by the many videos on YouTube featuring note and slap perfect recitals of songs from albums such as 1999’s Riddle, 2005’s Upside Down and his current effort, Desert Pirate.
“Akaskero has proved exceptionally popular for people to learn, which is great,” explains a clearly humbled Leeb. “ The only problem is that now people know it so well that I can’t bluff anymore. If I make a mistake, I’ll always look up and see at lest one person shaking their head and laughing.!”
Well on his way towards his 1.000th gig, Leeb has been a regular visitor to Ireland throughout his playing career and enjoys what he describes as a “special connection” with Northern Ireland.
“The first time I came was 12 years ago,” he remembers. “ I was busking in Grafton Street in Dublin and all over the country. It taught me to play loud and to keep the guitar case away from the gypsy kids who’ll try to steal the money you’ve made! “I liked the people very much. especially in Northern Ireland, they’ve always been exceptionally good to me. For some reason I have a special connection to them- maybe it’s because of the guitars I play.”
Indeed, Leeb works his magic on Lowden guitars, which are handmade right here in Downpatrick
“I just fell in love with them,” he explains. “They’re so completely different and European sounding. When I first started playing my Lowden, I actually had a bit of trouble getting used to it. Once I adjusted though, there was no turning back. I’d become Lowdened!”
Despite Leeb’s worldwide reputation, he doesn’t yet have his own signature Lowden model. However, it can only be a matter of time.
“ I believe that a signature guitar is kid of like a lifetime achievement award,” he says. “I’m definitely a bit too young for that now. But I’m always planning ahead. I’m already looking for special woods from my hometown in Austria. "Maybe in ten years or something i’ll be able to have my own guitars made from it. That would be great.”
If you’re heading to one of Thomas Leeb’s gigs this week, don’t expect a stuffy guitar recital. His shows are much more informal and all the better for it.
“I like playing live and telling stories and having a bit of banter between songs,” he enthuses. ‘I just want to entertain people. That’s what it’s about for me.”.