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Australian guitar virtuoso Bruce Mathiske has released a new solo guitar album, Six String Anthology and he’s hitting the road for an east coast tour. AM’s Greg Phillips chats to Bruce ahead of the tour

Acclaimed guitar virtuoso and composer Bruce Mathiske is taking a break from his tour rehearsals to talk me about about his new album, Six String Anthology. The concept of his solo guitar album is that it focuses on songs representing the key of each string of the guitar. It was released on April 6th and on the 28th of April he heads out to perform the new material on an east coast tour of Australia. Even though it’s a solo acoustic tour, Bruce still likes to specifically rehearse the show rather than just sit on a couch and practice guitar.
“It is a totally different world sitting down with a guitar on your lap than plugging it in, plus I also have the didgeridoo and loop pedal, which I use a couple of tracks on the album and in the show too,” he explains. “It is a different psyche and you do it song after song. I have actually got more serious about it after my break, so yes … just like when The Stones go and hire a warehouse, I do a show rehearsal too.”

The complex but melodious style of the music featured on Six String Anthology requires incredible proficiency and concentration to perform it well. Although Mathiske is an accomplished and well-rehearsed musician, I wondered if it’s still tricky to find a balance between concentration and enjoyment while playing these tunes on stage?
“That’s even hard to answer,” says Bruce. “I really like the grind of practice, always have. The new pieces I’m doing are more compositional so they don’t leave much room for improvisation but during the set I get the freedom with some of the other tunes to do that … which I need. Improvising is something that I love to do. I know what you mean though. The last thing the audience wants is an intellectually perfect concert. I am well aware of that because I grew up on 70s rock. I love raw and rugged music and love it when the tempo is racing and you’ve got a bit of feedback. Nowadays the clips seem so perfect and everything is done with a click track and it’s not as good. I am totally aware that you need that raw edge. You demand perfection in yourself but there’s got to be that human element, so yes that’s a constant see-sawing act I guess. Being aware of it is a good thing though, that’s important too.”

The concept of the album, writing a piece for each string of the guitar was suggested to Bruce by lauded conductor and music educator Richard Gill, while Bruce was spending some time off the road working on some orchestral compositions. The other major reason Mathiske was off the road was to attend to his wife’s needs after she was diagnosed with cancer. Consequently, the initial album idea didn’t make much of an impact on Bruce, who had other things on his mind.

“When he suggested it, I thought yeah, great idea Richard but I didn’t give it another thought,” recalls Bruce. “But I am playing and writing all the time and 12 months later, I just thought … I’ve almost done this. I realised that I had six tunes that married up to those keys. A couple of them I’d already had, you always have some things that are half done anyway. So it happened without me really trying to or wanting to. So yeah at the time I didn’t say, well I’m going to go straight home and work on that.”

Bruce’s wife’s Melle’s illness forced him off the road for a few years and also compelled him to think more about life in general. Thankfully, everything worked out and Bruce and Melle will soon be heading back out on the road together, as they’ve done many times before.
“I’ve been pretty emotionless about things until now,“ he says on reflection. “It changed everything, I suppose as a human. Getting off the road was hard because I love it but I’ve done over twenty albums. It was album, tour, album, tour and you can’t just stay in that and be creative. You end up doing more of the same. This forced me off for 3 years and it dawned on me that I can play guitar just for me. I don’t have to have a career and that’s why I love the album because it’s just what came out. I wasn’t as attached to it because there were bigger things happening in our lives. Obviously there were other priorities than me playing guitar.”

Another element which contributed to making this album so special for Bruce was the use of a brand new guitar, hand-built by Frank Searles and Strato Anagnostis of the Australian Guitar Making School. Nicknamed the ’The Franto’, Bruce believes it’s the finest guitar he’s ever played.
“They wanted to build me a guitar and I said that’s fine. If I like it and it’s as good as my current guitar, I will use it and it has turned out to be unbelievable,” says Bruce. “I’d already had some of the album recorded with my previous guitar and when I started using the new one, I thought … I have to go back and redo the other stuff now. It was built just in time.

And the brief he gave Frank and Strato before building the guitar?
“I like warm tops and a balanced sound,” was what he told them both. “I don’t like it bright at all, I am nuts on that. I get worried in recordings if it’s getting too bright. With virtuousic music, that can get annoying on your ears after three tracks. It’s the same when you play instrumental guitar, it can be quite lively and quite imposing to the ear and I am really sensitive to that. I wanted a nice warm top end and an evenness of tone. There were two guys making the guitar and this was interesting … they both had different ideas on the pickup. I said that my current guitar has a Fishman dual system with a microphone and the piezo and it’s really good but I’m also hearing great things about the Barbera pickup. In the end, they got one of each and combined the two, so it’s got the Fishman preamp and microphone on a Barbera pickup and the combination has turned out to be sensational.”

Like a majority of acoustic guitar players, finding a perfect live sound has been an endless quest for Mathiske. “Once again, that’s a real search,” says Bruce. “I’m closer than ever now with this guitar. I have always added a lot of bass because I don’t have a bass player, so I like quite a bassy sound. With this guitar though, I don’t have to … I can’t explain it but it goes low without being too bassy, so I don’t know how that can be but the bottom E string goes quite deep… so I make sure I’ve got a sub and that needs to be full. You need to have volume for a solo player and fill the room and be full and fat. I know from working with a lot of technicians they are not used to that with the guitar. The guitar usually goes into a mix and because you’ve got bass player, you thin out the bottom end. Most of them think that’s the way you have to mix a solo player too but no, you have to have a thick bottom end but I am rapt with the sound of this guitar.”

Despite being a solo guitar album, Six String Anthology also features a Boss RC-2 loop pedal on a couple of tracks. The RC-2 will join Bruce on tour and will feature on a number of tracks in the live show. “I’m careful not to overuse it,” he says. “I think I use it in two songs on the album and four songs live. It just allows me a bit of freedom. I use it on the track Santiago and it just expanded and orchestrated things and became a great tool. There’s a split screen post on YouTube of it, so people can see how I layer things.”

In regard to recorded guitar sound, Bruce looks to the great Leo Kottke as a real benchmark for studio quality. “Leo Kottke’s My Fathers Face is the one I always look up to,” he tells me without hesitation. “That shines above all of them. That’s a forever thing though! How do you get your guitar to sound as great as it does on an album? I have done a lot of albums and you always look forward to the next one. It’s like I know what to do now! It’s a forever problem. There are so many impurities and funny notes and weird stuff when recording. I’ve recorded myself and I have had other people do it and yeah, I don’t know but Leo Kottke’s My Father’s Face, there’s something beautiful about it. That’s the one guitar album I can listen to over and over for pleasure, for its music.”

Bruce Mathiske has his mind firmly focussed on performing this new material in ‘listening-friendly’ venues down the east coast of Australia in a couple of weeks time. As for long term plans or bucket lists, it’s not something he gives much credence to.
“I am trying not to think too much beyond this tour because I am so obsessed with just playing music and guitar,” he says. “My bucket list is to try and embrace more aspects of life I suppose. I have a motorbike that I like to ride on a nice day. I mean, I love other countries and other cultures so I want to get over there a bit more. I go on motorbike safaris and that’s fantastic but from that I also write music. I just want to get a little rounder with my life.”



Jane Bonfield, Wallsend, Newcastle NSW

And what’s the best piece of advice anyone gave to Bruce in regard to the guitar?
“The biggest piece of advice I DIDN’T get, which I wish someone had said to me earlier, is to use a metronome! As a soloist if you are not playing with a drummer, you can be all over the place. But it’s just the basics. Learn a couple of scales rather than a million of them to begin with, just a couple but learn them fantastically well so you can’t falter on them and that’s the building block to learn more if you want to. Same with chords. Learn your chords in the open position and they become the foundation for the bar chords up and down the neck.”













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