One of Trace Bundy’s latest YouTube videos isn’t actually a new live performance or the latest alchemic solo re-imagining of a beloved cover tune.
A longtime patron of McPherson Guitars, the highly esteemed Wisconsin-based luthier, Bundy sat down in a darkened studio to play “Joy and Sorrow,” a cut from his 2012 album Elephant King. Looping the chordal underlayment and percussion lines on one of his standard McPherson axes, Bundy puts it down and grabs a black, sinister-looking guitar to play the head and melodic statement. Common to McPherson guitars, the heart-shaped soundhole appears at the top of the body, but the guitar exudes an indifferent laminate sheen over a rigorously industrial honeycomb design, like something from a Ridley Scott fever dream.
Guitarists, and especially those at the upper reaches of the food chain, tend to be almost irrationally picky about their woods and grains and laminates. Playability is one thing -— you can get that in a $75 starter axe from the overstock corner at Guitar Center — but for an acoustic player, and especially one who traverses the fingerboard and mines even the most subtle tonal murmur from their instrument like Bundy, how the thing sounds and how the strings play against the instrument is everything. Whatever that thing is, it sounded glorious — sparkling highs, precise and well articulated lows.
“Yeah, so there’s a few things goin’ on with that,” Bundy explains in an interview.
“The carbon fiber is obviously stronger than wood, so you can make the top of your guitar thinner. And a thinner top, in theory, it’s going to resonate more than a thicker top. Then again, because it’s stronger, it may not.
“The other thing, especially for players like me, coming from Colorado which is such a dry climate, you don’t have to worry about it as much. [e.g., Extreme temperatures and humidity are hell on precisely crafted wood guitars.] So it’s not as sensitive to humidity and temperature… I literally keep it on my couch, with the kids climbing on it, sitting on it. I can just walk by, and, ‘Oh, a guitar, I got 10 minutes, let’s play.’ Where my wood guitars I keep locked up in their case in the closet.
“And here’s the other thing — I carry my nice wooden guitars on the plane with me when I travel. But I put the carbon fiber one in a soft, cloth case, and this is going to sound crazy, I check it. And I dunno if it’s smart, but my theory is that it’s so lightweight, so easy to handle, it’s not going to come crashing down if it gets dropped. I figure [the baggage guys] are going to pick it up, know it’s a guitar, hopefully not throw it, although they probably will anyway, and because it’s strong I don’t worry about it.”
After his July 6 Chautauqua gig with uke maestro Jake Shimabukuro, Bundy will play a few shows down in southwest Colorado, his old stomping grounds, before heading off for a five-day, fingerstyle guitar festival/competition in Arkansas, a six-stringpalooza that will feature elder statesman Don Ross, the probably extraterrestrial Kaki King and the ferocious Adrian Bellue (not a misspelling of the other Adrian Belew). We asked Bundy, who is first and foremost a solo artist, if he enjoyed these types of gigs.
“The last few have been overseas, like in China and Taiwan, but this Arkansas one should be really fun,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it. People will be camping out and stuff.”
The new solo acoustic instrumentalist genre is more like a loosely aggregated mutual appreciation society, almost a fraternity, where players, many of whom came to prominence through YouTube but like Bundy have solidified and deepened their repute by stool-’n-spotlight gigging, have grown into learning and emulating and extending each others’ technique. This is hardly a competition for stage space. The audience for this music — comprised of guitar-playing aspirants to new agers to restless off-grid ’grass fans to café and date-night types — seems to grow and embrace the dizzying experimentation that the players continue to extract from the instrument.
So yeah, maybe there’s a competition involved with judges and prizes, but Bundy is pretty well past all that now, having solidified his repute through his unique merger of technique and thoughtful arrangement. The flying capos and shooting-star harmonics are great visual fare, but Bundy’s playing always stands on its own, based in musicality first.
Still, the technique part is fun. Is it a matter of watching the other cats and saying to yourself, “How does he do that?”
“I love that all the guitar players still have that reaction. Heh, maybe there’s some player out there that just says, ‘No, I know it all, I’ve got all the technique,’ but I don’t think so. I know, for me for sure, some of these young guitarists now that are just doing really cool stuff, I’m like, ‘Wait, I need to slow that down and pause it and replay it, because I’m not sure how he did that.’ I mean, I love that.”
Bundy himself has been the object of that kind of rapturous awe — his callisthenic use of guitar body-slapping percussion, his use of creative capo placement, pinpoint harmonics and inverted melodies has been the stuff of YouTube legend ever since 2006 when he made the otherwise little known German composer Johann Pachelbel (d. 1706) an (almost) household name with his exquisitely latticed read of “Canon in D.” The video is still a gargantuan presence out there, and has inspired hundreds of players (including the Korean wunderkind Sungha Jung) to adopt Bundy’s technique and broaden it across multiple genres.
But if YouTube was Bundy’s entree into the arena 13 years ago, he’s focused more now on the stage.
“For me, the live show is the currency… YouTube is still relevant, but it’s become quite saturated, so it’s harder to get a viral video. But then, things like Pandora and Spotify — a lot of artists complain about those because they pay so little per play, like a fraction of a penny, but everybody uses them. I think I get like a million plays per month on Pandora — I don’t know if it’s someone there who likes my music or an algorithm, but they seem to work my songs into a lot of random playlists. So it can add up.”
And while it’s been seven years since Bundy’s last recorded output, technology creep hasn’t dimmed the lights. Maybe the merch table holds the key to the generational crease in take-home music.
“I had my first show ever, not too long ago, where I did not sell a single CD. And it was a college show. What college students are buying CDs? But guess what they bought? Vinyl. And then on this Midwest tour, outside of Madison, Wisconsin, it was a bit of an older audience, great crowd, and I sold so many CDs.”
The music business is dying, dead, molding away in a casket carried to ground by MP3s and piracy and tin-eared buck chasers in Los Angeles. Right?
Except, guess what, it’s working for at least some artists.
“It’s weird. That’s why I hold this with such gratitude. I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I’ll be honest, it has not slowed down for me. It’s just been a steady growth the whole way,” Bundy says.
“I keep thinking I’ll wake up one day, and it’ll be, ‘Well, that was fun, but I guess it’s over.’ But not yet.”
ON THE BILL: Jake Shimabukuro and Trace Bundy. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 6, Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $33-$48, chautauqua.com