When Vicki Genfan describes playing guitar as a “body/heart” experience, her description is literal. Her approach is a whole-body connection, one that she has been cultivating since she discovered the instrument at age 5.
[Cover Photo Credit: Dieter Stork]
Citing her multi-instrumentalist father as her first influence, she grew up surrounded by music. She began taking piano lessons as a child and studied trombone in elementary school, but the acoustic guitar was her true calling. Genfan studied jazz and classical music for two years at Ithaca College in New York, and pursued a career as a singer-songwriter. She eventually shifted her focus to instrumental composition and performance, developing dozens of tunings and perfecting her unique percussive style.
Her second album, Outside The Box (2000), put Genfan on the guitar world’s radar. Since then, she has performed internationally, won awards, participated in festivals, recorded several albums and contributed to compilations, released instructional videos, and is a clinician for Luna Guitars.
Genfan is dedicating the remainder of 2015 to recording. In September she returned to Nashville to perform at the Bluebird Café, while this month is filled with Luna clinics and a concert and clinic at the Woodstock Luthiers Invitational. “I’m taking things slowly to make room for recording and writing,” she says. “I have a number of projects on the table. I’m not sure which one is going to hit first, so I don’t want to say something and commit myself in one direction, but there’s a lot of cool stuff on the horizon.”
Do you stay close to the original arrangements of your songs when you perform, or do you sometimes improvise?
I have a lot of freedom because I play most of the time as a solo artist, so I’m able to instantaneously rearrange a song or change something up if I feel like it. I find that certain pieces lend themselves to that, while certain pieces are better if I stick with the actual arrangement. But where the pieces allow me to, I enjoy the freedom of being able to make some changes in the moment, because in the moment in the room with that audience, things are different at every show, and they’re subtle things. I usually play “Atomic Reshuffle” very fast, and one time I decided I would play it half-tempo until the middle section of the song. I had never done that before. It was a very funny story because it culminated in my pants falling down. I’ll never forget that. My pants didn’t fall down because I slowed it down, but it was just one of those strange things. Luckily, I don’t think anyone noticed it. It was an amazing save. I had a long tunic on, I can go into the details …
Go right ahead. Aren’t you thankful that it didn’t end up on YouTube?
I’m still waiting! As far as I know, nobody noticed. I was wearing baggy, gauzy, genie-like pants and a long tunic. It was wintertime in Woodstock at the luthier show. See? They’re having me back! It was cold, so I had silk long underwear on, I went to sit down, my hand happened to swipe the side of my leg, and I could feel that the waistline was down by my mid-thigh. I was in a round with five other players and I had done my song, so I had four people to go before me before I had to do something again. I had this amazing period of time, like 18 minutes, and my head was like, Oh my god. I had my jumbo guitar on my lap and I shimmied my pants very slowly, an inch at a time, but I had to get them over my butt at some point, and you have to kind of get up off the chair and pull your pants up. I know you understand that, being a woman. It’s my most hysterical, almost humiliating moment of performing in my whole life, and I timed it perfectly so that I’m doing that final get-it-over-my-butt while they’re focusing on somebody else’s big moment in their piece. My mind was on the most mathematical, fine-tuned meter that it had ever been! I was cracking up at myself in my head the whole time, going, This is insane.
I had no idea if people realized, and that was the clincher. Imagine 300 people in the audience, your pants just fell halfway down, you have no idea if anybody knows, and you’ve got to do another song. What are you going to do? What are you going to say? I managed to get them all the way up by the time it was my turn, and I had to say something to the audience to acknowledge it on some level, because I couldn’t live with myself and ignore it if they all knew. When it was my turn — I had been standing up, obviously, for my songs and I was not standing up — I pulled the microphone down to me and I said, “Since my pants won’t stay up, I’m going to sit down for my next song.” When the concert was over, I was dying inside because I didn’t know if anyone knew, and I was afraid to ask because I didn’t really want to know. But I had to know because it was making me crazy! It took me until the next day to have the nerve to ask my friend Sharon, “You didn’t notice my pants fell down last night, did you?” She said, “What? No, I didn’t notice.” I thought, OK, if Sharon didn’t notice it, and my friend Al, who was onstage with me, didn’t notice it, nobody noticed it. Probably. But I would not be surprised if it shows up one day on YouTube, so it’s one of those things I have to accept.
When you said that your pants fell down, I was imagining you standing at the mic, pants around your ankles.
Right, right! I think they fell because of the long silk underwear. Obviously, the pants were loose, but I think the silkiness expedited the process. What was going on in my head for those 20 minutes and the next day was so funny in hindsight.
Well, the rest of the interview is downhill all the way, because what can I ask to follow that? You certainly didn’t share this with Guitar Interactive!
No, I didn’t! Well, they didn’t ask. Neither did you, but I shared it and I don’t know why!
OK, let’s try. How do you keep your live sound consistent night after night?
That is a very serious question. There are two scenarios. One is when I’m lucky enough to have my sound tech, Tay Hoyle, come with me. She has been my musical partner for 30 years and she knows everything about what I do and how I do it. She’s a brilliant engineer, live technician, and sound person. She’s recorded and mixed most of my albums. We have a system when she’s with me. I’m going to sound pretty much the way I always sound, which is great, and I’m really grateful. When she’s not with me, I’m still OK for the most part because I have a great system inside both of my guitars that I’m using right now. The system consists of two parts. One is an under-the-saddle piezo pickup made by B-Band. It’s neutral-sounding and it doesn’t change the tone of the guitar. The other is the Miniflex 2Mic, an extraordinary internal microphone for an acoustic instrument. There are two microphones that I can move around wherever I want. They’re just incredible. I can go pretty much anywhere and sound good, and when I’m with Tay, it sounds great. She’s brilliant, and the system inside the guitars is brilliant.
Thirty years with a tech is amazing. What was the process for both of you to find the right components to translate your sound onstage?
It’s been a lot of trial and error. I was working with another amazing tech named Chris Grener, out of Syracuse, for a number of years. He was making great internal mic sound systems for my guitar, and we spent a lot of time going back and forth with Tay and Chris, trying to fine-tune what I need. I don’t envy anyone doing sound for me, because one of the biggest challenges is that during the course of any one song I might use four or five techniques that are totally different, that make the guitar sound totally different, that put my hands in totally different locations. They might as well be as far apart from each other as they can, and EQ-wise, compression-wise, keeping that musical is really challenging. Over the years, Tay has come upon a great compression unit and a parametric EQ unit that gave her a lot of control over how she shaped my sound. She knows how to blend the microphone inside the guitar with the pickup under the saddle and get it right. I change the timbre and tonality of what I’m doing just by changing technique from picking to tapping to strumming to slapping, and she will make those adjustments to keep it at its optimum sonic quality. When she’s mixing, it’s fluid. It flows. She never sets me up for a song and walks away. I feel like she’s driving with me the whole time.
Let’s talk about sequencing the show. As a solo artist, it’s entirely on you to entertain and engage the audience.
It’s tricky. More important than the sequence of songs is whether I feel comfortable with the sequence. I’ll write a set list out, and if I feel like I need to make a change, I let myself do that. A lot of that is reading an audience and feeling what’s going on. Are they ready for something to slow down, are they ready to be taken up, do I need something to lift the energy or mellow out the energy? Then there are things I know work well. I’ve started my sets pretty much the same way for maybe a year now. The first four songs are always the same. Part of that is because I know it works, because it introduces them to a lot of different aspects about me from the beginning, and it gives them a song they know, because the third song is always “Norwegian Wood.” It also gives me a chance to talk at the beginning of the show about what I’m doing with the tunings and the different techniques. I’ve learned over time that the people really enjoy hearing a little bit of a tutorial about what the heck it is I’m doing. A little bit. I have to be careful and not talk too much about it. But people have come up to me after every show since I started doing that and thanking me for explaining how I got to what I do now, how I started at 5 years old and now I’m doing these 37 tunings. So I’ve worked out an intro of four songs that work really well. I change it once in a while, but I also know that I can fall back on that. The rest of the set is up for grabs.
What are some of your preferred recording techniques?
That’s Tay’s territory because she is a master of that. For “Atomic Reshuffle,” I think she used a combination of six mics and my under-the-saddle pickup. She didn’t use them all at the same time, so even in a studio situation she was mixing different mics in and out of different parts of the song, depending on the timbre, the tonality, the tunings, etcetera. So I really let Tay take over. There’s a company called Schoeps that makes great mics, and we found that if we’re only going to have two mics, let’s say, we’re going to have Schoeps, if we can. The rest of that I leave up to Tay and let her do her wizardry.
Early in your career, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I’m going to get this out of the way and just say it: As a guitar player, and going at this professionally, there is a double standard about women and men. You’re looked at differently than a man playing guitar. You just are. That didn’t become an obstacle for me, but it was there for whatever reason. It didn’t deter me in any way until later in my career at the Guitar Superstar competition. That was really interesting.
Obstacles in terms of playing were simply deciding on where I wanted to focus. There was a point in time when I had started developing these alternate techniques and I was still basically a singer-songwriter. I was looking at the billion other female singer-songwriters in the United States and feeling like I had to have an edge, a way to be different, or else I was not going to be successful. I wasn’t going to get the gigs. I wouldn’t be the one people would call back. Why would they when there are so many other great writers? So I looked at what my strengths were. I did an overall assessment of Where am I as a guitar player, as a singer, and a songwriter? I decided my strength was my guitar and this new kind of style that I had come very close to creating. I said to myself, “Focus on your guitar work. Focus on bringing this new style out. Focus on instrumentals, on using this as you write your singer-songwriter songs, but make it into something that’s substantial, that can have a name or sound of its own.”
I spent two or three years not listening to other players, especially guitar players, and just spending time working on what was coming through me, the creative stuff, the new stuff, the different techniques, working on compositions with those techniques, working on using those techniques in a way that would support a folk song, that wouldn’t sound too showy or too new-agey. I spent time focusing on what I thought was my strong point. I’ve always been somebody who took voice lessons and songwriting classes along the way, but I still to this day feel that my strength is as a guitar innovator. That began to pay off as soon as I had material that reflected that work, which was in my album Outside the Box. People would hear me play the instrumental songs and they remembered me. Luckily, it was completely natural. It was truly something I loved to do. It wasn’t like I was trying to create something to stand out but wasn’t feeling connected to it.
What happened at the Guitar Superstar competition?
It was in 2008. I submitted “Atomic Reshuffle,” and I got a call from Michael Molenda saying, “Come and compete with nine other guys in San Francisco in front of a live audience.” I had two months to practice, I took the song to a place it never had been, and I’m very proud of that. I get there and obviously I’m the only woman, and I’m the only woman that’s ever made it to the finals. I was looking at the guitar judges and I didn’t really know them because they were electric-guitar gods and I’m very sheltered when it comes to the world of rock and blues. They were big stars — Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Elliot Easton, George Lynch, and Brendan Small. Andy Summers from the Police was the MC, and I thought, If there’s anybody in that group of people that I’m going to feel some camaraderie with, it’s Andy Summers. I love the Police, I love his guitar work. OK. We get to the competition, all the guys in the competition — we’re friendly to each other, we’re listening to each other’s soundchecks, we’re freaking out, it was a nerve-wracking thing, but I get through it and I win.
Two things blew my mind. Maybe I’m misinterpreting them, but this is how I see them. First of all, much to my surprise — and disappointment — it really seemed to me that Andy Summers had no interest in connecting with me whatsoever. He was joking around a lot with the guys, but I felt invisible to him. He kept saying things like, “Oh man, we’ve got such a great show. We’ve got all these guys here who can really play!” He seemed oblivious to the fact that I was there and that I was a female. He had to announce the winner and it looked like he was pretty shocked when he read my name.
Secondly, the day after the competition, I go online and I’m looking for articles. I’m excited, and the first three online articles I see, the San Francisco Chronicle and two others, announce that I’m the winner of the competition and they post pictures of the guys. There is not a single picture of the winner. Not one. I was absolutely floored. I don’t know how else to read that. I contacted Guitar Player magazine and I said, “What is going on? Why aren’t there any pictures of me in the first three articles about the competition?” They got defensive and said, “We have pictures of you! We have pictures of you!” I said, “Where are they?” They had no explanation as to why none of their pictures had been used.
So I’ve not had obstacles because I’m a woman, but I can’t say that I’m free of the results of it. We all have this ingrained thing that women are less than, and I felt that it really came out in that competition. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it, but it’s something to be aware of. I think it’s a big deal, and I think it’s tragic that women don’t feel as empowered as men to play music. But I think it’s slowly changing. It’s like saying racism is still there. It’s there and it affects people’s decisions, even if they don’t know it.
You began taking piano lessons at age 3 and continued through high school. So many people hate piano lessons, but it sounds like you enjoyed them.
I was told I asked for piano lessons. I don’t remember that moment, but I remember loving my lessons. My teacher had a grand piano and she wrote the names of the notes on her piano keys in pencil. All I can tell you, without remembering the moment, is that I have the most joyful memories and feelings of my time taking lessons. I remember my books, those red books. I loved it. When I was old enough, at 5, to hold a guitar, I got a guitar. I continued piano through high school, and I’m sorry that I didn’t continue it after that, because I’ve forgotten it. I can go back there, but I’m not fluent and that makes me sad, but you can’t do everything all the time. It’s a great writing tool.
Some musicians believe that reading music is key, while some believe that it creates too many rules in place of creativity.
I think both are important, and it’s great if you can have exposure to both methodologies. I learned how to read notes on the piano. In fourth grade I took trombone, so I continued playing and reading notes. I had some good theory teachers in junior high and high school, and I kept playing trombone and taking piano lessons. Guitar was always by ear. I didn’t learn how to read notes on the guitar until I was auditioning to go to college, so my development on guitar was totally free of rules and theory. Once I learned James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album, I started doing my own thing. I don’t know if my guitar playing would have evolved as it did had I taken lessons. I think it’s brilliant to know theory. Every musician should know theory. But you have to be careful, like you said, of getting locked into it. One of my fantasies is to study jazz harmony and jazz composition. I started doing that in college, and then I dropped out of college. It’s one of those things that I hope I get the courage to jump back into at some point.
We’ve come a long way since the days of vinyl and moving the needle over and over to learn a song. Now it’s online and downloads. Is that better or not?
Not. I don’t mean to sound cynical about it, but I developed an amazing ear because I didn’t have those things. I had to learn things at the speed they were. Seeing things on YouTube, yes. Sometimes the visual can make things possible that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, but I still question is it worth it? People ask me how I tune my guitar onstage in such record time. I’ve been tuning my guitar since I was 5 years old and changing tunings since I was 12 or 13. I wouldn’t have developed a good ear if I had been using a tuner all those years. Now I use a tuner onstage only when I’m playing with other instruments. How do you make sure people develop their ear when things are so much easier? I don’t know. It’s a good question.
What do students want to know? What do they need to know?
Students want to know how to play this song and that song, and to play a lick the way this artist plays it. Students want to know how to copy. One of the things I’ve found is that most students don’t know how to practice. There’s the “I want to learn this” and “I want to play like that” thing going on, but there isn’t always “How do I get from where I am to there? How do I get there in a way that’s methodical and makes sense and honors my body and my ergonomics and my abilities?” If you want to master anything — unless you’re a genius, and there are genius people who don’t have to go through these painful steps — for the rest of us in the middle, you have to develop enormous patience and an ability to work extremely slowly with extremely small pieces of information. That’s what’s worked for me. That’s what I’ve seen work for other people. A lot of students can’t cultivate that kind of patience, so they don’t have the success they want. They get frustrated, they don’t hang on, they don’t keep working at it.
There’s a teacher I fell upon maybe ten or twelve years ago named Jamie Andreas. The focus of all her guitar teaching is to retrain you from an entire full-body standpoint: how to hold the instrument, how to place your fingers, how to move your body so that you’re using the least amount of tension possible. She has been a big informant in my teaching. There’s hardly any students I don’t recommend look at her work. It made a light bulb go off for me when I realized you have to slow things down even more, you have to examine how you’re using your body, your breath, you have to undo so much learning. In one of Jamie’s introductory videos, she explains that playing chords in what’s called first position, which is way down toward the tuning pegs, puts an incredible amount of tension in your neck, arm, shoulders, hands, and wrists from the very first minute you pick up a guitar, and everyone does that. That’s how we’re all taught. Right off the bat Jamie has challenged every major conception about every teaching method ever invented for guitar, and I think she’s right. I love her work and preach it all the time.
I think that’s a big piece of how one gets from “I can’t do that” to “I want to play that song.” They have to learn how to do things in a way that their body can work most efficiently. It’s that simple. There are some great players, but there’s this one passage that they always mess up, and I think, There’s no way they’re ever going to get better at that passage unless they completely take it apart, slow it down 150 times, and work it out piece by piece. I have the same problem. There are a few places in my songs that are challenging. I work at those in that same exact way. It takes massive commitment, but it makes results.
When you play, do you lead with your hands or your head?
I would say my heart is leading the way. If I think about it too much, I’ll lose it. It’s a heart and hands thing. It’s a body/heart thing. My hands have to know the material inside and out, but the feeling and energy inherent in the piece of music are what drive me. My hands are following orders from my being, but not from my head. I don’t want my head in there. It screws things up.
Is it visual?
It’s mostly kinesthetic for me. Everything about how I play the instrument is a body sensation. It’s almost like if I were to ask you to sit still and see if there is a way your body would like to move right now, you would find an impulse — maybe stretch, maybe jump. With playing guitar, I get impulses like that. My hands get an impulse to want to move in a certain way and react with the instrument in a certain way. It’s so much based on a body feeling.
When did you discover that?
My awareness of it probably happened around 15 years ago. It may have been happening longer than that, but I became conscious of it around that time. I think that the development of the percussive techniques that I now use was a result of that coming to the forefront, because all of those techniques came as a result of something in my body that wanted to move in a certain way, whether it was hitting the body of the guitar, or thumb-slapping the low bass strings. I would get a sound and respond to the sound. Then it would become a dance between the body sensations and the audio, what I was hearing. I would make adjustments to my physical movements to get the sounds that I wanted, or if I got a sound by accident, which would happen too, I would then have to go back and say, “What was that movement? How did I remember that? Where is it?” It’s been a dance that’s led me to the techniques I’m using now.
You are a polarity therapist and Registered Practitioner in BioSonic Repatterning. What does that involve?
I don’t have an active practice. It’s kind of a sidecar to what I do, meaning that I have a deep interest in holistic healing, holistic health, mental health, holistic body/mind. I have a deep passion for understanding how we can heal. That drives me more than anything in my life. Along the way I’ve come across lots of different methodologies and systems, but I was struck when I discovered polarity therapy around 1993 or 1994. I was living in New York City and I was told about a guy named John Beaulieu, who was teaching polarity. He was also a sound healer working with tuning forks. I met John and had a session with him, and I became a student. Polarity therapy is a way of looking at the body/mind/emotion spectrum as energetically based. We have energy in us, around us, through us, and that is what animates us. Of course we have all the physical parts of our body, which we deal with as well. It was a two-year training, and everything he taught us made sense to me. It’s like I already knew this, but I had no idea. I tried to start a practice. At that time, I was trying to be a musician but also thinking it would be easier to be a polarity practitioner, but it wasn’t. It was difficult to sustain a practice, and I wasn’t doing my music. It never took off as a full-fledged career, but it’s work that I’m extremely passionate about. It changed my performing and it changed my being. It changed me deeply.
During the course of polarity therapy, I also studied sound healing with John. He created a body of work based on working with tuning forks that tune our bodies. I became fluent at teaching that and I still teach it. Not full time by any means, but I’m starting to bring it back. I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate that into my musical world. Sound is so important in my life, and I think there’s a correlation between healing and not only the work I do with John but also the work I do on the guitar, the work I do with the tunings. There’s a real connection there that I haven’t figured out yet. I believe that sound has enormous potential for healing and that we can tune ourselves just as we tune instruments. I believe that we’re affected by vibrations all around us. I believe that our thoughts are vibrations, everything is vibrations. One of the projects that’s on the plate for me is working with five elements from the chakra system: earth, water, fire, air and ether. I’m creating a project based on those five elements that will involve very special guitar tunings and other things.
You recently mentioned that you are trying carbon fiber guitars. Which ones are you playing?
I just got my first experience with Emerald, a company out of Ireland. I got a 12-string carbon fiber guitar. So far it’s really fun. I’m confused because it doesn’t make any sense to me that I can leave it in the car when it’s hot, so I have to get used to the whole idea! But I’m excited about exploring it further. A lot of gigs I only take one guitar because I can’t work it out logistically to take more, so it may be one and a half because it’s really a baby. When I can work out the logistics to take two guitars, I’ll have two and the Amicus12.
You’ve been playing guitar since you were 5. Over the years, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
I can’t remember the feeling when I first played guitar at 5, but I know I continued to learn more and more stuff. My dad showed me what he knew, my friend Debbie showed me what she knew. I think I was starving for ways to spend time with the guitar, and from that age on it has always been one of my best companions in my life. That has stayed the same. The guitar is where I go when I have anything going on that’s important or big or emotional in any way. That’s been consistent. I don’t think anything has changed. I love that instrument. I love our relationship and I love that I am so lucky that I get to share that with people in a live performance situation. I’m so joyful when I get to do that.
For more on Vicki Genfan, visit her site HERE.