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An Interview with Award-Winning Guitarist Don Alder

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An Interview with Award-Winning Guitarist Don Alder

Don Alder plays acoustic fingerstyle guitar with a passion that has quickly earned him a reputation as Vancouver's "best kept little secret." Don is a world-class fingerstyle guitarist with a "wow factor" that has led to multiple endorsement deals with major manufacturers, the latest being Yamaha and its A-Series guitars.

Yamaha recently sat down with Don to discuss his recent wins, why duct tape has become his new best friend, and what's in store for 2012.

Yamaha: So Don, congratulations on winning the recent UK Guitar Idol Competition. This was a huge competition with hundreds of entrants from all over the globe. Tell us about how you got involved with this competition and how you came out as the big winner.

Don Alder
: Guitar Idol III was an incredible experience! The contest started online a couple of years ago with 3 phases. The first was an online submission which had to be an original composition. They received well over 1000 entries! In phase two the judges chose the top 100 videos and made them available for public voting. In phase three the public and judges narrowed it down to 12 finalists to compete live. I entered this contest pretty close to the cutoff date and was surprised when I got the email stating I made the top 100!

Needless to say I was pretty excited about this. I knew I was up against some amazing electric players with amazing tapping and shredding techniques so I decided to separate myself from the pack by just doing an original acoustic song in the good old key of E using standard tuning with some really fast fingerpicking. I guess you could say I was doing some right hand shredding! Being alone on stage with an acoustic was a bit nerve wracking but I did my best to stay focused and show everyone that I’m a guy who loves playing acoustic guitar with a rocker attitude.

Y: This isn't the first major guitar competition you've won. How was UK Guitar Idol different from winning the International Finger Style contest and the Guitar Player magazine 'Guitar Superstar' awards?

DA: In 2007 I won the International Fingerstyle Championships in Winfield, KS which included some of the best fingerstyle players in the business. That contest was a bit tougher in the sense that everyone was fingerpicking, so it was harder to ‘stand out’. You didn’t get to use any electronics either… only a single microphone on the stage, which is very purist to say the least.  The judges were actually in a different building so they could hear but not actually see any of the competitors. This contest was not about live performance and energy…. Even though there was an audience of 2000 people in front of me, I had to get in the mindset that I was doing a live take in the recording studio. This contest was about composition, tone, technique and originality, execution and complexity. Both the Guitar Superstar contest and Guitar Idol contest leaned more towards stage performance.

Y: With all these wins, your mantle must be getting full of awards.

DA: I’m currently sitting as the only guitarist on the planet to have won these three main guitar competitions. Who would have ever thought that a small town BC boy could pull this off? Needless to say I’m very happy about it. My mother and grandmother (now age 97) are really proud and that puts a smile on my face. My mom really earned these wins. She had to listen to me playing "Satisfaction" as a teenager, a million times, incorrectly and out of tune!

Y: We noticed your guitar was duct taped together in the photo from Guitar Idol. Tell us about that. What happened?

DA: I had a show a week before going to the UK for the contest. I was showing off a new softshell guitar case that can take a drop from a building and survive… apparently not! I threw it a few feet up in the air and it landed on the end of the case, which put a huge dent and fracture at the bottom of the guitar where the sides join the top.  About 1/3 of the top came unglued. I used duct tape that evening and the guitar seemed to work okay. There wasn’t enough time to get a whole new system before I left for the UK so I was quite stressed-out at the competition, as the top had about a 1/4 inch of movement even with the tape! I had to be very careful with tuning and touch. I felt pretty ill equipped compared to the other guitarists to say the least!  In the end, the duct tape, the Yamaha and me brought home the win!

What are your main stage guitars these days and why?

DA: Yamaha AC3R and A3R - because they are easy to play, look great, sound amazing and can be taken right out of the box and onto the stage. This is Yamaha's brand new A series and they are very affordable, professional guitars.  It has a new multi-source piezo pickup that sounds great but you can also blend in mic modeling so its like a dual source pickup system.  The guitar is fun to play because of the low action they've been able to achieve. The guitar also has some very nice visual appointments. Bottom line, the guitar is a workhorse in any setting and sets new standards to for a top flight guitar under $1000.00.  I also use the Yamaha LLX36C - This is Yamaha's premiere handbuilt guitar made at Yamaha Music Craft in Japan. It’s a dreadnaught style body and has been a real workhorse for me in the studio and live. This was my primary guitar before the release of the A-series.

Y: What tips could you give younger players about how to get themselves 'out there' into the real world and get exposure?

DA: Well these are just my opinions, but they’ve worked for me. First off, as a guitarist it can be really tough. There's many ways to get out there so to speak, but first step essentials would be to follow your heart in terms of your musical direction then believe fiercely in what you’re doing. Passion and personal drive are key. There are two main paths with many variations. One is to pursue being an original artist and the other a professional musician, or both if you're that gifted. The artist path gives license to break all the rules. It allows you to develop your own music and music identity.  Being a professional musician requires developing solid music skills so you can adapt to any setting as a hired/session guitarist. I’ve gone the artist route as my passion is about creating music even if it never leaves the bedroom. In terms of live performance I think audiences want to have an experience. So find moments in your music to really connect with the audience and do it in an honest way. Then you need to find the outlets to get exposure. That would include gigging as much as possible, Youtube, contests and working with other great musicians, endorsements. Then it’s just a matter of time. You could be an overnight Youtube sensation or be working long and hard for years to win one fan at a time. Lastly, never give up!

Y: How important is it to have a relationship with a guitar manufacturer these days?

DA: Let me share some past history and you decide. Yamaha had me as an artist at the All Star Guitar night at a recent NAMM show in LA. Getting off the stage Billy Sheehan patted my back with some glowing comments. Yamaha had me participate in the launch of the A series at NAMM with Lee Ritenour; after playing Lee gave me some wonderful comments. Yamaha sent me to Music China and after a performance Mike Stern had some wonderful comments. I did a workshop/performance for Yamaha in Ontario which included James Black from Finger Eleven, Darren Glover from Flash Lightnin’, Ian Thornley, Rob Baker from The Tragically Hip and Sean Kelly from Nelly Furtado. What an honour. Lastly I did a workshop/performance for Yamaha and when I arrived there was a poster featuring 4 artists: Andy Timmons, Don Alder, John Jorgenson, Rick Hines. Andy Timmons watched me perform and showered me with praise. Important? Yes!

Y: It's a new year. What can we expect to see from Don Alder in 2012?

DA: Hopefully a new CD which is long overdue. I have loads of new material and I’m just trying to find the time to record it. It will include some special guests as well. I will also be featured in a nation-wide TV show as a participant but can’t tell you the name just yet!  I will also produce an instructional Guitar DVD with Truefire. 2012 will also see a feature in Vancouver Magazine and Guitar Player magazine. I will also be busy on the road with numerous performances and clinics. It’s going to be a great year!