Cast In Concrete tracks Vijith Assar as he records New York City’s street musicians.
Who: Scott Stenten
Where: Grand Central Terminal, Graybar Passage
When: November 10th, 2011, around 9 p.m.
I first scouted out Scott Stenten for this column late last fall, when the chilly weather cost me three solid evenings wandering around midtown and the East Village looking for musicians, who apparently had all already packed it in for the winter by then. But Stenten was bravely soldiering on into the cold; by the time we caught up again last week, that situation had completely reversed, and we found ourselves in the sweltering passageway between Grand Central and the Graybar Building.
Using a doubleneck acoustic—two identical steel six-strings, with additional electronics behind a detachable flap on the back—Stenten plays entirely via an unusual two-handed fretboard tapping technique. It’s sort of like Eddie Van Halen’s embellishing trick, except that it’s applied at all times to create fully independent chord and melody voices for each hand, much like a pianist.
Scott Stenten, “Time After Time”
Both his original compositions and his covers had a decidedly jazzy flair, which brought them squarely in line with the lineage defined by Stanley Jordan, who brought the technique into mainstream view on electric guitars in the 80’s and 90’s. (It just so happens that you’ll be able to catch Jordan at Iridium next week, and a bunch of two-handed tappers will apply the same technique to their Chapman Sticks at Spectrum on Friday.)
Jordan, like Stenten, also eventually moved over to playing two guitars at once; presumably both got tired of trying to cram eight fingers onto six strings. But Jordan was almost entirely about the intricately tapped notes, even retrofitting his guitars with string muting devices to prevent them from making any other noises whatsoever. Stenten has actually taken the exact opposite approach, with little metal pretzels that spell out the shape of a chord fingering using tiny rubber nubs; he calls these “capo clips.” When paired with a conventional capo, they superimpose a musically useful chord over the usual transposition, allowing him to aggressively slap and snap the open string. At times it almost sounds like at least one of his guitars is being played by an annoyed Leo Kottke instead of just, well, his own non-dominant hand.
Stenten moved back to New York in 2010 after a run in Chicago specifically because he wanted to spend more time busking; his daytime gig now involves selling a touchpad mouse he also designed. This is all discussed in more detail on his web site, where he also has a gallery of the custom instruments he’s commissioned over the years. There’s a 17-string, one with custom fretboard mounts designed around the capo clips, two Martin Backpacker models that he basically bolted together, and finally a “convertible” where the contours of a detachable, crescent-shaped secondary instrument were specifically designed to sit flush with a regular archtop. Seeing these gizmos in action together is pretty captivating—”Little kids go nuts,” says Stenten. But for some reason he still sometimes performs with an array of regular guitar picks sitting up by the tuning pegs, jammed in between the strings for storage—unused, bored out of their little plastic minds, and entirely too predictable.
In the hat: Nothing, but I think a set of those capo clips may be calling my name.
Scott Stenten, “Saint Patrick’s Day” [MP3]
Scott Stenten, “Saint Patrick’s Day” [FLAC, via MediaFire]