Rich Osborn plays solo acoustic guitar on his ‘Giving Voice’ recording

Rich Osborn

Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations

Sometimes an artist comes along, who believes so strongly in the importance and vitality of an older art form, that he single-handedly attempts to revive and preserve it for a new generation. On his solo recording, Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations, Rich Osborn fingerpicks an acoustic, steel-string, nearly-hundred-year-old guitar on original compositions played in the “free raga style.” He is one of the few recording guitarists in the world currently pursuing this form of music that first emerged about 50 years ago.

“I hope to influence the younger generation of experimental acoustic guitar pickers by getting them interested in some of the traditional methodologies such as strong melodic content, interesting thematic development, and a sense of organic unity within each piece,” explains Osborn. “There is no reason why solo guitarists cannot take tried-and-true ideas from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, for example, and apply those lessons to their music. But even though I am building upon the past, I also attempt to introduce fresh motifs, techniques and fragrances into my work. After all, Bach himself was the greatest improviser of his age. So it should be no surprise that many of his techniques are still used by improvisers today.”

Osborn studied privately with pioneering guitarist Robbie Basho in the ’60s, and Osborn feels strongly about keeping alive the Basho style and technique for current audiences. Osborn uses, as did Basho, the musical format of ragas from India as the loose structure of compositions that leave plenty of room for improvisation in the studio and on-stage. Osborn also was influenced early on by another guitar innovator, John Fahey, as well as the master Indian sarod player, Ali Akbar Kahn. Fahey and Basho were two of the founders of a genre that became known as “American primitive guitar” (or “guitar primitivism”) which continues today with a variety of solo acoustic guitarists, although few pursue the “free raga style” that Osborn favors.

The music on Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations (Free Range Raga Records) is available at various online CD stores and digital download locations,  More information about Osborn is available at richardosbornguitar(dot)com.

Osborn was a contemporary and friend at Stanford University of fellow-student and guitarist Will Ackerman. Osborn taught Ackerman the Fahey-Travis-style of fingerpicking, and the two guitarists sometimes snuck into Memorial Church on campus to play there because of the resonating acoustics. In the ’70s, Basho asked Osborn to open several concerts for him (at the Oak Theatre in Berkeley and Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford) where Osborn performed some original material. Several times during his career, Osborn has intensely studied classical guitar, and he once gave guitarist Tuck Andress three years of classical study notes which led Andress to later state that the information was “a seminal event” in his own approach to the guitar. Osborn has studied Celtic guitar picking with Stephen Baughman, jazz guitar with Peter Brooks, and classical with Fred Gibson and Bahram Behroozi (himself a student of Laurindo Almeida). Osborn also has taken Master Classes from classical guitarists George Sakellariou and Vicente Gomez. In addition, Osborn performed an original tune on the compilation album, Beyond Berkeley Guitar.

Many of Osborn’s studies, influences and inspirations are evident on his new album, Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations, which features elements of guitar primitivism, Indian ragas, folk-music, flamenco, classical guitar styles, and additional subtleties. The music also includes “the spaces between the notes,” implied rhythms, and cross-harmonies. Sometimes his single guitar (not overdubbed) sounds like two or three instruments as Osborn carries the lead melody, a counter-melody or rhythmic variation, and a bass line simultaneously.

“My lifelong love of the classical music of India is essential in my approach to my music,” Osborn says, “especially in the way ragas unfold and their underlying philosophy. I don’t strictly adhere to Indian ragas, since I am playing a guitar and to a Western audience. But my approach is still very much in synch with the raga concept. One of the key ideas has to do with the ‘rasa’ or emotional content and vibration of the piece, but ragas also are classified by the time of day, seasons and particular gods or goddesses. Ragas can show us the full spectrum of human feelings and our place in the universe. One thing I learned from Robbie Basho is it is important to stay true to the various elements of that raga and especially the rasa or feeling the music is based on.”

Osborn, who traveled to India in the ’70s, believes strongly in making improvisation an integral part of his music. “I either start with the tiniest germ of an idea and completely improvise off it, or I start with a very general framework and then improvise within it,” explains Osborn. “There is a lot of unpredictability in the process, but it also is an exciting journey of discovery and realization, and I hope to bring the audience along in that journey.”

On the album, Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations, the tunes, “Into the Silent Land” and “A Song of New Beginnings,” were completely improvised while the others had some structure before Osborn entered the studio. All of the tunes were played on a 1915 guitar built by Vincenzo DeLuccia, except “A Song of New Beginnings” which was performed on a National steel resophonic guitar. Osborn also primarily uses open tunings. “Joelle’s Song” was composed for a wedding while “The Glance” was inspired by Dante’s original love-at-first-sight inspiration for the Divine Comedy. “The Meeting Pool at Moonrise” reverses standard procedure and features a high rhythm part while lower notes create the melody. The longest track (over 10 minutes) is “The View from San Damiano, with Rain” which creates the experience of a rainstorm from the first pitter-patter drops to a full cascade (“an homage to a great composer, Leo Brower, and his ‘Cuban Landscape with Rain’”). “Knights of the Interior Castle” has a mysterious, medieval feel (“inspired by Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ and Saint Teresa of Avila’s book, The Interior Castle”). The album ends with “Hard Time,” a short melancholy piece (“a reminder of how difficult life can be at times”).

Osborn lost 20 years of his music career when a chisel tore into his thumb while he was making a carving. It was a slow recovery, even after surgery, so Osborn switched his artistic energies to painting (he had several solo large-gallery shows). He eventually returned to playing guitar, but feels his thumb-strength is only 80 percent of what it was.

Osborn grew up in Southern California, took piano lessons in grade school, had an old barrelhouse upright piano in his bedroom in high school, began playing folk guitar when he was a junior, and worked in a record store where he was introduced to world music. Rich went from playing folk and Delta blues to learning Travis-style fingerpicking and memorizing many John Fahey tunes. Then Osborn gravitated towards the style of Robbie Basho “because it was more open, it had the raga influence and there were more possibilities, especially in playing some of the melody with the thumb.” After studying with Basho, Osborn turned his attention to classical music. “I learned that while I am playing it is essential to listen deeply if you want to discover new horizons.”

In his early days, Osborn also was influenced by guitarists Sandy Bull, John Renbourn, Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins. Later on, he also turned on to Jim Hall, Ralph Towner, John Scofield and Egberto Gismonti, among others. In more recent years, Osborn has enjoyed music by a new generation of American primitive guitarists such as Glenn Jones, William Tyler, Jameson Swanagon and Chuck Johnson.

“I named the album Giving Voice – Guitar Explorations because I view the goal of the musician as striving to give a voice to the soul, that mysterious place inside us that contains the most meaningful aspects of our existence. In a world increasingly beset with a rising level of distractions and sheer noise, I like the idea of introducing quiet, thoughtful, expressive music.”

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