David Russell: Of Guitars and Pingpong Balls

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Hear the New CD

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Russell In-Studio

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David Russell, classical guitarist

David Russell's new CD, Air on a G String, features music by J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist

The sounds of Scotland come honestly to guitarist David Russell, but so do the sounds of Spain. Russell's parents were Scottish artists, bohemians who traveled around in a camper van. When Russell was a kid, they moved to Spain, to a village of 800 people on the island of Minorca. These days, the town isn't much bigger — about 1,200 people — but now there's an avenue named for its best-known classical guitarist. They call it "Avinguda David Russell."

Russell's way with a guitar has also gotten his name on marquees around the world, and on a 2005 Grammy award for his CD Aire Latino. His new recording is titled Air on a G String. Russell unpacked his guitar in NPR's studio to play a little and talk about his music.

When he was a kid, Russell's first lessons came from his father, an amateur guitarist who couldn't read music, but picked up tunes by ear. At the time, legendary guitarist Andres Segovia still loomed over anyone who played classical guitar.

"I tried to do everything he could do," Russell says. "With two notes, Segovia could give you the chills — wonderful vibrato, beautiful tone. So I spent hours trying to imitate some of his phrases."

Russell developed his own sound — or sounds might be more accurate. For the baroque music featured on his new CD, Russell says the tone must be straightforward, clean and bright. But when he plays music from South America, he creates a more velvety and sometimes huskier sound. It's all in the way he plucks the strings.

Russell's new CD features music by J.S. Bach and some of his contemporaries, such as the little-known Jacques de Saint-Luc. Russell says his approach to the two composers couldn't be more different.

"If you have a piece by Bach, he often develops the piece to such a high level that you can hardly do much more to it. But Saint-Luc wrote very simple baroque music, and so if you do not embellish it, it just falls apart. It's way too simple."

Whether he's playing baroque music or Brazilian tunes, Russell carries with him a special first-aid kit. It includes a nail file, clippers and superglue, as well as a pingpong ball or two.

"I pluck with my fingernails," Russell says. "If I break a nail, I can't cancel a concert. So I can make a nail out of a pingpong ball. I slip it under my own nail, and the consistency of a three-star ball is almost exactly the same consistency as a fingernail."

Russell also notes that he's found a solution for those disastrous times, when he's on tour and stuck in a hotel room without a bottle opener for his beer. He's devised a way to pop off the bottle cap, using part of the little metal folding stool that guitarists use to rest their foot in performance.

Perhaps some of his parents' old-school bohemian lifestyle has finally caught up with David Russell.



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