Preston Reed proves that you don't have to be Eddie Van Halen or Eric Clapton to get noticed as a guitar player.
An acoustic guitarist best known for his two-fisted fret board "hammer-ons" and other percussive techniques, Reed has attracted a small but dedicated following that he believes will grow. Virtually attacking his instrument, he brings an unusual physicality to his playing by creating what he describes as "impact-generated" rhythms. Instead of fretting in the traditional manner, he prefers a left-hand-over-the-neck technique that frees up both hands to slap, tap and slide.
"Even though my style steps out of the usual idiom of guitar-playing, I think it can have a lot more mass appeal because its focal point is rhythm," Reed said by phone during a recent tour stop in Temecula. "My songs are propelled by a beat--kind of a pop-drum rhythm--that's quite commonly heard. So it tends to get the attention of everyone, no matter what their musical tastes are.
"I don't believe that people are only interested in homogenized, highly produced music," he added. "My style of guitar playing can reach a broader audience that might not otherwise hear it. It is different yet quite accessible at the same time."
Reed taught himself finger-style technique by listening to the records of John Fahey, Jorma Kaukonen and Leo Kottke. He began to compose his own material, and at 17, made his first public appearance alongside poet Allen Ginsberg at a reading at the Smithsonian Institution.
Reed, a New York native who now lives in Minnesota, went on to record his debut ("Acoustic Guitar") in 1979 and since has released 11 solo albums for both major and indie labels. Last year, he collaborated with ex-Wings guitarist Laurence Juber for a collection of instrumentals titled "Groovemasters Vol. 1" (Solid Air Records). The pair will team up again with performances at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel tonight and McCabe's in Santa Monica on Saturday.
According to Reed, his duets with Juber clicked immediately, affording Reed the opportunity to be more of a "role player," rather than an entire one-man orchestra.
"I was a bit surprised with how instantly we hit it off, he said. "[Working] with Laurence, I can focus on just rhythm and harmonic areas because he steps more into the lead and melody functions. We're a real good fit because of our complementary musical tendencies."
Reed's latest solo release, last year's "Ladies Night" (Dusty Closet Records), uses no overdubs or additional musicians. The guitarist issues an amazing array of sounds on his various guitars. The title track, for instance, cuts loose an unexpectedly funky vibe; "Somehow We'll Make It Home" is a swampy, Ry Cooder-ish slide tune, and "Pacific" and "Mermaid Eyes" are more poignant, slower-paced cuts.
This kind of variety in composition, mood and pacing was no accident. According to Reed, his desire to explore and experiment isn't limited to instrumental virtuosity.
"Sure, it's great to have this unusual approach to playing the guitar," he said. "It's a wonderful source of conversation. But you need to balance style with substance."
A teacher as well as player, Reed emphasizes to his students that structure and imagination can--and should--work in close harmony.
"In the learning process, the first thing the human mind requires is structure," he explained. "So I tell everyone what's important in music is to have melody, rhythm and harmonic progression.
"Only it's a tricky thing, because if structure becomes too rigid, it actually becomes a prison creatively. You never want to lose that excitement for all of the unexplored possibilities out there."
With the percussion-driven sounds that form the core of his work, perhaps Reed is just a frustrated drummer?
"It's not like I ever aspired to be a percussionist," he said. "I really wanted to try something new and original . . . to discover ways to bring in more sound to the guitar. So I looked around, and what I noticed was that all these guitar players fret the neck and pick the strings . . . but they never do anything with its big, beautiful, wooden body. It's like it's just there to be airspace for strings to vibrate.
"I realized that you can orchestrate different textures of sound, like using the palm of your hand to make a kick-drum type of sound. And then I got into lots of slapping techniques. Some people think it's pretty bizarre, but for me, it's always been a very natural way to go."
* Preston Reed and Laurence Juber perform tonight at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. 7:30 p.m. $15 (714) 364-5270. Also appearing Saturday at McCabe's Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. $15. (310) 828-4403 (recorded information).