BEN WOOLMAN THE BEST NEW THING TO COME ALONG IN THE ACOUSTIC GUITAR WORLD IN YEARS
The most-difficult achievement for a guitarist is to master solo acoustic steel-string fingerstyle playing at a level where three parts of a tune’s arrangement are being performed simultaneously. Ben Woolman is one of those elite virtuoso instrumentalists.
His solo playing often sounds like a duo or trio. He usually creates the bass part using his thumb while the other fingers on his right hand initially play the melody and lead parts. However, sometimes a couple of those fingers begin picking out either a cross-rhythm or a counter-melody. Listen carefully to his latest solo guitar album, Many Moods, and be awed that the wealth of sounds and music contains no overdubbing of additional guitars.
“I played in bands for quite a few years,” Ben explains, “but it is difficult to sustain common goals, so when my third band broke up, I gravitated to playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar because it allows me to create much of an ensemble sound all by myself.”
Many Moods and his other solo recordings are available at Woolman’s website (benwoolman.net) as well at various on-line retail stores (such as CDbaby.com and Amazon.com) and internet digital download outlets (including iTunes.com and Rhapsody.com).
For the past two decades, Woolman has been entertaining audiences with his top-flight acoustic-guitar playing while quietly becoming one of the masters of fingerstyle. He lists six guitarists “that both inspire and influence me” -- Leo Kottke, Pierre Bensusan, Michael Hedges, Stephen Bennett, Pat Donohue and Blind Blake. “They encompass the things I love about fingerstyle guitar playing.” Woolman also admires several guitarists he has been featured on-stage with in round-robin acoustic showcases -- Dean Magraw, Tim Sparks and Phil Heywood -- and others he has opened concerts for (Billy McLaughlin, Claudia Schmidt). Woolman has played some duets in concert with Pat Donohue, and frequently performs with longtime friend and guitarist Dan Schwartz (they tour as the New Roots Duo and have a CD, Roots Run Deep).
Woolman has had a longtime love affair with the acoustic guitar. “I like the feeling of the strings under my fingers, the warmth of the wood pressed against my chest, and the sound resonating inside the instrument,” he says. “There is something intimate, earthy, warm and personal about the sound of an acoustic guitar. It communicates immediately to people on a deep-in-the-soul level.”
He believes in composing and performing a wide repertoire of instrumental music covering many styles and genres including folk, blues, jazz, neo-classical, Latin, Celtic, African and others. Ben’s original compositions are melodic and catchy as he fuses elements of both rootsy and contemporary fingerstyle playing with a pop songwriter’s sensibility. The pieces become full-bodied and textured as his strongly-developed technique expands the arrangements and their complexity. “One of the best things about fingerstyle acoustic guitar is that there is so much room for expressiveness. The sound can be happy, romantic, introspective, sweeping orchestral, emotional, melancholy-bluesy or whatever idea I have.”
Many Moods does, indeed, capture a variety of moods and feelings. The CD begins with “One Afternoon” which Ben calls “an accessible showcase of my style and character.” Other originals include “Sadie’s Smile” (“a happy feel-good pop tune written for my daughter”), “Me, Myself and You” (“when you get a wife and daughter it quickly becomes clear that life is not just about yourself anymore”), “Up and Back” (“a rootsy jam and meditation on progress and sometimes on the lack thereof”), “Picture of Romance” (“a sweet romantic tune written for my wife”), and “Wicked Ascent” (“a fast-moving upbeat piece inspired by Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Continental United States, which I climbed and descended in one day”). Two other Woolman compositions stretch his sound in different directions: “Salamander Swing” follows a jazzy groove while “Mazurka Dance” has a world-music sound (“I wrote this in honor of my Polish ancestry”).
Woolman also covers three tunes written by others. “Invisible Sun” is a song by The Police that Ben arranged for solo guitar. “The Police were one of my influences from the Eighties. I tried to incorporate Sting’s bass-line, but the tune was a challenge because it is so different than my own material.” Woolman not only re-arranged “West Coast Blues” by Blind Blake (a top acoustic blues singer-songwriter in the 1920s and early ‘30s), but also incorporated several riffs that show up in other Blake pieces which led Woolman to rename the tribute “Blake Says.” To end the CD Woolman chose James Horner’s theme for the film “Legends of the Fall” (“quite difficult to take a big orchestral soundtrack and make it work on acoustic guitar”).
Ben grew up listening to his parents records (Simon & Garfunkle, The Beatles, John Denver), but in school he developed a love for classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Kiss). In grade school in Rochester, Minnesota, Ben began playing piano (which he continued through high school) and cello (although he switched to electric bass when he was 12). A few years later -- influenced by REM, The Replacements, Husker Du, Rush and Yes -- Woolman began playing in rock bands (Water Color Sky was the first of his groups to write their own material). When they disbanded, Ben decided to take up acoustic guitar after discovering Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke. Woolman took a year of guitar lessons which introduced him to the music of Alex de Grassi, Will Ackerman and Chet Atkins.
Woolman attended the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (one of the only colleges in the country that offered a degree centered on fingerstyle guitar playing) and studied under a cooperative program with the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Guitar Performance (with honors). While there he studied under professor John Stropes; became friends with fellow student Dan Schwartz; attended lecture/demonstrations from Michael Hedges, Peppino D’Agostino, Alex de Grassi and Pat Donohue; had a private lesson with Billy McLaughlin; and worked with Pierre Bensusan one-on-one in a master class in front of an audience. Woolman also performed at school functions and at nearby cafes and coffee-houses, and during summer breaks sold-out concerts in small auditoriums back home in Rochester. After college he stayed on for awhile at the Wisconsin Conservatory as an instructor.
A few years later Woolman was regularly touring throughout the Upper Midwest states and building his reputation as a live performer. He also released his first CD, Lost in Density, a solo guitar recording of mostly originals plus a Billy Joel tune and a reworking of an old baroque melody. Inspired by Duncan Sheik and The Goo Goo Dolls, Woolman put together a band, recorded his original vocal pop material on the CD Stratovox and performed extensively on the club circuit. His next full project was Wisdom/Delusion, an instrumental CD (produced by Schwartz) focusing on his acoustic playing, but supplemented on nearly half the tunes with bass, percussion and the occasional mandolin. This led to the Roots Run Deep duo recording with Schwartz.
Over the past decade-and-a-half Woolman also has had his music showcased on a variety of prestigious acoustic-guitar collections -- Guitar Fingerstyle and Guitar Fingerstyle 2 (both on Narada), American Fingerstyle Guitar Circa 1999, Lifescapes: Solo Guitar and Tis the Season: Classical Guitar (both on Compass Records and marketed in Target stores nationwide). In addition, Woolman contributed his music to the national “Do the Write Thing Program” to help stop student and youth violence. For several years Woolman has taught select students at the St. Paul Guitar Studio. He has served as a guest columnist for both Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine and Guitar Teacher Magazine.
“I pride myself in trying to play as many styles of music as I possibly can,” states Woolman, “and solo fingerstyle acoustic guitar is the perfect instrument to give me the freedom to pursue that. There is nothing to hold me back except myself as I continue to develop my technique, musicianship and ideas.”