Interview: Kevin Ferguson

Dan McAvinchey: Kevin, tell us about your music background. What were some of the things that influenced your musical tastes and led to your interest in the guitar?

Kevin Ferguson: Well, going way back, I learned to play the violin (badly) when I was 4, took piano lessons for a few years and was in a house with lots of music. My dad played violin and listened to a lot of classical, especially virtuosi. My mom listened to folk, jazz and boogie-woogie styles mostly and played folk guitar. My older brother tried lots of instruments and ended up owning a guitar he didn't play. By the time I was 11, my brother was listening to lots of hard rock. We lived in the country where you didn't find this music in the local stores or hear it on the local radio. I liked the music of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Good Thunder, Spooky Tooth, live Grand Funk Railroad, Edgar Winter, Ronnie Montrose, Deep Purple, etc. that my brother listened to, but it wasn't until I discovered a college station in Washington, D.C. (about 2 hours away) that I heard music that made me decide to learn to play the guitar. Back then, WAMU used to have a show called "The Rock & Roll Jukebox" for a few hours weekday evenings. They played music unlike anything I'd heard before, like ELP's "Brain Salad Surgery" (Toccata is the reason I bought this, my first album. I found out later it was Emerson's version of Ginestara's Toccata from his Piano Concerto No. 1, written the year I was born), apparently rare recordings of Hendrix playing some of the best tunes I've heard from him, and lots of other, more obscure things.

About that time, my parents said, "We're thinking of buying a better piano for you to play." I said, "I'm interested in the electric guitar now. It costs less. How about you get that instead?" Well, I ended up working, saving and getting it on my own.

I wanted to take guitar lessons, but there were no teachers in the area, so I taught myself from books and lots of playing along with records. When I was 12, I was fortunate enough to take an excellent music theory and composition class taught by a retired conductor of Broadway musicals (and former Radio City Music Hall organ player) who really knew his subject. The class was at night and was very small, so it was almost like being tutored. It was kind of shocking to realize how simple the music I liked was, from the theoretical perspective at the time. Now, I don't care about things like that, as long as it appeals to me. But back then, I started liking things that took a moment or two to understand, musically. I started liking more progressive rock and fusion. When I was about 15, I heard the Dixie Dregs for the first time. A friend of mine knew what kind of music I played (outside of the cover band I was in for the money) and said, "Listen, they're playing stuff like you like to play." It was very inspiring. Steve Morse is the only guitarist from that time that I still look forward to hearing new material from. I interviewed him for a local guitar publication and the interview is on the web ( I asked him a few questions concerning technique I'd been wondering about for many years.

Anyway, I ended up hooking up with jazz musicians that didn't mind playing fusion and I had a band that played around NYC for about 8 years. I wrote most of the material. Then I moved to California and started
making cassette "albums" as demos. I went through about 5 years of not feeling like I was hearing anything new from anyone, while I wrote a lot of experimental types of etudes. After I moved to Oregon, a producer of a low budget movie found out about some video soundtrack work I'd done and asked me to write the score for his movie. I did a mini-score for some critical scenes and then the project ended. It was influential though, because it made me crank out so much narrowly focused music in such a short time that I didn't have time to think about how hard the music was to play. I forced myself to play what I had written (originally away from instruments) to get the job done. I liked the sound of some of it so much I released another little cassette "album", and it started selling locally.

By this time I was tired of being a solo act and/or band leader and decided to be more of a hired gun for a while. I played for local band's demo projects in studios and ended up playing bass for a psycho-rockabilly punk band in Portland called "Dethro Jethro." It was like Zappa meets Randy Newman meets the Pacific Northwest. The studio work made me sight read a lot more (bass, too) and I decided to get better by reading as much as I could. The local library is a great source of large volumes of music never seen or heard before. Most of it was classical piano which isn't very natural to guitar. But the violin music for the most part was quite playable. After a while, I really liked the sound of most of it and started looking for more interesting works. That's what lead up to my last CD.

Currently a musician who is relatively new to me that I like a lot is Bela Fleck. I really like his "Live Art" CD. Most of my other current influences are from folk and classical music of other cultures including South and Central America, Asia and the Middle East and Africa.

Dan McAvinchey: What guitars and amplification have you used to get your sound, and what are you currently using?

Kevin Ferguson: My main guitar is the Strat I bought when I was 13. It has real bad fret wear now and I'm looking for a replacement in the form of an American Standard Strat. I'm amazed at how much difference there is in fret shaping and feel among American Standards from the same batch.

To me, less is more these days, so I mostly just use a Fender Stage 112 and mic it through a PA. I use a wireless system, too. Sometimes a delay effect is used, depending on the situation. That's about it.

Dan McAvinchey: What are you hoping to achieve musically?

Kevin Ferguson: I've mostly been motivated by wanting to hear something that's already in my head. For the classical tunes, I always thought Paganini's Caprice No. 5 would sound amazing on an electric guitar and just really wanted to hear it. If someone else had a recording out first, I probably would have bought it and then just listened to it instead of playing it.

Dan McAvinchey: What are your most recently completed projects and what are you currently working on?

Kevin Ferguson: "Strad To Strat" is a CD of fiery classical music composed by violin virtuosi, played on a high gain Strat with full synth. orchestra. It's got tracks like the well known "Flight of The Bumblebee" and
Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1, "Perpetual Motion" and Caprice No. 5, Vivaldi's Summer (Four Seasons) and lesser known pieces such as Wieniaski's Caprice No. 4. It also has Sarasate's Gypsy inspired "Ziguenerwiesen," Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 and the prelude to his Sonata No. 6. I tried to be true to the original work in terms of tempo, voices used in orchestration, etc. I did write new orchestration for the Caprices (Paganini's was originally solo and Wieniaski's had a second violin part) and Paganini's "Perpetual Motion." It has a rock sounding guitar, but no drums other than the orchestral percussion.

About the time this was released I also had a track on a Deep Purple Tribute/Compilation album (it may have just been a tape, I'm not sure of the details of the rest of the album). This track was a combination of DP's "Woman From Tokyo" and Saint Saens' belly dance music from "Samson & Delilah." It's called "Woman From Gaza."

Currently I'm transcribing music from cultures around the world we don't get exposed to very much. I plan on having pure transcriptions, original compositions and a mix of the two included on the next CD. I'm pretty excited about what's there so far.

interview pic

Dan McAvinchey: How do you compose your music?

Kevin Ferguson: I only composed arrangements for the above. They were done in full score for orchestra. When I write original tunes, much of my best work is done by sitting down somewhere away from any instrument or any sound and writing out the notation of what's in my head. I like to improvise during performances, too. I tend to like the extremes of well thought out structured music and total seat of the pants playing. Lately, I've taken such a long break from writing that I've been just blurting out scads of ideas through improvisation. I still write lots of it down to keep track of it if I like it. It's easier than trying to commit it to long term memory if I'm in the middle of trying to brainstorm.

Dan McAvinchey: Do you usually record at home or rent time at a commercial facility?

Kevin Ferguson: Both. Mostly it depends on the project. I only record raw individual tracks at home. Mastering is done somewhere else.

Dan McAvinchey: What went into the decision to form your own record label and release an independent record?

Kevin Ferguson: I'd never imagined getting such a great reaction to this music when I played locally. I knew from the Internet that there were lots of folks that wanted to hear it, too. So, I decided there was enough of a market for me to do it myself. I haven't been very aggressive on distribution, but the project is paying for my next one anyway.

Dan McAvinchey: In your view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?

Kevin Ferguson: I think if you like the more obscure things I tend to like you're better off as an independent musician. If you're not independent, you have to wait for other people's decisions, pay them (directly or through a percent of sales, etc.) for it, deal with the likely compromises. I've enjoyed learning how to produce a CD on a realistic budget. If I can pay for my next project with my last, I feel it's a success. I'm free to say no to bogus contracts, etc.

On the other hand, you have to do everything yourself or pay or otherwise motivate someone to do what you don't. You're probably less likely to learn directly from others how to improve in any of the production areas if you do it yourself or can't afford to get someone really sharp. I probably don't get the publicity or distribution that I would if there was a solid "machine" behind me.

Dan McAvinchey: Can you share any marketing or promotion tips for musicians about to release their first independent record?

Kevin Ferguson: I can't speak for what will work for others, but for me, specialty mail order places (like ZNR records) have been ordering from me. They seem to have tapped into an audience. Locals Only (503-227 -5000) also sells it over the phone (mail order) and promotes the CD on its own web page with audio samples. They will even play samples over the phone for you if you call.

Most of what I've done I think is pretty standard, like sending promotional copies to radio programs and reviewers (only after having a warm body say they are quite interested in getting it). I have a list of radio and magazines that is very general, but many may be interested in music CD's. It's at

I've also asked other independent musicians that have done things sort of similar to what I've done about ideas for distribution. Usually they've been helpful if they thought there was a match.

Don't limit yourself to the U.S. Probably more CD orders and radio airplay for my CD has been in Europe. Dutch Esquire did a review on a prominent page because The Netherlands (particularly Amsterdam) tends to be interested in new things from the U.S. (very oversimplified generalization, but roughly true). I've had CD's sold to Asian, South American and Oceanic Countries as well.

interview picture
Kevin Ferguson, a guitarist and composer from Oregon, released his first CD, consisting of fiery classical music composed by violin virtuosi such as Paganini, Wieniawski and Sarasate. "Strad To Strat" was born from Ferguson's discovery of classical violin sheet music in his quest to become a better sight reader on guitar. Arranged for electric guitar and full orchestra, the record realized Ferguson's vision of classical pieces performed with a very powerful instrument. Recognizing that the major record labels were not actively seeking such music, Ferguson decided to release the record himself, discovering through the Internet that there would be people interested in the concept.

Dan McAvinchey tracked down Ferguson to discuss the events that lead up to Ferguson's decision to make "Strad To Strat", his guitar setup, as well has his feelings about creating an independent release.