Interview: Steven Hopp

Dan McAvinchey: Steven, what were some of the early experiences that shaped your musical tastes and guitar playing?

Steven Hopp: When I was ten my parents gave me a $19.95 Sears Stella (there's probably a million of those in people's attics) and told me that if I learned to play it I could get a better one. In high school I'd graduated to a Harmony arch-top with a single pickup, and was strumming-and-singing like many so-called guitarists of the
early 70s; learning a new song really meant memorizing the words. Actually, I think I kept with it because I thought it would be a good way to meet the babes.

In my first year of college a friend brought me a Leo Kottke album, the one with the armadillo on the front (6- and 12-string guitar) and I was introduced to a level of guitar playing I'd never imagined. That album changed my entire perspective; I vowed to minimize singing and concentrate on guitar as my instrument. Since then I've always sought out the music of guitarists who redefine guitar playing or define a style, and have tried to learn from them, either by listening to how they compose, or their playing styles.

Dan McAvinchey: What guitarists have influenced your playing the most?

Steven Hopp: My interests are very eclectic, which is evident on our new CD. A short list would include Leo Kottke, Larry Carlton, Steve Howe, Al Di Meola, Michael Hedges, Jimi Hendrix, Guy Van Duser, Joe Pass, Ottmar Liebert, Lee Ritenour, and as particular influences in our collaboration as a duet, the few really great
two-guitar combinations: Strunz and Farah, Webb and Carmichael (Acoustic Alchemy), and Lara and Reyes.

Dan McAvinchey: What guitars and other equipment are you currently using to get your sound?

Steven Hopp: I use four guitars for almost all my playing: two late 60s Giannini (Brazilian) guitars, one a jumbo-body steel string, the other a very sweet-sounding 7/8 size student classical (I can illegally wrap my thumb over the top!). I have a 1963 Fender Mustang which has a really smooth neck, but goes out of tune if you look at it the wrong way. I also have a mid-60s Gibson ES-120T (get out your guitar books), a semi-hollow body arch top, with a beautifully mellow sound. I have a few others lurking around in the closets (not that old Stella). I use a pretty light-gauge string for the steel string and electrics, as I find them easier to bend. Richard
mostly plays a Washburn steel-string, which he uses throughout the CD.

In performance we go directly into an Audio Centron powered board, for a clean sound. For the electrics I use an old MXR Phaser pedal (from a pawn shop in Omaha) and an original Vox Cry Baby (that I got for $10 in 1968). I use contact mics for both the steel and classical, and run them through a pre-amp before the board. Richard uses a pickup that mounts in the sound-hole. Sometimes, in smaller venues, we simply mic the guitars, which gives the cleanest sound. For the CD, the acoustic and classical guitars were recorded with microphones, placed chest-high about 3-ft away.

Dan McAvinchey: What are you hoping to achieve musically?

Steven Hopp: A good part of our motive is to grow musically. Our current release covers such a range of styles we're having a hard time pitching it, as it doesn't fit easily into any category. Our two previous releases were equally diverse. Our first, "Cosmic Buffoonery", was a mix of acoustic duets, much like the current one, and folk-style ballads -- Richard is an excellent singer and lyricist. Our second, "Wandering Zulu Brothers", was a larger band sound, with full percussion, bass guitar, multi-vocal harmonies, and even saxophone on a few songs. We really experimented with the capabilities of a good studio, with multiple-guitar harmonies, voice
overlays to sound like a choir, and a wide variety of percussion.
Our main motive in releasing the current CD is to get the very best of our guitar music out to listeners.

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

Steven Hopp: Our recent release, "Fingers Crossed", is an all-instrumental mostly-acoustic guitar-duet CD. It's hard to say what we'll do next. We have a lot of songs in various stages of completion, and we're hoping to find the opportunity to spend a bit of time in the studio sometime soon. We haven't always recorded with a goal
toward a particular album-length project, just to commit excellent compositions to tape/DAT.

Dan McAvinchey: How do you compose your music?

Steven Hopp: There are really a lot of different influences on composition. Two particular things come to mind, one that works well for the interaction between Richard and myself, and the other that I find rewarding. First, we have tried to record as much of our playing as we possibly can, both in practice and "jamming" sessions, and when we perform live, not so much to retain archival versions of our playing, but more to give ourselves some feedback. When playing it's very difficult to listen to yourself because you're too busy thinking about what's going to happen next, while in critical listening you concentrate on the blend of what has just happened. By
listening to recordings of ourselves we can pick out the improvisational parts that work well, sound great, or have promise (as well as those that don't), then try to concentrate on developing them. Second, for myself, during any given period I find myself concentrating on particular styles of music, or even different individual musicians, and I try to emulate the sound I hear. For example, the song "Insoucient" evolved out of a period of listening to older-style jazz (e.g. Joe Pass and early George Benson) and the chord structuring reflects that style, while the song "Kobarid" was composed after listening and reading about the music of western Russia and the scales they use often in their music.

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

Steven Hopp: All three....seriously, there's a middle alternative to this. There are a lot of mid-range studios between personal and professional, put together by independent
musicians. Many don't advertise their studios commercially, but you can find them by asking at regional music stores, putting ads on music boards, etc. Many would be willing to host a few sessions either for free (to test out their equipment) or for a fee well below a typical studio. Alternatively, check with several studios to see what they have to offer, and try to match resources with needs. There are a number of good small studios, usually outside of metropolitan areas, that offer a lot of services for more moderate prices. Further, there's a lot that can be gained from the experiences of professionals.

We have recorded a lot, in a number of places. I have some pretty good recording equipment, and we use it often. For our current CD we recorded most of the songs in a small studio in Bristol, Virginia, with a 16-track analog setup (which I still favor for recording), and then mastered the final in a larger studio in digital format (in

It's my feeling that musicians should get used to being recorded, so it's a familiar occurrence. Then each song can be recorded with optimum approach. For example, our song "Nocturne" has very little improvisation, so the best approach was to practice until polished, then record until errorless. Alternatively, a song like "Cosmic
Buffoonery" actually requires a good deal of improvisation, so the optimum approach is to make sure we record when predisposed to more creative playing. Being familiar with studio work allows more varied approaches, depending on needs.

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

Steven Hopp: Well, Windham Hill wasn't exactly beating down my door! As I stated before, a good part of our motive is just to grow musically, and getting some of our better work recorded is a way to mentally "move on". A lot of distributors will carry CDs if they're professional in both production and style, as this one is. We're looking for a national distributor now.

Dan McAvinchey: What are the advantages of an independent music label?

Steven Hopp: The main advantage is that we're totally in control. Having a specific label, independent from the music product, allows a certain third-person approach to pitching a CD or cassette ("Vireo Music is offering its new release", rather than "My pal and I want you to buy our CD."). The presentation is much more professional.

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

Steven Hopp: There are whole books out there about this, but here are a few pointers. First, don't cut any corners in the earlier stages of production, either during the recording/mixing, or in product production. If you try to produce a CD as cheaply as possible, that will be evident. Get a good designer and/or photographer to help with cover design-I've read a million times that you can "have your brother" take the photos, and cut costs in other ways, but I totally disagree. We hired a designer for our graphics, and the
few hundred dollars were well worth the effort (Guitar 9 now has files of all CD graphics- check 'em out!).

Get professional recommendations about CD companies-don't simply go with the cheapest. Second, be prepared to wear all the different hats, and do your homework! The different roles, of producer, promoter, salesperson, distributor, and accountant, are all part of an independent route. Also, keep accurate records of what you've done, who you've contacted, and what your goals are. Finally, a reasonable rule would be to expect to give away a lot of the product(s) for promotion. Rather than dreaming of the one source that will sell 1000 copies, try to think about the 100 sources that would each sell 20.

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Steven Hopp and his partner, guitarist Richard Houser, have recently released their third CD, "Fingers Crossed", under their own label, Vireo Music. Featuring an eclectic blend of acoustic duets, the CD presents a marketing challenge for the pair, but also represents a statement of individuality and creative growth. Both Hopp and Houser are wonderful guitar players who value diversity in their recordings and who strive for excellence in every aspect of their musical careers.

Dan McAvinchey was able to persuade Hopp to share his feelings about recording, songwriting and promotion, so that others may benefit from his experiences.