Hot licks

Guitarist and "All Things Considered" commentator Adrian Legg tells funny stories, but his guitar playing is no laughing matter.

Published October 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the course of an hour-long solo set before 30 or so fans at the Knitting Factory, Adrian Legg waxed on about the sexual predilections of English bulls ("perverted rubber fetishists, all of them"), the parallels between songbirds, guitarist Steve Vai and getting laid, and his grandmother, who once sent a man into the priesthood. The occasional "All Things Considered" commentator told these tales with the slightly detached air of a crazy uncle, staring off into the distance with a twinkle in his eye. In between these bits, Legg showed why he is generally regarded as one of the best acoustic finger-pickers playing today.

Legg, who plays an acoustic-electric hybrid that combines the warm tone of a wood-bodied guitar with the versatility and effects of an electric, is a marvel to watch. He uses his right hand much as a banjo player does: Each finger plucks an individual string, while his thumb often pedals a gentle, walking bass line. The technique allows Legg to explore scales in place of chords, playing three or four notes in the time that another guitarist could play only one. His individualized tunings allow him to showcase an almost uncanny smoothness with his left hand, which never seems to be doing more than relaxing on the fretboard, while Legg shimmies through waltzes, blues and ballads.

Legg pulls off masterful maneuvers that make seasoned six-string maestros weep in frustration. In his hands, impossible finger runs seem as natural as breathing. Whether blitzing through "Norah Handley's Waltz," an upbeat, resolutely major-key composition (Legg rarely indulges darker tones in his work), strutting through the jaunty "The Cool Cajun" or mystifying his audience with the perplexing time signatures of "Bayou Belles," Legg seemed as if he were expending no more energy than he would warming up with "When the Saints Come Marching In." On several numbers, Legg changed tuning in mid-song by dropping strings down a step and then bringing them back up several beats later, all within the blink of an eye.

But you don't need to be a guitarist, or even a musician, to appreciate Legg's quiet mastery. Legg, who still lives in his native Britain, doesn't tour the States very often. He's here now promoting his new Red House album, "Fingers and Thumbs." The effect of his rippling, graceful glissando and fluid runs from that record and others is hypnotic and wonderful, whether or not you realize their difficulty. And his between-song stories are a joy, even if the best ones rarely shed any light on his compositions. Some of them are charming, or funny, or amusing and sweet. Others are quite pretty -- just like his songs.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

MORE FROM Seth Mnookin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------