Les Finnigan figures all fingerstyle guitarists should learn Yes’s “Mood For a Day”

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 16, 1999

When you lift Les Finnigan’s Stories Without Words CD out of its clear plastic tray, you expect to see a picture of the 28-year-old fingerstyle guitarist-composer, or maybe some production notes, in the space behind it. Instead there’s a black-and-white snapshot of a severely mangled guitar case lying on a carpet. The case’s outer fabric appears to have been violently ripped apart, leaving its wooden skeleton bare. A caption at the bottom right—“Bad Puppies!”—gives the story away. Turns out Finnigan’s five-month-old pups, Delta and Gromit, did a real number on the case that protects his prized Bourgeois guitar. The rottweiler-husky-collie crosses even devoured the big red Fragile stickers Finnigan had picked up during his air travels.

“I got home from a gig one night,” explains the guitarist from his Surrey home, “and the case was flipped upside down and on the other side of the room; I don’t know how long they’d been batting it around for. And usually I take the guitar out of the case and put it on the stand, but that day it was in the case. Luckily, it was okay.”

Perhaps Delta and Gromit aren’t fond of their owner’s particular brand of music, which would be a surprise, considering that Finnigan specializes in pretty guitar tunes that could tame such savage beasts. On emotive tracks like “The Woodcutter” and “September Again”, he makes wonderful use of his dog-defying Bourgeois. Stories Without Words also finds him deftly handling six- and 12-string Martins and an Alberico L-model guitar built by local luthier Fabrizio Alberico. And for those skilled enough to want to play along, Finnigan includes the tunings for each song.

“Some people actually want to learn particular songs,” he notes, “and that’s one thing that I’m working on—my next project is to try and do [music] books for all my CDs. I’ve been writing them out when I can, but it’s very time-consuming. The tunings are also there for someone who might be interested in alternate tunings; they might just like the tone of the song, or the mode that it’s written in, and want to write something themselves. It’s sort of like trying a different instrument, basically.”

Finnigan has been writing music for guitar since 1985, and says that his main influences for fingerstyle playing include Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and Steve Howe. “I learnt [Yes’s] ‘Mood for a Day’,” he says with a chuckle, “just like everyone else. You have to learn that, and you have to learn Bach’s ‘Bourée’ and all that other stuff.” Finnigan’s practice paid off in 1995 when he was chosen as first runner-up in Music West’s Star Fret competition, which he points to as a “turning point” in his musical evolution.

“They had categories for electric and acoustic in that contest,” he says, “so I actually made an electric submission and an acoustic one. They said both tapes were good, but they wanted me to play acoustic, so I said ‘Sure.’ Then later that year I met a teacher from the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, and he invited me down to a complementary week of lessons. And that was the same year I went to Connecticut for the first time to the National Guitar Summer Workshop, where I actually got to meet Leo Kottke, which was a big thing for me. I’m not one of these idol-worshipper sorta guys, but he was the first person that I ever asked for an autograph. It’s not that I wanted the piece of paper with his name on it, but it was something just to say hi.”

Finnigan will be displaying his talents for local acoustic-guitar enthusiasts in the next few days, with solo appearances at the Broadway Chapters on Friday (September 17), the Gastown Starbucks on Saturday (September 18), and the Naam Restaurant on Sunday (September 19). But the show he’s most looking forward to is the West Coast Guitar Night, which his String Plunker Records is organizing. It takes place at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Wednesday (September 22), and sees him in the company of local acoustic guitarists John Gilliat, Edgar Avelino, and Kent Hillman.

“All these guys are amazing,” Finnigan claims. “I’ve known John for several years, and he was also in the Star Fret competition in ’95—he was actually the winner. He’s got a new CD out, Freedom, and it’s primarily flamenco, but it’s described on the album cover as ‘rumba flamenco worldbeat jazz pop’. Edgar Avelino has primarily been studying South American music, and the night of the concert he’s going to be doing strictly Brazilian. And Kent Hillman does a bit of everything. It’s mostly jazz, but he’s studied a lot of different things, like the country styles of Chet Atkins. And he’s a huge fan of Lenny Breau. He can do some Lenny Breau songs right off the album and transcribe them note for note, so he’s the man to talk to if you’re into that sorta stuff.”

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