Prairie fretmaster Jack Semple on teenage trauma, guitar contests, and watching Tommy Emmanuel like a hawk

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By Steve Newton

They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps, so Saskatchewan guitar wizard Jack Semple was on the right track when he tweeted a photo of himself seated alongside guitarists Vinny Raniolo, Tommy Emmanuel, and Frank Vignola.

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Taken in Louisiana this past June at Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Camp USA, the pic was posted along with the overly modest message “Three of the best guitar players on the planet!”

“I got to hang out with them for four days,” explains Semple on the phone from his Regina home, “and that was really cool. It was a workshop, so I was on Tommy like a hawk, watching him closely every day, picking his brain. And it was really inspiring because he’s a very good communicator, almost like a motivational speaker, you know.”

Semple also surrounds himself with primo players at his upcoming Vancouver gig, which sees local fingerstyle guitarist Don Alder as opener at the Rickshaw this Monday (August 31). Alder, whom Semple describes as “remarkable”, has made a name for himself by winning numerous international guitar competitions. Although he received a lot of acclaim back in ’92 after beating out over 1,000 Canadian pickers to win the national Guitar Warz prize, Semple has avoided contests since then.

“My wife keeps on bugging me about goin’ down to Winfield, Kansas,” he says, referring to the site of several high-profile guitar competitions. “But so far I haven’t—those things look pretty nerve-racking. First of all there’s all the other guitar players givin’ you the evil eye backstage. And then you get on-stage and everybody’s goin’ ‘Impress me!’ It’s tough. I might do it one of these days.”

One doesn’t need to see Semple hoisting a trophy to realize how special a guitarist he is, though. It’s clear from viewing his live @ village guitars DVD or hearing his latest album, In the Blue Light. The latter disc shows off his stunning fretwork, along with some fine songwriting and soulful vocals, on tunes that range from bluesy ballads to funk workouts to stomping rockers. Its closing instrumental, “Little Joe”, is particularly moving.

“When I was 14 years old my best friend was tragically killed,” he recalls. “It was very traumatic as a teenager to lose your best friend, ’cause that’s the last thing on your mind. I had no idea how to deal with it or anything, and it left a big scar. So that little ode to him was an attempt to try and express something that I could never express as a teenager.”

Another “Little” tune that soars in Semple’s hands is the much-loved Hendrix gem “Little Wing”, a gorgeous version of which is performed on live @ village guitars.

“I’ve been playing that one for decades,” notes Semple, “and it’s one of those magic songs that is always different every single time. It’s a really brilliant composition.”

So is there any chance that Semple’s Vancouver fans might get a taste of that magical brilliance as well?

“Oh, probably,” the guitarist says. “Yeah, yeah. Usually somebody shouts it out. ‘Little Wing!’ ”

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