Reshuffling Your Brain

By Paul Rigg

American acoustic six string virtuoso Vicki Genfan (15 June 1959) is widely recognised to be among the world’s greatest guitarists.    

She uses uncommon open tunings and ‘slap-tapping’ to play a mix of pop, funk, jazz and world music in a contemporary folk context.

Genfan regularly plays at top festivals such as Italy’s Soave, Germany’s Open Strings, and Montreal International Jazz, and has worked with Tommy Emmanuel, Jennifer Batten and Kaki King, among many others. 

Genfan regularly teaches at guitar clinics, has her own set of instructional videos and has released a number of albums, including her latest, In the Shadow of a Small Mountain, with Sally Barker.

Guitars Exchange
catches up with Gefan in October 2018 while she is at her home on a rainy day in North Carolina. She has completed her daily meditation routine, and is shortly to prepare for some classes she gives in her local village; but before that she is keen to talk about her latest album, her guitar technique and the latest news about the widespread flooding wrought by Hurricane Florence…

VG: What I can say is that rivers have overflowed and neighbourhoods are underwater, but the biggest dangers are the pig farms where the sewage has flowed into rivers and coal ash residue has got into the water supplies.  

GE: But are you okay where you are? I thought the power supply had gone down as we’ve had difficulty staying in touch recently…

VG: Luckily this area has escaped the flooding this time.  

GE: I’m pleased to hear that. I wanted to start by asking how your latest album with Sally Barker ‘In the Shadow of a Small Mountain’ has been received?

VG: It has been received well, it hasn’t had the push that I hoped, but it’s hard without the finances to do a full promotion. We did some radio promo in England because that is where we would be touring, so we got some nice reviews and radio play, but we sell the cds mostly when we tour. The album is also available on bandcamp. It was really great fun to do.  

GE: Do you have a favourite track from the album?

VG: I love Malaya. I was doing a very strange clawhammer technique on a small 12 string Emerald guitar, which I love, and I found this riff, which turned into a song, and Sally and I added some lyrics. Then I was at a camp in North Carolina where I teach at and Peter Mawanga from Malawi was visiting a friend, and we got to jam on that piece. He took out an instrument that is kind of like a Kalimba, it is a percussion instrument, and just all of a sudden it gave it an African feel, and that track ended up being used. There is a real organic feel to it, I love the textures and sound and where we took it. So that’s my favourite song right now.

GE: How would you describe the music?

VG: It is much more Americana than anything else I have ever done. There is a lot of banjo, mandolin, plus some folky, poppy, songs on it.  

GE: May I ask why there was such a long gap from your previous album in 2008?

VG: Well actually I later released a cd in 2016 ‘Live from New York City’, with some new material, that is also on bandcamp. Getting into the studio is expensive, so in the meantime I’ve been doing instructional DVDs. I’ve done seven of them in recent years and I have two more coming out next year. One is called the ‘Acoustic Guitar Cookbook’ and is aimed at intermediate players who want to bring new energy to songs they’re working on, already playing, or composing. The other is entitled the ‘Open Tuning Handbook’ and it illustrates essential chords and progressions that will enable players to play many songs. I am very proud of those.

I also have a few secret projects…around dance and R&B… it is a really fun project and nothing like I have done before. And I have music that spans into the healing arts, an old album Birthright, which is new agey, and then a musical chakra exploration; these things are riding in the wind and we’ll see what actually lands.

GE: Going back to your childhood, what was your first acoustic?

VG: I couldn’t tell you. Some piece of crap! (laughs). I don’t even know how I played it.  

GE: What was the first acoustic that you wanted and bought?

VG: I remember an acoustic guitar that was an Aria. That was my first when I was about nine.  

GE: Did you own an electric guitar?  If so, what was the brand?

VG: Yes, my favourite was a Gibson ES 345 stereo semi hollow cherry red finish; a very beautiful guitar. I sold it to pay the rent, as we do…   But I’ve never had a great passion for the electric because to get into electric would have required me to lose my focus on the acoustic, and I never wanted to do that.  

GE: One of your most popular Youtube videos is ‘Atomic Reshuffle’ from 2006 – it made me laugh to read one commentator saying “Ms Genfan ‘reshuffles my brain”…

VG: (laughs) Yes, that was the intent of the song.  

GE: Why do you think that struck a chord with listeners?

VG: I think that it is a well-composed piece of music first of all, but it also expresses a mastery of some techniques that I have developed. There is a lot going on with it, there is basic finger picking, all kinds of muted fingerpicking, there is slide, body percussion; it ended up being a compelling piece of music. Why do you think people like it?  

GE: I think it is a very powerful and emotional piece; what was the inspiration for it?

VG I did that piece when Kaki King just got started. Do you know Kaki; I guess you have interviewed her?!  

GE: I have tried. If you could give me her email…I’ll try writing to her again…

VG: I don’t have it anymore! (laughs) When she hit the scene I was trying to get visibility myself and it was harder for me because I was older and she was in the right spot at the right time. So anyway, I went to a NAMM show in California and they had a big concert on the Saturday night and Kaki was featuring, and she had just got the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine, and I wanted to kill her for that! (laughs), because I wanted to be the first on the cover of that magazine. So I was beside myself watching the concert and I went back to my hotel room with a lot of emotions. I picked up the guitar and started with an extreme tuning, one that I’d never used before: it is a low B flat on both ends. And I said to my guitar ‘talk to me, because I am feeling something now’, I had a lot of powerful negative feelings but the tuning itself was a very uplifting sound [Gefan plays it on her guitar]. And I thought ‘that is weird’ but that was my energy, it came from an intense emotion, and my guitar was like pulling me to do my own thing.

That is maybe why the piece is so powerful. They say ‘compare and despair’ because comparing yorself to others is a bad habit, because we each have something unique, and we have to believe in that or else we are doomed. Then that song helped me win a competition, which I think was great. 

GE: In another popular song you play ‘Long Train Running’ with Jennifer Batten. Could you tell us about your relationship with Jennifer?

VG: We are good friends, I love Jennifer. We got to meet because we were both on a cd that Patty Larkin put together called La Guitara, with female guitarists from all over the world. It was a beautiful album. And then Jennifer and I got to do one of the NAMM shows and we ended up doing a tour in the Czech Republic together, and we have been in touch ever since. We are working on some new projects now. She is one of the funniest people on the planet.

GE: You’ve also worked with Tommy Emmanuel; how did that compare?

VG: Tommy and I have played festivals. We got to spend time together at the Soave Guitar Festival in Italy, we hung out and have had a lot of meals together. He is like a battery, never really turns off.  

GE: What is your favourite guitar today?   

VG: Oh Paul, that’s like asking me which I would take if I had to only have one on a desert island. I can’t answer it. I can say that what comes to mind is an LG 2 Gibson 1948; that’s one – it doesn’t give me everything but it gives me something amazing.  

Then I have an L140, which is another Gibson I would take; it is small bodied, it’s just so smooth. 

Then I would take a Luna Guitar Jumbo that I have; so I would take those three.  

… And then I would take my guitar banjo and my guitar mandolin. Sorry, I have to take all five. I would shove them in the boot! (laughs).  

GE: And what gear would you carry with you?

VG: I would take a Looper and a QSC console, because I can work with my Ipad and plug into that. That would be all I need because it offers effects and all kinds of stuff; it’s great. 

GE: You’ve described some of your influences as Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny and James Taylor; which more recent guitarists do you most admire?

VG: Petteri Sariola from Finland and Alexandr Misko from Russia.
These guys are going off the deep end and doing crazy stuff, but also maintaining musicality. They are amazing.

GE: What advice do you have for guitarists just starting out

VG: It depends on what the goals are. If you want to play guitar to sit around a campfire with your friends, then get a nylon string guitar because getting through the calluses is hard.  


If you want to be a professional, again, it depends. If you want to be a guitar player who wants to be in a bunch of bands and play many styles you’ve got to learn your stuff; you have to learn how to read and how to play.  

But if you want to be a composer and find your own voice then that is a very different step. To those people I say ‘you have got to find out what inspires you, learn how to find your own creative well, and learn when to listen to others and when not to listen to them, and keep things organised or many ideas will come and go’. And you really need a mentor, so call me and I will work with you; I love working with people like that! (laughs)    

The interview closes with Guitars Exchange saying that with a suggestion like that, Genfan may well get a call from some of our readers. “That’s okay!” she says. “I know that path, it’s my path, so I know the struggles that go along with it.”

Vicki Genfan Official website