An Interview With Gilbert Isbin on

By A-J Charron

Belgian guitar virtuoso Gilbert Isbin is no stranger to the readers of Guitar Noise. Not only do his CDs grace our reviews page, but he even wrote a fingerstyle lesson for us a while ago. Even though he’s incredibly busy of late between all his ongoing solo and group projects, Gilbert took the time to answer some questions from A-J Charron.

A-J Charron

A-J Charron is a songwriter, guitarist and singer from Montréal, Québec. From 2000 to 2005 A-J wrote over 300 articles, reviews and tips for the Guitar Noise website. These articles have been read by thousands of people and been translated into several other languages. In 2005 A-J begin his own music media website.

A-J Charron has written 67 articles for Guitar Noise.

View all articles by A-J Charron

(NOTE FROM DAVID: Belgian guitar virtuoso Gilbert Isbin is no stranger to the readers of Guitar Noise. Not only do his CDs grace our reviews page, but he even wrote a fingerstyle lesson for us a while ago. I’d like to add here that if you’ve not heard his CD, Gilbert Isbin Plays Nick Drake, you’re missing a treat!

Even though he’s incredibly busy of late between all his ongoing solo and group projects, Gilbert took the time to answer some questions from A-J Charron. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I have.)

AJ: Could you start by telling us of you background as a musician?

GI: I started playing guitar when I was about 18 years old, so quite late. My biggest influences were at that time Hendrix, Mick Taylor, Clapton, but also John Mc Laughlin, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mittchell. Until then I played pretty well the recorder, mainly baroque and renaissance music.

Because I thought I needed to study classical music – I really was convinced people like Clapton were clasically formed – I went to a private classical guitar teacher – well, he was an architect who had a classical guitar training but he was was more trying to get me into jazz than into classical music. He introduced me to the music of Joe Pass, Wes Montgommery, Jim Hall, Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis, Coltrane….

He taught me the basics of jazz harmony and some classical techniques.and also motivated me to improvise and to write my own material, which was at first a mix of Renaissance music and Jazz.

Later on I discovered the music of Leo Brouwer, Hindemith, Ravel, Debussy, Charles Ives but I was also into rockmusic, (and still am) Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Jeff Beck. Mostly I learned from analysing sheet music, listening to music and studying theory on harmony, composition, etc.

AJ: Listening to your albums, you have a very creative “touch” to your playing. Could you explain some of your techniques?

GI: The techniques I am using are very similar to a rock guitar player mixed with the harmony of jazz and impressionistic classical music. I use often techniques like slurs, bends, slides, scrapes, mutings, tappings, plectrum style tremelos, bending behind the nut, bending the neck, natural and artifical harmonic, all kinds of percussion techniques (tamburo, golpes, striking, brushing on strings, bridge or parts of the guitar body, strings…). But I use them only as spicers, colours. I am not into gimmicks. Mostly I am preoccupied with the melody, harmony, and rhythm.

AJ: How do you approach the instrument? Is the guitar an extension of yourself, is it simply an instrument?

GI: Yes the guitar is defenitely an extension of myself. My wife says I am addicted to it And yes it’s true. I deeply like to play, study, compose. Even on vacation I take my guitar with me. For composing I need the guitar. Sometimes I write ideas down which came up during the day but for developing these I have to have the guitar nearby.

Most of the time I compose, I am not really into playing scales and other technical stuff for hours. But due to the fact that during the composing process I play the passages so much over and over again, my technique develops without having the idea of being involved with boring excercises.

AJ: What is your ultimate goal as a musician?

GI: It’s quite difficult to describe. Just until now I was completely into getting my music recorded ,and getting concerts but recently I am very into writing my music down for publishing. I have a mass of compositions which I am now rearraging, re-shaping. Lucklily I found a Belgian editor and some of my works will be released on sheet music.From mid-September they will be available – also some of the compositions on Red Wine – on Copa Music Productions : Two Dances, Two African Impressions, Solo Guitar Works (volune 1), Summer Moon Dance (for guitar quartet) and Ropose Suite ( , email

I am also working a a method about improvisation for the classical guitarist, something for which there’s a big command.

AJ: Historically, in the world of classical music, the guitar has been scene almost as an obscenity. This is seen particularly in the fact that there are very few (comparatively) classical pieces for guitar. Is this something you feel you have to cope with?

GI: Well , these days a lot of new works for guitar have been published. But the problem is that lots classical performers still record the works that have been recorded and performed already so many times. A good thing is that nowadays classical trained musicians are composing and performing their own works.

It’s really time that classical music world broaden their horizons to other wonderful musics , like Jazz, Indian, African, pop, rock, folk, etc. It’s a wonderful thing that a guitarist like John Williams released the Magic Box, with African music. He is really a great musician who experimented with fusing pop and classical music already years ago. The classical guitar world really needs this kind of open minded people.

AJ: As rock is much more popular in the general populace than classical, and most guitarists dream of becoming rock and roll guitarists, what made you strive for the classical guitar?

GI: Well, as I already pointed out, I had the intention to become a rock player. Only I thought in these days these guys were classical trained. But I have always liked the sound of the classical guitar. But I still like rock very much. These days I am very much into Jeff Beck’s music. ‘You Had It Coming’ is really fantastic. He’s such a wonderful, adventurous and sensitive player. But then there are periods I listen to African or Indian music, to Reanissance and Baroque music or contemporary classical music, to jazz ….

AJ: Is it more difficult for you, as a classical guitarist, to get live gigs?

GI: As I am involved in different projects, Gilbert Isbin solo, the Gilbert Isbin Group (Songs with jazz and world influences) , Elengi (jazz meets African music) and Isbin/Fourier (jazz meets avant-folk), Gilbert Isbin /Joe Fonda duo (Joe is a New York based bass player) I have the chance to play often I really enjoy playing for an audience. I have played all through Europe, so if there’s anyone in the US or Canada interested please conctact my manager at :

AJ: Could you tell us what kind of guitars and what equipment you use?

GI: I use only one guitar a 23 years old Cuenca classical guitar. When I play in a group setting I use a Fishman Natural 1 (an undersaddle piezo transducer) and my amplifier is a Trace Elliott Acoustic. I don’t use any effects pedals, only a bit of reverb from my amplifier. It can’t be simple enough. With the Fishman natural 1, I never have any feedback, so I can play very relaxed.

AJ: Do you record using an internal mic or external mics?

GI: I always use external mics. I mostly record in a studio. For instance for Red Wine I did it in the BluBox-Tonstudio in Troisdorf (Germany) where Carsten, the label manager of Traurige Tropen is also working as recording engineer. They have wonderful mics, Neumann. I have a Tascam Digital Portastudio at home. After experimenting a lot I am quite pleased with the result of the sound, so perhaps I will use it for forthcoming recordings.

AJ: What are your goals for the future?

GI: End this year I will start recording with the Gilbert Isbin Group. I always wanted to record an album with songs so this is a dream that will come true. It’s a singer, bass, guitar, percussion combination. The album is expected for April or May. And further I want to concentrate on an album with Elengi, which is a singer, guitar, reeds and percussion combination and which concentrates on a mixing African and jazz elements.

I also want to releease a new solo album and lots of energy will go to the publishing of several works for sologuitar on Copa Music Productions ( Further I am writing music for a documentary film about the Middle Ages.

A-J Charron

Search for:
Search for: