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Musicians of West Marin - Teja Gerken

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Born in Germany in 1970, Teja Gerken began his journey on the guitar at the age of six and became a serious student of the instrument after his family moved to California in the mid '80s.! Today, Teja is no stranger to those familiar with contemporary steel-string fingerstyle guitar. Weaving together influences of folk, jazz, classical, and world music into a style that is uniquely his own, Teja's playing reflects his diverse musical interests. While many of his composition employ alternate tunings, two-handed tapping, percussive effects, and other extended guitar techniques, others simply rely on his keen sense of melody and movement. Within this framework, Teja has created a repertoire that appeals to fellow guitarists as well as to listening audiences, and while original material is his main focus, he can also be found playing Irish traditionals, the occasional jazz standard, or improvising on themes by classical composers.

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An active participant in the vibrant San Francisco Bay Area acoustic music scene, Teja is a regular performer at many of the region's venues. A firm believer in creating community, he hosts a monthly acoustic guitar showcase (currently at Fairfax's Sleeping Lady ) which features both established and emerging players. Teja also frequently introduces international talent to Bay Area audiences. Teja has shared the stage with guitar visionaries such as John Renbourn, Alex de Grassi, Peter Finger, and Henry Kaiser, as well as with his mentors, Duck Baker and Peppino D'Agostino. He has been a featured guest at the International Guitar Night, as well as on radio stations such as San Francisco's KALW and KUSF, and Berkeley's KPFA. In 2000, he began adding annual concerts in Germany to his performance calendar, and in 2004, he participated in a ten-city tour of Hungary.

Teja's debut album On My Way (LifeRhythm Music) has received critical acclaim since its release in 1999. "This sounds as if Michael Hedges, Paco De Lucia, and Bill Monroe are all fighting over a guitar," says the music review website Listen.com, which goes on to say that "this exceptional musician combines elements of folk, jazz, bluegrass and just about any style you can think of, into his seamless, lightning speed guitar workouts. Gerken plays World Fusion without losing his own identity or watering down styles." The UK's Folk Roots adds, "very impressive technique, and tuneful," and Dirty Linen calls Teja "a fine technical player." The composition Her Red Hair was featured on a Best of Contemporary Instrumental Music sampler CD by Germany's Laika Records in fall 2002. Teja released his second album Postcaards in 2005.

Besides performing and recording, Teja also writes about guitars, guitarists, and related subjects. He was a senior editor at Acoustic Guitar magazine from 1997 to 2013, and he has contributed to Guitar Player, Premier Guitar, InTune, Fretboard Journal, Akustik Gitarre, Gitarre & Bass, and other publications. In 2014, he co-founded Peghead Nation, an online e-leaning environment with video instruction for guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, fiddle, and dobro.

1. Who/ what were your early inspirations/teachers/influences?

The first steel-string fingerstyle guitarist I really became aware of was John Renbourn, who I first discovered via Pentangle, and later as a solo player. I still consider the “British school” of fingerstyle playing (I’d include Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Martin Simpson, and Martin Carthy in that group) to be a strong influence in my playing, but I also went through a period where I was really into what I consider to be the second wave of modern American players, such as Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi, and I’ve also spent a lot of time listening to French fingerstyle master Pierre Bensusan, and German guitar genius Peter Finger. I’m also a huge fan of classical guitarist/composers such as Roland Dyens, Andy York, Ralph Towner, and Dusan Bogdanovich. Finally, even though their influence on my own playing isn’t as direct, I’m really into modern jazzbased electric players like Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Nels Cline, Adam Rogers, Will Bernard, etc.

As far as teachers go, I have no “formal” training, but I consider Peppino D’Agostino and Duck Baker—both amazing fingerstyle players—to have been my mentors, and I studied with both for several years while living in San Francisco in the ‘90s.

2. How has your style/playing/sound and equipment changed over time?

I came to solo guitar from playing some classical and flamenco, so the biggest change, now almost 20 years ago, was going from playing a nylon-string classical guitar to playing mostly steel-string. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve done more two-handed tapping and slapping, Michael Hedges-type stuff, than I do now, but fundamentally, I’ve really just tried to always get better at what I do without changing my fundamental approach to playing guitar. I mostly play in alternate tunings, but I’ve become more strategic about how I use them, and I think of them in terms of a couple of “families” of tunings, rather than the fairly random choices that they used to be. I think the main difference is that over time, I’ve developed better tone on the instrument, and I’ve become a more confident performer, which are both really important aspects of playing guitar. I’ve mostly been playing the same guitars—a Custom Shop Martin OM, a Lowden O10 jumbo, a Taylor 355 12-string, and a Kenny Hill classical—for more than a decade, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I usually amplify with pickups, and I often use a small pedal board with a preamp, EQ, reverb, and sometimes a looper, but lately I’ve been into just playing with a microphone if I’m playing for a listening audience and the PA and engineer is up to the task.

3. Favorite Fairfax music moments.

Most of my playing in Fairfax has revolved around hosting the monthly Guitar Showcase at the Sleeping Lady from about 2008 until the club closed. It was an amazing run, especially because it allowed me to bring a lot my guitar friends from all over the country to my hometown. Stand-out shows included having players like Adam Levy, Mark Goldenberg, Vicki Genfan, Paul Asbell, Adam Miller, Eric Skye, or Steve James at the show, and I pinched myself often when I realized that I could play with these folks while walking to the gig from my house. But maybe my favorite memory of a Fairfax gig is when a gig I shared with Teja Bell (the only other person with my first name I’ve ever met!) turned into a show with Gabe Harris on percussion and Steven Kindler on electric violin—that was a special Fairfax night of music! Then there was the time when Ramblin’ Jack Elliot showed up and sat in for a tune—where else does stuff like that happen?

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