New York guitarist Mike Baggetta has it all, from swinging modern bop chops that flow like John Abercrombie to whammy bar pedal steel licks admittedly influenced by his first guitar hero, David Torn. In the videos below you will see him go from standard format (drum, bass, sax) groups playing standards, to small orchestras, to a duo doing twisted versions of pop tunes. Through it all Baggetta maintains a level of technical proficiency, tone, creativity, and never faltering musicality that make him one of the most interesting players in a city full of distinctive guitarists.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
When I first started getting serious about playing the guitar, or thinking I wanted to make a kind of long term commitment to dealing with music, I remember being really into Jeff Beck, Jim Hall, Fishbone, Thelonious Monk and Nirvana, just to name a few. It was kind of a very wide range of playing styles that I was trying to emulate. There was an attractive quality in all those types of music, whether pure melodicism or a type of reckless energy. I would try to figure out the notes, chords, or whatever was happening, and try to capture the feeling of how it was played. I feel lucky that back then I was not aware of genres in my listening choices. I had to work through a period of being very aware to get back to a place where that’s no longer a consideration.
I should add that my father plays the guitar, and my earliest memories of being near the instrument were of him getting ready to go to his gigs. He was in a popular wedding/cover band in western Massachusetts and I remember watching him testing out the amp and the guitar and thinking it was amazing to see him make those sounds happen.
You sometimes play in a linear bebop derived style and other times in a style that is more open and incorporates rock and country elements, like overdrive and whammy bar steel licks. What contributes to the decision as to which approach you take?
That’s a great question and I’d like to address it by saying one thing I hope I am getting closer to achieving is being able to successfully blur the line between obvious stylistic differences within my playing. Granted, there are different things I do depending whether it is a jazz, rock or folk context, and I think people will hear things in a certain genre if they are alluded to, but its very important to be honest about who I am: someone who loves many different types of music. I hear the same type of overflowing energy in Charlie Parker’s lines as I hear in some Punk music, and the melodic nuance that is shared by Hank Williams and Jeff Beck. In the quest to become a complete musician while still being a true representation of who I am, I want to be able to combine those elements that speak to me as a whole, whether I am playing strings of eighth notes or inflecting a sparser phrase with some tremolo bar. In the end it has become not so much a conscious decision as to when to play which style of music, as it is really more of a decision to not make any choice. I want to be all-inclusive at the service of the piece or what I feel I want to add to it in the moment.
Whose music inspires you? Past and present.
If I were to try and list all the music that has inspired me it would be an impossibly long list in a very wide variety of styles. Since we’re in a guitar-centric medium, maybe its more realistic to just list a sampling of guitarists that have had a profound impact on me: David Torn, Jim Hall, Jeff Beck, Sonny Sharrock, Daniel Lanois, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Vernon Reid, Neil Young, Ted Dunbar, Anders Miolin, Mark Stewart, Derek Bailey, Howlin’ Wolf, Fred Frith, Ben Monder, Robert Fripp, Tim Sparks, Chet Atkins, Vic Juris, George Van Eps, Glenn Campbell, Bill Frisell, Marc Ducret, Albert King, Jim Campilongo, Brad Shepik, Marc Ribot, Mississippi John Hurt, Adrian Belew, and John Fahey. I’m leaving out tons of players and not covering other instruments.
A notably ear-turning moment for me was when my sister gave me David Torn’s What Means Solid, Traveler? as a Christmas present, when I was in high school. I don’t know how she found out about this album, but I wore out that CD because I had never heard anything like it, and it connected with me on a lot of levels. I loved how it felt all inclusive stylistically, was texturally beautiful and adventurous, introduced to me a lot of electronics manipulation possibilities, and how each piece created a whole little mysterious world. I really think that album was a big turning point in helping me see the limitlessness of what modern music could be.
I also find inspiration these days from my guitar-playing peers. These folks really keep me on my toes: Ryan Ferreira, Grey McMurray, Brandon Seabrook, Nate Radley, Harvey Valdes, Dustin Carlson, Amanda Monaco, Charlie Rauh, and Chris Parello.
What are you trying to convey with your music?
One of my favorite things about music is the way it has a very visceral connection to emotional memories in my life: real, imagined, or deja-vu like. I can hear a song associated with a certain time or specific incident in my life and am instantly transported there, able to see the scene when I close my eyes and almost feel the air, smell the smells and be in that moment again. My hope in the music I write and create is to be able to inspire that kind of a feeling within the listener. If something I play, compose or create can, in that moment, transport someone emotionally to a different place, I would consider my goals accomplished. The intangible magic in music is what I really love most about it, and I’m attracted to the idea that I might be able to either share those places with everyone, or expose them to this quality in some way. It is a hard thing to describe, but I always want to have that unnamable quality experienced.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I mainly use a heavily modified Fender Stratocaster. It’s a mahogany body version they made for a little while about ten years ago. I’ve changed a bunch of the hardware and electronics (MannMade tremolo, vintage style tuners, Lindy Fralin Big Single pickups). Inspired by David Torn, I had the tremolo route extended to allow for a more extreme up-pull for higher intervals and chordal transpositions, while returning to a mostly flat floating position. The amazing luthier Saul Koll did that work. He also made a new bone nut and worked on the frets and neck.
My main amp is a late ’60s Sano 25WR. These are in the early Ampeg tradition. My main one is one I swiped from my Dad a few years ago, but I recently found another one that has a presence that I haven’t felt in these before, and it has a really great feel and response—some might call it kind of HiFi. It is a good wattage for most of the things I do. I can really get a lot out of that amp. I also very much enjoy using an early Fryette-era VHT Pittbull 45 that Fryette modified, and an early ’60s Ampeg Reverberocket. I have had the pleasure of playing the new Fryette Aether amp and it is an incredibly inspiring amp to use. It has the rare quality of really feeling like it is giving something back to you in a very organic natural way. My last several recordings feature some combination of the Sano and the Pittbull amps.
The pedals that see the most use are a Paul Trombetta germanium Tornita Fuzz for all my dirt—low overdrive to heavy fuzz to feedback and oscillation noise; into a Lehle volume pedal, though I used a Hilton volume pedal for a while; into an Eventide TimeFactor for my live looping and sampling; into a Neunaber Stereo Wet Reverb, and then straight into the amp. At times I’ve added in other effects when needed like a Moog Minifooger Ring Modulator, an Empress Compressor and a Guyatone Wah Rocker pedal for filter-y type sounds. I used a heavily modified Hazarai Memory Man from Electro Harmonix for my live looping stuff for a very long time. But for all its charms, it had unresolvable issues for me, especially compared with the new Timefactor Looping software.
I endorse D’Addario strings as well, because I like them a lot, and use their regular EXL115 set of .011s on my Strat. I use Planet Waves American Stage cables for all my routing.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
These are two sides of the coin for me. I couldn’t imagine preferring one or the other because the process is so different for each, yet equally rewarding. I enjoy the entire process of recording pieces or full albums. Having the time to try something one way, go back and tweak it, go in a completely different direction, capturing it all on “tape” and then being able to choose which representation you’d like to share, or edit: combining and reworking takes, parts and tracks into something completely different. Those possibilities are all very exciting to me. I also find it rewarding to put together a package that is as visually and aesthetically pleasing as the music. I’ve digitally purchased a lot of music the last few years, but I never get tired of checking out the accompanying artwork someone has paired with their music. I hope that doesn’t die off. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a long and wonderful relationship with Jordi Pujol over at Fresh Sound New Talent records in Barcelona that has allowed me those opportunities for my own albums. He has been interested enough in my music to record and release four albums to date of my groups (the fourth being released in spring 2016). Without him believing in what I do, it would have been very difficult to release that many editions of my music in a traditional CD format.
That said, I have done much more performing to date. What I relish in a performance setting is being able to live in the moment of the music, listening and reacting to whomever I’m playing with, and hearing the musical choices we all make together form a complete whole. That is much more unpredictably inspiring than something that has been labored over. I really appreciate the immediacy in the music that comes within a gig or a concert. One is not better than the other, but they both have their roles in my life and career and are equally inspiring to me in their own ways.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
What audience I do have has found me by seeking out something a little different or more adventurous. Or, perhaps their ears stumbled onto my approach when they weren’t expecting to hear something in a certain context. I have been lucky enough to be involved in a number of very creative projects and have been able to share some double or triple bills with some of my favorite musicians. Whoever is aware of me at this point may have found me by some of those associations.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I always find it an incredibly validating and terrifying experience when I find myself in a musical situation with one of my mentors. I’m lucky enough that it’s happened several times with different people. One such instance was when David Torn recently involved me in a recording session of his new music with his quartet, a string quartet and another guitarist. It meant a lot to me to be thought of for something like that, and to work with one of my earliest musical influences. It was fulfilling and slightly less terrifying because he’s a friend and the other heavy musicians involved were super nice. I could also think of a list of many incredible musicians I would like to collaborate with, but the real honest answer is I welcome collaboration with any open minded creative artist, across musical genres and artistic mediums, where we learn from one another and work together to create something new, adventurous and inspiring in ways that we could not have done on our own.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
My fourth album as a leader, Spectre, is coming out in Spring 2016 on the Fresh Sound New Talent label. This one is mostly trio, with Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar and Billy Mintz on drums. I delve a lot more into my current compositional approach, utilizing live looping and sampling as a core element of the pieces and the improvisations throughout. All of my albums on FSNT can be found for purchase online through the usual suspects: Amazon, the Fresh Sound website, iTunes, etc.
I also just released a new album, The Stars Would Be Different, with my long-standing duo TIN/BAG, with trumpeter Kris Tiner. This was released as a digital only album on Epigraph Records and is available exclusively on their Bandcamp site.
I’m very excited about an ongoing recording project with my friend, and amazing drummer/sound-artist, Dean Sharp. We are slowly working on releasing a duo album with a lot of electronic treatments.
Another project that I was happy to be featured on was the recently released Changing Same by composer Joseph C. Philips’ Numinous ensemble. The album was released on New Amsterdam records and features beautiful new music written for a large chamber group with two electric guitars. He created an interesting space for me to fill in that group, especially on the first track.