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Chops: Diego Barber Plugs in with Drago

The guitarist's new compositions filter his concepts through circuits

Diego Barber (photo: Antonio Porcar)
Diego Barber (photo: Antonio Porcar)

Those only familiar with Diego Barber’s Sunnyside Records output might be taken aback by his latest release on the label, Drago. Its largely electronic sounds seem to be a major departure for a virtuoso on the nylon-string guitar in both classical and jazz settings. But those who are aware of his collaboration with electronics whiz Hugo Cipres on the 2013 Origin Arts release 411 will be less surprised. That record saw Barber, on processed electric guitar, joining Cipres, Seamus Blake on tenor sax and EWI, Johannes Weidenmueller on bass, and drummer Ari Hoenig to cook up a delicious stew of jazz, groove, and electronica.

Fact is, this Spanish-born, Brooklyn-residing guitarist harbors a strong affinity for modern sounds. A lover of Chicago and Detroit dancefloor tunes, he also enjoyed Berlin’s electronic scene while in residence there. “My first step towards electronic music was 411, but I always loved classic electronic music,” he reveals. “I also listen a lot to classical musicians like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, who are closely related to electronic music.” 

This affinity led Barber to make a record that minimizes his main instrument. “Guitar is my best weapon, but I didn’t use it to compose Drago,” he explains. “I felt that if I used the guitar the music would follow my fingers.” Instead, Barber wrote the album’s music more in the manner of a classical composer: first conceiving the electronic textures, and only then figuring out how to best implement them. 

“For classical guitarists, sound production is of major importance. We spend more time working on our nails than practicing.”

Classical music also influenced the tempos, which are more flexible in that style of music than in the electronic variety. “Bryce Canyon,” for example, starts slow and speeds up every four bars. “The first step was to put the tempo changes in Logic, before I had any idea what else I wanted to do,” he says. Another way Barber’s classical background informs Drago is in his attention to sonic detail. “For classical guitarists, sound production is of major importance,” he explains. “We spend more time working on our nails than practicing.”

Barber had previously used Logic, Apple’s digital audio workstation, much like a tape recorder to record musical ideas as he played guitar, so to do a full-on electronic record he had to tackle a steep learning curve. A rare upside to the pandemic was that no touring and less teaching meant plenty of time for learning how to use the plugins, software synthesizers, and processing tools employed by makers of electronica. “Usually, I make all the sounds with my fingers,” he says. “Fortunately, I have many producer and DJ friends who helped me learn.”

He became fluent in digital sounds, but sometimes “there ain’t nothing like the real thing.” Though marimba is easy enough to mimic with synthesizers, Drago’s mallet sounds came from the actual instrument, rented for a recording two years earlier. After that session, Barber had the percussionist play different lines as potential fodder for a later composition. “It was the best marimba, recorded in the best studio in New York,” he recalls. “If you compare it to the marimba sounds in Logic or Omnisphere, you can hear the difference. The real marimba is full of life.”

Diego Barber (photo: Antonio Porcar)
Diego Barber (photo: Antonio Porcar)

Pure guitar may rarely appear on the record, but Barber did use his “best weapon” to generate many of the album’s sounds. He would employ a MIDI-equipped guitar to record a MIDI track, later used to trigger a Spectrasonics Omnisphere software synthesizer and Kontakt sample libraries. “That way I can get sounds that are far removed from the actual guitar,” he says. Less often, he recorded his guitar without MIDI and disguised it with effects. For the non-MIDI parts, Barber went direct and just grabbed an amp from Logic’s wealth of modeling options to form a foundation on which he would then build. “The guitar sound was modified many times, so I didn’t spend a lot of time on the basic tone,” he admits. “It was not the most important thing in this recording.”

You can hear Barber play guitar on the tune “Zion Park.” “I am playing harmonics, processed to sound like a piano because I got the idea from a Craig Taborn album,” he reveals. His trusty nylon-string makes a cameo, but Barber’s modification includes using its piezo pickup to run it through distortion. On “Santa Monica” his electric guitar is sent through a harmonizer, creating a Jon Hassell-like tone for the solo. “I play a minute and a half, two minutes of improvisation,” he says. “It is probably the only improvisation on the whole recording.”

On Drago, Barber has largely left his jazz persona behind, relying on his classical identity to guide him through composition and combining of textures. “Reading scores while listening to an orchestral recording tells me a lot about how to compose lines and how things sound together,” he says. “I love to listen to a symphony while reading only one line. When I finish, I start again, reading another line. It’s a good exercise.”

Delayed by the current lockdown, his new project will see a return to his classical roots. “I will be recording 20 Domenico Scarlatti sonatas with [vocalist] Theo Bleckmann,” Barber says. “I’ll play 10 alone and another 10 with Theo. I want to record it in a church built 1,800 years ago.” Drago was not a one-off or aberration, however. “I will still keep composing electronic music because I really love it,” he says. “Composing without my guitar is exciting.”

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Michael Ross

Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville. He is a Consulting Editor at Guitar Player, a contributor to Premier Guitar and Electronic Musician, and the author of numerous books about guitar sound. He also curates, dedicated to avant-garde guitar, and cohosts the Modern Guitar web radio show.