MUSIC | Premier axeman Tim Sparks on his favorite guitars, John Zorn, and what he learned in Morris


Tim Sparks is a guitarist’s guitarist, playing so magically it sounds like he’s got a spider running up and down the fret board. He isn’t just all technique, either, a la one of those look-how-many-notes-I-can-cram-into-one-measure showoffs. True wizardry is a match of superior skill and depthless passion, and Sparks has plenty of both. After all, when picking icon Leo Kottke extols, “Tim Sparks…is one of the best musicians I know” and Sparks gets accolades from Guitar Player Magazine in no fewer than seven different issues, the guy is, to say the least, on to something.

Self-taught in the Blue Ridge Mountains of his native North Carolina, Sparks went on to attend the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Andrés Segovia protégé Jesus Silva. Sparks went on to become proficient in jazz styles from Brazilian to bebop. Moving to Minnesota, he garnered several regional music awards including Best Acoustic Guitarist, Best Latin Jazz Guitarist, and Best Jazz Guitarist at the Minnesota Music Awards.

In 1993 he won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, playing his adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. He opened for Dolly Parton, performed on A Prairie Home Companion, and frequently tours Japan, France, Belgium, Austria, and Hungary. He’s also on the faculty at the University of Minnesota—Morris. His solo albums are Sidewalk Blues, At the Rebbe’s Table, Tanz, Neshamah, One String Leads to Another, Guitar Bazaar, Nutcracker Suite, and his newest, Little Princess.

How’d the release show for Little Princess go at the Dakota?
The show with Jay Epstein and Chris Bates was great. There was a nice house, very enthusiastic. We played selections from my new release [on the Tzadik label], Little Princess, plus some of Zorn’s Book of Angel‘s tunes.

Ever play much electric?
I played electric in my funk days when I toured with Yesterday’s Children. Also with the second incarnation of Rio Nido, it was a 1940s Epiphone archtop. I went for a fat, Kenny Burrell sound. Also used that guitar at the Spruce Club with Danny McGhee, Billy Holiman and Donald Thomas…and Jack McDuff, we made a record with Shirley Witherspoon. Also played with Eddie Berger and the Boperators with Gary Berg and Kenny Holman. The guitar I use now is a custom acoustic, but has an electric pickup mounted in the sound hole. So it’s an electric with a very natural sound.

What make and model guitars do you own?
I still have the 1954 Martin 00-17 I played with Rio Nido 30 years ago. I used that guitar on One String Leads To Another, Neshamah, and Tanz. I used a Lakewood made by Martin Selligar on At The Rebbe’s Table. Sidewalk Blues features the 1954 Martin, the Lakewood, a Collings Podium custom OM style cutaway, a 1917 Gibson L-3 found in a pawn shop in Chicago, and a custom OM cutaway made by Charlie Hoffman here in Minneapolis. I used the Hoffman guitar on Little Princess, and that’s the axe I am currently playing. I also have a Turkish Oud and Saz bought in Istanbul as well as a Mexican Requinto, an alto guitar that I used on The Nutcracker Suite. And I won a Taylor Concert cutaway for First Place in the Winfield National Fingerpicking competition in 1993. I used that guitar on Guitar Bazaar.

Why them in particular?
Playability. Sound. My style blends nylon string classical and Latin American chord shapes with steel string jazz-blues-country-world-music riffs.

Who’re your strongest playing influences?
In terms of guitar? Duck Baker, my friends Tony Hauser, Dean Magraw, Pat Donahue…and then Lennie Breau, Ed Bickert, Ted Greene, Doc Watson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee. Too many to name. Other cats I played with in the Twin Cities: Roger Hernandez, Tom Lewis, Ron Evanuik, Dave Maslow, Dave Karr, Billy Shields. Playing with them was an education. When I started recording for Tzadik I was introduced to a circle of musicians in New York: Greg Cohen, Cyro Baptista, Mark Ribot, Eric Friedlander. Brilliant artists who were very in tune and helpful to what I was trying to do. And John Zorn has challenged, encouraged, and supported me to stretch my own boundaries. The same goes for Peter Finger, who in the 1990s, produced my first solo recordings and got me wired into an extraordinary community of players and gigs in Europe. I have to say in recent years I have been inspired and learned a lot from my students during a stint teaching at the University of Minnesota at Morris. I have had some brilliant students who will be carrying the flame when I’m long gone…I loved it, and I think Little Princess is such a good CD in part because I became a much better guitarist by virtue of having to take what I play and break it down and explain to my students. This made me understand my axe much better. And college kids keep you up to date. For example, one of the arrangements I did on Little Princess, “Turkish Circle Dance,” utilizes a riff from Foo Fighter Dave Grohl’s “Everlong,” which I learned in order to teach to a class.

Songwriting influences?
I try to arrange like piano players: Monk, Bud Powell, Abdullah Ibrahim, Duke Ellington. I also learned a lot from Jack McDuff. We did an arrangement of “Strange Fruit” for Shirley Witherspoon, and he pointed out things about the chords I was using. He didn’t like minor seconds, he dug big hairy #9 chords. Performing a guitar solo when backed by a big loud Hammond B-3 organ will prompt one to play with a decisive tone and attitude. Look at some great guitarists who graduated from the B-3 school: Kenny Burrell, George Benson, Pat Martino.

What other guitarists today do you respect?
A lot of players in Europe like Peter Finger, Sandor Szabo, Michel Haumont, Franco Morone, Beppe Gambetta, Claus Boesser-Ferrari. I also like country pickers like Brad Paisley, Jerry Donahue, and Junior Brown. That chicken-pickin’ stuff is as mysterious as bebop. It’s a very complex vocabulary that weeds out flakes. You have to do your homework to speak that language.

What’s next?
I’m gonna go watch YouTube and cop some Jerry Donahue licks! Also playing “Giant Steps” a lot. In other words, doing some wood shedding, soaking up some new ideas. Will be playing in California and then going to Europe three times between now and February.