Composer-guitarist Sanjay Mishra’s music draws from Eastern and Western music and has won him global fans and critical acclaim, too, including in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio in the U.S.
Mishra recently spoke to Gibson India and discussed tips for guitarists, his project Blue Incantation with Jerry Garcia, favorite gigs, upcoming projects and more.
Tell us about your musical journey.
I grew up in Kolkata, had a band that played rock and roll when it was not so popular there, moved to the U.S. to get more serious. Bought a one-way ticket with no money in my pocket, a dime, I think. Today I would not do that. I would be too scared. I was not then. Went to the Peabody Conservatory of Music, from where I graduated with a degree in guitar.
I recall reading an interview of yours where you mentioned there were moments you felt it was difficult to be an Indian guitarist in the West. Do you think the same holds true for other Indian guitarists and musicians in the U.S.?
Absolutely. Just my opinion, though. I cannot speak for others. This is my experience.
Do you follow India- and Pakistan-based bands?
No. I understand there is a lot of Bollywood music which has guitar and I have heard it a little, and they say little knowledge is dangerous, but I will stick my neck out and say I have not heard anything that has gone beyond the clichés of ’80s rock or, more recently, computer-based hip-hop or dance tunes. Having lived in the U.S., it does not do much for me.
Tell us more about your collaboration with Jerry Garcia on Blue Incantation.
Jerry liked my CD The Crossing and became very interested in making music with me. The album was the culmination of that; though we had planned more, sadly that was not to be. This is the short version of a longer story!
Chateau Benares also got rave reviews in 2006 including on NPR and in The Washington Post.
I am lucky. For some reason unknown to me, people like this music.
You’ve also composed the score for Port Djema, which received a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Tell us about that project.
Eric Heumann, who had made Indo Chine and won an Oscar, approached me with a proposition to do score that would belong to no one culture. I liked the film, so I did it and really enjoyed the experience, especially hearing it in surround sound at the Berlinale at the premiere. The German audiences were most kind to me and I was a bit taken aback for their love for the music. I did some others as well.
What Gibson guitars have you played?
I used to have an ES-175 and 335 back in the late ’80s and I loved those guitars. I don’t remember what happened to them.
Do you play any other instruments besides the guitar? If yes, which ones?
Not really, the guitar is hard enough, and I am still learning that. I have played sitar in the distant past and have a hansaveena I mess around with.
How do you pick out the perfect guitar?
This is such an involved question. So many things. The wood, the action, scale length, the tonal separation between each string, and finally the ultimate judge, the ear. These are specific to nylon string acoustic. With electrics it is more about the electronics than the wood. Though different bridges provide different sustain, as do necks.
Intonation and other such basic issues that used to be a problem have been palliated as much as possible by modern luthiers. Inherently, the instrument has problems since the strings are of varying thickness and length depending on where one is fretting it. For instance the f sharp on the fifth string does not sound the same as the f sharp on the fourth, even though they are the same note. Some guitarists find these differences to be problematic. I love it, because it gives me two shades of f sharp to choose from, etc.
Do you advise people starting out to play the guitar to begin with a nylon string, acoustic or electric guitar?
I play nylon because I like the polyphonic texture it provides me. Playing with a pick is like the piano with one finger – I think Joe Pass said that. But some people want to solo like a sax on a guitar. I don’t. If I did, I would play sax. I like steel, too. On my last album I used a steel for two tracks. I also used a fretless nylon.
The classical guitar has a rich history of several centuries. In my opinion, for me, it is the ultimate, and I am a huge fan of my teacher Manuel Barrueco, John Williams and Paco de Lucia, who I consider to be the greatest living guitarist, though he plays flamenco – an old tradition with Indian influences, combined with his own fusion with jazz. He is simply awesome.
Do you have any tips for guitarists? Any particular technique that works best?
Practice, practice, practice. And, get the right instruction. Bad habits once ingrained are hard to break. More specifically, I find playing through hard parts slowly to be useful, playing them backwards and/or visualizing the fingers without a guitar. Another routine I find helpful is to play the piece two frets ahead of where it is supposed to be played. The resulting cacophony is hard to bear but is a great test of muscle memory. I could go on, but these would be the first few things I would do when preparing.
What are your upcoming projects?
Well, I play at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., my favorite jazz club, in January for a week called the India jazz festival. On the 10th of December I open for some musicians who play with Furthur, which is the current incarnation of The Grateful Dead. A CD to come out next year and other such things. And, one never knows what will happen next. This is the next two or three months.
You head the recording technology program at Northern Virginia Community College – do you also teach at guitar workshops around the U.S.?
No, I do not do workshops. I like being involved with recording tech. at the college. Guitar is too close to my heart to teach it, though I have a few private students which helps me as much as I help them, so yes I do some teaching.
Tell us about your favorite tours and gigs.
Gigs and CDs are like children to me. I love them all equally. I do remember the joy when Bob Weir of The Dead walked on stage unexpectedly at a gig. And playing with Jerry I will never forget. I did some gigs with the bassist Rob Wasserman and DJ Logic and those were fun in a different sort of way.