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Leo Kottke's career as a guitarist and songwriter spans more than four decades during which time he has played to sold-out audiences across North America and Europe. Known for his fingerpicking style and his penchant for experimenting with unconventional tunings, Kottke issued his debut album, 12-String Blues, on the independent Oblivion label in 1969.
Leo Kottke's family moved frequently during his youth. This experience exposed Kottke to a variety of music styles, including delta blues, which had a pronounced effect on his early playing. Kottke played guitar throughout his youth, but he didn't pursue a career until the late 1960s, when he became a regular performer at the Scholar Coffeehouse in Minneapolis.
Much of Kottke's early work was inspired by American Primitive guitarists such as John Fahey and Robbie Basho. Unfortunately, this style's aggressive fingerpicking contributed to tendinitis that nearly ended his career in the early 1980s. His albums from this period draw inspiration from jazz and folk music. Sounds from the jazz and folk genres remain prevalent in his current output.
Much of Leo Kottke's fame comes from his unique approach to playing guitar. He rarely plays in standard tuning. Instead, he prefers open tunings that create drones that create harmonic support for his finger-style plucking.
Kottke was one of the first guitarists to become popular for finger tapping techniques. Instead of strumming or plucking strings, he often uses the fingers of his left hand to hammer strings on the fretboard. This approach creates a polyphonic sound. While it may sound like several guitars are played, the music almost always comes from a single instrument. Kottke's finger tapping also adds complex polyrhythms to his music.
Leo Kottke also has the rare ability to blend several genres, often within the same song or album. A composition that begins with jazz voicings can quickly transform into a bluegrass romp.
Leo Kottke has never won a Grammy, or for that matter, any other major award. He has, however, been noted as a distinguished guitarist by Guitar Player magazine and Performance magazine. Guitar Player readers have also voted him as the best folk guitarist five times.