Born in 1955, Preston Reed grew up in Armonk, New York, a small town in the wooded hills of Westchester County, thirty-five miles northeast of New York City. He was the youngest of three children, and the only boy.
His early experience of music came via the radio, television programs (favourite theme songs included Route 66, Perry Mason, Peter Gunn and Sea Hunt), movie soundtracks, and his parents' and sisters’ 45 rpm singles and long-playing 33 1/3 rpm albums (favourite early albums were Bongos, Flutes and Guitars and Sabicas).
Before he ever played an instrument, music was a vital part of his inner creative landscape. The diverse styles of music he was exposed to at home, in the car and elsewhere — rock & roll, modern and big-band jazz, blues, r&b, pop as well as classical orchestral music — would play constantly in his head. From a very young age he entertained himself by replacing phrases, rhythms, melodies, chord progressions etc. from tunes he’d heard with musical ideas of his own.
His habit of experimenting mentally with the compositional elements of music would later lead him to trust himself musically, to question the familiar and conventional and — ultimately — to develop a vision of the unlimited possibilities of the acoustic guitar.
Reed’s journey with the guitar began when he was eight years old. He came home from school one day to discover his father teaching one of his sisters some chords on a guitar. He had seen his father play guitar occasionally for family singalongs, but had never thought of learning to play himself. Seeing his sister getting instruction compelled him to get in on the action, and he asked his father to teach him. His father offered to buy him a ukulele to start with.
Being left-handed, he asked his dad for a left-handed ukulele when they were in the music store the next day. There were none available, so he agreed to learn to play right-handed. Decades later, being left-handed but playing right-handed would turn out be an advantage in developing his left-hand-over-the-neck, integrated percussive playing style.
His father taught him some old tunes (Five Foot Two Eyes Of Blue, Home On The Range and Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley were among them). He found there were no drawbacks to playing right-handed and quickly mastered the tunes on the ukulele.
Within a short time was able to play the tunes on his father's guitar, having figured out that the top four strings of the guitar were tuned to the same notes as the four strings of his ukelele.
His parents bought him his own guitar, and soon after that he wrote his first composition. He titled it The Lonely Night. It was reminiscent of the instrumental rock & roll style of The Ventures.
He began figuring out the chords to tunes on radio, including The Last Time by the Rolling Stones, House Of The Rising Sun by the Animals and She’s Not There by the Zombies.
Having observed his growing skills and enthusiasm for playing, his parents found him a classical guitar teacher. While he liked the classical compositions he was learning, the strict techniques, constant reading — and the overall message that there was only one way to learn an instrument -- discouraged him. After six months he asked his parents to stop the lessons, and put his guitar away. He played it only occasionally for the next six years.
When he was fifteen he bought the debut album of a band called Hot Tuna, and subsequently saw them in concert. While the guitarist — Jorma Kaukonen — was best-known as the electric lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, the first Hot Tuna album was an acoustic project where Kaukonen revealed himself to be an accomplished acoustic fingerpicker. He loved Kaukonen's playing on tunes like Death Don't Have No Mercy and Mann's Fate. It motivated him to take his guitar out of the closet and start learning the tunes on the album.
He discovered John Fahey — and his album America — when he was sixteen, and then Leo Kottke — and his album 6- & 12-String Guitar -- when he was seventeen.
Both Fahey and Kottke used open tunings in their compositions. Reed's discovery of open tunings — and how they facilitated compositional freedom -- was the beginning of a long and fruitful creative adventure.
Learning the music of these three guitarists gave him a foundation in the technique of alternating-bass fingerpicking. The technique provided a crucial insight into the interaction of separate voices in music — the repeating thumb as one voice, the fingers syncopating against the thumb as a second voice. He began writing his own compositions.
In the fall of 1972, after playing at a party for a friend of his sister's, Reed was invited to perform in concert with legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. It was his first serious gig, and it went well.
He went to Beloit College in Wisconsin the following year, where he performed frequently in the college’s coffeehouse. A requirement for graduating was to do a four-month field term project of his choosing, in a location he had never been before, and submit a report at the end. He chose San Francisco. The title of the project was "Playing Guitar In San Francisco".
In the fall of 1974 he arrived in San Francisco and got a job working in a delicatessen. He played his six-string and twelve-string guitars whenever and wherever he could. After extending the field term twice, he realised he was thriving in his new environment and didn’t want to leave. He decided to withdraw from college.
His favourite club in San Francisco was the Holy City Zoo, a small, intimate showcase venue on Clement Street. Toward the end of his time in San Francisco he was playing there every Friday as the “music relief" for Comedy Night, where the Bay Area’s best comedians would show up to hone their stand-up routines. Robin Williams was a regular.
In 1977, after three years in San Francisco and much valuable experience, he moved back to the Northeast, settling in the Hartford, Connecticut area where his father now lived. Under an unusual Federal program at the time, he was able to land a job for a year playing community service shows and events. Notable performances that period included the New England Fiddle Contest in Hartford — where he played in front of 120,000 people in Bushnell Park -- and the National Governors’ conference in Boston.
He first saw jazz guitarist Pat Metheny in an outdoor concert in Bushnell Park in 1979. Metheny’s music would have a huge influence on his later composing.
With the income from the job, the supplementary evening gigs he was playing around New England, plus some help from his parents, he was able to put out his first album,Acoustic Guitar in 1979. The album was well-received. Guitar Player Magazine called it “exceptionally fine…compositional diversity and guitarist brilliance”.
His touring activities in the 1980’s centered around the Northeast at first, but after the release of his second album — Pointing Up -- on the Flying Fish label, he began touring more widely in Texas, California and the Midwest.
An Italian guitarist brought Reed over to Italy for a tour in 1982. While he was there he met a promoter in Rome who offered to record him and put out an album. He recorded Don’t Be A Stranger over the course of two days. When the album was released he was brought back for a second tour.
He played folk festivals in Canada. He opened shows for well-known bands and singers, including Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat. He met and opened for two of his early influences, Jorma Kaukonen and John Fahey, multiple times.
Reed recorded four albums of original compositions in a fingerpicking style on six and twelve-string guitar between 1982 and 1986 -- three on the Flying Fish label plus the one in Italyl. The first three albums were performed on six and twelve-string guitars, and the final one — The Road Less Travelled — on six-string only. The title tune featured a new tuning Reed had discovered: DADGED.
His exploration of altered tunings had taught him that the tuning the guitar was in had everything to do with where a composition could go and what it could say harmonically.
With each new album his playing and writing were becoming more harmonically sophisticated and jazz-influenced.
He first met Michael Hedges in the early 1980’s, and played on the same bill with him many times throughout the decade.
Reed admired Hedges’ boldly original, compositional approach to the acoustic guitar which featured new playing techniques and altered tunings, but he never thought of trying to imitate his style.
As he progressed through the1980’s he began hearing about other guitar innovators -- Jeff Healey, Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan.
In the fall of 1987 Reed moved to Minneapolis. Soon after he arrived, a guitar player named Billy McLaughlin came to his apartment to interview him for the Minnesota Guitar Society newsletter. McLaughlin had brought a guitar along and, after the interview, played him a survey of “tapping" techniques he had learned from Michael Hedges and others.
Reed had initially rejected the idea of tapping because he felt it had too many dynamic, harmonic and textural limitations. McLaughlin’s visit reminded him that a movement was underway. He decided to take a closer look.
Despite reservations about what he’d heard of the technique so far, he asked himself: Is there a way can I use this for my own compositional purposes?
Within a few months he'd written a tune in DADGED using hammer-ons and pull-offs on the guitar neck. From his knowledge of alternating bass fingerpicking, he tried replacing the alternating thumb voice with alternating third and fifth fret left-hand double hammer-ons on the neck. The right hand would then syncopate with the left hand in the same way the fingers of his right hand had syncopated with the thumb in his fingerpicking patterns.
It worked. He named the tune Frequent Flyer. It featured a multi-voiced syncopated groove with his left hand playing hammer-ons and pull-offs on the neck while the right hand fingerpicked and occasionally hammered on the neck. The melody was generated interactively by both hands.
His first foray into incorporating the new technique was so enthusiastically received by audiences, it caused him to gain another crucial insight: The ordinary listener doesn’t carehow something is played as long as the end result is music.
He continued to write compositions that combined multiple techniques.
He had found a use for the technique of tapping — or two-handed hammer-ons and pull-offs as he preferred to call it -- within a wider context where it provided textural variety without being the only sonic event in the composition.
From his frequent tours in Texas, Reed had started hearing about a singer-songwriter named Lyle Lovett. Lovett had a new album out on MCA and opened for Reed at a club in Houston. They became friends, and he helped get Reed his first major label deal.
His first release for the label in 1989 -- Instrument Landing — debuted Frequent Flyer and a other tunes in his new two-handed style.
His contract with MCA — which after the first album was moved over to Capital EMI -- called for an album a year, so he immediately began work on a follow-up album.
Throughout his life, Reed had noticed the diverse drum sounds that could be made on the body of an acoustic guitar. Depending on where and how you hit it, you could create sounds and textures that imitated — to an extraordinary degree — the sounds of a drum kit and other percussion instruments. The sounds he discovered and named included kick drum (with the right hand) , rim shot (with the the right hand), high hat played by striking the left hand on the neck, hand clap played by striking the side of the guitar above the neck with the left hand, left-hand conga, right-hand conga and left and right-hand bongo hits.
The problem was, there was no way to access those sounds playing the guitar conventionally without abandoning the functions each hand was responsible for — the left hand fretting strings on the neck and the right hand picking, strumming etc. between the sound hole and the bridge.
With his developing skills — and with a fervent desire to create innovative new material for the next album -- he gave himself a challenge: Find a way to play drums and guitar at the same time.
Or, put another way, find a way to incorporate an integrated drum groove into a solo guitar composition.
He figured out quickly that, in order for his hands to be free to play drum sounds, the music would have to begin with the drums -- with the strings somehow being negotiated into the drums, not the other way around.
The hand he was most comfortable using for the cycling rhythm voice was his left hand. To achieve the mobility needed to play drums using this hand, it would be necessary to move it over the top of the guitar neck so he could access the upper bout of the guitar for the drum sounds it offered.
Once reconciled to the seemingly awkward playing position, he realised he could exploit the position of being over the neck to hammer the bass strings of the guitar and hold down bass grooves — which he did later in compositions like Tribes and Blasting Cap.
Using tunings like CGDGGD and CGDGAD he discovered he was also able to play beautiful jazz chords "upside-down" over the top of the neck by barring groups of strings with his first finger and pinky.
The idea of it, not to mention the way it looked, made him laugh.
But the truth was, this was no longer a strange idea.
Since hammer-ons and pull-offs required no string-fretting, only one hand was needed to generate a note, and either hand could be used depending on its availability at the moment. With his new skills of using the left and right hands interchangeably to create a syncopated groove, it was a natural next step to substitute drum sounds in appropriate spots for the hammer-ons he had been playing with both hands on the neck. It was suddenly possible to play and compose guitar music with an integrated drum groove.
It was a revelation.
In 1990 he introduced the latest advances in his integrated percussive style on his second major label album, Blue Vertigo, in tunes like Drums and Slap Funk. The style incorporated many techniques — some of which he invented -- including neck and body percussion sounds, slap-harmonics, bar-hammer slides and slide-pulls, left and right handed hammer-ons and pull-offs, strumming and fingerpicking.
The acoustic guitar had become a toolbox of orchestral sounds for composing music, only one of which was the sound of the strings.
Or, put another way, it was no longer about the guitar, but about the music you can make using the guitar as a source of sounds.
In the summer of that year he played at a small festival in Ontario, Canada, where he met and performed alongside an Canadian guitar player named Don Ross. He admired Ross's skill and passion. He had made use of many of the same techniques, but had done something different with them.
While being signed to a major label meant growing a more mainstream audience, as well as the valuable experience of writing, recording and producing his own projects, the demanding release schedule and lack of support for his releases from the label led to Reed feeling that he was losing control over his work.
After his fourth album for what was now Capital EMI -- Border Towns — the label dropped him in 1992.
He continued to play clubs, colleges and festivals around the U.S., and began performing at music industry trade shows on behalf of guitar manufacturers. His first relationship was with Washburn Guitars.
He was also continuing to write music, and through that process, refine his guitar approach.
He released an instructional video for Homespun Tapes in 1994 called The Guitar Of Preston Reed: Expanding The Realm of Acoustic Playing which has continued to influence generations of guitarists around the world.
In 1995 he recorded Metal on a small independent label. He sent the album to Michael Hedges. Asked about Reed in an interview in Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine, Michael Hedges said “If I’m a hard-core guitar player, Preston Reed is petrified. He’s really inspiring." It was the album that would define his career as a guitarist, composer, pioneer and innovator.
While on a clinic tour in the Midwest for Washburn Guitars that year, he played in a coffee shop in Topeka Kansas and met Andy McKee, whose cousin had brought him to the show for his sixteenth birthday. McKee, whose YouTube video Driftin -- based on Reed’s composition Tribes — has been viewed 150+ million times, has since become a champion of Reed’s contribution to the evolution of acoustic guitar playing, sharing with global audiences the story of how seeing him play that evening inspired him to switch to acoustic guitar from electric guitar.
At the end of 1996 he did his first tour of Japan.
At the end of 1997 Ovation guitars sent him to Turkey for a week of concerts, workshops and radio and television appearances. He performed on Turkish National Television with saz player and composer Arif Sag and his student. The broadcast was seen by millions across Europe.
He recorded an album (Groovemasters) and a live concert video with Laurence Juber in 1997.
He performed at an All Star Guitar Night in Nashville that year. Muriel Anderson introduced him to Chet Atkins after his performance. Atkins told him, “You have an interesting style."
He met and performed next to Tommy Emmanuel for another All Star Guitar Night in Nashville the next year. A video of the evening was later released.
He taught for a week each summer from 1997-2001 at the Swannanoa Gathering, a summer music camp in North Carolina. It was there that Kaki King saw him play and learned his style.
In 1998 he signed his second major label deal, this time with Imaginary Roads (Polygram), a record label owned by Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman. Over several months at a studio outside Brattleboro, Vermont, with Ackerman producing, Reed composed and recorded a complete album project, only to see Polygram go under midway through the project. The album was never released, but Reed re-recorded many of the tunes from the project on his album Handwritten Notes.
Throughout the late 1990’s he traveled and performed on behalf of Ovation playing tours and events in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Europe, Asia and Central and South America.
In 2000 Reed acquired the rights to Metal and its follow up, Ladies Night. Over the summer he recorded Handwritten Notes on his own record label, Outer Bridge Records.
In May of that year he performed at a guitar festival in southwest Scotland alongside Tommy Emmanuel, Martin Taylor Nick Harper and others. It was there that he met Catherine Maguire whom he later married and now lives with in the nearby seaside town of Girvan.
In 2003 he flew to Nashville and performed and gave a workshop at the Chet Atkins Convention. While there he spent time with the late, great Buster B. Jones. They jammed together briefly.
From 2003 through 2009 he taught a 5-day summer workshop out of his home in Girvan. In 2005 one of his students was 13-year-old Ed Sheeran.
He released an album in 2004 featuring electric, electric baritone, acoustic, semi-acoustic and nylon-string classical guitars called History Of Now.
A book of transcriptions of his tunes — Guitar Impact -- was published in 2005. Reed’s transcriber, Bruce Muckala, had worked out a way to notate the confusing complexity of Reed’s style without resorting to multiple staffs. It was done in such a way that it was clear and followable for guitarists. All of Muckala’s many transcriptions of Reed’s music have since been done in that format.
He released his melodic tribute to the jazz songbook — Spirit -- in 2006. The entire album was performed on an archtop jazz guitar, and included an original arrangement of the Jerome Kern classic, All The Things You Are.
He toured Australia in 2009.
In the fall of 2011 he did his first TED Talk — a solo musical performance -- at the TED Salon in London.
In November of that year he flew to Poland to perform at the Wrocław International Guitar Festival. The headliner of the festival was Paco De Lucia. Reed had the chance to meet De Lucia and his band at dinner after the concert. At the end of the meal, a band member handed Reed a flamenco guitar and asked him to play for them. He played Ladies Nightand Shinkansen.
In 2012, in addition to two sold-out concerts with Sungha Jung in Singapore, he did a TED Talk with a young Pakistani guitarist named Usman Riaz at TED Global 2012 in Edinburgh. Riaz had discovered and learned Reed’s music from YouTube videos. They had never performed together before. The video of the TED Talk has since had over two million views.
Later that year he toured the UK and Europe on the 50-date Guitar Masters Tour alongside Andy McKee, Jon Gomm (for the U.K. segment) and Antoine Dufour (for the European segment).
2013 saw the release of his latest, all-acoustic album In Here Out There, recorded in Glasgow, as well as tours and performances in Poland, China, South Africa, France and Mexico, where he performed for the global conference of ideas, Cuidad De Las Ideas (CDI).
He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ards International Guitar Festival.
To date, he has recorded seventeen albums.
Reed's recorded music was used in the Ken Burns baseball documentary The Tenth Inning, as well as in Josh Fox's environmental protest films Gasland and Gasland 2.
He has performed at corporate events for Nike Corporation, Revolution Growth, and the Dubai-based Gulf Agency Company (GAC).
Recent highlights include a performance at the UNESCO International Jazz Day in Odessa, Ukraine, and a residency at Berklee College of Music that included teaching a master class and performing a concert at Berklee Performance Center.
Reed has brought his unique music and playing to six continents. His recordings and live performances continue to be the defining the sound of the pioneering compositional guitar genre he invented over a quarter of a century ago.