There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A tourist in New York City stops to ask for directions. “Excuse me,” they say, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The person replies, “Practice, practice, practice!”
Vin Downes never thought he’d get to play Carnegie Hall, though he’s been playing guitar for over 30 years. The story of how he got there – besides the practicing – begins back in his high school days, when he first picked up a Windham Hill Acoustic Sampler and discovered the guitarist David Cullen.
“His song ‘On the Way’ was the first song that changed my brain and made me want to study fingerstyle guitar and composing in that style.” – Vin Downes
After the release of his first album of instrumental contemporary fingerstyle compositions in 2007, Vin discovered that David Cullen, the guitarist who originally inspired Vin’s guitar-playing technique, was living in Reading, Pennsylvania, just a short drive from New Jersey. Vin took a chance and reached out to him to take a lesson on jazz and composition. David replied, inviting Vin to a show he was playing in New Jersey with Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records. That was the first time Vin met both David and Will.
After the release of his second album in 2011, Will sent an email to Vin and invited him to come to Vermont to visit his studio, Imaginary Road. Having only met him the once, this email seemed surreal. Thinking it was some kind of impersonal boilerplate email, Vin let it sit in his inbox for a week before finally replying. Within 10 minutes, Will replied back and Vin and his wife were on their way to Vermont.
“Will gave me a little tour, it’s a pretty small space. And then I began to realize that what I had thought was a pretty casual visit was something more like a job interview. He asked me what my future plans were, where I saw myself… then at the very end he said ‘Alright, let’s make a record.’ I was blown away.”
In the meantime, Will had taken some time off of playing live as he began to develop a series of concert called The Gathering – each usually featuring four performers, often two guitarists and two pianists, all of whom were produced at Imaginary Road Studios by Will and his partner Tom Eaton. Once Will began to perform his own shows again he asked Vin if he would be interested in playing together.
“After the first few gigs we really clicked, and now pretty much any time he plays the East coast I’m there as his second guitarist. Even though we’ve been friends a long time now, I’m still amazed once and a while, because he influenced my music so much and was such an inspiration and now I get to play and work with him. He’s just a great musician, a great person and a great friend.”
And that’s how Vin Downes got to Carnegie Hall. In partnership with promoter Jeff Evers, Will Ackerman will be fulfilling his long-time dream of putting on a Gathering at Carnegie Hall, in the upstairs recital room on October 28th. The concert will feature Will, Vin, Lynn Yew Evers, Jill Haley, Trevor Gordon Hall and Eugene Friesen.
“The Gathering is like the rebirth of Will Ackerman’s Windham Hill group of musicians.”
In the meantime, there is no sign that Vin Downes is slowing down. Though he is working at the same level as some of his heroes, Will Ackerman, David Cullen and Michael Hedges, when I spoke to Vin, now in his 21st year as a school teacher, he told me that what he is most proud of is the classical guitar course he has introduced at Bayonne High School, which is the most popular class at the school with a hundred students going through every year. No Slayer, no Bieber, just all sheet music and strict classical technique.
“It’s amazing to see these kids go from knowing nothing at all, most of them haven’t even touched a guitar and have never read sheet music, to pretty quickly getting really into it. Classical guitar is the hardest one, so once these kids get this down, they can pick up any other kind of guitar style pretty easily.”
Vin himself recently switched to playing Stonebridge after he was accepted into the Artist Collaboration Program, initially picking up a G22CR-C in December 2014 at Guitar Tech NYC. While at the shop, he also fell in love with a parlor-sized guitar, the OOM32LM, and began saving up for his own custom deep body version.
He’ll be playing both of those guitars on his next album, which like his last record Unlike the Stars will again be produced by Will Ackerman at Imaginary Studios in Vermont this summer for a release in the Christmas season. The album will feature some world
class guest musicians
“I’ve always been looking to make a great guitar album, so even with some heavier overdubs this time around, that remains the focus.”