“It seems flippant when I say it,” Shawn Persinger says, smiling. “But when people ask what I do, I say ‘I play guitar.’”
Persinger has had several of his own bands, including the long-running acoustic duo Prester John (with mandolinist David Miller) and the acclaimed experimental rock outfit Boud Deun, which disbanded in 1998. He tours internationally.
This year, Shawn Persinger wrote the book on guitar-playing—or, more accurately, the book on books on guitar-playing. The 50 Greatest Guitar Books: Instructional Methods That Every Guitarist Should Own, was released by Persinger’s own Quixotic Music publishing company a couple of months ago. It’s been an immediate hit, becoming an Amazon bestseller in the Guitar Books category, receiving rave reviews from major guitar magazines and already being used as a textbook in a guitar pedagogy class at the University of Milwaukee.
Shawn Persinger lives and teaches guitar lessons in Hamden. He knew when he first started visiting the New Haven area in the late 1990s that it was a special place. “I first came here for the Young Composers Symposium. There were two people there who turned out to be big fans of Boud Deun, and they invited me into the Homegrown Music Network, which led to a whole lot of other things. I moved here, and within four months I had a full roster of students.”
He loves the originality of the music scene here, but also the openness. After years of witnessing competitive nonsense and in-fighting in other cities, he was wonderstruck that “the New Haven scene was one of the first I’ve been in where bands saw each other play, and tried to get on each other’s bills.”
“The amount of venues seems out of proportion for a town this size,” Persinger marvels. “It’s a curse and a blessing. There’s always something you didn’t want to miss, but you have to because you’re at something else. The Arts & Ideas festival is a perfect example of that. I feel that way every night in New Haven. Once May comes, on any given weekend there are at least half a dozen very interesting things to do: concerts on the Green, tours of catacombs…”
Ask Persinger to name some of his favorite local musicians, and he responds with the same clarity and excitement that he’s brought to his own playing, and to the scholarship he did for The 50 Greatest Guitar Books. He comically curses Tim Palmieri (creator of the hit “Beatles A to Z” series of Fab Four songs performed acoustically in bars) for his all-around gifts: “He’s a really good guitar player, and he can really sing.” Persinger praises neoclassical popsmith Jonny Rodgers, who works with live guitar samples and tuned wine glasses, but adds, “I like him when he’s in a room with nothing else. No microphone. Just organic.” He enjoys the lively Americana ensemble Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps partly because “they don’t mind if they’re a little sloppy.” Fingerstyle guitarist Glenn Roth, who plays at clubs and coffee shops throughout the area but finds his biggest audiences as a busker in Grand Central Station and the New York subway, has in Persinger’s estimation “just gotten better and better.” Persinger also gives shout-outs to Logan’s Run—“just these local punk kids, a lot of fun”—and Doctor Dark, because of how cool it is that New Haven can “lay claim to a Captain Beefheart tribute band.”
Persinger’s projects fit in perfectly with New Haven’s overstuffed, eclectic scene. He’s received wildly enthusiastic reviews from the New Haven Register, Hartford Advocate and other Connecticut papers, and he received “Best Instrumentalist” honors from the New Haven Advocate’s Grand Band Slam contest. Reviewing a Prester John album for the New Haven Advocate, local musician and critic Brian LaRue wrote: “This is inventive, virtuosic, attention-grabbing stuff, and … there’s a lot in here a person could whistle while walking down the street, too.”
Yet most music writers who have taken a crack at describing Persinger’s sound have come up short. What’s trickiest to get across is how Shawn Persinger can play guitar with some exacting detail and yet convey a reckless punk energy at the same time. His own attempt at relating what his Prester John does goes like this: “We sound like a guitar and a mandolin playing Rush.” He then adds that the duo does indeed cover a song by the Canadian trio. Then Persinger gives his thoughts on whether a band should own up to who they think they sound like; they should, he thinks. “Take pride in your influences,” he declares, further describing his own sound as “a range—bluegrass, Zappa-esque, none of it’s ironic, all sincere.”
Wanting to educate guitar players while showing them the unlimited options open to them is what caused him to write The 50 Greatest Guitar Books. “If someone says to me, ‘Wow! Where did you get your style?,’ I tell them, ‘You can play anything. That’s because of…’” and he gestures to the list of books he’s compiled.
“You can only learn so much from listening to records. Your creativity can only go so far.”
Persinger scoured his own collection of over a thousand music instruction books to arrive at the 50 highlighted in his book. But in the course of carefully explaining how he arrived at a comprehensive, balanced and inspirational list of 50, he mentions dozens of other titles. He also gives over the book’s appendices to eleven “Top Ten Lists from Top Players,” including national fingerstyle guitar champion Tim Sparks and Brazilian guitar specialist Nelson Faria. Sparks’s list mentions the legendary composer and music theorist Paul Hindemith, who taught at Yale in the 1940s and ’50s.
Persinger’s own writing is effusive and enlightening. He introduces The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook, for example, thusly:
The only guitar chord book you’ll ever need! … The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook contains the correct chord progressions, chord diagrams, capo locations and tunings for every song the Beatles wrote, recorded and released. This means you get hundreds of different chords in the context of some of the greatest songs ever written.
Each of Persinger’s picks gets a similarly expansive and explanatory treatment. The Beatles rub shoulders with more obscure guitar legends such as experimentalist Henry Kaiser and slide-guitarist Warren Haynes. Blues, jazz, flatpicking, heavy metal and numerous other styles are represented. The thoughtfulness Persinger gives to each selection makes The 50 Greatest Guitar Books interesting reading even for non-guitarists. But for practitioners, the book may be a revelation—not just for its text but for the bonus mp3 downloads that come with it. In these recordings, Persinger personally plays sample instructional pieces from many of the books. In doing so, he simultaneously demonstrates why these instructional books are among the best of their kind and shows off his own mastery of the guitar. These audio lesson samplers, plus an intriguing two-minute medley of the various styles spliced together, can be found at the book’s website.
Next time you see the smiling, intense yet whimsical Shawn Persinger play at a New Haven club, try to refrain from calling out a request for “Pentatonic Licks” from the chapter assessing guitar magazines. Luxuriate in him doing his own thing. That’s what he loves about New Haven, and it’s the most important lesson Shawn Persinger teaches.
Shawn Persinger | The 50 Greatest Guitar Books
Artist Website | Book Website
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.