I came across Flamenco and Classical Guitarist, Berto Boyd, on Facebook a while back through our mutual friend and guitarist, Ben Woods. I admire anyone who (like me) is able to make a living playing guitar at any level. I’m also just a huge fan and admirer of Flamenco guitar in general and it’s not something I’ve covered yet here on Life In 12 Keys.
Berto has a passion, depth and sophistication in his playing and musicianship that is a rare and beautiful thing that we can all learn from as guitarists. Astounding technique and a real connection to both Classical and Flamenco repertoire. His original compositions also set him apart in my mind. Berto Boyd is a real gift to guitar fans everywhere.
…He also skateboards. Yeah, it was a bit of a factor when I was looking for my first Flamenco guitarist interview and lesson. As a 40-something guitarist and skater myself, I thought it was pretty cool that a musician of this caliber also skates.. and at our age!
I also thought it would make for a fun interview and something we could possibly have in common besides our mutual love of the guitar and Paco De Lucia…
Let’s get to it!
Interview With Guitarist Berto Boyd
Craig @ LifeIn12Keys.com:
Hi Berto and thanks for doing this! I’m absolutely thrilled to have you and appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and my readers.
Berto: “My pleasure man, let’s do this!!”
So, when I was about 19, I was studying with a Berklee guy in Akron, Ohio who turned me on to the guitar trio albums with Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and the great Flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia. As a young rock and metal guy, I had never heard anything like it. It’s something that has stuck with me in the years since and has shaped my playing greatly.
What is it about Flamenco guitar that drew you in? Most guitarist (at least here in the U.S) don’t start with Flamenco. Tell me about your early influences and how you got into it?
I’m originally from SoCal and grew up surrounded by music, art, surfing, and skateboarding. However, during 85’-89’ I lived on Dog River in Mobile, AL of all places. My Dad was chill enough to build us a half-pipe in the backyard which always attracted an alternative crowd that led to an abundance of counter-culture for the area at the time.
We would blast our boom box during the skate sessions and someone always had a tape they wanted to pop in to get hyped on. We listened to a lot of Beastie Boys, Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks and when my sister’s heshen boyfriend and friends came over they insisted we listen to metal.
I remember one of the tapes my sis’s boyfriend loaned me was Sepultura’s “Schizophrenia”. There was a track on that tape (The Abyss) I would always rewind and want to listen over and over. Little did I know this track was actually based off of a traditional Flamenco form called “Taranta”, a rhythmically free form piece in the key of F# altered Phrygian. This was the coolest thing I had ever heard and my ears were very drawn towards the evocative sounds.
My ear over the next few years was always pulled to whatever melodic finger-style stuff I could find. Mobile was’t exactly a place I would stumble across someone playing Classical or Flamenco so it would be a few more years till I discovered “the sound” I was looking for.
I learned by ear and through tabs a lot of quasi-Classical Metallica stuff like: Anesthesia, Call of Ktulu, Fade to Black, To Live is to Die etc., al.
Fast forward to the early 90’s I was living in Ventura, CA and my Mom and I would order CD’s from the Columbia House Collection until we finally stumbled across John Williams. Once I finally knew what Classical Spanish guitar was, we investigated and tracked down CDs by Segovia, Julian Bream etc.
So around the same time I was listening to Classical guitar albums and picking stuff out by ear, my fate had finally arrived. As I was walking through Ventura College one day I stumbled upon a classy gentleman named Carlos Gonzales. He was playing Heitor Villa-Lobos and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
It turned out, he was the guitar instructor there and classes had just started that week. I had a million questions for him which he gladly answered. He told me I had to take 18 units to get the private lessons, so I ran home to tell my Mom the news. That afternoon I knew what my mission was in life. To become a Classical guitarist. Luckily when I came home my Mom was super supportive and all in.
During the time I studied Classical guitar, Theory, and Composition at Ventura College I started listening to a bit of more pop Flamenco stuff like the Gipsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert etc.. I hung with a crew of hippy dudes that played a lot of hand drums so I started to develop my own version of Flamenco and Bossa Nova style just through jamming.
After 2 years of studying Classical, my teacher Carlos set up my first proper recital at a church. The following week after the recital I kinda got chewed out by him because of all the “additions” I made to these Classical pieces. I created a few intros and changed a few things to my liking which apparently was a no go for him.
He told me “Classical musicians are limited to interpretation” and if I wanted to improvise like that then I should go play Flamenco. He gave me Pepe Romero’s “Flamenco!” CD which I instantly went home and started picking things up by ear.
A few weeks later my mom took me to see a Flamenco troupe from Spain and once again my fate had been sealed. Once I experienced the spine-tingling duende, I knew exactly what the next step was… to now become a Flamenco guitarist and officially cross over to the dark side! For the next few years I studied with several Flamenco teachers from Santa Barbara to L.A. and finally went to Spain to study with Gerardo Nunez in 199.
I returned from Spain with 35 Flamenco CD’s and started to transcribe pieces I wanted to add to my repertoire. At first I wrote stuff in tab and just memorized the rhythms in order to learn the piece. I also had been studying Brazilian Jazz and was learning how to properly chart out tunes. Eventually I started using Finale notation software to plug in my hand written transcriptions and it really opened up some doors for me.
As a part-time Classical Guitarist myself, I’ve always told my own students Flamenco and Classical Guitar are absolutely the hardest styles to play. I see your Facebook posts about putting in a minimum of 4 hours a day to keep it up.
What does a typical practice day look like for you, let’s say on a day you don’t have a performance?
Well I don’t always have 4 hours to put in, but I do see practice as a cumulative process. It’s easy to get into practice routines that become easy over time and you plateau out. I try to find “unfamiliar” things (my word for hard material) to constantly focus on. I think if it as cross training in a way. I’ll sometimes have to play a certain new technique or study 6 months and longer till I get that breakthrough.
Musicians these days have to wear so many hats that you have to really be organized and efficient in your practice time. In my early years especially when I returned from Spain I felt I had a ton of catching up to do and that I was really behind on a lot of the most basic things in Flamenco. I really thought I knew some stuff when I went to Spain and realized I didn’t know how to play for Cante (singing) or Baile (dancing). I felt I had to double up for a few years and ended up doing an unhealthy amount of playing around 12-18 hours a day till I finally injured my hand. I had to get hand surgery for a built up cyst on my left index finger. After that I restarted my technique from the ground up over a 6 month period under the tutelage of Adam Del Monte, I learned to play more efficiently with the right amount of tension and have never looked back.
Craig: Would you mind sharing an outline or list of what your practice routine looks like? For example time spent on technical exercises, repertoire, composing, etc.
As a minimum, I try and practice 90 minutes on a daily basis of scales and various techniques to keep things in shape. I practice with the same little Radio Shack timer I’ve had for several decades to keep myself honest. So when I get interrupted or have to pause to rest my hands I hit the timer.
I have several routines that I follow and they all start with a 6-10 minute left-hand only warm up that focuses on placement and pressure. I then usually warm up my right hand with Etude No. 2 or 4 from my book.
I usually will do things in 3’s. For example:
- I’ll play a scale study with picado (alternating i,m) Rest stroke, Free stroke.
- A combination of the two.
- Then I’ll play it 3 finger usually M,I,A the same way, Rest, Free, Combo.
- From there I usually go to the CAGED system that I’ve borrowed from my Rock days and play in major keys of C,G,D,A,E,B.
- I’ll pick usually 3 different patterns to run through each CAGED sequence in each key. My next book will be mostly focused on CAGED which will have many of the patterns and speed bursts that we use in Flamenco.
However, when I’m preparing for a concert or a tour my routine can vary a great deal. So if I’m prepping for a Flamenco Pacifico tour, I know I’m playing my own music so I know my scales have to be up which means a major focus on picado and various thumb/ alzapua sequences with a metronome. I will also play all the pieces with my two favorite apps:
Dr. Compas Flamenco Metronome or with the album track on Amazing Slower Downer. I’ve become a big fan of slow focused practice in the past few years so many times I’ll play at 60% of the tempo and then bump it up from there in increments of ten BPM each time till I get it to concert tempo.
Recently I discovered another way of doing this slow – to A tempo practice through the App: Soundcorset
When I was prepping the “Concierto en Re” by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco last year, I had to practice things at least 20 clicks past the performance tempo. Soundcorset has this cool feature that you can plug in the duration you want to spend at each tempo before it goes up 1 BPM. I have to say though be cautious with this feature! If you go crazy on it and go too long you’ll end up with some serious tendonitis! I’m sure that if I had this technology 20 years ago I would have destroyed my hands so be careful and take breaks after each bout!
How do you approach new repertoire, for example a Classical piece? For example, do you sight-read a few times then try to memorize? Things like that,,,
When learning a new Classical guitar work I listen to it over and over and then write out a harmonic analysis. After I know the piece in my head I’ll then identify the most difficult technical sections that will need the most work. Many times I go directly to those parts and start writing out all the different fingering options.
I’ll usually play these difficult passages with all of the different right hand fingerings I could come up with until I find the best one and then I’ll get to the rest of the piece. Sometimes I actually start from the end and work backwards. It’s a pretty common thing I see especially with students where the beginning of the piece is solid and the end is weak. You have to even out all the parts in my opinion. It really depends on the piece for the approach I take.
While I’m writing this, I’m in the midst of 5 gigs this week. How do performances affect your own practice schedule? Personally, I find it better (for me) to ease up and not blow my hands out on gig days.
I started my career as a teacher which then led into background music gigs and playing a ton of corporate gigs and weddings. I was able to afford a nice lifestyle in Santa Barbara from these gigs but after a decade or so I got seriously burnt out. I didn’t become a musician to play these types of events and just pay bills.
I wanted to play concerts, compose, and record, and most importantly, be inspired… In 2008 the career that I had built fell apart when the economy collapsed. My cushy resort gig vanished and all my corporate clients had to stop the lavish spending and so almost overnight the phone stopped ringing.
I decided that this was the time to make a clean break from having to make 6k a month to cover my expenses. I drove a Mercedes and lived across the street from Kenny Loggins, didn’t have a dime in savings and was completely delusional. I decided to let it all go and file for bankruptcy.
I moved back in with my Mom, rented a tiny studio and started practicing 8 hours a day again. I was determined to make a concert career but a bit unsure about how to go about it. About a year later I met my wife. She hired me for a party for a group of Filipino doctors. We fell in love and decided we’d start a family. She’d pay the bills, I’d be the stay at home Dad and I’d have the time and resources to figure out this concert career. When my daughter turned 2 we decide to leave California and move to Oregon. I figured starting fresh somewhere would be the best thing.
We moved to Corvallis, Oregon where I began the Corvallis Guitar Society. I was playing a lot of Classical when I moved to Oregon and had taken a few years to restart my technique from the ground up. I would spend 2 hours a day on developing free stroke scales and going in between rest and free (a Scott Tennant specialty). Then I would spend a few hours playing repertoire but not like you would think. I would play super slow with really awkward fingerings. Mainly I worked on 3 Barrios pieces – Estudio Concierto, Las Abejas, and La Catedral (allegro movement).
After a few years in Oregon I decided to focus on my original Flamenco music again which has given me more freedom in the way that I practice. I play between 2-4 hours a day now on a regular basis. I usually am always practicing with the next concert in mind so that’s what decides what I work on. On concert days I try to only practice 1-2 hours and usually like half tempo.
I just purchased your book, 12 Flamenco Etudes Vol. 1 – Picado yesterday. I plan to get into it this week (before this goes live). Tell us about it.
Berto: I’ve been writing studies for myself for over 20 years to continually develop my technique. This book is focused on what I’ve been personally working on for the last few years.
Every guitarist has their own technical demons to work out, so I figured why not publish some of them! For the most part this book shows my path to developing “conscious” slip finger approach as opposed to the the traditional strict alternation way of playing scales with i and m.
Every guitarist has different lengths in fingers and some hands have advantages over others. These are studies that worked for my hands. Guitar technique is super personal but I figured why not share some of the things that have given me some breakthroughs in my own personal practice.
Etude # 3 From Berto’s Book:
“Etude no. 3 was designed to work out speed bursts in scales with the use of “Slip Finger”. Slip Finger is an alternate way to cross strings on descending scales with only using the index finger. Used by players such as Pepe Romero, Pepe Habichuela, and Jose Luis de la Paz, this technique has it’s advantange if the players middle finger is much longer than the index. It is still recommended to use strict alternation whenever possible so proceed with caution!
Any word on a Volume 2? Anything else you’re planning on publishing?
Volume 2 is going to dive deep into my personal take on CAGED systems. Knowing the fretboard is a useful tool and the Segovia scales are almost useless in a real world situation. So this will be another book of my own personal routine that involves the main keys we play in as guitarists and the patterns that kick my ass on a daily basis!
I also plan to publish many of my own original compositions this year. On my storefront you’ll also find a handful of my transcriptions of my friend Jose Luis de la Paz as well as a complete technique book ( these all have videos too) for studies that molded his hands. Berto’s Flamenco Transcription Storefront
When I contacted you, you said you were currently on tour. Is that with Flamenco Pacifico? What are you up to currently?
Currently, I am obsessed with skating as much as possible now that we are finally getting some dry weather! This winter was a real bitch especially after finishing the Castelnuovo-Tedesco concerto in December.
I happily just returned from 10 days in San Francisco where I was working with Jose Luis de la Paz and the Oakland Youth Symphony. We were there mainly to perform a few movements from Suite Avalon which is a huge work I put a ton of time into transcribing (over 500 hours). It’s a 48 minute concerto for Flamenco guitar and Orchestra scored by Alex Conde. We debuted it a few years ago in Miami. Here’s a video of the process:
While we were there, we played a house concert, did some film scoring for the movie “Finding Compas” starring Farruquito, and hung out with some friends. It was a much needed trip out of rainy Portland. Flamenco Pacifico is currently on sabbatical till our Fall tour this year. In the meantime though I’m working on releasing a few singles along with music transcriptions.
In the next few months I’ll be preparing for a joint benefit concert with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Adam Del Monte in Paradise, CA. Our microphone endorser The2Mic is hosting this to help the fire victims of the Paradise Wildfire from last year.
Where can my readers find your music. (Your preferred place for them to buy it etc..)
That’s a good question! Everyone seems to have their own preference these days. To stream or not to stream? The Flamenco Pacifico album is up on all platforms so it’s up to them!
Anything else you’d like to promote or talk about?
Follow me on social media and turn those on notifications on!
Facebook: @Bertoguitarra @flamencopacifico @corvallisguitarsociety
Youtube: Flamenco Guitar Class
Ok, last question I promise… I have to ask about skating. I started skating again about 2 years ago after nearly 30 years off the board. Maybe it was my mid-life crisis but I’m still going a few times per week and I love it!
I’m back to dropping in and carving bowls again but it was certainly a struggle at first.
What keeps you skating and is it something you’ve always done or did you start up again later like I did?
After my 80’s skateboarding obsession, I ended up mostly surfing in the 90’s due to the surf being way better than the skate scene in Ventura, CA. I stopped skating and surfing altogether around 2000 to focus on the career and then picked up skating again in 2013 when I moved to Oregon and saw Dreamland’s Lincoln City Skatepark.
I grew up skating pretty janky stuff and had never seen anything this amazing and huge. There are over 100 skateparks in the state of Oregon and now I’m totally hooked again. I started a skateboard school that ended up lining up w nonprofit http://bcskateboardingalliance.org/about/ and we raised over 100k with our activities in 2018!
At least a few times a week you’ll find me at one of the amazing Dreamland or Grindline parks in Oregon or in Southern WA. I feel the same stoke as I did as when I was 13. It is my fountain of youth!
That’s awesome! I’m about to head out for a skate session myself today. Thank you so much for the interview, lesson and excerpt from your book!