Playing the Story: Visiting Guitarist John Knowles

Bryan Parys
April 14, 2015
Kim Perlak and John Knowles
Visiting guitarist John Knowles
John Knowles addressing guitar students
The Joni Mitchell Ensemble performs
Kim Perlak, assistant chair of the Guitar Department, and visiting artist John Knowles.
Visiting guitarist John Knowles performs during a master class.
John Knowles addresses a group of guitar students during a master class "in the round."
Students in the Joni Mitchell Ensemble perform "Come in from the Cold" before getting feedback from Knowles.
Photo by Amanda Monaco
Photo by Bryan Parys
Photo by Bryan Parys
Photo by Bryan Parys

Kicking off the inaugural installation of the new Kim Perlak Visiting Artist Series, Berklee welcomed Grammy-winning guitarist John Knowles to campus for three days of performances and advice from this legend of the fingerstyle method. This new series honors musicians who have found a voice on the instrument and wish to share their perspective with younger players through the power of personal connection.

Perlak, assistant chair of the Guitar Department, first met Knowles when she was 14, and couldn’t be happier about his filling the inaugural spot for the series, describing him as “one of the living masters of the guitar.” Over the course of his 60-plus years on his instrument, Knowles has collaborated with, learned from, and written for titans of classical and fingerstyle guitar, including Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, Jerry Reed, and most recently, Tommy Emmanuel. A new album featuring his collaboration with Emmanuel, who also recently shared advice with Berklee students, will be released later this year.

Over the course of the week, Knowles held a clinic, met with a variety of guitar students for private lessons, and led a master class in which students were invited to share their own compositions and arrangements. “The big pleasure for me,” Knowles said of his time on campus, “was working with young musicians who love the music I love. My advantage is the years I’ve spent working it. Their advantage is Berklee. . .”

The master class was designed by Knowles to be “in the round,” providing a focused but comfortable space for the students to both share and learn. And while it was clear who the “master” was, Knowles’s circular arrangement leveled the playing field so that students not only felt free to share their works-in-progress, but also were clearly excited about the opportunity to do so. Speaking to this relational and inviting atmosphere, Perlak later commented that Knowles’s “kindness, wit, and sincerity infuse everything about his playing and teaching.”

Guitar student Ben Knorr took a great deal away from his private lesson with Knowles as well as the master class, saying, “[Knowles] managed to find something unique in all of our arrangements to bring out and talk about.” Knorr was also struck by the way Knowles described playing arrangements as “telling stories.” “You never memorize the words, only the story,” said Knowles, suggesting that while he may be regarded for his technical virtuosity, it all comes down to personal connection.

Towards the end of the master class, Knowles encouraged the students to focus not just on the ins and outs of the technique, but to “think emotionally or in narrative.” Around the room, you could see shoulders relax as the students held their instruments, no longer worrying about the pieces they could play, but the stories they wanted to tell.

Watch John Knowles play his arrangement of "The Nearness of You:"