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Chris LaVancher

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I could play a few chords and make some noise on it when I was in high school, but I didn’t really start playing in a serious way until I was about 25 or so. That’s around when I started to discover contemporary folk singer-songwriters like John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Greg Brown and acoustic players like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges.

John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Greg Brown, Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges.

What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?

An old Yamaha FG-336SB – I think it’s a 1978. It was my mom’s guitar. She didn’t play it much but it was around the house through much of my childhood. The neck is a little chunky so it’s not the easiest thing to play, but I still have it. I really should get some new strings on it and pay it a little attention. It’s the only dreadnought in the house.

A Yamaha FG-336 SB.

Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?

My grandfather and two uncles played quite a bit. They would jam together most Sunday afternoons, playing old country and western songs. I was still pretty young when they were playing, but I did try to play along a bit. I sure wish they were still around.

What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?

My favorite guitar is one I built myself about 20 years ago with Alan Carruth. The body style is kind of like a Martin OM. It has a European spruce top, East Indian rosewood back and sides, mahogany neck and curly maple bindings. I would travel from my home just north of Boston, MA up to Al’s shop in Newport, NH – going about one weekend a month for two years. I wasn’t much of a woodworker, but I learned a lot and came away with a really great sounding guitar! It’s the only one I have ever built.

Chris and Allan Carruth.

Photo credit: Chubbuck Guitars

I also have one of Al’s guitars – a nylon classical (the body is a bit bigger than your normal classical guitar) with western red cedar top, walnut back and sides, butternut neck, and cherry and walnut binding. Alan has a very distinctive style of doing inlay work and the rosette on this guitar is pretty stunning.

I also play a Taylor 316ce that I use as a backup or if I’m planning a set list with a lot tuning changes.

What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?

For the steel string guitars I typically use GHS Phosphor Bronze Medium (013-056).

For the nylon string I use La Bella 2001 Hard Tension Silver Plated Wound Concert Series. I don’t have much of a schedule for changing them. Steel strings get changed much more often than the nylon strings.

I’m not very good at tying nylon strings.

Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?

Mostly I finger pick using my own nails, but when I do use a flat pick I’m typically doing a hybrid sort of deal using the pick on the lower strings - palm muting them - and then using my middle and ring fingers to pick the higher strings. That way I get sort of a Travis picking thump sound with the bass strings using the flat pick and some melody lines with my fingers on the higher strings. I like the larger Dunlop Triangle Flex style picks .73mm.

Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?

No effects but I plug into a L.R. Baggs Venue DI Acoustic Guitar Preamp. Works well with the K & K pickups I have installed in my guitar and the Carruth Nylon string guitar.

Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?

You would think since I built my guitar that I would also work on it, but I really don’t other than minor stuff. I don’t have the tools anymore. Also repair and setup is a whole other skillset. I’ve been taking my instruments to Kevin Chubbuck (Chubbuck Guitars) in Lynn MA for years now. He’s great!

Kevin Chubbuck of Chubbuck Guitars.

Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?

I try to stay clear of them lest my pockets get drained. But Music Emporium in Lexington MA is a terrific place to hang out with some beautiful guitars and other string instruments. The folks working there have always been super helpful and most of them are local musicians.

The Music Emporium - Lexington, MA

At what age did you start writing songs?

I wrote a few terrible songs in high school. The first song I wrote that was worth sharing was around the time my son was born in 1996. After reading to him at night, I would pick up the guitar and play him to sleep. Often times, I just keep playing and started finding the beginnings of songs. So I owe my songwriting to my son.

What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?

I guess I’m more of a music first guy and more often than not, the music will spark the inspiration for the story or character or feel of the song. I rarely go in with a plan and typically don’t know what the song’s about until I’m into it. I love being surprised by unexpected paths to follow. Sometimes they lead to a song, sometimes I write myself into a corner and I have to back track or even jettison the song. It’s not an efficient process for sure. But the unfinished songs sometimes get recycled in some form or other.

Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?

Direct influencers are Ken Bonfield, who shaped a lot of what I do with my guitar and Jack Williams, whose songwriting and playing I love. Both have become good friends over the years and they both have shared a lot of wisdom with me.

Chris getting ready to play with his friend, Jack Willams.

If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?

I’m not much of a jammer, but I’d love to have a beer and conversation with Randy Newman.

What are your top three “desert island” albums?

Always an impossible question but my answer today would be…

Randy Newman – Bad Love

Billy Joel – The Stranger or The Nylon Curtain

Jack Williams – Eternity & Main

What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?

My mother dragged me to a Chuck Mangione concert when I was about 10 and I was blown away by the sounds and rhythms. I still have a real love for anything with horns in it. And now I have to add Chuck Mangione – Children of Sanchez to the desert island list.

The last concert was just the other night (editor's note: July 2023). I try to get out once or twice a week to see local music. This last local show was my friend Tom Smith and his daughter Mally. Tom is the closest embodiment of Pete Seeger I’ve ever seen and he is an absolute gem of a human being.

The Beatles or the Stones?

Most of the time Beatles, but sometimes you just gotta dance!

Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?

I played a coffee shop in my little hometown of Mansfield PA. I think I was guaranteed $25 but they also passed the hat so I did pretty well. Enough to give me some validation to keep going.

What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?

I was selected to play the emerging artist showcase at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in 2014 and I’m about to play it again this coming weekend (editor's note: July 2023) – almost 10 years later. It’s a real honor to be selected, but I think I enjoy the small intimate house concerts I’ve played more than the larger ones like that.

What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).

You learn from them all, so there really isn’t a bad one. But I don’t take or seek out the potentially bad ones. I know my songs wouldn’t work well in a bar-room situation for example, so I don’t book those kind of gigs.

What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?

Old Sloop Presents in Rockport, MA – it’s one of those classic New England coffeehouse folk-music series. I was an opener for the main act but they treated me like a rock star, the sound was great, the organizers couldn’t have been nicer, the audience was terrific and bought merch, and I got one of the best slices of cherry pie I ever had in my life there.

Club Passim in Cambridge, MA is also a favorite. I released my latest album there – similar deal – the staff is fantastic the sound is always great, audiences listen and there’s some serious historic mojo going on in that room from all the amazing performers who have played there over the years.

How do you work out your setlist?

I don’t put a huge amount of thought into it, but I play in a number of different tunings, so I do try to minimize the number of strings I have to retune between songs. So that will influence song order quite a bit. Otherwise I try not to play too many slow sad songs in a row as best I can – but I am a New England songwriter, so I have a lot of those.

Photo credit: Dan Tappan

Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?

It’s ok to suck. You will suck and it’s ok. Keep working. Keep showing up.

Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?

Work on some cover tunes – seems like whenever I try to learn a cover song it will spark something for me or I wind up working out a version of the tune that is very different from the original and feels like something of my own. I worked up a version of Long Black Veil in an open tuning and put it in ¾ time. It turned out pretty cool and I wound up putting it on my album, After the Flood. But even if something like that doesn’t happen, there might be a chord change or a voicing you’ve never used before that might spark something different for you to try in one of your own songs.

If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?

I don’t make my living as a singer-songwriter. It’s something I take very seriously, but it’s a fun side-gig for me. I don’t think I would want the pressure to make a living from it. That would really change it for me. I feel very fortunate to have gotten the little bit of notoriety I have in the small way I’ve gone about my “music career”. Maybe when I retire from my day job I’ll look at songwriting as my career, but certainly not at this point in my life.

Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.

You can find all that here:


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