Flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook keeps searching for the ideal sound

Published on March 24th, 2021

By Jim Dail

Guitarist Jesse Cook is searching for something, and it’s not the perfect song, though he might not mind that either.

“What I’m trying to do is get a live, acoustic nylon guitar to sound like a live, acoustic nylon guitar,” he said. “Most of what we hear is from the inside cavity and that creates a pleasing sound, but the pickups don’t have that, and that’s what I am after, to get it to sound natural and live without all the technological stuff on stage.”

Technology has helped a little but it’s still not the same.

“It feeds back at a very low level,” he said. I’ve taken years of my life tinkering with technology to make my guitar sound the way I want the guitar to sound. There are different amps but while I can get the volume there, there’s still something missing.”

That could be why he has two basic guitars he uses: one on the stage and one in the studio.

“The one in the studio is the Stradivarius of guitars,” he said. “It’s from Spain and it just has a beautiful sound, but in Canada there are hot humid summers and cold dry winters. That starts to take a toll on guitars so now it lives in my house where there’s climate control.”

For tours, it’s a custom made William Laskin model.

“He makes beautiful guitars with a great sound and very sturdy, but I’m starting to wear it out,” he said. “I’ve had it about 11 or 12 years and the last few years it’s been starting to get some cracks on the surface because I play a lot of percussion on the guitar body, which is a major part of flamenco style. I’ve been talking to Laskin about replacing the front face, but I don’t know if that will make it sound worse.”

And he probably can’t stop beating some sound out of his guitar.

“When you are in a live setting it is just part of the music to play percussion,” he said. “The flamenco guitar is made to be hit that way.”

Then again, despite the labeling, Cook does not consider himself a flamenco guitarist.

“One of my first teachers was a flamenco player and it’s no doubt a big part of what I do,” he said. “But I study jazz, and I went to the Berklee School of Music and had classical training. I just use whatever technique I want and try to keep my audience from misunderstanding the music.”

Part of it is the fact that he has a number of techniques and influences and the trick is combining them into a sound that works.

“The problem is that I have all those techniques and keeping them up at a concert level is a challenge,” he said. “At Berklee we had to practice with a pick. We were not allowed to practice picking with out fingers and no advice about how to do it better. I already had a bit of classical and flamenco technique. But in concert I go back and forth between the two.”

The end result is he uses whatever technique will get him the sound he’s after, regardless of whether or not it fits neatly into a particular genre.

“It all depends on what I want to say with the instrument,” he said. “You can use any number of picking techniques, but my job is to serve the medley and make that work.”

Clearly, he has a mix of techniques, but the guitars are definitely flamenco.

“Flamenco guitars are similar to classical guitars, but maybe the biggest difference is the wood,” he said. “Historically, the wood for flamenco guitars was always cheaper. Classical would get the best wood, rosewood. Flamenco would use Cyprus because it was cheaper. These days, I equate it to coffee. If a classical guitar has a pure tone, a pure blend, then flamenco is like espresso: beautiful and rough.”

Cook notes the historical background of flamenco is precisely what makes it both beautiful and rough, a sort of cultural expression.

“Flamenco is the blues of the gypsies,” he said. “It’s like the African American feeling of slavery. Flamenco came out of the gypsies. No one wanted them around and kings and queens kicked them out; they had to run from the Inquisition. That’s why their music has that character. If you hear a gypsy singing and that’s haunting.”

A lot of music could probably sound good in his style, but Cook has tried a lot of cover songs and they just have rarely captured the feel he wanted.

“There are so many songs that I think would sound great as a rumba,” he said. “However, whenever I’m listening to it when I do it, there’s something lacking. I do think sometimes there’s a bit of a culture class when you put what is heard as a Spanish sound to an American song.”

One song he tried that with was “It Ain’t Me.”

“I think the issue was that you’ve got city and country music,” he said. “There was Dylan singing it, and he’s in the American South with Spanish guitars and it just sounds weird. You never know with music what is going to make it or fit. So much of it is cultural.”

That said there is something in the works.

“Actually, I am starting a new record,” Cook said.

He’s also found a love for video.

“It’s amazing how quickly you get wrapped up in it,” he said. “I started shooting little videos on my iPhone when I was touring Poland and Holland. I figured let’s shoot something and from there that slippery slope become treacherous. Next thing I was putting video on my computer and editing. Then I figured I needed a better camera, then better software and before I knew it, I was in deep.”

It makes some sense, considering his mother was a filmmaker.

“My mom was a documentary filmmaker,” he said.  “She did ‘The Nature of Things,’ which was packaged in the United States as Nova. My father made art films. There was a lot of talk about film and also a lot of competition. So I guess there’s video in my blood.”

Just don’t ask him to talk about the new record just yet.

“Because I’m at the beginning, I have ideas but don’t want to talk about it just yet,” he said. ‘It will probably have a lot to do with what I’ve been experiencing. Part of the fun of having a career that has world music connected to it is being about to travel and experience things you’ve never experienced.”


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