“Playing” the guitar is an understatement for the incredible Trace Bundy, who has gone global with an exhilarating and stunning approach that has earned him the intriguing moniker, “The Acoustic Ninja.”
By Steve Houk
The guitar that we are most familiar with today was thought to have been invented around the 12th century. It was distantly related to instruments of ancient Asia and India like the sitar, setar and tanbur. Heck, you can even go back to a 3,300 year old stone carving of a Hittite bard with a guitar-like instrument to see a guy playing an axe.
Since those times, humans have found many ways to play the guitar, with techniques ranging from using a simple pick, to slide guitar, pedal steel, flatpicking, ska stroke and on and on; there are hundreds of ways to play the darn thing.
Trace Bundy plays the guitar. Or better yet, he envelops the guitar. His specific style is known as finger picking, but when you see Trace Bundy play the guitar, there’s way more to it than just picking. Maybe that’s why his fans call him “The Acoustic Ninja.” He uses nearly every piece of the guitar to create a magical and stunning sound, and watching him play is nearly as exhilarating as listening. And judging by the fame he is gaining, people all over the world are marveling at just what he can do with his guitar.
“My passion is definitely playing guitar and sharing music with people. If people like it, it’ll grow. And people come to the shows and seem to like it, so it’s growing.”
Oh, it’s growing alright. First, you just have to go to You Tube and type in “Trace Bundy” and you’ll see a slew of videos, now approaching ten million views, of Bundy playing everything from his own amazing tunes to Pachelbel’s Canon (1.7 million views alone) and other popular songs, all masterfully displaying his awesome and unique style and flair.
The stunning obligatory bio stats can’t be ignored: Bundy has sold close to 60,000 albums on his record label, Honest Ninja Music, and gets standing ovations at venues across the country and around the world. He was named “Most Promising New Talent” of 2008 by Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and snagged third place in the magazine’s “Best Fingerstyle Guitarist” category the same year. Last summer, he performed at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in front of a crowd of over 7,000 as part of “The World’s Largest Music Lesson.” Over the past couple of years, he has shared the stage with a host of musical luminaries, including Judy Collins, David Knopfler (Dire Straits), Chris Hillman (The Byrds) and jazz legend Stanley Jordan, among others.
Bundy has become a worldwide sensation with his truly unique guitar playing style, and he brings that amazing gift to Jammin’ Java in Vienna VA on Nov 23rd, a show that given the intimate size of the venue, should not be missed by any music fan.
As with many gifted musicians, there were humble beginnings. You can talk to almost any well-known player and you’ll hear a similar story of buying that first guitar for cheap from some neighbor or at some local pawnshop. Bundy’s first guitar story was right in line with those inauspicious beginnings.
“My brother thought it would be a good idea to buy an acoustic guitar, and so literally we bought a guitar for 10 dollars from a guy named Herbie who lived in our little town. We both chipped in five dollars, and pretty immediately we went to the grocery store because they had these guitar magazines that said ‘learn how to play heavy metal songs.’ So we bought these magazines, my brother was really into heavy metal, so we started playing a Metallica song, that was the very first song I started playing.”
Bundy was a math whiz so he started off as a math major and then got his masters and became an engineering professor at the University of Colorado/Boulder, all the while playing small gigs and honing his guitar playing talents. He realized one day that his passion was not in arithmetic, but in music, and he made a big decision to stop teaching and pursue his dream full time.
“To be honest, it wasn’t the hardest decision, because I was getting numerous requests from all around the country to go and play shows, and I had to turn those down. I think some of my videos had gone online even before You Tube, I started getting alot of requests to go play different places because I put a couple links to videos on my website, and people started spreading them around. I think the first place outside of Colorado that I got requests to play was somewhere in Nebraska, and then North Carolina, and then Texas. But I had to be in the classroom teaching, so I had to fly out on the weekend and play and then come back and teach, so it just got to the point where I finally quit everything and started touring full time. It just made a lot of sense to follow my passion. My first tour was out in the Northwest, out in Washington and Portland, Oregon and it just took off from there, and now I’ve gotten to play all over the world.”
How did Bundy decide to only use his fingers, and not a pick? It was the music he was first influenced by that helped him make that choice. And visits to a local establishment helped give him the goods to sustain that style of playing.
“I think it was probably the stuff I was listening to, a lot of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and trying to learn how to play and finger pick those songs. You can’t play a Simon and Garfunkel song with a pick, really. And so I ditched the pick and started finger picking a lot. But my real nails are pretty thin and brittle, so I actually started going to the nail salon, I’d go in and say, ‘The usual…’ and they would give me these five really thick acrylic nails on my right hand, and they’d always make comments like, ‘What color do you want today?’, and I’d be like ‘Awww man!’ ”
It was an epipihany of sorts that caused Bundy to not just finger pick the guitar to create music, but to create a whole myriad of sounds using the body of the instrument, basically become a one man band emanating from the guitar.
“I remember I was sitting on my couch one day, and I started playing this little simple melody with one hand, and it was like a light bulb went on, and I realized, I’m not even using my other hand at all, what could I do with this hand? And I kind of hit the guitar and made a bass note, and hit another note, and kind of wrote this one song, and I tried it out at a little local show and people just went nuts, and I’m like, ‘Ohhh man, OK!’ That’s what really started this kind of new phase of my writing of kind of more innovative stuff, two handed tapping, and capos, and everything I do.”
Bundy’s vast repertoire ranges from his own stunning original compositions to covers of a dizzying variety of styles and genres, including the Backstreet Boys, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Led Zeppelin and his most famous cover, Pachelbel’s Canon. Playing covers at first helped him develop his own style of songwriting.
“Every time I would learn somebody else’s song, you learn a new technique or a new twist, or a new chord, and every time I’d write something, I would maybe take note of why these songs were good that people were writing. And eventually I started working some of these ideas into my own stuff, and started writing my own songs, and that’s where I started getting more excited about what I was writing then just trying play a cover song.”
As for the covers, Bundy looks at the inner workings of a song to add his own unique touch. But a Backstreet Boys song? Really?
“I think for stuff like that, I remember thinking, ‘What’s the most ridiculous song that I could learn and write a new arrangement for on acoustic guitar’, and I think that’s where Backstreet Boys came into play. The goal as a finger style acoustic guitar player when approaching a song like that, you want to obviously play the music, but you also want to work in the melody, and maybe there’s a cool drum beat and work that all in, and try to bring in as many pieces of the actual song as possible, and bring it all in on one guitar. It’s really fun, writing arrangements for covers are actually really fun.”
Bundy is touring this go round with a true finger-picking guitar prodigy, the astounding Korean teenager Sungha Jung, whose own You Tube video views are now in the hundreds of millions. He began his own startling career emulating one of his idols…yep, Trace Bundy.
“My video of (Pachelbel’s) Canon ended up on You Tube back in the day, and it started getting a lot of views, and I think about the time it hit about a million views, somebody pointed out to me, ‘Hey have you ever seen this video?’ and it was a 9 year old boy, playing my version of Canon. At the time, it was probably my hardest song, and here’s a 9 year old boy playing it. At first he didn’t have a lot of views on his version, and I’m like well, he should, and then pretty soon his just started skyrocketing and actually passed my number of views. I toured twice to South Korea, and both times I got in touch with him and he came and opened for me, and I’d call him up on stage and we’d play Canon together in unison.”
“Then I started thinking, hey, he’s never been to the States, so I actually flew him out last January and we did a big West Coast tour, and it was his first US tour, and people loved it, we had a ton of fun, and we did a couple other songs like ‘Billie Jean’, and since then he’s continuing to explode, he’s toured pretty much all over the world now. I was able to get him to come out for a second US tour which is the one coming up soon. He’s 14 now, and just literally, we were sitting around one day on the last tour and he went up to do a sound check, and he just started playing one of my songs, and I’m like, ‘Oh that’s cool, when did you learn that?’ and he said, ‘Oh, just right now.’ He had seen me play it a couple times or once or whatever, and he can play anyone’s hardest songs. Now he’s got 175 million views on his You Tube videos, it’s just crazy.”
With all of his rapidly rising fame, Trace Bundy remains humble and grounded, content at what he’s done so far, not needing to keep raising the bar, although with his tremendous skills and unique talents, he certainly will.
“I tend to be someone who leans on the very content side of life. I have musician friends that are always bummed out because they’re not hitting the next level and they’re just always struggling, but I always think that where I’m at is where I’m supposed to be, and I really can’t complain too much. I just think it’s so cool to be able to come to a city, and have a few hundred people come to a show, and I love being able to play kind of the theaters or good listening rooms around the country, and if it grows past that, which it probably will, then that’s a bonus, and if it stays at the same place, I’m actually pretty happy.”
Check out Trace and Sungha performing Pachelbel’s Canon.
Check out Trace’s website.
Steve Houk is a freelance music writer who lives in Annandale VA with his beautiful blended family. He is also living a midlife rocker’s dream as lead singer of Northern Virginia classic and modern rock cover band Second Wind. Check out Second Wind here, as well as Steve’s blog, midliferocker.