An article with Ian Ethan Case

Ian Ethan Case

An article with Ian Ethan Case

How it began

I grew up in a really rural area in New Hampshire, and later in the mountains and foothills in northern California, and there just weren't a ton of people around that I could find who were really serious about music, especially people that were my age that I had any contact with. I really wanted to play and get better all the time so I tried to figure things out the best I could on my own. I was kind of the only one in my family that lived and breathed music 24/7 but my older sister played classical piano for a while and my mom played some basic piano and sang, and my parents had a good record collection and a good stereo and also took me to a lot of concerts, everything from The Messiah and other classical stuff to local blues/rock concerts on the town green to really world-class Appalachian folk concerts. So I definitely grew up around music and loved all of it.

It's hard to say exactly where the banging-on-skippy-peanut-butter-cansturned into something you could actually call music, but I was always superinspired by just about any music I heard and really wanted to play whatever I heard, as well as make up my own stuff. I started taking Suzuki piano lessons when I was 5 years old and really drank that up and made good progress for 2years until they tried to teach me how to read sheet music, which I totally failed at and was bored and frustrated with. But even while I was taking pianolessons and learning Bach minuets and stuff, I spent as much or more time coming up with my own little songs, and my teacher was really supportive of that. I remember figuring out that all the black keys on the piano made apentatonic scale (though I had no idea it had a name) and I was more into that sound.

From there I got really into drums after I saw someone play at a recital, and later sax, guitar, and bass. My parents were generally very supportive but I always had to fight a little bit or prove myself in order to be allowed to pursue each instrument. I think it took two or three years of me playing on cardboard boxes before I was allowed to buy a snare drum with my saved up allowance, and then another year or two before I had a real drumset, which was a pretty cheap used set but I was thrilled with it and put hundreds of hours in on it, playing along to recordings mostly, although I did eventually take some lessons and work out of some books. I had some really good local teachers who really helped me along.


When I got into guitar I was way into blues stuff. I also started recording myself using a double-decktape recorder which had a microphone input, and figured out I could play along with myself and layer as many parts as I wanted by swapping the tape decks each time. So that gave me a chance to start to experiment with basic arrangements for a full "band" and try different compositional and arrangement ideas out. I've realized the live looping I'm doing now kind of started (forme) in a way with those early tape recordings, which sounded pretty horrible I'm sure but taught me a lot about layering parts together and listening andbeing conscious of a lot of parts at once. Eventually I got a 4-track recorder,and later a 16-track hard disk recorder. I was always composing and recording songs, a lot of the time on my own although I did have a few bands in highschool where we did all original stuff, in kind of a blues/funk/jazz realm.Eventually I got tired of only knowing how to play pentatonic stuff and wanted to know what Robben Ford and Mike Stern were doing with these other types of scales I was hearing which I couldn't figure out on my own, so that's when I finally started really taking lessons on guitar and learning theory, which eventually led to Berklee.




What music is,inspires me. I don't find a lot in this world that's more inspiring than that or makes me want to sort of "write" a song"about" some other thing. I think when people do that, they may think they are creating something and they make think it is about a person, place, or thing but I think in reality it never actually is. Music that is pure and unfiltered by human concepts, is something that I feel totally transcends just about everything in this world. I think love itself is the only thing that we know of that compares. I think that kind of real music is the clearest windowwe have into everything that's larger than ourselves, everything that's not material, everything that's permanent and timeless and REAL. All that"ethereal" stuff that sometimes people think of as being very floaty and imaginary or theoretical, but music is very tangible proof to me of thiswhole other world that is very real and very present, even if it's often ignored or not understood. And it's infinite, so the real excitement for me is getting to continually discover more and more of what's there, and to try and share that with people. It feels to me a lot like walking around on the 100+acres of woods that were behind my parents house growing up. You get to know certain areas and how different paths connect, but you're continually discovering new areas you've never been in before and seeing how those connect with everything you know about already. And then getting to do a concert or record something and share it with people feels kind of like taking someone by the hand and leading them down these different paths you've found, to show them what's there.

If there is anything other than music itself that inspires me, I would say it's the outdoors - I've spent a lot of time outdoors in remote areas and there's just something that feels inherently good about nature that hasn't been all messed with and abused by humans. I think there's a connection there somehow with instrumental music, in the sense that in both cases it's really about appreciating something that was already there when you got there, and was already as perfect as it's ever going to get.You can't do anything to make it better than it is.

That's how I feel about music.That's why I never think in terms of "writing" or "creating"a song. I think that whole concept is false. I've had very clear experiences where a song just comes out in one piece in a ridiculously short amount of timeand I didn't even know what happened - there was zero composition process. Youcan artificially combine some notes and get a sound that isn't bad, but I think the real stuff happens when you're able to perceive something that is already there, so to speak, and then it's just a matter of being as completely transparent to that as possible. A lot of times in our culture there's all this emphasis put on the performer themselves as if that's where it's coming from,but I think that's like looking at the fingerprints and dust on a window pane instead of looking through it to the beautiful view outside.

It's nice to hear from people after a concert when they really got that and connected with the actual music and it showed them something new or took them somewhere - not in a dreamy fake way, but in a way that actually makes a difference in their life at that moment in a very real way. And I guess that's the third thing that inspires me, or at least motivates me, is that I care about people, I care about the world, and I want to do what I do well so that it can hopefully bless people to the greatest extent possible. If there's anyone else out there who is at all like me and gets overwhelmed by stuff and has things they wrestle with or just really hard circumstances or hard thingsto deal with, then they sure need it! 


Ian Ethan Case

Teachings and Voice


I have been really fortunate to get to learn from quite a few really excellent musicians (Dave Ballou, Aaron Goldberg, Jamey Haddad, Glen Velez, Antonio Sanchez, Rajna Swaminathan, Adam Rogers, David Tronso, many others) and to have gotten to attend Berklee College of Music for a bit, but I would have to say that for the most part, music for me has always been a pretty individual journey. From the time I was very young up through the present I've certainly spent far, far more time exploring ideas on my own than I have taking lessons, being in a classroom, or even learning informally from other musicians. I tend to take along time to process information and understand it thoroughly, so maybe that'swhy I tend to keep something like a 600:1 ratio of "hours-spent-working-on-my-own" to "actual instruction."

In fact I'm not sure a term like "instruction" entirely applies to the things that really matter to me in music. There's certainly a big chunk of music theory knowledge on sort of a mechanical level that I think is pretty important and helpful to understand, and although that's definitely an ongoing journey for me as well, it did make a big difference for me getting to study that kind of stuff for about a year and a half with a great guitar teacher named Nokes Kelly and then for a few semesters at Berklee. I know I would havea much harder time saying the things I want to say, musically speaking, if Ididn't have that, so I'm really grateful to have gotten to learn what I have so far in that kind of category.

BUT, the most productive and important times for me have been the points at which I really ditched the whole mentality of "we know what music is, and this is how you do it" and just totally veered off the road into some big piece of territory that no one had told me anything about. A big turning point for me was realizing that my value to the universe had more to do with finding and developing something uniquely mine and sharing that with the world, rather than trying to get better at doing something that someone else already did that has already been done a million times.

So it was shortly after that, after I had decided to leave Berklee, that I started to approach the guitar in a different way, and even approach music in general in a different way. I sort of threw out any sense of the "rules" in terms of theory, genre, the role the guitar should and should not play etc. and became way more open to just doing whatever it took to get the right notes to happen (and by "right" I mean the stuff that I was hearing in my head.) And shortly into that process I happened to pick up a double-neck guitar in a store one day and in the first 6 seconds of playing that thing, it felt like the heavens opened; I felt like I had just entered this incredibly rich, exciting world of new possibilities which at the same time felt totally natural and totally right, almost familiar in a weird way, but simultaneously really new and fresh and very freeing. Something just resonated with me on a deep level and I knew all I wanted to do from then on was to really dig into that instrument and everything it had to show me about music. The double-necksuddenly gave me a functional way to incorporate everything I'd learned over the years on piano, drums, bass, guitar, and other instruments - it all sort of clicked all of a sudden and I had this way to better express the way I naturally heard things, which has led me to discovering new things as well.

So I would have to say, in terms of education vs. finding one's own voice, for me it was definitely important to learn some things from people who had figured out a lot more than I had, but it was equally important to then kind of "forget" all that and start to discover and work on what I could share that maybe no one else was exactlyputting out there yet. Finding the double-neck has turned out to be kind of like "ground zero" for me - where my thing really started to take a definite shape - but I also try to be really careful that whatever I'm playing doesn't just become all about me or my instrument, doesn't become a circus act. Everything I do is basically just to try and get the right notes to come outand to try and follow where the music itself feels like it wants to go.

I think everyone has a unique voice (even if they're not using it and haven't discovered it yet) because we all hear things our own way - we're all conscious of different things. So I think the trick is finding a way to let that out somehow. It can take a ton of work to develop the skills necessary for that stuff to come out clearly, powerfully, and beautifully, but I think that's really what it is - letting something that already exists be seen, figuratively speaking. The cool thing is it never ends and we can always make progress inbeing even more true to who we inherently are and being more receptive to the ideas that we all receive whether we're aware of them or not.




I think most people who learn to play an instrument well, actually know more about all instruments than people realize. I think that's because most of what makes a good musician has to do with music itself. Of course you have to always work to improve your technical ability on your instrument and that's important, but the real stuff is the ideas you're dealing with in music itself. It's stuff that's hard to put into words in a way that conveys any real meaning, but it's very specific and very tangible stuff.

In my case, due to the way I grew up without a lot of people to play with at first, and maybe just my own interest in the way things can fit together and work with each other, it almost forced me in a way to learn several different instruments. If I wanted to hear drums on a song I had come up with, I had to play them myself! Same with the other instruments I played. For years it seemed like I was torn in too many directions because I loved it all so much, but finally when I picked up that double-neck it all suddenly came together, and in hindsight, working on music via all those different instruments and composing and recording, was really the perfect thing for me to do and it was all really just learning more about what's there in music. It all connects, the more you look at it, so in a way everything reinforces itself - but I find at the sametime that the more I learn, the more new things present themselves for me to learn about that I don't have a hold on yet. I really love that music is literally infinite and it always leads you forward more and more, the more you put into it. 

These days I play a lot of kalimba and fretless guitar in addition to the double-neck, and all three of those are quite different from each other in terms of the kinds of things they lend themselves to and the physical aspects of playing them, so in terms of continued learning they definitely compliment eachother and show you things from different angles so to speak. And I do find that each instrument is like its own unique lens through which to explore music; each instrument leads me to different ideas, different musical worlds and different compositions.

Hopefully it all hangs together though as one big connected journey - that's my goal anyway, as a composer and performer, to hopefully show people a little more of the amazing diversity and new ideas that music is always revealing to us, andat the same time show how connected it all is. That's been my experience in music so far in my journey, so that's what I'm trying to share when I play for people.

The acoustic double-neck guitar


I actually don't know for sure exactly who first made an acoustic double-neck guitar, I think it may have been Alvarez or Takamine but they quickly stopped making them shortly after they started. Jimmy Page may have used one of the first double-necks ever made, for Stairway To Heaven back whenever that came out, (so I've heard anyway), although his was an electric and was really a totally different animal.

The double-neck I came across when I started was an Ovation 18-string acoustic. They only made them for a few years. I believe the idea was that you can look cool on stage, mainly, and the excuse for using the instrument was that you can easily and quickly switch between strumming the 12-string sound on the top neck and soloing on the 6-string neck on the bottom. When I first picked it up, and actully for the first year or two during which I developed the majority of my playing methods on it, I had never really seen anyone play a double-neck before, at least not in a way that validated the use of the instrument, to me anyway. So I was really approaching it with a totally clean slate and not even thinking of it as a guitar or a double-anything; I was (and continue to be) really only interested in treating it as its own thing, as one instrument, just like a piano is one instrument even though you use two hands to play it, and a drumset is one instrument even though there are different voices contained in that instrument. That's part of why it felt so natural for me, I think, just thinking of it as one instrument. And that has led me to so many new places musically and really given me a very intuitive way to translate into sound the things I'm hearing in my head.

The downside has been that the technology and construction of the instrument wasn't designed for the way I play so especially when it came to trying to amplify it for concerts, it was extremely difficult at first to get things to sound even remotely similar to the way it sounds unplugged which is how I practice and compose at home, and how I developed all my technique. I'm really grateful that LR Baggs has come out with some very innovative and effective, usable internal microphones which I've now got inside all of my double-necks and which really do a great job transmitting the real acoustic sound of the instrument. The double-necks have piezo pickups too, but 75% of the sound we use comes just from the internal mics. It's been a major lifesaver and finally people who are nice enough to come out to a concert are hearing the songs the way they're meant to sound! I'm also working with a really open-minded, ambitious, very innovative luthier here in Boston who is building a new type of double-neck which we designed together. It's been several years in the making and it looks like it's actually going to be finished in early 2014 so I am pretty excited about that - to finally have an instrument that was designed from the ground up for the very weird ways that I play, that will be huge!


The present and the future

2013 has turned out to be quite a thrilling year for me! In January I got to play at Muriel Anderson's All-Star Guitar Night at NAMM, which was the first night I got to play for 1400 people or so, and the first time I've ever gotten to be part of a concert that people like Victor Wooten, Robben Ford, Stanley Jordan, and Mimi Fox were playing at, so that was pretty exciting and fun. When that concert ended I literally ran to catch an airport shuttle, took a red-eye flight to Boston, got off the plane and went straight to another concert where I got to play a couple of my compositions with some current and former members of the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops (a great pianist and two string players).

I also got to do my first real high quality video showing some of the live looping stuff I'm doing these days, thanks to my friend Sid Ceaser in Nashua NH who is an incredible photographer (who I managed to convince to try his hand at shooting video...and he was pretty much world class at it right off the bat.) A lot of things have finally come together in terms of getting the technology stuff in a good place where it is doing what I need it to do - both the amplification of the instruments as well as the whole live looping rig. LR Baggs, Kyser, and PreSonus have all given me endorsements which I really really appreciate and it has been great getting to know some of the great people that make those companies run - not to mention how helpful their products have been, which I was already using anyway.

This fall I've gotten to do a nice string of concerts in the Northeast US and in California, including a couple where I got to play with my friend Motoshi Kosako who is pretty much the best jazz harpist in the world, and for those concerts we both got to play with two amazing musicians that I literally grew up listening to from the time I was about 8 years old: Michael Manring and Paul McCandless. I got to meet some other great musicians out there too and make so many other great connections. I also put my first trio together this year, after several years of mainly doing solo stuff, and that has been incredibly fun and musically rewarding. A couple weeks ago we got to play at the Boston Museum of Science in their new multi-million-dollar planetarium, which is like an IMAX theater on steroids with a 360-degree dome-shaped video screen that covers your entire peripheral vision, with a 10.1 sound system. The guys at the museum custom animated these absolutely mind-blowing computer-generated HD videos specifically for my compositions that I played that night, and we performed them live with the visuals synched to the live performance. We got a really good turnout and an enthusiastic response and they are having us back for a couple more of those concerts in January and April so that is one thing I'm looking forward to in 2014.

Primarily though I'm looking forward to finishing and releasing my first new double-neck album since 2008, which is going to be a double-disc album featuring all of the compositions that I've been doing live for the past few years, so it will be really great to finally be able to have that to offer people.

I'm also planning to do a live DVD out in Seattle with my friend Charley Voorhis who is another totally world-class video guy. I'm planning to tour everywhere in the country that I possibly can in the fall 2014, so I'm looking forward to playing a lot and getting to visit a lot of different places and see some new people and people I haven't seen in forever. Also, my new double-neck should be done in early/mid 2014 so that will be a game-changer for me, big time. Basically I'm just grateful to be on this whole big journey with music and I'm excited to keep on running forward and keep learning and discovering things and keep sharing what I'm doing with whoever wants to come check it out and be part of it. Bringing people together for concerts and enjoying this music collectively is the part that really makes it a total blast!

Ian Ethan Case

Ian Ethan Case has studied at Berklee Collage of Music. He is a multi-instrumentalist, who got a lot of attention at NAMM in January 2013, where he made quite a few rethink the possibilities of the guitar, experiencing the many ways in which he brings his acoustic double-neck guitar to life. He has released the CD ''Into Open Land'' and more. He has recently performed with Jeremy Kittel (Turtle Island Quartet, Bela Fleck), Nathaniel Smith (Natalie MacMaster, Chris Thile), and Matt Kilmer (Lauryn Hill, Simon Shaheen), as well as with current and former members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra.


Listen to the recordings of Ian Ethan Case here.