Interview: Rob Mastrianni

It was New Years Eve, maybe fifteen years ago, when I first saw Rob playing guitar at a small downtown music venue called Baby Jupiter. I was struck by the realization that he was an artist - not a person cultivating the identity of an artist, but a true honest-to-goodness creator. Fourteen years later the club has come and gone but Rob has continued playing and I’ve been fortunate to call him a friend and we have gigged on occasion. He is a deeply passionate, ego-free, person who is always composing, practicing and learning. He's also a park ranger and expert on birds of prey. 

How would you describe you what is it that you do?
I’m a guitarist and composer. I love to create music. I play unconventional guitars like the Coral Electric Sitar guitar (aka Electric Harp Guitar). I utilize the 13 sympathetic strings like a high pitched harp by playing melodies with my right hand, while hammering bass riffs on the guitar neck with my left hand simultaneously. I also play finger-style guitar that is inspired by Spanish classical, flamenco, punk, Jimi Hendrix and the late great American guitarist Michael Hedges.

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?
I’ve been performing my music in bars, theaters, music venues and restaurants for 20 years.

I also have a day job as a Park Ranger. I lead environmental education programs, wildlife management which includes rescuing sick or injured wildlife in Manhattan. I’ve been working as a Ranger for 8 years now and I love it.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?
I don't have a set routine. When I sit down with my guitars I work on composing songs, riffs, melodies, finalizing new ideas and memorizing tunes that are finished. Some of the music I compose is challenging to play, so it takes some time for me to learn it and get the music into my fingers. So I’ll break it down and practice the music slowly, especially when I'm composing for my sitar guitar, which has a 13-string harp with high-pitched treble strings. Those 13 harp strings are very close together, so I spend a lot of time practicing melodies and finger picking patterns on those strings.  

When I first started playing guitar at age 12, I would have a practice routine of playing scales and classical guitar repertoire. I would do this for up to 7 hours a day. A few years ago I got really into practicing traditional flamenco guitar. This involves a lot of work on right hand techniques called picado (alternate picking with index and middle fingers), rasguedo (strumming techniques that involve all the fingers of the right hand), golpe (percussion accents that are done by striking the guitars top like a drum) and improvising in the "compos" 12 beat rhythmic cycle. I've been working on the traditional "Solea" compos for a few years now and practice improvising melodies in that 12 beat cycle with the accents on 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12.

Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration and composing are very mysterious to me. It just happens naturally without much thought and sometimes it can be a challenge. It's always a different experience. Sometimes I'll wake up from a dream with a melody and rhythm for a new song. I seem to write a lot when I'm tired and exhausted.

My passion and obsession for the guitar as an instrument is a huge inspiration to me. I'm in love with the sound and tone colors the guitar and sitar guitar (harp guitar) can create. I have a collection of guitars and I believe that music is alive in the instruments and it’s my job to discover that music.

I also find people watching, especially when I busk in the NYC subways inspiring. The fast paced rhythm of the subway commuters rushing around, inspired me to compose my songs "Passing By", "Revolt" and "Wish". I wanted to create something that would grab the attention of New Yorkers in a rush. So "Passing By" was actually born at the busy Union Square station.

Actively listening to different styles of music and of course everyday life, love and relationships are always inspiring.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?
When I'm commuting to work on the train or walking alone on a busy city street.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?
I record my ideas right away with my iPhone voice memo app. Some music gets done fast and easily while others can take weeks to finish. I’ll usual focus on working on 3 tunes a day.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?
It's always helpful to hear what people connect with. The best way for me to shape ideas is to perform live and see how the audience reacts to the music. Performing for dancers also helps me get a grasp on what inspires dancers to improvise and choreograph.  

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?
Having a day job is an obstacle. I’m lucky that I truly enjoy my day job but it takes me away from my music 8 hours a day. I wish I had more time to professionally record my music a few times a week. Being overwhelmed with ideas can also be an obstacle and of course the biggest obstacle is procrastination.

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?

I’m rarely happy with my performance in the recording studio. As far as a project that closely resembles my initial concept would be the recent Beatbox Guitar “Duality” CD. That CD captured the energy of a live performance, which was our conceived idea.

How do you know when you’re done?
You know you’re finished, when your instinct tells you to move onto the next project or song.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?
Communication, integrity and compromising are the keys.

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?
Sometimes that tension and disconnect can push you to come up with something unexpectedly cool. A positive outlook also helps.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?
I drink a lot of Yerba Mate tea.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?
Make the best with what is available in that moment.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.
My sitar guitar, flamenco guitar and the voice memo iphone app.

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?
Don’t try and imitate others. Develop your own style, sound and stay true to your integrity.

Learn more about Rob Mastrianni.