We had the good fortune of connecting with Kirby Jane and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Kirby, let’s talk legacy – what do you want yours to be?
I don’t really know what I want people to remember about my life, and I won’t pretend to be in control of others’ perceptions of me.

However, I think the most important aspect of how I define my own legacy is that I want my work to make people feel something. In order for it to do that, I need to feel something as well when I create. It also needs to challenge me so that I stay interested, which is a slower process than just churning out whatever material is popular this week.

Tangibly, that means living below my means, as much as possible, so that I can walk away from projects that feel like money-grabs instead of legacy pieces. I’ve been a minimalist for a number of reasons over the past decade, thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. But in addition to the ease of moving house, that minimalist mindset has also made me more sensitive to ways in which I can consume consciously, and expend my efforts intentionally. There is so much false urgency wielded in advertising and in how people can communicate, and it will steal your life if you let it. I don’t think 100% happiness is realistic, but I do believe that if something robs you of your peace it’s not worth your time.

I also lost a dear friend, Evan Twitty, just before the pandemic hit. He was only 17 years old, and it was completely unexpected. He was a force of nature as a musician and such a kind, unique soul. I realized that all I had left of him were my memories of him, stories from others who knew him, and the music that he published. I’m familiar with grief, but that one especially hurt because he was much younger than me, doing a similar thing professionally, and we gigged together all the time. I certainly don’t want to capitalize on his death in any way, but it put into perspective for me how much it mattered that I pursue creative projects that are on my bucket list, first and foremost. We don’t always have a long time to get our work done. Money comes and goes, but inspiration is hard to come by, and you can’t shoo it away. It eats away at you your whole life if you don’t do something about it. I would rather take a chance and risk being seen as unsuccessful, but have a portfolio of projects that I’m intrinsically proud of, than to be externally appraised as successul, but to still feel like I haven’t expressed my true self. I don’t think we can accomplish our best work until we free ourselves from the external approval of others.

I do think it’s still important to post for social media to some degree because it’s still a way to have genuine interactions if you use it well, but it doesn’t have the longevity of other forms of media like studio-quality recordings, sheet music, or more deliberate video projects.

The pandemic also had a lot to do with my mindset change, as I know it has for everyone. Music has always been my escape, but when I tried to start listening to music again throughout the pandemic I found most of it seemed irrelevant. I abandoned about half of my music library because it served a past life that wasn’t as heavy, and I could no longer relate to it. What remained for me were mostly songs with strong melody lines, storytelling through harmony, space between the notes for me to process my emotions (rather than overdone shredding meant to impress), and lyrical narratives that were focused and direct – love songs (platonic or otherwise) that handled rejection, despair, trust, genuine joy, and overall character development. It was music like Ray Charles’ album ‘Modern Sounds in Country Western Music,’ and Michael McDonald’s various projects, that helped me through “unprecedented times.” Through my own need for release, I got a better sense of what makes art timeless. If my work isn’t educational or comforting, and doesn’t feel like me, I might as well not make it; but I can’t be overly-concerned about its popularity once I put it out there.

Particularly, if I’m commissioned to do a music transcription I want it to get results for the sightreader. If they truly gave it a shot and they don’t come away from it a better player, I’ve not done my job. It has to be right down to the most minute details, beautiful to look at, and it has to give enough information that the reader shouldn’t need a video reference to understand the nuances of the piece through fingerings, pickstrokes, minute rhythmic and percussive details, ghost notes, etc. And if I can make it interactive through an accessible transcribing software like Guitar Pro, I’ll take extra steps to do that as well because it utilizes more sensory information than just a pdf. This includes adding far more detail than is the industry standard for guitar transcription, and it’s incredibly time-consuming. On the plus side, if I get it right, I don’t have to redo it, and I’ve helped someone along their musical journey, which usually improves their sense of self-worth. I love that. I don’t care if someone is a hobbyist or a professional, playing music is one of the best things anyone can do for their cognitive health. More of that.

If someone engages with my tutorials, talks, or articles, I hope it’s informative and encouraging.

Similarly, if someone gives me their time and attention to listen to my music, I want it to relax them or make them smile, or giggle. Some kind of emotional release, rather than something that feels emotionally taxing. If I turn on a song and it immediately makes me feel tired, I skip it. I don’t want to be that person to someone else.

As we gain experience as creators, we have a tendency to look back on our past work, when we didn’t know better, and to be hard on ourselves for lack of experience. We may then come to expect that our work is forever going to be bad, and we use that as an excuse not to create. All the while, we’re moving our own goalposts as our internal litmus for quality becomes more sophisticated. The catch is, the goalposts are moving because we’re becoming better, and we fail to acknowledge that. I’m 28 now and I’ve been creating just long enough to take a good look back on my own artistic endeavors, and to my surprise, I’m still really proud of my guitar playing and art projects from my teen years particularly the projects that I chose to do, rather than those which were school obligations under a deadline.

Nowadays I’m a bit more self-aware and surgical with my approach to everything, and I’ve become more polished as far as my ability to communicate my ideas to the world (i.e. getting better at storytelling, music composition, developing a better rhythmic pocket as a player, video editing, music transcription, and engineering cleaner audio recordings that travel well across different devices and speaker systems) — but I’m still the same person at my core, I’m still creating from that original feeling of inspiration I had a decade ago, and I’m still immensely proud of what I’ve accomplished over the years, even if I could do some things better now.

Do what moves you, and trust that it will move others. The details will take care of themselves.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a fingerstyle guitarist, in the vein of artists like Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, Jerry Reed, Michael Hedges, and Andy McKee. I believe the style was first developed by blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis; and has evolved over time into a wider genre with complex, orchestral techniques for utilizing the guitar (although what they were doing originally was certainly complicated as well).

My particular approach to fingerstyle comes from studying Tommy Emmanuel’s work from the time I was a teenager, and it also draws on my background as a piano player. In musical terms, it means playing the bassline, melody, and rhythm fill, and possibly even some percussion at the same time, in one take. Often times it involves using the guitar itself as a percussion instrument, playing syncopations that sound like two hands interacting on the piano (think Scott Joplin or stride piano), and using the guitar’s natural and cascading harmonics to even carry the melody or chord changes of the song, rather than just plucking harmonics here and there for a novel effect like in mainstream music. Open tunings are used a lot as well if necessary for certain keys and voice leadings, and can lend an ethereal drone feel to what is being played.

In my own arrangements I take pride in trying to make the guitar sound like more than a guitar – sometimes like a synth, a fiddle, a voice, or a piano. It’s essentially a box with six strings on it, but there are so many ways to make every single note expressive. It’s very challenging, and it never gets easier, but I love it so much. It’s been one of the best uses of my time thus far, and it seems to make other people happy as well.

In addition to playing fingerstyle myself, I’ve also learned to transcribe it professionally, into sheet music for other musicians to learn. I transcribe my own arrangements and I have published lessons with Premier Guitar Magazine, but I’ve also been blessed to transcribe for Tommy Emmanuel, Andy McKee, John Knowles, and Jerry Douglas (I’m not actually a dobro player, but I’ve been fortunate to co-transcribe these with Brad Talley, who is), for them to sell as official transcriptions. I’m so grateful for their trust in my work.

Transcribing for Tommy has been the most intensive job so far, just because his volume of original songs is so large and varied. Also, he doesn’t actually read sheet music, so he is trusting me to get it right – and he’ll know if I make errors because fans will play his music for him incorrectly, in the same places. I think it helped immensely that I grew up learning a lot of his material, attending his guitar clinics, and overall figuring out how he thinks on the instrument, as well as fleshing out the specific details of his improvised moments, rather than waiting for an official transcription to come out before learning his work. Growing up, I also made it a point to learn his harder material, and choosing a couple songs from various keys, tunings, and capo positions, so that I was learning not just the songs themselves, but also the principles of how Tommy arranges based on those keys. I had no idea at that point that I would be transcribing for him nearly a decade later, I just did this for the sake of having a good foundation.

For most of the songs, transcribing has been pretty straightforward and Tommy’s been a great help in the process: I would go see Tommy at a show, film him playing some new material backstage, take those videos home for my personal reference, and put together a transcription based off of the studio version of the song, and the video I took myself.

My job is faster when I have video reference, and Tommy’s techniques are very consistent so I can trust that when I make hard transcribing decisions. Every player is different and if I transcribe for a new artist, I have to learn their signature in order to transcribe well for them. Most fingerstyle players are very particular about how they have composed these songs, they’re not usually improvised or accidental, so it matters that the tiniest details are included as intentional, and taken seriously.

There are, however, some scenarios where I’m given a daunting piece, there’s no video reference, and I have to figure it out just with the audio, because the artist has forgotten how to play the song and nobody else knows it either.

If you don’t play guitar, there’s a lot of ambiguity to it. A piano has one designated note for each pitch, but a guitar has about four possible options, per pitch, as well as sympathetic overtones and harmonics that can distract from the fundamental pitch. And it’s a polyphonic instrument. In some instances it gets super nerdy and I have to edit the song alongside another easier song that is in the same key and tuning, so that my brain can get a ballpark estimate of what notes are where, and what chord shapes work in that key. And then I listen to the original audio at about 10% speed with high fidelity audio equipment so I hear as much as possible, because low quality audio files are harder for your brain to understand and require more mental energy. Furthermore, sometimes it’s hard to tell what string a note is on, and it could be one string or another, so I slow the audio down even more to figure out 1. if the two notes in sequence overlap, or 2. if they are one after the other. That gives me context to know if they are being played across multiple strings, or fretted one after the other on the same string.

It’s tedious. To avoid overwhelm, I have a very methodical grid system that I’ve developed to break down the songs section by section, simple function by simple function, measure by measure, so that even on my worst days I can still move the needle in some way just by logging hours – even if all I’ve done that day is mindless repetition, it added up to something meaningful, and makes the job easier for my future self. This also helps me batch edit large projects as well, and allows me to spend a week at a time mastering one very specific aspect of how to transcribe better, and more quickly. This method also keeps me from losing my place or doing the same work over and over, and it keeps me from panicking when I come up for air and realize I’m responsible for thousands of pages of work that will be seen by so many people, and this demographic of musicians are truly brilliant customers, and it’s being endorsed by high profile artists whose work I admire deeply. I can’t think about that regularly, I just need to think about what’s on my plate for today, and what I can do within my compartmentalized, simple setups. If I’m really struggling with impostor syndrome on a project, it helps to pull up finished tabs I’ve already done, and at the VERY LEAST, open my software and just look at the document. My hands will usually get to work first, then my brain and attitude will follow.

When I have a transcribing deadline it also helps to get on a night shift schedule so I have as much uninterrupted time to work as I can manage, away from daily noise and work notifications. I’ll get back to a normal schedule if I have gigs or social obligations, and again when I finish a project.

Transcribing has made me a far better listener, and a far better worker, to say the least!

As a musician, I want to create work that helps people sit with their own emotions in a way that words can’t express, because that kind of music is what helps me to center myself. I’d also like to explore my own musical ideas, which I hear, but don’t hear other artists doing.

As a transcriber and a teacher, I think my biggest goal is to help musicians to see sheet music – and music theory – as a useful tool, rather than as a rigid final say. There is a lot of intimidation around using sheet music, but I don’t think there should be. Not everybody needs it, but it can be exceptionally helpful for visual learners, or those with eidetic memories. It’s a way to understand music that exists outside of time, allowing for the organizational structure and patterns of the song themes to shine through.

Sometimes when we try and fail to sightread, it’s not that we’re completely inadequate, like we so often think. Upon closer examination, there are factors such as publishing errors, excessively small print, and lack of technology, which have historically contributed to sheet music’s complexity. Just ten years ago, my job would have been so much harder than it is now, and it certainly would have been an undertaking a century ago. These days it’s far less expensive to transcribe and publish music, it’s easy to play back on a standard computer, can be notated in many different styles to look cleaner from a design perspective, the barrier to entry is lowered, and sheet music is so much more fun to create. The publishing process is more forgiving as well, with options such as print-on-demand books, and digital products. Transcribing has come a long way, and I so enjoy testing the boundaries of it for my own work and for my colleagues, as well as integrating it with other mediums to give an augmented learning experience.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
McGonigle’s Mucky Duck – cozy listening room environment, fantastic pub food, good service, interesting/talented musical acts on the schedule.

El Tiempo Cantina – 3130 Richmond Ave
Some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life, and definitely the most authentic Tex-Mex I’ve ever had by a huge margin. Even better service, and gorgeous design.

HEB is pretty impressive if you’re from out of town (As you can tell I’m a cheap date ;P )

Luna Pizzeria – great casual lunch spot.

Post HTX has an incredible view of the skyline, thoughtful design concepts, amazing restaurants downstairs, and an art gallery at the entrance. Easy to find parking. The restrooms look like a scene in a matrix movie (in a good way).

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
In no particular order, the people who come to mind are the Marchione Guitars family, Tommy Emmanuel, Brian Penix, my parents, John and Becky Knowles; Annette Guardabascio, who was the director of travel at Letterman, and became a dear friend leading up to my appearance on Dave’s “Stupid Pet tricks” segment back in 2014 – as well as the rest of the Late Show staff; and Leslie Allen, professional tennis player and former head of the Women’s Tennis Association, who was my childhood mentor through her foundation, the Win4Life Program; and the Guitar Pro / Arobas Music team, without whom my job would be infinitely more difficult.

Website: www.kirbyjane.net

Instagram: www.instagram.com/kirbsguitar

Facebook: www.facebook.com/kirbsguitar

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/kirbyjane

Other: Tidal: https://listen.tidal.com/artist/29750396 Guitar Transcriptions (Covers published through Sheet Music Plus) https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/search?Ntt=kirby+jane Premier Guitar Lessons https://www.premierguitar.com/lessons/acoustic-lessons/jim-croces-fingerstyle-guitar https://www.premierguitar.com/lessons/how-did-lenny-breau-do-that https://www.premierguitar.com/gear/reviews/how-to-handle-harmonics https://www.premierguitar.com/lessons/jerry-reeds-red-hot-picking https://www.premierguitar.com/lessons/scott-joplins-sweet-syncopations https://www.premierguitar.com/lessons/fretboard-workshop-a-fingerstyle-manifesto

Image Credits
Jan Anderson, Tommy Emmanuel, Jennifer Easler, Fred Salley

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