Author, recording artist,
songwriter, composer, and fingerstyle guitarist - Don R.
Auten approaches the guitar from the unique perspective
of being both a performer and a luthier. He was one of
the original guitar builders for the Taylor Guitar
Company where he focused on neck design and
construction. He later became a designer with the Gibson
Guitar Company where he also served as a photographer,
technical illustrator/graphic artist, and performer.
While at Gibson, he conceived a virtual reality
experience that allows the user to feel what it's like
to jam with a band in front of 23,000 screaming 3D fans.
Auten's resume also includes mention of formal music
training, a degree in civil engineering, plus experience
in photography, graphic art, and a second-degree black
belt in karate. For all of his accomplishments he
-just an average person who
by loving something found the energy and drive to
accomplish a number of things- not from talent, but
rather from an intense excitement and interest in
things... This is an energy source that we can all tap
into. The secret to opening that door is in loving
something with a passion, and this requires action. You
can't just feel it in your head...true love requires
action and involvement.
As a performer, D.R. has shared the stage with: Muriel
Anderson, Joan Baez, Thom Bresh, Johnny Cash, Asleep at
the Wheel, Chuck Berry, José Feliciano, Ricky Lee Jones,
Roger Miller, Leon Redbone, Three Dog Night and many
others. He has performed at major venues in North
America and Europe including the annual Chet Atkins
Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville and- by
invitation of the late Marcel Dadi- at the Atkins/Dadi
Guitar Convention in Issoudun, France.
Auten's recordings include: Hold on to the Moon,
Acoustic Paintings (Album of the Month in Guitar
Player Magazine's 30th Anniversary Issue - July 1997),
Songs from the Heart, The Boogieman, and a cut on
the Narada anthology - Guitar Fingerstyle.
His most recent recording is part of a highly original
self-published book/CD/story/coloring book package
called Guitar Toons, available worldwide through
Mel Bay Publications.
player's player, the one all the other guitarist speak
of with a bit of wonder in their voices. He plays jazz,
blues, country, bluegrass, and folk with aplomb...his
touch is beyond deft-his dynamics are so sensitive that
you're left with the impression that you're listening to
a piano player.
by Philip Dawdy,
Editor for Slamm Magazine
Before we get into the usual biographical details, tell
us about your new self-published book/CD, Guitar
Toons. What inspired this project? What do you hope
it will achieve for the buyer/listener. Why did you
include a coloring book?
have a fascination with the tonal capabilities of the
guitar, so I experiment with sounds. While doing this I
stumbled on several special effects that reminded me of
different animals. I composed tunes around these sounds
and grouped them together in a project called Guitar
Toons. As I was working on the project, other elements
came to mind, including a short story. The story
features each of the animal characters portrayed in the
tunes working together to achieve a bigger dream then
they could have reached as individuals. Each character
possesses a different talent and accomplishes a
different task. There is a playful side to each tune
that lends itself to visual imagery. It just seemed
natural to include illustrations for each arrangement.
[Graphic artist and luthier] Bruce Kunkel helped me with
the project and did a great job illustrating each
composition. I included the illustrations and story in a
coloring book for kids to enjoy on their own or in the
Each song is written in standard notation that can be
rendered on the piano or guitar, as well as easy to read
guitar tablature. These songs are a blast to play! I
recorded the CD using my Taylor Jumbo guitar. I hope the
Guitar Toons music book, coloring book and CD get
the attention they deserve. The compositions are such
that some of the best guitar players around are learning
them. These pieces contain unusual techniques and
special effects that are fun to play.
Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was
music a part of your household when growing up?
DR: My family is from Russellville,
Kentucky and until age eight I was partially deaf due to
inner ear problems. After my family moved to California,
my ears opened up as a result of the dry warm weather.
All sounds were pretty spectacular to me at that time.
Just before we moved, my Uncle Donald gave my Mom and
Dad a little stereo, and three albums: Fire on the
Strings (Joe Maphis), The Travis Guitar
(Merle Travis), and Stringing Along with Chet
(Chet Atkins). These were the only albums we had. I
would listen to them every chance I could get.
How old were you when you began to play?
DR: My Uncle Donald moved to California
when I was 14, and brought his guitar. This was the
first time I had ever heard the guitar live! I started
to pick up the guitar at this time.
Do you feel that your starting age is a critical factor
in playing your style?
DR: Not so much the age, but more the
previous events and surroundings. My grandpa was known
for his 'thump' style of guitar playing, but he never
recorded anything. Each of my uncles inspired me in
different ways. My Uncle Sam lost his thumb when he was
a little boy, so he had a very specific influence on my
style. He told me "Donnie, you have a thumb. Use it!" My
Uncle Donald left his guitar at my house so that I'd
have something to practice on. My Uncle Ray was a lead
guitarist, and he taught me some cool licks.
Any formal music training?
DR: Yes, I began a music major in college but did
not like it. Everyone was being taught the same stuff
year after year. I was and am more interested in the
"new stuff" that you have to discover on your own.
GS: What styles interested you when you first
began to play? How do those early preferences influence
your current music?
DR: Classical, jazz, blues, country - but mostly
fingerstyle in general. The overall influence is that I
like to blend styles together in my own way. I use
different nuances of tone and technique to keep it
Any teachers or method books of note? How about
DR: I am self-taught for the most part,
but various people exerted a great influence on my music
in the beginning. I bought a Mel Bay guitar book and my
first chord was C. I tore the book apart and made A the
first chord. Now I realize why Mel Bay introduced the
key of C first - it has no sharps or flats. I was just
trying to put the keys in alphabetical order!
Although I already knew how to play the guitar, I
started to learn a bunch of fingerstyle tunes from a
fine guitar player named Tommy Turman. He was quite an
inspiration. Some of my good friends were inspirations
as well, including Jim Soldi, Tom Boyer, and Peter
Sprague. Among the well known recording artists who
influenced me, I should mention Roy Bucannan, Joe Pass,
Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton,
Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. I don't listen to many guitar
players nowadays. I am too busy doing what I want to do
and writing. It has been kind of funny, as I am going
through my own evolution on the guitar, just trying to
make up for having left it once for eight years. I am
currently studying jazz and have been listening to Bill
Evans (piano), Stan Getz (sax), Buddy Emmons (pedal
steel), Benny Goodman (Clarinet), and Stephane
What other instruments do you play? Any advantage or
disadvantage to being a multi-instrumentalist?
DR: I play harmonica, banjo and the violin. I
played the piano while I was a music major, but I don't
play it much these days. The guitar is kickin' my butt
too hard right now! There is an advantage to learning
more than one instrument. Yes, it's true that you may
spend less time on your main instrument, but you are
compensated with fresh inspiration, and overall musical
GS: What musical avenues do you wish to explore
in the future?
DR: I want to find a bass player and drummer so I
can expand on some ideas and songs I have written. This
will give me more opportunity to improvise and jam.
What keeps you interested in the music business?
DR: Sound... wonderful, clear sound.
Have you ever had to weather a creative dry spell in
your playing or composition? How do you overcome
DR: No dry spells, but there has been periods of
frustration in not finding other musicians who wanted to
play just originals. I don't have any fun playing cover
songs. I am very stubborn in that now I only want to do
originals. I quit playing the guitar for almost eight
years in my refusal to play cover songs. Since that long
break, when I pick up the guitar, new music comes out as
fast as I can write it. I am happier now.
You have to keep you self turned on with life. Do what
makes you feel creative and puts you in the ZONE. Find
the surroundings, the situations, the good luck ring,
whatever works - and stay there! I can't write when I am
playing cover songs - so, for me, doing only my own
original pieces keeps me in the zone. If you are a tune
writer or composer, you are no longer a consumer;
instead, you are a producer of what others consume. Most
good guitar players still listen to and play a variety
of cover songs. I can't for now. Let's just say it is a
weakness in me. I think young guitar players should hear
and learn everything they can get their hands on, but be
careful... you don't want to be a clone. Be wise and
Which of your albums would you recommend to someone
buying one of your recordings for the first time.
DR: All of them, and in mass quantities (laughs).
Seriously - Guitar Toons and Acoustic
GS: Career high/low?
DR: The low time was when I quit for eight years.
I just could not do cover tunes anymore, and I was not a
soloist. I was a band member and I could not find a band
that was willing to do original songs only. I checked
into college and got into civil engineering, surveying
and computer aided design. The high time is now. With my
new book and CD... I think right now is the best time.
How has your family affected your music?
DR: My Mom and Dad have all ways encouraged me to
do whatever I wanted. They love guitar music.
GS: Current activities and tour schedule?
DR: I just came out with a new book and CD called
Guitar Toons, and one of the songs in this book
will appear in the forthcoming Year 2000 Fingerstyle
Guitar Anthology from Mel Bay. I am just now setting
up a nation-wide tour of music stores, bookstores and
Do you teach or act as a mentor?
DR: Yes, I do teach. I have had various students
from time to time and want to teach more. I am learning
as fast as I can, just to have more material to teach.
My website offers details on contacting me for lessons.
Describe your practice routine.
DR: I am studying jazz at the moment, and what I
do first is play some major scales very slowly to
warm-up, then some arpeggios. Next, I work on chord
clusters: Major, Minor, Dom7 and Altered. When I am
warmed-up, I play through chord changes and try to make
it as melodic as possible.
Any particular teaching/learning techniques, such as
maintaining a log of practice time?
DR: Play very slowly, and try to be as musical
and play with a good groove. IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT
AIN'T GOT THAT SWING... got to have a good groove! No
log; I love it too much to worry about it. I play every
moment I can.
What are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
DR: Physically, I
have always been able to play as fast or complex as I
have wanted. So my hands and fingers are my strength.
Knowledge of jazz harmony has been my weakness in the
past, but I am working on it now ...I've have declared
war on my stupor!
Do you read music? What's your opinion of tab vs.
DR: Yes, this last year I have picked it up. I
can read well enough to learn new tunes and write, but
I'm not up to speed for sightreading in tempo. I am
pretty slow as a music reader. I think both tab and
standard notation are useful. Standard music notation is
a great universal way of communicating music on paper
while tablature is "specific" for the guitar. Both work
well. I prefer to have both on the page and that is my
method of writing my own songs down. I created my own
blank notation and tab manuscript paper and just write
them both out simultaneously.
What do you do to keep your repertoire fresh-sounding?
DR: My memory is bad, so even though I play my
songs over and over, they always have a sense of
freshness because of this problem. Also, I add new songs
to my repertoire as I write them. This seems to work.
Are there any areas of Classical/traditional repertoire
you would like to explore?
DR: I only do original songs now, but there was
one piece that I have always wanted to play from the
first time I picked up the guitar in high school. It
brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. It was a
personal vendetta of mine to learn it, but I could not
play it until I learned to read notation. I finally
learned the tune this year! It's the Valse Venezolano
No.3 by Antonio Lauro.
You play fingerstyle on steel strings but I don't
believe you use a thumb pick. What advantages or
disadvantages are there in not using a thumb pick?
DR: One advantage of not using a thumb pick is
that you don't loose them. There must be a pile of
sunglasses and picks somewhere in a black hole because I
have lost thousands of them. I did use a thumb pick in
the early days as well as a flat pick. Now I use a
combination of everything. One advantage in using a
thumb pick is the clarity of the bass notes plus the
fact that it leaves your other fingers free to play. By
contrast, when you hold a flat pick your thumb and first
finger are all tied up.
What brands and models of guitars/strings/amps/recording
equipment do you use? What is your preference as far as
construction materials, models, dimensions, vintage vs.
new instruments, etc.?
DR: I have a great carved-top guitar by Gibson, a
Fender Stratocaster, and a Jumbo Taylor acoustic. I am
lazy at this point, and will use whatever is close at
hand for amplification. I use GHS Strings.
What microphone setup do you favor for solo guitar
DR: Any accurate high quality condenser is fine
for me for micing the outside of a guitar. I use one mic
right at the hole for the low end, one mic near the
soundboard for the high, an under saddle mic for the
midrange, and one mic inside the guitar for the out of
phase stereo split and fatness.
Which acoustic pickup, pre-amp, EQ, amplifier?
DR: I am using a Fishman pickup in my acoustic
guitar with a $20 lapel mic from Radio Shack. This mic
is weak in the right places, and strong in the areas
where needed. The inside of a guitar sounds bad! The
better the mic, the more accurate this bad sound is
reproduced. So, the cheap Radio Shack mic is just right!
I just go straight into the board. I don't like carrying
To what extent have you explored guitar technology,
acoustic pickups, amplification of the acoustic guitar,
pedals and effects, software, MIDI guitar etc.?
DR: I like using a volume pedal, smooth reverb
and EQ for fat bass response. Not much beyond this
contributes to my sound. Midi guitars are very cool, but
I like the sound of a guitar. That is why I play it; if
I wanted to sound like a piano, I would play the piano.
Any advice to beginning musicians?
DR: Guitarists - Originality over speed, taste
Songwriters - Write what you think not what you think
others want to hear.
Composers - Stop imitating and start creating.
All the above- Don't quite your day job unless you have
work lined up in the areas of choice. Learn all you can
about everything. Keep yourself turned on with life.
Side-step roadblocks to your creativity.
Tips on career development as a teacher, professional
musician or concert artist.
DR: Like a canvas is to a painter, so is
recording to a musician. Record, Record, Record! Capture
your own music in a form that you can package and sell.
Ideas about professional management. Pros and cons of
managing ones own performing career, or forming an
independent recording company.
DR: It is always good to have someone who can
help you with your career. No one makes it on his or her
own, NO ONE! But be careful, just as a bad marriage can
drain you of your creative edge and take away years of
your life, the wrong management can do the same.
How can one best prepare for making a living with the
DR: Learn to read well. Learn music theory. Study
all styles of music. Get yourself into recording studios
ASAP, and surround yourself with people who are talented
and have a good positive spirit. You will be working
with these people the rest of your life.
You play in a few open and alternate tunings. How do you
decide which one to use on a given piece?
DR: The tunings come by way of the guitar telling
me or leading me. Sometimes I will tune my guitar to an
unknown chord that I like and fiddle with it until a
song jumps out!
GS: Short term/long term personal goals?
DR: I just want to continue to write, record,
teach and tour. And I want to expand my publishing
efforts, and record company.
Aside from the guitar, what do you do for fun? Other
DR: I have a second-degree black belt in karate
and try to stay in shape with this sport. I like to
fish, camp, and chase women! I am still looking for a
Tell us about the Chet Atkins connection.
DR: I have appeared at the Chet Atkins
Appreciation Society Convention for the last five years
and have had the opportunity to talk with Chet several
times. He has been very complimentary. I have always
wanted to go to his workshop, but that has not happened
yet. He is one of the greatest! Meeting Chet is as close
to meeting God as us mortals get.
Which artists would you most like to collaborate with in
a recording or tour?
DR: Bonnie Raitt. I would also love to play with
Bela Fleck, Victor Wooton, Futureman and Howard Levy.
Any advice to young performers just breaking into the
DR: Be unique, cleaver and singularly yourself.
You have the unique perspective of being both a luthier
and an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist. How did you
get your start as a luthier? How have the two
disciplines influenced one another?
DR: I started making guitars in my garage in
about 1973-- a few years before I started working for
the Taylor Guitar Company. The first guitar I made was a
classical, the second was an acoustic steel string and
the third was a carved top/back electric. These totally
different instruments were an extension of my earlier
interests in learning everything about the guitar.
GS: What contributions did you make while working
for Taylor guitars, and later for the Gibson company?
Tell us about your custom Gibson Chet Atkins Tribute
DR: When I first met Bob Taylor in 1993, he was
working at the American Dream guitar shop. I came in
looking for some materials. I brought with me one of the
guitars I had built. Because I was an electric guitarist
I made the neck very thin compared to American Dreams,
Gibsons, Martins, Guilds, etc. of the time. Bob Taylor
looked over my guitar and said with a smile, "Nice
neck!" I think in some way I may have contributed to the
thinner necks one encounters nowadays, but Bob Taylor is
very capable of making up his own mind and executing his
own ideas. He is a great guitar builder, and a very
I left Taylor in 1996 and started working for the Gibson
Guitar Company in Nashville. I had the pleasure of
working on guitars to be included in the collections of
the Country Western Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian
Institute. I was part of the design team working with my
good friend Bruce Kunkel, who is a very talented wood
worker, luthier and artist.
In 1998, Gibson came out with a Guitar called the Chet
Atkins Super 4000. I requested one to be made with the
same basic body shape of a super 4000, but customized a
bit to suit my tastes. I added two custom pickups, a
finger-adjustable tailpiece, and shot it with a
different color. This is a great guitar!
You experienced a musical hiatus for a time; what
brought you back into the fold?
DR: I was a Civil Engineering Designer in
Temecula, California and was bored to death with life at
the time. I got the bug to play the guitar again, after
the eight-year hiatus I mentioned earlier- but this time
just for fun! All of the guitars I had constructed were
in storage in San Diego, so I just went to a music store
and bought a guitar. I started to work on my own song
ideas. I made a pact with myself to do nothing but my
own original compositions. I was not planning on playing
in front of people or any thing like that, just to have
fun for my own personal enjoyment. After a year or so of
that, and a few new songs under my belt, I felt like
playing at a new coffee shop that was opening in town. I
thought I might meet my future wife by doing it as well.
I recorded a demo to audition for the job and was
planning on duplicating it to sell at the coffee shop.
Could you tell the story of hearing Muriel Anderson play
for the first time, and the effect it had on you and
DR: I was buying guitar strings and the owner of
the store said "Hey Don, there is this girl guitar
player named Muriel Anderson playing in Fallbrook
Saturday night. She is into Chet Atkins' stuff." There
was not much live music happening in Temecula, so I went
to Fallbrook to check it out. When I walked into the
room, I saw a beautiful angel playing the guitar as
though it were a harp. I fell in love in an instant. As
Muriel played, I felt she was doing something that she
loved doing, and not just doing a job. It was her spirit
that made such an impression on me. I still yearn for
the time when I can do what I want to do full time--
play the guitar!