Niko Tsonev is a guitarist extraordinaire working as a solo artist, record producer and creative freelancer within the music industry. He has featured on numerous records and in the past several years has been recording and touring with modern-day Progressive Rock titans Lifesigns and Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree).
As a full-time member of Lifesigns, Niko was voted in the top 4 Best Guitarists in 2015 by the readers of Prog Rock Magazine UK.
Just the temptation of the guitar itself was way too strong, and I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It came from deep, deep inside of me.
Discovering & Developing Talent
I saw something on TV-a classical guitar player and I wish I knew his name. He was wearing a blue shirt and playing with his eyes closed! His virtuosity and just him being so aware and yet lost in the moment, with his hands going all over the instrument-that really impressed me. I was probably around 6. That was a big, big moment for me. From then on I just listened to a lot of music, started getting into records. Floyd, Zeppelin, and later into more guitar orientated music. Very often listening to music was just another way of schooling myself. I would learn how to play things by listening to those records. I took music theory lessons privately and then applied to a music college in the States and got a scholarship, but ended up in London studying music production while doing guitar sessions.
Obstacles & Restrictions
I was brought up in a small town. There was only one little music store that had two basic guitar models. It took me a while to get my first instrument, and even a longer while to get my first proper instrument. This wasn’t so much of an obstacle though-at that time it was good enough. Of course it’s nice to have nice toys, and you can call them tools when you are doing it properly. But I’ve always aimed to use music gear for a particular purpose. There is always better stuff coming out. Manufacturers improve and invent things constantly but the fancy stuff alone wont make you into an artist. Take Seasick Steve for example-he would churn out a song on a beat-up 3 string guitar. The song is not in the guitar itself, or the instrument, or the tool. The music itself is something flowing out. This “tap” as I sometimes call it needs to be found within and nurtured, because the more it’s used the better it flows. And only then the toys become tools.
I don’t know if its a conscious choice, but this is the main thing for me. There are so many professionals and artists creating similar things to what any of us might be doing. For me it boils down to this-my approach to music and the guitar does not start with the tones, sounds or techniques. Such elements might be just small parts of how you create the complete picture. And that picture is something that I always try to imagine and feel beforehand when I am writing music-whether it is a solo, a song or a new record. The music has to take you places-this is the ultimate goal. I will have a sketch in my head and I might not know how to properly go about reaching that goal until quite close to finishing the product. Sometimes this elusive special thing I’m searching for might present itself immediately and in such cases I know it there and then. What I always know though is what I don’t want things to sound like. I am always striving for something challenging, deep, emotional, and I will explore new approaches to get there. At the same time you have to conform-you have to have a structure. You have to make your ideas be understood-you can’t be too awkward or weird.
The benefits of collaboration lie in the strengths of the other participants. You have this multitude of ideas coming from different angles. This can be very healthy for anyone to try-adjusting your idea to the idea of the next person. When you have several individuals contributing to one particular goal and product, then the process becomes a super interesting experience as the permutations of the unexpected are multiplied and fresh ideas hit you on many more levels. Of course the individuals need to click together-if you can establish a way of working together, then this can indeed prove very fruitful. Have you heard of the Nashville style of song writing? You would choose several artists to go into a room with and within an hour you would write a song (or several) with all of you contributing. Since everyone has a different journey within life and within their professional field, the results can be beautiful-the final whole being bigger than its parts-and this is the ultimate benefit of any healthy collaboration.
One of my biggest moments was Steve Vai’s Passion & Warfare-the album he released in 1990. I was sixteen and when I heard it, it was as if I saw myself in the future. And once again it wasn’t the case of how accomplished he was as a guitar player that spoke to me. It was his whole vocal expression on the guitar and also his use of the studio as an instrument. All the sounds that he coaxed out of his guitars and any other gizmo he laid his hands on to create these vast landscapes-he was thinking and operating not just as a performer but as a producer! I later got into the Americana sounds of the Blues, Country and Soul music and of course Jazz. Some of my current favourite guitar players are perhaps people like Jimmy Herring and Scott Henderson. As a composer, producer and arranger I have had to soak in many more external influences encompassing artists’ works, genres and approaches to music, so there are many more names I could mention.
There is an element of structure and technicality from a producer’s or instrumentalist’s perspective, but that perhaps comes a tad later in the creative process. A big chunk of everything I come up with lies in the spontaneity. Looking for fresh ideas is what I call “fishing for lines”. That might start by preparing a sketchy canvas of chords or themes that I’ve already written and just explore over it and keep digging until something sticks-when there is something strong then I would keep it. Only after such stronger themes that are speaking to me are in place, I will start expanding on them, applying that informed process-whether it’s arrangement techniques, tone choices, or song structures in order to complete the piece. Maximize that musical and emotional impact of the initial seed, if you like and turn it into a blossom. A song called Black Feather (off my debut album) was like that-as if the main theme and chord sequence presented themselves out of the Ether. It felt a lot like a channeling experience-I was more a vessel than an initiator. Once I had the core idea in place I could then complete it into its final form. But the big process for me is writing spontaneously on the spot, and developing variations of an interesting idea.