Matt Palmer has been called one of the world’s best classical guitarists, but he can also rock with the heavy metal electric guitar icons and shred with the neoclassicists.
The Fall Branch, Tenn., native’s early riffs were inspired by Ozzy Osborne, Slash and the thrashers of Slayer, as he learned his craft with heavy metal bands, competing with his guitar-playing brothers and friends to be “the best” and fastest.
“I wanted to be a rock star when I grew up,” says Palmer, who graduated from Sullivan South High School and played in a cover band called Psycho Boulevard. “At that time, MTV actually showed music videos and … had something called ‘Headbanger’s Ball.’ It was pure heavy metal and I was really taken by that scene and the looks of the guitarists and the way they played.”
The story goes that as a teen, Palmer’s mother gave him a Christopher Parkening CD, which he promptly tossed into the depths of his closet. A few years later, as the heady heavy metal ‘drug’ was wearing off, Palmer decided to give classical guitar a try at Middle Tennessee State, becoming a student of Bill Yelverton.
Once again, he says, the technical challenge was the initial attraction. “But it wasn’t very long before I saw the more artistic side,” Palmer says, “and really fell in love with that.”
Now known for his speed and technique, Palmer returns to the Tri-Cities to perform – with “stunning precision and unwavering accuracy,” says Classical Voice of North Carolina – on Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m., at First Presbyterian Church, 105 S. Boone St., Johnson City.
Palmer’s debut CD, Un tiempo fue Itálica famosa, was applauded as “an album of the highest quality” by Guitar International Magazine and prompted Classical Voice to suggest that “Palmer was simply beamed fully formed to Earth on a blue shaft of light and started playing a guitar this way.”
But he didn’t. As with his heavy metal guitar, he worked at it. In his quest to play with extraordinary speed and dexterity, Palmer has developed his own technique called The Virtuoso Guitarist, an approach to playing scales with speed and efficiency.
Yet Palmer’s repertoire is by no means exclusively classical. He commissions, performs and records music by contemporary musicians, such as Dominican composer Rafael Scarfullery and Olga Amelkina of Belarus. On his second CD, Appassionata (2014), Palmer premieres Amelkina’s “The Heaven’s Hundred,” which she “dedicated to Matt Palmer, whose artistry was one of my main inspirations for this work,” the composer says. Palmer’s 2016 CD is titled after and contains a world premiere recording of Scarfullery’s “Sonata Sentimental.”
Both of those pieces will join a Bach Chaconne, a fantasy by Sergei Rudnev and sonata by Stepan Rak on the Johnson City program March 23. The Rak is a “fireworks type piece,” Palmer says, with an array of advanced techniques and unexpected textures for guitar.
“Right now, about half of my program is music I have commissioned, music that I have had written specifically for me,” Palmer says. “This is a new road I am taking, trying to do my part to expand the guitar repertoire by having composers write music. I think, although not entirely by design, I cover a wide spectrum of emotions and textures in my programs.”
“Overall it will be a program everyone will enjoy and understand and, as always, I will put everything I have into it to make it fun and exciting.”
Tickets are $5 for students of all ages with ID, $15 for seniors 60-plus, and $20 for general admission. Group rates are available.
For more information on Palmer, go to www.mattpalmerguitar.com.
To purchase tickets online or for information about ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587).