Fingerstyle guitarist Teja Gerken will be the first to tell you that there are no real stars in his kind of music.
Even the legends in the world of fingerstyle acoustic guitar — masters like Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, John Fahey and Michael Hedges — have never been household names among mainstream music fans.
“Most people have never heard of them,” Gerken says with a smile one early afternoon in the living room of his Fairfax home.
And yet small has been good for the 53-year-old musician, who has cobbled together a career in his chosen musical niche (he calls it a subgenre) as a performer, educator and journalist.
These days, he’s excited about releasing his first solo album in nearly two decades, “Test of Time,” an electric collection featuring original compositions, a John Coltrane jazz standard, some Celtic music and a classical piece by J.S. Bach over its 10 tracks.
“It’s like what my wife tells people when she tries to describe what I do,” he says. “It’s a little bit of classical, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of traditional folk. What comes out on guitar is a blend of these musical things that I’m drawn to, where I come from.”
Writing in Acoustic Guitar magazine, reviewer Blair Jackson praises the album as “a sonic marvel from top to bottom. Every detail and nuance in Gerken’s impeccable playing can be heard so clearly … a beautiful and deeply satisfying album that definitely lives up to its title.” High praise for an album Gerken recorded in his garage.
Although he’s performed all over the world, he may be as well known as a guitar journalist as he is a guitar player. For 17 years, he was an editor at the now bi-monthly Acoustic Guitar magazine, trying out and reviewing guitars, interviewing musicians, going to trade shows and making a name for himself as an authority on all things acoustic guitar.
“He’s just immersed in it all the time,” says friend and fellow fingerstyle guitarist Doug Young. “The journalist side of it and the educator side of it means that he’s met and worked with so many different players. I think that’s a big benefit, that he’s got exposure to all these different people, takes it in and absorbs it and then comes out with his own thing. I think he’s got a unique voice in this music. It’s definitely fingerstyle in the contemporary fingerstyle vein, but you can tell it’s him as soon as he plays. He’s got his own sound.”
In 2020, Gerken and Young teamed up to record an album, appropriately titled “Duets,” that came out just as the pandemic changed everyone’s plans.
“It was disappointing because we had a lot of gigs lined up to showcase the album,” Young recalls. “We were excited about being done and then suddenly there were bigger things to worry about.”
After his run at Acoustic Guitar came to an end, Gerken scrambled to write freelance articles for guitar magazines to sustain himself while he looked for a new way to make a living in the guitar world he knows so well. In 2014, he teamed up with two of his former colleagues at the magazine, Dan Gabel and Scott Nygaard, to launch Peghead Nation, an online instruction site focused on roots music, offering video lessons in guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, bass and ukulele.
They started out shooting videos in Gerken’s living room and garage. As they celebrate their 10th anniversary this year, subscription-based Peghead Nation now has a catalog of 70 courses and a roster of some 30 instructors. Gerken produces three-camera video shoots in a new studio in San Rafael. And, much as he did at Acoustic Guitar, he also does instrument demonstrations and guitar reviews.
In 2022, the company was honored with the International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award.
From Germany to California
Gerken speaks with a slight accent from his native Germany. Born in Essen, he picked up the guitar when he was 6, learning his first chords from his father. He took lessons at the Freies Musikzentrum München in Munich before his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1986, settling in Mendocino when he was a teenager.
“My dad was a psychotherapist with a New Age publishing company that was a trendsetter in Germany, so California was the promised land,” he says by way of explaining the move.
When it’s mentioned that Teja (pronounced TAY-ah) doesn’t sound like a German name, he says, “No, it’s Indian.” And then with a wink: “Hippie parents.”
After high school, he studied at World College West, the alternative Marin County liberal arts school that opened in 1972 and closed 20 years later.
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Unclear about a career, he wasn’t a music major, but as part of the school’s world study program he lived in the guitar-making town of Paracho, Mexico, building his own classical guitar as his project. Made of rich, dark Mexican hardwood, it hangs proudly on his living room wall.
After graduating, he worked for five years at Tall Toad Music, a Petaluma shop that specializes in new and used guitars, before taking the job at the magazine.
“They still give me my employee discount,” he says with a laugh.
These days, Gerken lives in a one-story, ranch-style home in the flats of Fairfax with his wife, Heather, who works in public health research for UCSF, and their 17-year-old daughter, Sabine, a student at Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo.
When I visited him for this interview, all the guitars he played on “Test of Time” were lined up on stands in the living room. He introduced them to me like they were old friends: a Lowden 010 made in Ireland, a Martin Orchestra Model, a Taylor 355 12-string and a shiny metal National resonator guitar. All of them are listed in the liner notes along with the alternate tunings he uses on each track.
For Gerken, what’s been so fulfilling about being in the small club of acoustic fingerstyle guitarists, a club that includes players like Alex de Grassi, Peppino D’Agostino and Tommy Emmanuel, is the accessibility of guitarists he’s admired and been influenced by in his career.
“Again, this is not the kind of music where there are big stars,” he says. “Some of my heroes have become friends, people I look up to. It’s not like some pop star kind of thing where they’re unapproachable. You can meet your heroes.”
• Details: Teja Gerken and Doug Young perform as a duo at 6 p.m. Feb. 8 at Eleven at 11 Wharf Road in Bolinas. Admission is free.
Also, Gerken will play in a “guitar pull” with fellow guitarists Mark Karan and Kyle Alden Thayer at 7 p.m. March 20 at Peri’s Tavern at 29 Broadway in Fairfax. Admission is $10. For more information, go to peristavern.com.