One of today's true innovators of guitar composition and technique, Don Ross has emerged as one of the most respected musicians in Canada and one of the top guitarists in the world. In September 1996, he managed to do what no other player has done: win the prestigious U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship for the second time (he first won in 1988). The competition, held yearly in Winfield, Kansas, cannot be won only with immaculate technique, but the player's music must also display a high degree of emotion and intensity — hallmarks of Don's style.
The son of a Scottish immigrant father and a Mi'kmaq aboriginal mother, Don was born in Montreal in 1960 into a musical family. He first started experimenting with the solo possibilities of the acoustic guitar at the age of eight. By age ten he was playing in alternate tunings and exploring "fingerstyle" technique, a right hand discipline similar to classical guitar playing. Preferring to write original music and develop a personal style, Don's self-taught journey on the instrument has encouraged him to follow his musical intuition. The result is an unclassifiable musical style that borrows from jazz, folk, rock and classical music. When asked, Don usually pigeonholes his music as "Heavy Wood"!
Don graduated from the Music Department of Toronto's York University in 1983, but waited until 1986 to start pursuing a career as a performer. After his first win at Winfield, Don was asked to sign with Duke Street Records. He recorded three CDs for Duke Street over the course of the next four years: Bearing Straight, Don Ross and Three Hands. The CDs met with unanimous critical acclaim and numerous tours across Canada and the U.S. Don even played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
Don signed a new recording deal with Columbia/Sony Music in 1994, releasing his first album for the label, This Dragon Won't Sleep, in 1995. In the fall of 1996 Don released Wintertide, an instrumental album of traditional Christmas tunes played in his trademark style. Lynn Saxberg of the Ottawa Citizen called the CD a "masterpiece," and the public response was no less enthusiastic.
Don's next record, Loaded. Leather. Moonroof. was released in November, 1997. The album "...is a further exploration for a rich sense of harmony and groove," according to Don. The CD treats Don's listeners to a compilation of diverse sounds that reflects his influence by all types of music. On this album, Don passionately plays the six-string and seven-string guitars as well as the dobro. He is often accompanied by several other musicians whom all add their specialty. Don considers the first track, "Loaded. Leather. Moonroof." one of the most powerful tunes he has recorded to date, due partly to a great solo by bassist Mark Egan, who asked to play with Don that year. Mark's previous work includes collaborations with guitar great Pat Metheny, singer Joan Osbourne and countless others. The collection of tunes on Loaded. Leather. Moonroof. carries Don further past the usual style boundaries associated with acoustic music.
Don's Passion Session CD, recorded in Berlin's Passionskirche, was released in March 1999 on Narada/Virgin Records. The recording brings Don back to his roots as a solo fingerstyle guitarist, as he produces his first totally solo album ever for Narada's Masters of Acoustic Guitar series. Don got the news of the offer of a new contract with Narada while on tour in Germany in November 1998. The planned release date for his first CD for the company was so soon that he decided to team up with his recording engineer friend Knut Becker right away and record the album straight to two-track digital through a Schoeps stereo microphone in the acoustically perfect confines of the Passionskirche (The Church of the Passion) in Berlin's funky Kreuzberg neighbourhood. The Passionskirche is of course used for sacred services but also serves many evenings a week as a live music venue, hosting jazz acts and chamber ensembles from around the world. Berliners consider it one of their best venues both in terms of atmosphere and acoustics. The eleven tracks on Passion Session comprise some of the best pieces for solo guitar that Don has composed. Nine brand new titles (written mostly while touring in Europe) are complemented by Don's own "First Ride" (a perennial favourite with his fans and now brought to a wider audience), and David Essig's classic "Berkley Springs."
Don's next recording, Huron Street (released in 2001), is comprised of 12 new performances of pieces already familiar to his fans in Canada.
Since the tunes originally appeared on CDs that were only ever released in Canada, Don decided to make some of his favourite earlier pieces available to the wider audience he reaches through his association with Narada Records. All 12 performances are new, each taking a unique twist on the tunes: some of these have appeared before as ensemble pieces and are now captured solo. Two pieces that were originally recorded solo are now presented as duets with amazing upright bassist Jordan O'Connor. Certain compositions originally recorded on the standard guitar are now played on the baritone. The reaction has been very positive, with Huron Street reaching the Top Ten on Billboard's New Age chart in the summer of 2001.
The years that passed after the release of Huron Street were life-changing ones for Don. In the spring of 2001, his young wife Kelly McGowan lost a two-and-a-half year battle with breast cancer. Faced with the reality of now being a single father as well as being a touring musician, Don and his two younger children embarked on a year of travel together that served as vital therapy for all of them. Don's two daughters, then aged seven and nine, visited a dozen countries together in the course of Don's touring schedule, as well as some travel simply for pleasure. They all managed to emerge from their year on the road together with renewed hope for the future.
In time, as Don says, "I got my compositional mojo back." Don's new life experience resulted in his next recording for Narada — a high-energy, very funky guitar record with the unlikely title Robot Monster.
On Robot Monster, Don includes some of his trademark urban-music inspired tuned for solo acoustic guitar, as well as several collaborative efforts. Three of the tunes on the new CD were co-composed with Berlin-based composer Christoph Bendel. The two started to collaborate after Christoph sent an example of a remix that he had made of Don's tune "So Little Time" from his Passion Session CD of 1999. Christoph's father Knut Becker was the recording engineer for Passion Session, and Christoph had brilliantly taken snippets of the recording and remixed them into a very funky groove. For Don, it was love at first listen. Despite being based 7,000 miles apart, the two musicians collaborated on a total of three tunes for the new CD: "So Much Time", "I Think of You", and "Oh Baby".
The result is one of Don's funkiest CDs to date, and certainly one to appeal to a whole new group of listeners. "Being able to record this album in my home studio and really take my time with things made the creative process on this album quite possibly the most interesting yet for me personally," says Don. "If I felt inspired at two in the morning, I could simply roll out of bed, grab my guitar, and start creating. It's liberating not to have the meter running, or to feel like you're eating up somebody else's time. Thank goodness for all the advances in computer recording technology in the last few years. It has helped make an album like Robot Monster possible."
The title of the CD was inspired by Don's favourite bad B-movie from the 1950s. Don had already composed the recording's title track and given it the name "Robot Monster" before he had decided on an album title. Coincidentally, Don found out that 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of his beloved cinematic disaster. So it seemed only poetic justice to give the CD its ridiculous name.
Don has recently signed a new recording deal with new US-based independent label Candyrat Records. His new recording, Music for Vacuuming shows a renewed optimism in Don's creativity thanks to the wonderful changes in his life. Don recently married profoundly talented Prince Edward Island singer and guitarist Brooke Miller. Don has co-produced (with Peter Lubin) Brooke's second CD, tentatively titled All of the Lighting. Look for that project to be released in early 2007.
Music for Vacuuming is, with the exception of one track, a completely solo affair. Don plays several solo guitar tunes, including the acoustic rocker "How to Eat and Avalanche," the Brazilian-influenced "Never Got to Pernambuco," and even a tune ("Fleetstep Choreography") that he learned at the age of 14 from the guitar teacher he had back then, jazzer Steven Cole. But the album also features some ensemble playing, with Don playing all the instruments thanks to the wonder of multitrack recording! Don plays drum kit, percussion, slide dobro guitar, piano, and electric bass in addition to regular-pitched and baritone guitars on some tracks. The album also features a beautiful remix collaboration with Hamburg-based musician Silas Olischlaeger ("Dracula II Mikrokosmos").
Don’s new release, Live in Your Head, is a collection of some of the best live recordings that he has put together and mixed in the years spanning 2001-2006. Some of the performances are solo and some are with such terrific Toronto-area guest musicians as Jordan O’Connor, Andrew Craig, Colleen Allen, Craig Harley, Nick Fraser and Matthew Shawn Fleming. Taking such a long time to assemble a record affords the listener a great retrospective of older and newer tunes, all performed in Don’s slightly dangerous live style where almost anything can and does happen. Often the collaborative tunes turn into lusciously long jams, and the solo tunes are played with the electric immediacy Don’s live performances are known for.
Don continues to do extensive touring in Europe, Canada, the United States and Asia's Pacific Rim. When he's not on the road, he lives a quiet life with his family in a small village in southern Ontario, Canada.