Biography

written by Jake White, biographer

Michael Hedges (1953–1997) was an American composer, guitarist, singer-songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He is best-known for his innovative acoustic guitar/harp guitar compositions and high-energy live performances.

From 1973–1997 Hedges developed revolutionary techniques on the acoustic steel-string guitar that are widely used by guitarists today. Although he was a recording artist on the new age label Windham Hill, his music defies categorization.

Photo Credit: Cathye English

1953 —

Born in Sacramento on New Year’s Eve in 1953, Hedges soon moved with his family to Enid, Oklahoma where he grew up. He came to love music at an early age and took lessons in cello, clarinet, and piano. In sixth grade, Elvis and the Beatles inspired him to picked up the guitar. He played in rock bands throughout his adolescence, sometimes while wearing a white Pete Townshend-style jumpsuit. The guitar became his primary focus, but his interests expanded to other instruments along the way.

1971 —

Michael as a young person

Michael learned to play the flute, inspired by the flute work of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, which he played in the high school marching band. During his junior year of high school, his family moved to Northern California for one year when his father took a teaching sabbatical at Humboldt State College. Michael fell in love with California and its folk rock music scene of the time, especially the music of Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Neil Young—who all used alternate guitar tunings. Before long Michael was experimenting with his own unusual tunings on his 1971 Martin D-28 guitar (later named “Barbara”).

As Hedges experimented with altered tunings, he started exploring unconventional guitar techniques.

Young Michael Playing guitar

1972 —

Michael and his family returned to Oklahoma for his senior year, and he graduated from Enid High School in 1972. After high school he enrolled at Phillips University in Enid, studied composition with his mentor, Dr. Eugene J. Ulrich, played local gigs with his friend Don Record, and taught guitar lessons. As Hedges experimented with altered tunings, he started exploring unconventional guitar techniques. He discovered the solo guitar work of Leo Kottke and this sparked his technical creativity.

In 1973 he wrote “Silent Anticipations,” one of his seminal guitar solos. This piece included innovative techniques such as left-hand tapping on multiple strings over the top of the guitar neck, extensive use of percussion on the body of the guitar, and unique rhythms and harmonic voicings. He remained focused on the guitar as his instrument of choice, but he studied flute and composition at Phillips University for three years, from 1972–1975. He went on to study classical guitar, composition, and electronic music for five more years at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. He wrote most of the pieces from his first album, Breakfast in the Field (1981) during his college years (1973–1980).

1980 —

courtyard at New Varsity Theater

After graduating from Peabody Conservatory in May 1980, Michael moved to Palo Alto, California for the summer to attend a four-week seminar in computer-generated music at Stanford University.

While attending Stanford, Hedges started performing regularly at the New Varsity Theater, a popular restaurant, theater, and bar near the university.

Hedges returned to Baltimore in the fall of 1980 to attend a post-graduate electronic music seminar at Peabody, but would soon return to Palo Alto.

 

1981 —

In early 1981, Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, came to watch a film at the New Varsity Theater. He was urged (even bribed with movie tickets) by the theater’s general manager, Randy Lutge, to listen to the guitarist performing upstairs.

Not easily impressed, Ackerman was reluctant, but he went upstairs, sat down and watched Michael perform. Ackerman later reflected on that night, “[Michael] tore my head off, watching the guitar be reinvented.” Hedges and Ackerman signed a makeshift record contract on a napkin that night.

“[Michael] tore my head off, watching the guitar be reinvented.” Hedges and Ackerman signed a makeshift record contract on a napkin that night.

— Will Ackerman

Polaroid of Michael singing and playing guitar
Michael Hedges, his father Thayne, and "Big Jim"
In April 1981, Michael loaded up his his orange Volkswagen Bus (“Big Jim”),and drove across the country from Baltimore—making California his permanent home. He married his college sweetheart, Mindy Rosenfeld in August of that year.

In October he released his first album, Breakfast in the Field. This album established Hedges as a dynamic and skilled composer-guitarist. He started touring with other Windham Hill artists, including bass guitarist, Michael Manring, who joined Hedges in both the studio and on tour throughout his career.

1984 —

In 1984, Hedges released his Grammy®-nominated magnum opus, Aerial Boundaries. This album remains one of the most important instrumental guitar recordings in history. The album illustrated Hedges’ compositional depth and expanded on the innovative guitar techniques of his first album.

But Hedges wasn’t content with reinventing the acoustic guitar.

Never one to sit still, he was soon pursuing other musical paths.

In 1985, Hedges worked with famed producer Elliott Mazer (producer of Neil Young’s Harvest) to produce an impressive vocal album that showcased his singer-songwriter skills (Watching My Life Go By). Around the same time, Hedges discovered a vintage harp guitar from the 1920s—with its six guitar strings and five open sub-bass strings—and he started composing innovative new music on this bygone instrument.

Michael Hedges playing the harp guitar in concert

1987 —

Over time, his unique harp guitar performances inspired guitarists and instrument builders around the world and helped give birth to today’s harp guitar movement.

Hedges continued to release a handful of critically acclaimed solo albums: a live album in 1987 (Live on the Double Planet) which features his dynamic stage performances; a Grammy®-nominated album of both ensemble and solo guitar pieces in 1990 (Taproot); a multi-instrumental vocal album that contained songs he wrote, engineered, produced and performed (The Road to Return [1994]); and in 1996 he released the Grammy® Award-winning instrumental album Oracle.

Along the way, Hedges also contributed music to several film soundtracks, and collaborated with early idols Crosby, Stills & Nash and Pat Martino; labelmates and musical comrades Will Ackerman and Michael Manring; and many others. Although he considered himself a composer first and foremost, Hedges became widely known as an innovator on the acoustic steel-string guitar. After winning the annual Readers Poll award as Best Acoustic Guitarist in various categories from 1988–1993, Hedges was inducted into the Guitar Player “Hall of Fame.”

Michael toured extensively throughout the United States, Japan, and Europe. His live performances were more like a rock concert than a show from a solo instrumentalist. Always performing on his (usually bare) feet, Hedges would dance across the stage, and fling his long hair around. In addition to his original work, he performed uniquely-arranged cover songs written by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Prince, AC/DC, Madonna, and many others.

His live guitar sound was enormous, with a booming low-end and crystal-clear high frequencies, his audience could literally feel his music.

Karen Haskell

1997 —

And he always brought a high level of humor and entertainment to his shows. In some years, he played over a hundred shows; and, occasionally, he toured with national acts such as Crosby, Still & Nash, Leo Kottke, and Suzanne Vega.

In December 1997, Hedges was tragically killed in an automobile accident on his way home from the San Francisco airport after an East Coast tour. He was survived by his ex-wife Mindy Rosenfeld, his two children, his mother and three siblings. But his music lives on. His manager Hilleary Burgess worked tirelessly with collaborators to release Hedges’ final studio album, Torched, in 1999. And, in the years that followed, his music has been broadcasted extensively on radio shows, in various films, such as the 2007 Hollywood hit August Rush, and on television shows, such as Westwing.

2001 —

Michael with Fans

Hedges remains highly respected among the great musicians and performing artists of our time. One example: Hedges’ recorded guitar accompaniment was included on Late Night with Jay Leno when Crosby, Stills & Nash sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” just after September 11, 2001. Twenty years later, Hedges’ music continues to inspire musicians, guitar builders, and songwriters throughout the world.

More stories about Michael’s Life & Music Career

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