Role Models: Nels Cline is Anthony Pirog’s Guitar Hero

The guitarist talks meeting — and now collaborating with — his idol.

I am a very lucky guitarist. Over the course of my 20-plus year career, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with many of the people who helped me understand the path that I’ve created in music. These are the people that I listened to on recordings and never considered them to be people that one could possibly meet in person. I remember moments while listening to music throughout my life where I had realizations about sound, phrasing, attitude, tone, etc. and those moments have been burned into my consciousness and have created a kind of curated approach to playing and composing that, after looking back, has served me quite well.

After graduating from music school I became aware of Nels Cline’s playing and music.  When I started digging into his vast catalog I was blown away by the range of sounds that he was capable of conjuring and became almost obsessed with hearing every recording he had ever been a part of. I was in awe of his ability to blend genres and bend the expectations that come with them. The combination of punk and jazz, acoustic guitar and free improvisation while having a complete command of pedals and the limitless potential of timbres available to the electric guitar was enough to get me excited for a lifetime of study.  He was also offering up so much energy in his soloing that I felt like I was sticking my finger in an electric socket while I was listening to him improvise.

In 2005, I met Nels. I was a regular at a northern Virginia guitar store called Action Music (it’s still my favorite DC area guitar shop) and was constantly going in to buy strings, pedals and just enjoyed hanging out playing guitars and amps or having conversations with the owner and employees. One day I walked down the stairway and opened the front door and was unexpectedly stopped in my tracks. Nels Cline was sitting there on a stool playing a Fender offset guitar and trying out a Prescription Electronics fuzz pedal called the “Experience.” He was playing a duo concert that night at the Black Cat with drummer Glenn Kotche and was looking for a replacement fuzz pedal for the remaining tour dates. The people who worked at the shop started explaining to him that I was their favorite local guitarist and he introduced himself and started talking to me. It was unbelievable to me that I was meeting my guitar hero and that he was taking an interest in what I was doing. I never thought anything like this would have ever been possible. From then on, Nels always took the time to be in touch with me. He responded to my emails and texts, he came to see me perform with my wife, Janel Leppin, in our duo (Janel and Anthony), he put me on the list for his shows when we were in the same cities and it seemed like he always took the time to be available for me with the utmost kindness whenever I needed something.     

In 2021, I decided to make an album of ambient guitar duos with people that I had met over the years while I was touring and releasing records. At that point, I decided I would ask Nels to take part in the project. It’s one thing to meet your hero and have them treat you like a peer, but It’s a whole other thing to ask them to work with you. I built up the courage to ask if he’d be interested and he agreed to do it. His wife, Yuka Honda, recorded him performing solo at their home in upstate New York and to me the results were simply astounding. I asked all of my collaborators to send me a four to five minute “ambient” improvisation that I would then record on top of and respond to. The email which had his track attached was titled “From The Ambient Realm,” and the piece that Nels created was, in my opinion, ambient perfection. It starts off with a drone hinting at a major tonality that quickly initiates some diatonic harmonic movement. He keeps pulling at major and minor chords tilting the emotional content in unexpected ways. And just when you feel an absolute sense of calm and rest he pulls the rug out from under you with an aggressive Messiaen type of harmonic assault that builds a tension that still feels warm and reassuring before ultimately resolving everything back to the original tonality. I was thrilled. I was the only person outside of his home that had heard this piece. It felt like such a gift to possess something so beautiful that nobody else knew existed. But then I remembered, I couldn’t just be a fan of the track, I needed to play on it too. I immediately experienced waves of self doubt and felt like I might damage something that I considered to be beautiful and perfect. I remembered that this music was created because I had asked for it to be created, and I needed to honor the music in the same way that my hero was honoring me. I sat down and recorded my contribution to the piece in one pass with no edits.  

I’ve met a lot of different and interesting people throughout my tenure as a musician. We all come from different backgrounds but all share the same love for and desire to do something very specific. Working with my heroes or longtime collaborators always feels like the same thing. We’ve all jumped into a river and are trying to be a part of and honor a tradition. It takes a certain amount of humility and self critique to pursue the music that we’ve chosen to make but no matter what attention we get for our work, playing the music as purely as possible outweighs all other things. Thank you for making some sound with me, Nels.

(Photo Credit: right, Nathan West)

Anthony Pirog is a guitarist and composer based in DC. He is a member of “jazz punk jam” band The Messthetics, along with ex-Fugazi members Joe Lally and Brendan Canty, and releases music under his own name. His latest record, Nepenthe Series Vol. 1, features a variety of special guests for collaborations including John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Andy Summers (The Police), Nels Cline (Wilco), composer Brandon Ross and more. Nepenthe Series Vol. 1 is out now on Otherly Love.