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Stephen Bennett brings three guitars and a widely varied repertoire to Richmond. 

String Master

Stephen Bennett had no clue about how he was going to build his fledgling guitar career when he first landed on Chesapeake Bay shores. It was in the late '70s when he moved there from New York with his future wife. Gloucester Point has never been known as a musical mecca, and Bennett floundered as he tried to find a niche. "I was never exactly sure how I was going to turn (music) into something resembling a career," the 44-year-old guitarist recalls. Regardless of his early uncertainty, Bennett made the necessary turns and now finds himself in a year of "new critical mass" with his job. Performing on harp guitar, National steel and standard six-string, Bennett has hit a level that's brought him a comfortable schedule of solo concert and festival appearances throughout the country and in Europe. He brings his mix of instrumental boogies, waltzes, blues and original melodies to town Friday. Throughout his musical pursuits, the self-taught guitarist steadily kept his eye on better days. His career got its first big boost in 1983 when he took second place in flatpicking at his first national competition at the Walnut Valley Festival in Kansas. Two years later he returned and took third in the fingerstyle contest. In 1987, he won top flatpicking honors, and Bennett remains the only guitarist to capture honors in both styles at Walnut Valley. As a result of this exposure, bookings increased. "That … threw everything in a new perspective. From that … other things happen. It all just grows." He also got a boost when he resurrected a rare 1909 harp guitar from an uncle's basement in 1989. The 12-string instrument with its sympathetic strings and extra bass is not only eye-catching, the richness of the sound gives Bennett an aural slant that very few guitarists have today. While he does not rely solely on the instrument in concert, he does admit it greatly enhances his show. "It's a magnificent-sounding instrument. When they (audience) hear it, they're completely sucked in." Bennett says he had "zero guidelines" for playing the harp guitar when he first took it on, and he simply decided to use the extra strings in whatever manner seemed natural. "I just thought, 'What would I like to do with them?' " he explains. What he's done with the instrument and its extra strings is adopt it to his wide-ranging repertoire. The extra strings create a sustain that gives the tone life and breath, and lends variety to his program that includes the National steel's resonance and the woody six-string's ring. The varying instrumental attacks allow Bennett to create music his way, music he refuses to classify, music that allows him to create with joy. "I just kind of think of it as chamber music in a way. It's just not classical chamber. … It's part entertaining, part reflective." Call the music what you will, Bennett is riding high these days, satisfied with good gigs and critical acclaim. "If I'm not doing anything beyond what I'm doing now (in 10 years), I'd be a really happy
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