There are two types of people in the world: those that like to listen to music, and those that feel music. There is a distinct difference between the two, and only the latter will truly understand what that is. Kurt Szul is one of those people.
Originally from Calgary, Canada, Szul has become an international musical sensation in more ways than one. He has performed alongside some of the world’s most talented musicians, led bands, recorded on tracks that make their way to the top of the iTunes charts, taught students, composed music, scored films, and travelled the world sharing his talent. He is an iconic guitarist, with a passion for both music and his instrument that transcends into every note he plays.
“I appreciate that I am doing something that makes me happy daily. I love the freedom as I can create my own hours and do other things in life to create a good balance. I have also had the honor of playing with incredible, world-class musicians constantly. I play music on a high level which is fulfilling and I think touches the listener on a greater scale,” said Szul.
What is perhaps the most outstanding achievement of his extensive and esteemed career, however, does not come from actually playing the guitar, but rather, building one. Szul invented the 9-string-guitar, which later led to the creation of both the 7-string and 8-string guitars. All three are used around the world on a daily basis. He was 18-years-old at the time.
“Kurt’s skill on the 9-string-guitar has garnered interest at every show he performs with me. Great musicians have quizzed him on his style and the instrument, wondering how he plays with such ease and deftness. It’s always a treat to watch Kurt,” said Jay Jackson, the celebrated jazz vocalist and pianist.
Szul, recognized for his musicianship and contributions to the industry, was added as an artist to EMG’s huge list of product endorsers. He was given custom 9-string pickups and electronics, which were installed in his 9-string guitars, and giving an unbelievably amazing change in his tone and volume. Other artists include James Hetfield of Metallica, Steve Winwood, Lou Reed and Mike Inez of Alice in Chains.
At only 17, Szul began to become curious about different tunings that are possible on the guitar, which led to him becoming fascinated with symmetrical tunings, meaning that each string to string interval is the same going up. Such a fascination is not the norm for guitar players, and growing up in a small Canadian city, Szul had no knowledge of anyone ever experimenting in such a way.
“I just trusted myself and ran with it. The tuning I chose though had a limited range on a regular 6-string-guitar, so I went on a quest to see if building an extended range guitar was possible. I was met with a lot of resistance with purists along the way. I took the hard road and stuck to my guns. I ended up designing the prototype 9-string-guitar and built it,” said Szul.
Szul says took a leap of faith when he first started on this journey. Not many teenagers have the ambition or drive to create and develop a new instrument. He was aware that early guitars had a few variations. His invention was seen by other guitarists and musicians as an oddity, a revolutionary idea and a curiosity. He is consistently approached by others, wanting to understand his thought process and what he is doing. Originally, he was met with resistance, but now the musician community has accepted Szul’s unique design because of the high level that he brought it to. It is now a valid idea, and EMG recognized his hard work and dedication.
“Anything that is new and bold will encounter resistance at first. But times are definitely changing. I feel that over the years, my 9-strings and playing have received so much exposure that some of the big companies such as Ibanez and Schecter have started producing extended range guitars. These are mostly genre specific though and still use the standard tuning. Information, trading ideas and creation has never been so easy as it is now. People seem to be very open minded now to innovations. I feel that my invention helped pave the way to making the guitar world open up to new possibilities. I have only noticed this ripple effect taking place in the past five to ten years, from my idea decades ago,” he described.
While creating his instrument, the prototype needed constant modifications, ultimately getting rid of the kinks. Even now, years after he first created the 9-string, Szul is constantly tinkering with them to make them sound and play better. While doing this, he became an expert in string types and gauges, experimenting over the years with string gauge versus pitch, finding the optimal tension for each string based on his unique tuning.
“I have always felt that the standard tuning was great at some things but not at others. Experimenting on different tunings when I was a teenager gave me a glimpse of different possibilities. At the time, I wasn’t always sure where I was going with this but now that I have a long career between then and now, my risk paid off. The tuning makes perfect sense to me and has allowed me to play many things that are not possible with the conventional tuning.
Szul has also received an artist deal with Arturia, a major synthesizer and software company. Initially, he thought about patenting the 9-string, and was encouraged to do so throughout the years, but he wanted to share my experience and invention openly. He would encourage people to dream, plan, work and achieve like he did.
“I think that if we listened to the naysayers and our own inner voice (when it’s skeptical), we wouldn’t get what we all need to do to achieve happiness done,” he concluded.
The 9-string guitar far surpassed his expectations. Years ago, Szul read a statistic in Guitar Player Magazine that said only six per cent of musicians that start off in the field make a great career out of it. Now, he is in that top percentile, paving the way for new musicians to make it there as well.