Blazing Fingers

Shaun Hopper’s ascent to becoming one of America’s most celebrated acoustic fingerstyle guitarists didn’t come easy. Hopper, born in tiny Adele, Ga., originally learned how to play bass, drifting in and out of various pop-rock and country bands. But a chance meeting in 2003 with St. Augustine native and fellow fingerstyle genius Sam Pacetti permanently altered Hopper’s path, forcing him to hone his lightning-speed six-string technique while also focusing on building success as a solo artist.

A decade on, the unlikely evolution has gone unusually well. Hopper’s latest full-length of intricate, mostly instrumental compositions, “Lower Case Letters,” was released on electric guitar god Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations, and the iconic Martin Guitar Company recently named Hopper as one of its ambassadors.

Folio Weekly: You credit St. Augustine native Sam Pacetti as a major influence, Shaun. How did you meet him?

Shaun Hopper: He’s the guy that changed my life far as guitar playing goes. I thought I could hold my own on guitar until I walked into a place in Valdosta, Ga., one night and heard Sam Pacetti playing. That’s when I said, “I don’t know shit about the guitar.” I was so humbled and amazed — and very fortunate, because he was nice enough to offer me free guitar lessons if I drove down to St. Augustine from my hometown of Adele, Ga. He paved the way for what I’m doing now.

F.W.: You played bass in various pop-rock and country bands before embracing your role as a master of acoustic fingerstyle guitar. Describe that unlikely evolution for us.

S.H.: Since 1998, plucking string instruments with my fingers has just come natural. So, while I was playing bass, I also played guitar on the side. I took a few lessons in 2000-’01, met Sam around 2003, and then joined that pop-rock band in 2004. But all the while, I was still playing my guitar. We’d get done with a gig, go back to the hotel, and while the band would party, I’d lock myself in the bathroom and practice. I just had an undying love for that instrument and got addicted. It got to the point where I would open for my own band, and they would get upset because, as a solo artist, I’d get a good response from the audience before we went out. So finally, I just went solo and figured out how to be a showman — and entertainer. I get to play the music that inspires me, and it makes people feel good. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are; if you’re making people smile and have a blast, you’re doing your job.

F.W.: Beyond live performances, what 
other accomplishments do you have under your belt?

S.H.: In 2007, I got second-place in a prestigious songwriting competition in Atlanta called Eddie’s Attic. From that, I won studio time and recorded a five-song demo that I sent to [guitar legend] Steve Vai. About a year later, he e-mailed me and said, “I gotta tell you — I’m impressed.” So I recorded another album, “Lower Case Letters,” and released it on his label. I released a DVD about a year ago, too; I’ve appeared on “The Man Show”; I’ve met Stevie Wonder; I’ve played with Tim Reynolds from Dave Matthews Band, G. Love and BB King; and now I’m sponsored by Martin Guitar Company. I’ve also been making YouTube videos of me venturing off into crazy 
new techniques that make people say, 
”Holy crap — how the hell did he achieve that sound with just a guitar?” And I’m working on another album right now with another producer.

F.W.: Does your reputation as an acoustic guitar wizard limit the reach of the music that you make?

S.H.: Well, my next album will be pretty eclectic: everything from world music to percussive stuff, tribal-sounding rhythms, Japanese melodies, flat-picking bluegrass … I mix it up a lot because I like to keep the listener engaged. Playing guitar in this manner, you have to focus on tempos, grooves, bass lines, melodies and the separation of all those things, which makes everything sound seamlessly woven together. I guess I’m just always looking for evolution in my music — you have to push boundaries and break rules to get anything done.

F.W.: Do you have much experience performing in Jacksonville?

S.H.: My old band opened for Red Jumpsuit Apparatus in 2005 at Jack Rabbits. And I recently opened for BB King at Florida Theatre, which was the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Hopefully, anybody that saw me there will come out to Underbelly as well.