When Maxwell Hughes was 16, he saw a video of Australian fingerstyle acoustic virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel, and decided to pick up the guitar himself.
Fast forward through 10 years and a lot of practice time, and Hughes was on stage at the 2012 International Fingerstyle Competition, a contest held at the roots music-centric Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan.
After five finalists were culled from the original 40 competitors, his nerves were a shot.
“I also slammed a lot of coffee, which is a terrible idea, so that didn’t help at all,” he said earlier this week.
Nerves aside, he took third place. He guesses it might be because he wasn’t playing ragtime, the dominant form among finalists.
“I feel like I kind of stuck out just with my style of playing, versus the kind of traditional stuff they were looking for,” he said.
Hughes openly credits his unusual guitar style to Emmanuel, who could play in sheets of harmonics that sound like a choir of bells, and Kaki King, who developed a heavily percussive variation on two-handed tapping.
The technique, invented by Eddie Van Halen, requires guitarists to sound notes with both hands by tapping their fingertips directly onto the fretboard, creating a more piano-like accompaniment.
In King’s variation, she’ll often reach her hand over the top of the fretboard and sound notes or slap the guitar strings.
“I heard her for the first time around 2006. ... It took me in a whole different direction for the guitar,” Hughes said.
It took about a year of practice for him to realize the method to the madness, but he feels he has work to do six years later.
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“I still feel like I’m not fully, 100 percent there,” he said.
While Hughes is touring behind “Only in Dreams,” his third solo album, it’s a short-lived association with another group that’s brought him more widespread notice.
Shortly after relocating from Fort Collins, Colo., he met the members of the Lumineers, an acoustric roots trio, at a Denver open mic. He suggested joining as a mandolin accompaniment.
He played and toured with the group as an unofficial fourth member, eventually contributing to some songs on their Grammy-nominated debut album.
After parting ways – he says the Lumineers never were looking for a permanent fourth member and he described the tour as “a blur” – he’s been busy with his own projects.
“Only in Dreams,” self-released in September, is a collection of 12 unaccompanied songs, though it may sound like there’s overdubbing.
The varied collection has its moments of flurried playing, but overall it has a measured feel, focused on creating atmosphere rather than pure technique.
In live performance, those fingerpicking techinques start to wear after a certain amount of time.
“My preferred time is 45 minutes. That allows me to show off for 45 minutes,” he said.
Helping round out the evening on Thursday will be a fellow acoustic devotee, Dan Dubuque, a fixture around Missoula who’s also developed a unique style of his own.