Legendary guitarist Phil Keaggy remains a humble man despite his lengthy career acclaim.
"I'm just the little guy, nine fingers, predisposed to baldness, not too entirely original," he said during a recent telephone interview from his Nashville home.
No, Jimi Hendrix did not call Keaggy the best guitarist in the world. Eric Clapton did not say it either, even if Keaggy's prodigious talent makes the mythology plausible. What is true is that Guitar Player magazine rated Keaggy as one of the world's top three finger-style guitarists.
Keaggy, 60, lost a finger as a small boy after a mishap with a water pump handle. The tragedy failed to discourage him from mastering the guitar, becoming a founding member of the renowned rock trio Glass Harp or from recording more than 50 diverse albums, the latest for Strobie, his own indie label.
"Strobie is a term my dad used to use… when I was a little kid. 'Hey Petey, play me some of that strobiethat's what he called my fancy guitar playing, so to me it's a term of endearment."
Keaggy, Glass Harp bandmate John Sferra, and mutual friend Jack Giering released Interdimensional Traveler, a jazz/funk album, last fall. He just finished recording another album, Cosmic Rumpus, and a vocal album is in the works.
The globally in-demand studio musician insists he would never call himself a jazz guitarist.
"Real jazz guitar players play circles around me," he said.
His Christian identity is almost a pejorative label in industry circles.
"I've always noticed that in guitar magazines over the years, it never just said, 'guitarist Phil Keaggy.' It always said, 'Christian guitarist Phil Keaggy.' They had to put me there to actually set me apart from, I don't know, maybe the real guitar players…? What am I going to do? Be ashamed of that title?"
Keaggy has been an indie artist since 2002, although he has recorded albums in the past for Sparrow and Word Records, two Christian music labels. While his indie decision has given him greater artistic freedom, it does mean that tour support is a challenge. He last rode a tour bus with seven band members during "The Master and the Musician Tour" in 2008; a 17-city tour.
More often, Keaggy tours with just a road manager for solo acoustic performances. He likes the creative flexibility.
"…I can pull any tool out of the hat. If someone sends a request for a tune I haven't done in, like, 15-20 years, I'll take a chance on it and see how much of it I know, just for fun. I think just showing the effort makes the audience, like, rally with you. Plus there's some things I know quite well and some things that I'm kind of on the edge withand I like being on the edge that way."
Keaggy's wife of 38 years joins him on long trips. Bernadette Keaggy authored "Deeper Shade of Grace" and its update, "Losing You Too Soon: Finding Hope After Miscarriage or the Loss of a Baby."
"It was basically our story, how we met and how we lost babies in our early years of marriage through premature births and miscarriages. She did that as a 'help' to couples who have lost children at birth and the heartache that goes with that; the disappointment and the grieving…"
The couple now has three adult children.
"We did get our kids through an amazing effort of a good doctor who really knew what he was doing and God's grace… And yet, we know that everyone goes through something at one point in their life that is pretty traumatic and that was one of the things we experienced."
Phil Keaggy will appear Aug. 6 as part of a "Jesus Music Reunion" at Spirit West Coast in Monterey.