Mark Sganga weaves an intricate tapestry of music with his fingers. As a musician whose imagination transcends typical musical genres and classification, the international fingerstyle guitar champion's performances consist of smooth, rhythmic guitar played using only the fingers (not picks) and without additional accompaniment, as played in classical or Spanish arrangements. "The technique uses one guitar to create a complete and beautiful musical idea. It’s like you are your own accompanist," laughs Mark.
"I’m a musician who improvises. By definition, that would make me a jazz musician, but I don’t feel that way. I don't like categories, I like blending all of the influences together.” Mark notes that there is a lot of cross-over between fingerstyle and classical guitar, and he encourages his guitar students to find current songs and interpret them in their own way with the fingerstyle technique.
Originally born in Brooklyn, Mark's family moved to Waldwick when he was ten and then moved to Ramsey when he started high school. He now lives in a home on Crystal Lake in Oakland. "I moved here when I was working on my first album, and this area has become part of my roots," he says. "I'm thrilled to have Ramapo Reservation on both sides of me, and Crystal Lake is a special place." During the quarantine, Mark took to his dock to play for his lakeside neighbors. "People would pull up in their boats to listen, enjoy the outdoors, and make the best of the situation," says Mark.
Watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan inspired Mark to want to become a musician. "I started guitar lessons at 8," he says. Mark and his mom have a running disagreement over whether she initially insisted on music lessons or he did. Nonetheless, the guitar was the instrument of choice.
The Beatles' music made a significant impact on Mark. "They still loom large for me," he says. James Taylor and Andrés Segovia have also inspired him. "When I was a boy, Segovia had a Master guitar teaching program on Channel 13. He was amazing. I saw him at Lincoln Center when I was in high school, and I was quite a rock-and-roller at that point. But, when I heard him live at an age when I had an appreciation for what he did, it made me seek out the classical guitar."
Mark studied jazz and classical guitar at William Paterson College and broke his way into several jazz ensembles while a student there. Popular jazz bands only need one guitarist, so the competition was tough. "Vying for positions in bands at school was a great experience; the level of musicianship was tremendous there. I met Bucky Pizzarelli and studied with Harry Leahey, a brilliant jazz guitarist. I had classmates who played with Spyro Gyra, Miles Davis, and renowned orchestras and Broadway shows.
Having been featured on tours and recordings with Indian violin virtuoso Dr. L. Subramaniam, Mark's also played alongside Herbie Hancock and opposite Taj Mahal and Les Paul. He passes on the legacy as an adjunct faculty member at Ramapo College, where he teaches guitar individually to students and classes on guitar technique. He also teaches private lessons from his home for all ages.
Fingerstyle is different than jazz guitar because the performer interprets the melodies with an individualized arrangement. "There's more rhythm in it," says Mark. "I don't just play jazz anymore. I play Beatles, Sting, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana. I've even mixed a samba tune with 'Ode to Joy.'"
Mark loves taking a jazz piece and turn it into something interesting. "It makes new musical styles more accessible to the listener, opening the doors to other musical genres and techniques via familiar songs. I feel the audience is with me on a journey."
“My love for Brazilian music strongly influences my original music. I get a lot of positive feedback on it,” he says.
Mark shares his time and talent with Music That Heals, a non-profit providing live music as therapy for healthcare facilities. “Recently, we’ve done some virtual programs due to the pandemic,” he says. “I’m so blessed to be able to make music that soothes people.”
See Mark perform on Wednesdays at the Old 76 House in Tappan, New York. It’s a short trip to see great live music in a historical setting within the United States' oldest restaurant.