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Paying His Dues 

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & en Mancke talks like a businessman. "It's affordable," he says, describing his art in terms of cost and benefit. "You're paying one guy instead of a group. The setup's easier. There isn't much equipment to get in the way." His words are practiced but casual. "It's a hassle-free solution for a venue looking to add music."





Mancke's had to learn the art of the pitch because his art is a tough sell. With a few notable exceptions, fingerstyle guitarists don't inspire lust and envy in teenagers. They don't command worldwide blankets of blog chatter. They don't sell out arenas. Most often, they're playing in the background on weekends as you tuck into an early dinner at an intimately lit restaurant. On weekday afternoons, they're the ones teaching your eighth grader "Stairway to Heaven." A few lucky ones circle the country once or twice a year playing to intimate rooms of fellow devotees. They have vastly different styles, sounds, techniques, dispositions and vision. All of them, though, are obsessive about the craft of making guitars do the most un-guitar-like things.





Mancke is no different. His left thumbnail is a half-inch long. The fingers on his left hand are long too. The thumbnail he wields like a guitar pick; the fingers are most often used to rap the bottom of his guitar, creating a sharp, percussive sound. He carries around a fiddle stick, tucking it into his laceless dress shoes, easy access for when he wants the guitar to sound like a bowed instrument. He drums his guitar as much as he strums it. He sometimes brings an extra guitar, in case he feels like playing two at once.





Mancke's work is contemplative and insular, telling arching, sometimes digressive stories without using words. It's about him and the guitar, illustrated in the way he tucks himself into a corner (at Arbor Crest Winery's tasting room in River Park Square, for example) and curls himself around his instruments. Fingerstyle guitarists understand the capabilities of a guitar the way few others do, which is perhaps why the form's biggest fans are fellow players.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hat limited niche has Mancke pitching club owners the numbers rather than the sex appeal. Most of his gigs to date have been recurring. He played the Ridpath Hotel's Artisan Room weekly until being displaced by a Top 40 DJ. (Artisan's Eric Nagano told us that they're trying to cater specifically to "sophisticated ... 25- to 35-year-olds"). Mancke's newest gig, meanwhile, starts at Madeleine's.





Mancke wants to make a living and wants his music to be heard. If that means he's background music for your dinner, he's OK with that. "For someone who's interested in guitar, [a restaurant gig] can be like a concert," he says. "They'll respond to it that way. Everyone else will enjoy it as they eat. I'd love to be playing concerts, but I'm 23 and haven't exactly paid my dues yet." Mancke wants this to be his life's work, so he's settling in for the long haul.





He grants that it would be easier to build his career as the virtuoso of some ensemble. It'd feel hypocritical, though, to have bet so much on a career as a solo artist only to settle for joining a band. "I've always been attracted to guys who can take a guitar and get as many sounds as possible out of it," he says. "That's my passion."





Ben Mancke at ella's on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 5 pm. Price TBA. Call 74-STAGE. Also at Madeleine's Caf & eacute;, 707 W. Main Ave., on Friday, Aug. 17, at 7:30 pm. Free. Call 624-2253. Mancke's new album, Instrumentally Guitarded, will be available at his shows.
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