Donald James Ross, or Don Ross, (born November 19, 1960) is a Canadian fingerstyle guitarist. He is the only person to twice win the U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship (1988 and 1996). His album Huron Street reached the top ten on the Billboard new age chart.
Ross was born in Montreal, Quebec to Scottish and Mi’kmaq parents. He studied composition at the music department of York University in Toronto with David Mott, James Tenney and Phil Werren. After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music in 1983, he studied philosophy at St. Hyacinth College and Seminary in Granby, Massachusetts while living at San Damiano Friary in Holyoke, Massachusetts and then started his novitiate for the Canadian custody of the Conventual Franciscans of Immaculate Conception Province at St. Francis Friary in Staten Island, NY. He decided to leave that pursuit and become a musician.
In 1986 Ross produced and published his first album, Kehewin, on cassette, and became a full-time musician. He performed as a duo with his wife, singer Kelly McGowan, in 1986 and 1987, and then in a trio called Harbord Trio with her and violinist Oliver Schroer. At the same time he was member of a New Age jazz quartet called Eye Music. He composed music for several theatre productions in Toronto dealing with First Nations life in Canada, such as The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (York University, 1989), Dreaming Beauty (Inner Stage Theatre, 1990) and Big Buck City (Cahoots Theatre, 1991). He has also composed music for the CBC radio serial Dead Dog Café. In 1987 some of his compositions were played by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
His first place win, after two previous attempts, in the 1988 American Walnut Valley Festival earned him a contract with Duke Street Records, Toronto, where he published his next two albums, 1989’s Bearing Straight and 1990’s Don Ross. Since then he has released several mostly instrumental CDs, though some of them feature him as a singer. He published three instructional videos, several single transcriptions and a book with nine of his pieces, and worked with the magazine Canadian Musician. At the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals he won a prize with his wife Kelly, and in 1996 he won his second first prize at the Walnut Valley Festival. Since 1997 he guides the Don Ross Cannington Guitar Weekend, a guitar workshop.
In 2001 his wife Kelly died and Ross was left with his kids. In 2005 he married Brooke Miller, a singer-songwriter from Prince Edward Island.
Don Ross was the first artist to sign with indie record label, Candyrat Records, in 2005. The label’s roster includes Andy McKee, Nicholas Barron, Antoine Dufour, The Reign of Kindo, and his own wife Brooke Miller.
Ross has done three tours with the Men of Steel guitar group, the last of which was mounted in 2006. The band is a mix of international members including bluegrass maestro Dan Crary, acoustic guitarist Beppe Gambetta, and Celtic folk guitarist Tony McManus.
Ross performs most of his concerts solo, but has also regularly performed with Andy McKee, Brooke Miller, and bassist Jordan O’Connor.
In 2010-2011 Ross was a Dalhousie University professor teaching history of guitar and techniques, while still travelling extensively for music. He did not renew his contract for the following year due to high demand for concert appearances around the world.
In 2012, Ross moved back to his hometown of Montreal, Quebec.
Style and technique
Ross’s music borrows from blues, jazz, folk and classical music creating a style that he describes as “heavy wood”. Ross names Bruce Cockburn, John Renbourn, Pierre Bensusan, Keith Jarrett, Egberto Gismonti and Pat Metheny as his main sources of inspiration. One of his songs, “Michael, Michael, Michael”, is dedicated to Michael Hedges, and Ross has performed straight covers of his compositions. One obvious but unattributed influence is the psychedelic 1967 track ‘Embryonic Journey’ by Jefferson Airplane. Ross’s advanced technique and his sure feeling for rhythm combine with uncommon ideas to make his style instantly recognizable. He often uses percussive techniques and plays intricate down and upstroke patterns with his thumb. These techniques have found their way into the toolboxes of many competitive fingerstyle guitarists. His use of acrylic nails allow him to get the sound of long fingernails without the hassle of broken nails.
Don Ross played a Lowden S-10 in the beginning of his career, but since 1997 has played a Lowden O-10. Today he plays custom-made guitars by Marc Beneteau, a Canadian luthier from St. Thomas, Ontario. The Beneteaus are equipped with a combination of microphone and K&K pickups. Occasionally he plays a baritone guitar by Marc Beneteau, or uses a custom 7-string by Oskar Graf, a luthier from Clarendon, Ontario.
In the liner notes to Ross’ 2003 album Robot Monster, Bruce Cockburn writes, “Nobody does what Don Ross does with an acoustic guitar. He takes the corners so fast you think he’s going to roll, but he never loses control.”