COLUMBIA — Ed Riegler always keeps a thumb pick in his wallet. That way, he can use it whenever he has a chance.
Riegler is a primarily self-taught musician who has spent most of his life refining his finger-style guitar technique. At 64, he has produced an album of his songs, titled "Hand Picked Organic Guitar Songs."
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Much of the album pulls together the threads of his current lifestyle as a vegan convert and a newlywed. Many of the songs deal with hope in a complex world, one of his favorite themes.
Perfecting finger-style guitar has been a work in progress for Riegler. He began experimenting with the technique in the late 1970s when he played acoustically at coffee shops and venues in St. Louis.
Although he has been singing since grade school, he discovered that mastering finger-style guitar and singing simultaneously was a challenge.
"Playing finger-style guitar is like eating and walking at the same time," Riegler said. "Singing with it is like eating and walking and chewing gum."
The technique dates as far back as the 15th century and is directly connected to classical and flamenco guitar traditions. Musicians who use the technique pluck individual strings — and even chords — to create an entire musical arrangement.
In contemporary music, the style is closely associated with the guitar picking of country artist Chet Atkins, who is credited with the so-called Nashville sound that depends on versatile string work.
This is how Riegler does it: He puts the pick on right thumb to shape the song's bass line. The remaining fingers on his right hand pluck the strings, while his left hand glides across the neck of the guitar, orchestrating the melody.
When he recorded the music for "Hand Picked Organic Guitar Songs," he put himself in a spare bedroom with just a microphone and a digital recorder.
Most of the midtempo songs complement his clear, mellow singing voice, but two of the album's songs are upbeat, intricate guitar instrumentals.
The songs reflect his interest in having both healthy habits and healthy relationships. After dealing with serious heart-related issues in 2006, Riegler eventually turned to organic, vegan food to reverse heart disease.
In "Food for Thought," he sings about choosing wisely:
"Step on board the slow food train/ There's not a lot to bring/ 'Cept your love for food made the slow food way ...
"Healthy food is tasty, tasty food is too/ Not all tasty food is always good for you/ Take the time to read between the lines/ Ingredients signal, stops along the way."
Motivated by high school reunion
Despite Riegler's dedication to music, he has never considered playing guitar a full-time occupation. He runs Columbia's Piano Distributors, one of the few places he does not take his guitar.
He became devoted to music after he saw The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in high school. He and a few friends, buddies in a suburban Chicago high school, formed a band.
But it wasn't until he attended his 45th high school reunion that he decided to get serious enough to write and record his own songs.
A classmate at the reunion had just released on his own CD, and Riegler was impressed. Later that evening, the two met in the hotel lobby for an impromptu jam session.
The reunion gave Riegler the push he needed, said his wife, Sharon.
"If this guy could do it, Ed felt he could, too," she said.
Riegler was determined to record his own album before his next high school reunion. And he knew he could do it without the help of a drummer or bassist. All he needed was his guitar.
"He's into the purest and cleanest of anything," his wife said.
The two were married in September. They met online three years ago when Ed Riegler was living in St. Louis. His musical abilities and organic lifestyle intrigued Sharon Riegler. When he sent Sharon Riegler a virtual organic chocolate-covered strawberry, she said it sealed the attraction.
The first face-to-face meeting was in a coffee shop in Hermann. Ed Riegler brought his guitar and played for his future wife in the back of his Subaru.
As Ed Riegler approaches retirement, he is thinking about devoting more time to music and producing another album. He recently spoke and performed at an event for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Columbia.
"I know I can play guitar," he said during the event. "Playing it in front of people again is the trick."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.