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Vilko & Slavko Avsenik’s ensemble from Slovenia were the creators of the ‘Oberkrainer’ sound and genre which took off in the alpine parts of central Europe. A typical band in this genre, following Avseniki, has three main parts: the vocal, melodic and rhythm sections. The rhythm section in the band is usually made up of the vital three instruments: accordion, guitar and double bass or electric bass which alternates with baritone.

Lev Ponikvar

One of the pioneers of Oberkrainer guitar rhythm is Lev (Leo) Ponikvar, the longest serving guitarist in Ansambel bratov Avsenik, from the early days to 1989. Bassist Mik Soss and Lev Ponikvar, professionally trained musicians, were a fine tuned rhythm machine and already worked together before Avsenik, in the Radio Ljubljana Orchestra. They undoubtedly had an excellent musical chemistry.

Always smiling ‘Levček’ killing it despite nearing retirement

Origins

Prior to Avsenik, Ponikvar played in several jazz bands. One of his influences was Django Reinhardt, a Romani-French jazz guitarist. In Ivan Sivec’s book “Brata Avsenik”, it is said that Ponikvar’s own opinion was that the Oberkrainer rhythm owed itself to Slavko Avsenik’s accordion ‘shaking’ rhythm (Slo: tresanje, Ger: begleitung) combined with a type of Dixieland rhythm. There is an obvious similarity in the guitar rhythm itself to Gypsy-Jazz rhythm.

An example of Gypsy-Jazz guitar rhythm

All beats in a bar were generally played, while the ‘off’ (second) beats are accented, and the ‘on’ (first) beats are softer or somewhat muted, creating a swinging affect. This is the standard approach to rhythm guitar in Oberkrainer music, although each individual will have their own take on this, whether it’s playing the ‘off’ beats longer or emphasizing the ‘on’ beats a bit more.

An example of Oberkrainer guitar rhythm from my friend ‘rebulus’ in Slovenia

There are other variants that came after such as ‘Alpski’ style which was popularised by Alpski Kvintet/Alpenoberkrainer, where the ‘off’ beats are longer.

‘rebulus’ demonstrating the variances in Slovenian guitar rhythm

How to play it

I’m not really a guitarist, so I can explain this just at a basic level. At its core, it involves playing all beats in the bar. When the bass plays, the guitar plays softly. In between the bass’ notes, the guitar will play louder. You could think of the guitar as fulfilling the role of a hi-hat drum. Typically, drums have no place in this style – the guitar and bass perfectly fulfill the rhythm.

It is also important to note that it is not common for the guitar to play hard or long on the ‘on’ beats while the bass note is played – in my opinion this prevents the two rhythm instruments from clashing with each other. It is common, however, to play longer or harder on the ‘on’ beats at the start or end of phrases and different parts of the song, to accentuate what the bass can’t. There is a level of improvising to the feel of the song. In the end there are endless ways to play a song – there is no ‘perfect’ way but there is a lot of skill in the art.

A brief video I’ve made for my English speaking friends who want to get started

Resources and lessons

I’ve only covered what I know myself – the guitar rhythm at its core. There are a lot of variances and subtleties that the most experienced Oberkrainer guitarists use in their playing, and once you start noticing the different things that a master such as Ponikvar does, particularly on Avsenik’s live recordings, you will notice how intricate this art is.

At the moment there is one terrific resource available at Avsenik’s shop, in German and Slovenian, by Gerhard Kraus (linked here) called ‘Narodna zabavna kitarska šola Avsenik’ (Slo) or ‘Die original Oberkrainer Gitarrenschule von Gerhard Kraus’ (Ger). It describes everything from the amplification and types of guitars that Ponikvar used, to the variety of techniques that he used and specific chords that go beyond the average listener’s ear.

There are also one-on-one classes which a real master of the technique, Mitja Mastnak (founder of Mitja Kvintet and head of former Glasbena šola Avsenik) from Slovenia, offers online in Slovenian and German. Contact him on Facebook (linked here) or with the below Skype/phone details:

There are also some great YouTube tutorials in German and Slovenian:

If you have any questions I can answer or extra resources I can mention, please leave a comment below.