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The Spirit Moves in the Strumming of McMeen, a Master of Acoustic Guitar
By Nicole Pensiero

Elmer Ellsworth McMeen  
El McMeen L'72, one of the world's great fingerstyle guitarists, finds inspiration in his Christianity.
Elmer Ellsworth "El" McMeen III, L'72 – considered one of the world's top acoustic fingerstyle guitarists – likes to say that he hit his prime when he was "over the hill." Since taking early retirement in 2000 from the prestigious law firm where he worked for more than two decades, McMeen indeed has found himself busier than ever, both as an in-demand musician and – more recently – as a lay minister.

Earlier this year, the 63-year-old musician – whose catalog includes Celtic music, hymns, gospel, contemporary Christian, and pop – won First Prize in the Instrumental Category of the 2010 International Acoustic Music Awards competition for his original composition, "Le Mans," an honor McMeen calls "humbling and gratifying." But perhaps even more gratifying is his work as Elder, and co-leader of a youth group, at Living Waters Fellowship (www.theLWF.org), the independent, charismatic Christian church in Newton, NJ, that he helped establish in 2009.

"Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life," McMeen says, "and I believe Him."

A childhood clarinet player, McMeen – named in honor of soldier-attorney Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union casualty of the Civil War – began playing guitar in earnest as a freshman at Harvard University in 1965. Self-taught, he didn't consider it anything more than a hobby for many years, instead focusing on his law career (he is a retired partner of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Manhattan) and raising a family. He and wife Sheila Taenzler McMeen, L'71, met in 1970 on the Penn Law Review. The couple, who reside in Sparta, N.J., are the parents of four grown children, three of whom are also attorneys.

"In the '70s, I learned how to be a lawyer, but played enough guitar at home to maintain my skills," McMeen recalls. "Still, it was always a passion – just not one I could devote much time to." But by the early '80s, McMeen was performing at open mic sessions, taking things a step further by signing up for a series of audio guitar lessons by acclaimed instructor Stefan Grossman. In a fortuitous twist of fate, Grossman – who apparently couldn't decipher which tapes McMeen wanted to order – personally called him at his law office. That led to a friendship which, over time, resulted in McMeen recording several audio cassette and DVD lessons for Grossman's workshops. More importantly, Grossman taught him a vibrato technique that McMeen says helped define his craft and style.

"Basically, I started playing guitar like a harp, and that took me in all kinds of directions," McMeen says. Playing and arranging guitar music almost exclusively in the alternate (and lusher-sounding) CGDGAD turning – which can create a harplike effect of cascading notes – McMeen became an acoustic guitar master, attracting students from around the world. Eager to bring his music to a wider audience, the Lewistown, Pa. native – who has specialized in corporate finance law – took early retirement, and hit the road "at the tender age of 51," as he puts it. As if making up for lost time, McMeen performed in 26 U.S. states in less than three years.

"At that point, people wanted to see if I really existed," he jokes. "There were records and books and tapes – but very few live appearances. I was considered a bit of a mystery man."

Since 2002, McMeen has stayed closer to home, devoting most of his musical energy to recording (he has 12 CDs), teaching, and writing (five years ago, he published a book of Irish and Scottish instrumental music arranged for classical string trio). In 2008, he was the subject of a 90-minute documentary, Guitar Artistry of El McMeen.

While McMeen occasionally plays guitar at Living Waters services, he's more focused on leading a weekly Bible-based fellowship group at a subsidized housing complex and co-heading the church's youth group, work he calls "challenging and hugely rewarding."

In recent years, McMeen says, his strong Christian faith has become increasingly intertwined with his musical aspirations.

"If the Holy Spirit is not moving through me in my music, nothing is happening," he says. "If nothing is happening, I put the guitar down. It simply doesn't matter. Because it's not about contending, it's about being a vessel through whom a loving God can move to bless others." PLJ

Nicole Pensiero is a longtime freelance entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Courier-Post (NJ ) , New Jersey Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune. A native of southern New Jersey, her many interviews have included Joan Baez, Yoko Ono, Sarah McLachlan and Boy George, among others.