Strumming up international success

Alumnus Kevin Horrigan is the current international finger-style guitar champion. (Photo by Peter Jakubowski)

Kevin Horrigan walked into the Zelazo Center on the UWM campus on a cold winter evening, guitar case in hand. For a few moments, the ’08 BFA Music Performance graduate sat quietly on the concert hall stage.

Horrigan had his song selected. He was ready to play. It was the tools of his trade that needed some time. Seems cold hands can prove a bit problematic when you’re the current international finger-style guitar champion.

“The primary thing about finger-style is that you play with your fingers as opposed to with a pick,” Horrigan explains, still briskly rubbing his hands together.

Perfect timing

Seven years ago, UWM’s Peck School of the Arts (PSOA) created the world’s only Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Music programs specializing in finger-style guitar. Horrigan, at that time a business major at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, took notice.

Click the image to watch Kevin Horrigan perform at the UWM Zelazo Center and talk about being a “lifelong student of the guitar” at

“I was taking some music electives and it just didn’t feel like work. I ended up spending more time on my elective classes than I did working toward my business degree,” Horrigan says.

He had also recently discovered some finger-style guitar greats – including Leo Kottke, who, unbeknownst to Horrigan, would later receive an honorary Doctor of Music Performance degree and deliver the commencement address at Horrigan’s May 2008 UWM graduation ceremony.

Horrigan’s move toward music was happening almost simultaneously with the launch of UWM’s new finger-style performance degree.

“I felt extremely fortunate to have everything line up just perfectly,” Horrigan says. “My teachers completely shaped the way that I look at music and approach the guitar. We were not made to be one-trick ponies; we really got a full gamut.”

John Stropes, director of guitar studies at PSOA, says Horrigan “distinguished himself while at UWM by composing instrumental solos with a happy funk groove using extended techniques – two-hands-on-the-fingerboard, percussion, right-hand string-stopping.”

 Horrigan accepts 2011 International Finger-style Guitar Championship trophy

Kevin Horrigan accepts his 2011 International Finger-style Guitar Championship trophy at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan.

Stropes says Horrigan’s “competence and his creativity served him well” at the 2011 Canadian Guitar Festival and the 2011 Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., where Horrigan earned his international title.

“I can’t express how glad I feel to represent UW-Milwaukee with those wins because Milwaukee really is the only place in the world where you can get my degree,” Horrigan says.

What’s next?

Horrigan currently works full time at We Energies. He had been considering going back to school to study accounting. His new trophies are now providing the inspiration he needed to finish composing his first CD and move toward a full-time career in music performance.

“Realistically, nothing has changed about my music now versus where it was a few months ago. What it has done is opened up some doors – actually walking through them is going to be up to me,” Horrigan says.

“At this point, I don’t think there’s any turning back because there would be too many regrets. I’m going to see this thing through and I know I have what it takes.”

Videographer, UWM University Communications & Media Relations