04/05/2012 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Acoustic-guitar Duo Rock Their Way Along an Unlikely Path to Success

Listening to the sophisticated interplay of the two acoustic guitars of Rodrigo y Gabriela, it is hard to believe that they began their musical partnership in a Mexican heavy metal band.

The two musicians with their dazzling, original technique, have become international stars via an improbable story line. After their Mexico City metal band, Tierra Ácida, imploded, they decided to get away and explore a new approach to music. They decided to switch to acoustic guitars and left for what would be an eight-year visit to Ireland.

According to Rodrigo Sánchez, they made a decision to do nothing else to earn a living but play their guitars -- no working in restaurants or odd jobs -- and soon were busking on Dublin street corners. Sánchez recalled recently that their first time playing on the street -- "We didn't even look up" -- but still caused so many people to gather around them that the police had to break up the crowd.

"It was one of the best times of my life somehow, professionally and personally," Sánchez recalled. "You have to really concentrate on what you are doing. If [passers-by] stop, it's because they like it, and if they don't like it and they don't stop, you don't have money to pay for your room for the night."

As they developed their own style, they played the streets as well as pubs and clubs. "We didn't even want to think about recording an album. It was enough for us to make money in the streets."

In that self-imposed exile, the duo's sound evolved to something that is reminiscent of flamenco, but is in fact, a thing apart. As fully realized later on their 2009 album 11.11, they recast heavy metal songs such as Metallica's "Orion" for just their two acoustic guitars.

Sánchez said that Gabriela Quintero's unique style of playing was actually influenced by the Irish bodhrán frame drum after the duo befriended Irish musician Robbie Harris. "The movement she does is way to closer to that than the flamenco rasgeuo, said Sanchez. "We love [flamenco], but we don't know how to do it."

"The idea of working together to try to imitate sounds we couldn't even do," Sánchez said, "resulted in what we now know as Rod and Gab."

After catching a break by being signed up for the Irish Oxegyn rock festival, they then toured Europe, picking up a devoted following. Their 2006 debut self-titled album entered at the top spot of the Irish music charts and then caught on elsewhere. They quickly garnered higher profile gigs, including the soundtrack of The Pirates of the Caribbean and a performance at the White House (where the Mexican Ambassador apparently didn't know who they were).

The pair's latest unlikely career turn is a collaboration with a hand-picked Cuban "orchestra," with whom they cut their latest album, Area 52, on ATO Records. While working in Los Angeles on The Pirates soundtrack, the pair watched audition tapes of classically trained Cuban musicians and picked the best musicians while they took several months to adapt their songs for the big band.

Sánchez said it was an engaging challenge for him and Quintero to "reinvent all the pieces we had already written," but also a creative challenge for the Cubans, who were not playing classical nor the Afro-Cuban sounds they grew up with. "Fortunately," he said, "they were happy to experiment with their own rhythms."

The album reconstitutes several of their songs with more complicated arrangements and a new Afro-Cuban flavor. They also added a guest musicians, including sitar player Anoushka Shankar. As a duo they often sound like there are more than two people playing, but now their guitars are blended into a much broader wall of sound. The songs, though, still bristle with the energy and dazzling musicianship that has won the duo fans from the streets to huge indie rock festivals.

They are now embarking on a tour with a somewhat modified version of the orchestra and, according to Sánchez, they are planning to return to their stripped down sound for their next album.

Rod and Gab play Hanuman from the album 11.11

Preview of their new album Area 52