TNAG Notes #11 by Stephen Bennett
Hidden deep beneath the crater of a dormant volcano, in a (semi) secret location somewhere between Old Street and The Angel, the gathering armies of TNAG await the call to unleash pitiless global conquest on, well…the globe. The weapons are all armed and in place – or rather, tuned and in place – though some of them you may have to plug in. The so-called “showroom” is, in fact, a glittering, desensitised beehive of strip-lighted chrome and steel. The signs are hard to detect but the creature known as Ben Montague is actually a Marvel-style robot humanoid. Puny mortals will bow down/tremble/etc.
Sorry…we’ve heard there’s a new Bond film due. Anyway…
In reality, TNAG headquarters is a haven of comfy sofas and coffee on tap. The walls are lined, not with atomic blasters, but with row upon row of what might well be the finest collection of guitars anywhere this side of the Atlantic. And while there are definitely a couple of electrics in there that look capable of blasting the odd death-ray on demand, that’s probably down to the individual player. Some of us prefer a clean tone.
So…having been lowered in by helicopter last week (standard use of the door is generally recommended – Ed.) we opted to ease the privations of captivity by playing (okay, inventing) a three-hour game of “If I Could Snaffle Just One of These And Take It To A (Humidity-Controlled) Desert Island, Which One Would it Be?” All good fun, of course, and if not taken too literally, perfectly legal. Though the title might need work.
Reading descriptions online is all very well. Hearing a top-class player demonstrate a guitar’s infinite possibility by means of masterful technique is even better. Best of all, though, is sitting on a giant couch, brew mug to hand, all set up to randomly indulge in the pure, self-gratification-fest that is the Fine Art of Noodling. And boy, did we noodle. What follows is the result of a no-agenda, no-pressure rummage-about of purest kid-in-a-toyshop dimensions. Thus, if the following pre-Christmas wish-list looks wildly idiosyncratic and – by definition – hopelessly biased, the only solution is to rope up, don the black polo-neck and get yourself down into that crater. The Earth’s survival may depend on it.
So many guitars…so little time.
First question. What’s going on in Israel? Fortunately, we’re not delving into any brain-melting, labyrinthine political issues, here. No. It would appear, on a considerably happier note, that top-class luthiers are springing up all over the place out there; be it Macmull in Jerusalem or Bunting Guitars and (comparatively) old friend, B&G, in Tel Aviv. There’s even an Israeli company making ultra-cool-looking, brass and silver, replica Coricidin-bottle slides for all your (River Jordan) Delta needs. All that’s missing is a quotable, Life of Brian “blessed are the guitar-makers” reference. We’ve talked at length, in previous Notes, about the retro-chic delights of the B&G catalogue but there’s a pale-minty-green, Bunting Melody Queen on the TNAG wall that runs them pretty close in the coolness stakes. While the overall look is a lovely Jazzmaster homage, sound-wise, this Queen’s clearly been on the steroids and could doubtless bench-press most of its price-range rivals through the ceiling.
The Macmulls, similarly, take their body-shape inspiration from the classics. The across-the-board ‘relic-ed’ finishes are subtle in a way that communicates ‘played lovingly and often’ rather than ‘bashed about’ (message to other relic-ers, there) and it soon becomes obvious that the Macmull mission, in terms of tone, is to bottle whatever lightning lurks within the finest vintage Strats and Teles and channel it through their own top-notch, souped-up product. In the immortal word (singular) of The Fast Show… “Nice!”.
Departing from the Holy Land and en route to that desert island via Elk Grove, California, we zoom in on a real looker. The Kauer Banshee Deluxe – and who could fail to love those fabulous, off-kilter contours – is a proper beast of a guitar. Pick this one up and you’ll be banging out the solo from “Freebird” - instantly and to perfection - even if you’ve never even heard it before. Genuine rock-god fire-power plus the build/finish quality of a Porsche grand-piano (may need a bit of fact-checking on that last reference – Ed.)
It is at this point we learn that our waiting island paradise has no electricity supply so it’s off to the torch-lit depths of the TNAG acoustic chambers – admittedly, much more your correspondent’s comfort zone. And what treasures there be, Cap’n.
As with sex and bacon sandwiches, accepting that ‘bad’ does not really feature means we’re free to work on a scale of ‘how good’. Hence, while begging forgiveness from the many, we’re reserving the right to hold a few selected gems up to the light. Starting with the Froggy Bottom D12. This is the ultimate, big-friendly-sheepdog guitar. It just wants to jump into your lap and lick you all over. And while this is clearly a less-than-technical appraisal of its structural and sonic attributes, what more do we want from a best pal?
Hanging (literally) nearby is a more quietly-brooding tone-monster. As far as depth, volume and truly majestic sonic grandeur goes, Ryan Gerber’s R15 cutaway comes equipped with its own cathedral. The only problem with picking this one – you’d never want to buy anything else. And as existential dilemmas go, that one makes even Brexit look tame.
Coming down a bit (a lot) in size, though not in the arresting nature of its huge sound, is the Santa Cruz Firefly. How Richard Hoover and his crew pack that much sweet noise into such a tiny body is beyond the ken of most normal – even high-end – luthiers. Which is probably just as well, or they’d all be doing it.
But the island calls! Time to put aside the Nescaff in favour of a more umbrella-centric libation. And sure enough, a siren voice beckons (probably the police on Wharf Road – Ed.).
Ralph Bown (of old York, not New) makes exceedingly good guitars. They’re hard to get hold of because discerning players tend to keep them. His OM model is universally recognised in the “as good as it gets” category and championed by the likes of Clive Carroll, Martin Simpson and the man (about to be) in question, John Renbourn.
It’s increasingly rare, these days, to find a guitar for sale that can genuinely claim to have been owned, played (and kept) by a legendary master of acoustic music. The 1982 Bown Custom Parlour model at TNAG is one such. If this were a stray from Eric Clapton’s prime herd of pedigree electrics we’d probably be talking six figures and yet surely there’s as much magic, kudos, cachet (call it what you will) inside this lovely little treasure-chest as in any instrument unearthed from more (supposedly) glamorous hoards. Its provenance notwithstanding, this is a wonderful looking and sounding guitar. It feels reassuringly comfortable from the off; balanced and light, with Renbourn’s preferred runway-wide fingerboard and the easy action of a finger-stylist’s dreams. On initial acquaintance, its mellow warmth and richness of tone are deceptive. It “feels” like a quiet guitar. Get past those first few bars of soothing, whispered intimacy, though, and it soon becomes clear that, should this little beauty start to feel pushed, things might get loud. Yet, while it delivers the Blues with a crisp and confident kick, there’s nothing brash here. If there ever were any sharp edges on this magical combo of Sitka top and Indian Rosewood back and sides, Mr. Renbourn long ago smoothed them down on your behalf. And if parlour guitars had human voices, most would occupy a range somewhere between the Willie Carson and the Kenneth Williams. Renbourn’s beloved old couch companion sounds more like a cross between Richard Burton and Fenella Fielding; seductive, refined and deeply eloquent.
So, that’s the island sorted, then.
Now. This entire (benign) ransacking exercise was conducted in the tirelessly enthusiastic presence of TNAG docents (word of the day, kids), Richard and Brian. And as the afternoon wore on, their dastardly plot became clear. These guys love their instrument-stash so much, they don’t want to sell any! It is, therefore, our duty, as (wannabe) Guitar Heroes, to thwart their evil plans and the only way to do this is by freeing the hostages. So, let’s all get down there and buy a new guitar (each). As previously stated, we’d be saving the planet.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five!
It’s a fair bet that many of our favourite albums feature unsung heroes whose playing often defines the sound of their front-and-centre bandleaders. Classic tracks tend to become musical map-reference points so fixed in the celestial firmament that we long ago stopped looking beyond the surface dazzle – they’re just there. Without the five stars (!) listed below, however, many of those shining classics would have long dimmed into oblivion.
- Waddy Wachtel; co-writer of “Werewolves of London”, co-conspirator of Keith and long-time Warren Zevon/ Linda Ronstadt band-leader (see “Tumbling Dice/You’re No Good” from 1977 on YouTube). Our moment in question, though, is the maddeningly-unforgettable intro to Stevie Nicks’s breakthrough solo hit, “Edge of Seventeen”. So summon those 16th notes and…all together.. “Just like a white-winged dove…”. Now try getting that out of your head.
- Steve Cropper. Of Course. Giving the world the sublime intro and subsequent rhythm support to Sam & Dave’s 1967 masterpiece, “Soul Man” would be the pinnacle of most session-guitarists’ careers. Cropper reworked the formula hundreds of time to similarly indelible effect.
- Speaking of intros, how about L.A. session legend, Buzz Feiten, with the acoustic riff that so memorably kicks off Rickie Lee Jones’s, “Chuck E’s In Love”. Buzz’s fluid, tasteful lines underpin dozens of the greatest moments in pop/rock history; adorning tracks by everyone from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin. And that’s him on “Footloose”.
- Dean Parks’ history of low-key, six-string genius runs into Edward Gibbon-esque volumes. Since the 1970s, he’s been the go-to guitar man behind some of the classiest recordings of Steely Dan, Lyle Lovett, The Crusaders, Madeleine Peyroux and countless others. Unfazed by such trivia as mere genre-hopping, he’s even right there in the timeless groove of Marvin’s Gaye’s magnificent “Let’s Get It On”.
- And finally, another ubiquitous riff-master who can turn his hand – seemingly effortlessly - to whatever style you might need; Chris Spedding. Whether it’s true or not that he was the guitar sound of The Sex Pistols, Spedding’s flying fingerprints (!) are all over the work of Bryan Ferry, Elton John and Jack Bruce to name but a few. Most notably, though, in the ultimate example of “sublime to ridiculous”, Spedding’s across all those early masterpiece compositions by Harry Nilsson then, almost in the next breath, donning the big, furry suit and Wombling Free with Mike Batt’s er…legendary novelty band. Funny old world, innit.
See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett