TNAG Notes #12A by Stephen Bennett
Despite coming to you this week in somewhat tentative, Nick Lucas-style, 12A frets-to-the-body fashion, your superstitious TNAG Notes is, as ever, keenly attuned to the socio-political zeitgeist. We can, therefore, from the off, dispel any lingering tap-room illusions out there, gentlemen, that short of a double-fault on her part, there’s no way any of us would take a point off Serena Williams. Just as the only way any of us will ever get our grubby hands on a Wingert or Manzer or Turnstone quality guitar (see recent video) is to dust off the bank account and actually buy one. Or steal one – but then we did say “gentlemen”. Make one? Yeah, right.
Women, eh. The cheek of it. First, they annex our football – with crowds twice the size of most professional blokes’ matches – now they’re after our lutherie. And if it carries on like this, apart from the odd bout of good ol’ fashioned, puce-faced, bile spluttering among kindred spirits in the Augusta National clubhouse, we’ll have nothing left. The world’s gone mad. Where’s Boris when we need him? Ah.
Alternatively, of course, we might say the world’s finally starting to see sense.
We’re all familiar, by now, with the story of those war-time, banner-headstock Gibsons that currently sit atop the ‘most coveted’ list on the vintage guitar market. The two-to-three-yearwindow for the remarkable improvement in the quality of Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory outputcoincided (shock, horror) with the period when women took over the jobs of men who were away in Europe bolstering the war effort. Maybe it was just plain old, sexist embarrassment that led to Gibson keeping that so quiet for so long. Maybe it was some kind of misguided sop to the morale of their returning male workforce. Either way, it must’ve been fun to be a fly on the wall at that first quality-control meeting after the blokes got back on the job. Rarely has a metaphor been more apt than when suggesting no one in the Kalamazooheirachy/patriarchy had the balls to keep the women on.
Equality of pay is an ongoing battle with clear, visible goals; equality of perception is another matter altogether. Western society, bless it, considers itself advanced on questions of gender awareness but it’s hard to dispel the received and too-often-accepted ‘wisdom’ of generations-worth, centuries even, of socio-political pigeon-holing. Man chops wood, builds table - woman wipes it with cloth then puts tea on it. End of story. Well, it’s been slow but the times they are, finally, a’changing.
Most of today’s prominent women luthiers will tell you that while they’re still hammering their own way through, it was the Canadian, Linda Manzer, who punched the first hole through the glass ceiling and, as a result, inspired a generation of female followers. Her guitars are a benchmark for quality; as both the finest practical, musical tools available and, in many cases, as works of art. On the West Coast, Kathy Wingert, probably the next to emerge and establish her name on the pantheon of greats, operates on similar terms.
Of course guitar-making has been a male-dominated province throughout history. So has just about every other skilled manufacturing profession. It’s the way we’ve been set up.
We’ve taken it for granted that if we buy a world-class Sadowsky bass, for example, that it’s obviously passed through the magic hands of Roger S. himself. What we probably don’t realise is that the head luthier in the shop is a woman – Lisa Hahn. Do we care? Of course not. We only care that it’s an awesome bass. What we must learn to dispel, however, is even the slightest notion of being surprised – thereby reinforcing the aforementioned glass ceiling, consciously or otherwise.
In Jamaica, they have a number of colourful terms for the weather. They have “man rain” and “woman rain”, the former being the torrential, tropical downpour kind, the latter not quite so heavy. Out-dated sexist terminology? Maybe. But what they’ll readily acknowledge is that both bring life, growth and prosperity to the land in equal measure. It’s the product that counts not who’s delivering it.
While change, enlightenment, whatever we choose to call it, is still frustratingly slow, notable names continue to emerge on both sides of the Atlantic; Maegen Wells in California Christina Kobler in Austria, Peggy White and Joshia de Jonge in Canada, alongside Shelley Park, whomay well be the finest builder of Selmer Maccaferri-style Gypsy Jazz guitars in the world and, here in the UK - as per the TNAG video that triggered these thoughts - Rosie Heydenrych of Turnstone Guitars. The work these women do is right up there with the very best of modern lutherie. The first people to acknowledge that fact are their male colleagues. No Kalamazoo-style cover-up here. It’s all about the work and how true, self-respecting artists, be they male or female, who are looking to develop their craft, will take their inspiration wherever they can find it.
It’s an incontrovertible fact that the number of female luthiers making superb, high-quality instruments is growing. Awareness of that fact is growing too, as minds open, more opportunities arise, and shifting social circumstances reshape established, gender-biased notions of what ‘work’ means in the 21st century. TNAG is on board and looking to go further. One day, there’ll be an equal gender balance reflected in what’s on the showroom walls. One day, headstock logos will be what they should be – badges of quality and nothing more. One day, this won’t even be a conversation.
The most beautiful solid-bodied electric guitar ever made?
Seeing as we’re in, er…discussion mode, here’s another lively conversation starter. As ever, readers will have opinions but TNAG Notes can always be relied upon (humbly) to provide you with the facts. The title of ‘Most Beautiful S-BEG Ever Made’ goes to…drum roll…notthe sublime, 1960 sunburst Les Paul, nor to any of those fabulous, 50s Fenders. Not even to the aesthetically near-perfect 1959 Danelectro Shorthorn. No. Our award goes to the mighty and still-undefeated champion of the guitar world, the one and only,* 1953 Gretsch 6128 Duo Jet; black top, white scratch-plate, G-cut tail-piece. A true rock’n’roll masterpiece.
*hyperbole (again!) fortunately, as opposed to statistical fact - Ed.
How subjective can TNAG Notes get? None more subjective! The history of guitar music is littered – or rather gem-studded – with thousands of wonderful solo breaks by six-string virtuosi in every genre you can think of. Often, as with the great Blues and Jazz players, solos are expected; it’s written into the musical formula. We’ve ducked those here in favour of songs that don’t subscribe to that pattern. Here, we’re simply looking at a great song that’s rocking along nicely on its own when suddenly…whoosh…you’re launched into the stratosphere by that coruscating opening salvo and the rest of the perfectly-formed barragethat follows. Maybe the only connection shared by the solos listed below is that they all sound spontaneous – surely a sign of the genius that went into all those hours of rehearsal. And what constitutes a great solo, anyway? If it were only about technique, speed, flash, self-indulgence etc. we’d remember the song, maybe, but the overlaid guitar part would become an irrelevance. The handful of tracks chosen here might surprise – even infuriate - a few people but all of them lift the songs they adorn to heights way beyond what might have beenpossible without them. These are solos you can sing – and that’s the key. So, without further ado – or any hint of apology - we present…
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…Solos!
1. Jeff Beck on Stevie Wonder’s, “Looking For Another Pure Love”. The some-time Surrey car mechanic even gets a cheeky little shout-out half way through from Stevie, who clearly can’t quite get his head around just how amazingly tasteful, lyrical and effortlessly cool that Strat sounds on what must be one of the highlights of a golden era of grown-up soul music.It’s no mean feat to claim a stand-out moment on “Talking Book” - one of the iconic albums of rock history – but Jeff, as is so often the case, just takes it all in his laid-back stride. And no, he doesn’t play on Stevie’s ‘Superstition’ – he was too busy blazing through his own brilliant version (with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice) around the same time.
2. And we always thought Walter Becker was ‘only’ the bass player. If there’s a more glorious and uplifting moment in the entire Steely Dan canon than the guitar break at one-minute-fifty-five into ‘Bad Sneakers’…well, there isn’t so scratch that thought immediately. 1975’s ‘Katy Lied’ may well be the pinnacle of the Becker/Fagen oeuvre with its perfect marriage of heart-breaking melody, smart-arse irony and jaw-dropping, jazz-rock technique. As for Walter, imagine being good enough to tell Larry Carlton and Jay Graydon to take the day off.
3. Andy Powell on “Blowin’ Free” from Wishbone Ash’s magnificent full-frontal assault on the US market, ‘Argus’. FM-style, highway boogie never sounded so British. Powell has described his own soloing sound as ‘ebullient’ and it’s hard to find a better word for the celebratory Flying-V fanfare that takes off from above the clouds and just keeps getting higher. And now you’ll be stuck with that opening riff nagging at your head all day. Sorry!
4. A cheat! Two for the price of one in The Allman Brothers Band’s majestically melodic, country-rock classic, “Blue Sky”. Rarely can Duane Allman, the man who virtually reinvented electric slide playing and elevated Layla to its subsequent iconic status, ever have seen himself as the warm-up act but here he seems content to build the launch pad then leave the bliss-out, soaring climax to the song’s writer, Dickey Betts, who, in picking up the baton for the unforgettable second solo, achieves probably his finest ever recorded moment.
5. Saving maybe the best ‘til last, the late, great Tony Peluso. Who? That’s right. If you’ve never heard the name, you’ve surely heard the solo and if you haven’t heard the solo – shame on you – then you need to look (sorry, listen) in that unlikeliest of places, the middle of aCarpenters single. Admittedly, “Goodbye To Love” isn’t one of the MOR super-duo’s bestknown ballads but any tears Karen can’t wrench from it are extracted, nay, thoroughly wrung out, by the unsung Californian 335 maestro’s achingly orgasmic, fuzz-drenched guitar break. Small but perfectly formed, this column hereby nominates this as the finest solo ever to light up an otherwise mild-mannered and unassuming chart-pop single. Bar none.
All 70s, I hear you say. And four from 1972! Coincidence? Hardly. Got any better ideas?
See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett