TNAG Notes #19 by Stephen Bennett
There is a saying among actors in the theatre that you don’t really know your lines until you’ve forgotten them. Only when the words sink from your immediate consciousness can you reinvent them as fresh and completely ‘in the moment’. That way, it’s as if the actor is working through a thought to make sense of it, as opposed to working towards a conclusion he or she already knows. The notion occurred following a chance encounter, last Sunday morning, in a fabulous ‘Greasy Spoon’ on the outskirts of Oldham. And yes, as so frequently stated, we do it so that you don’t have to.
At this point, unlike the current ‘Leader of the Free World’, we feel the need to lapse into the first person. So…I’ve only had four guitar lessons in my life; one with Bob Brozman and the other three with my old friend, Bill, who is, without doubt, one of the finest jazz players in the North West of England. And there quite are a few out there. Trouble is, Bill rarely gets out. Health, mainly, but even when that curve is heading upwards, a downward-dragging weight of complex social circumstances has kept Bill’s talent all but hidden for well over forty years. He’s always taught, though. Many years ago, he gave me a piece to learn as homework after my first lesson; an arrangement of the lovely, 1944 Jo Stafford ballad, ‘Moonlight In Vermont’. I worked on it every night in preparation for the following Monday and, as far I was concerned, I’d nailed it. Monday comes around and I’m sitting in Bill’s tiny kitchen. He’s armed with a Gibson Johnny Smith – long since gone - while I’m wrestling with the cut-away, Takamine nylon-string I wish I’d kept. I get thirty seconds into the piece and stop. The ensuing conversation went something like this.
SCENE: INT. BILL’S KITCHEN – NIGHT
‘Moonlight in Vermont’ stutters, stops and disappears behind a cloud of incompetence.
STEVE: It’s okay…I know it….really…
BILL remains silent as his errant pupil begins the piece again, from the top. The stops again.
STEVE: I know it…honestly.
BILL: No, you don’t.
STEVE: I’ve been playing it all week.
BILL: And you still don’t know it.
The student is embarrassed now and getting a little bit miffed at the implied criticism.
STEVE: I was playing it no problem before I came out.
BILL: If you knew it, you could play it. You don’t know it.
And, of course, he was right. I knew the melody, the shapes, and the harmonies working within the chords as the tune developed, but the truth was that I was trying to reproduce a set of sheet-music instructions as opposed to newly minting a beautiful piece of music. Like a lazy actor, I didn’t know it because I hadn’t forgotten it yet. If I play it now, I still have to plot my way through it but that’s more about interpretation and nuance. I no longer even think about where to put my fingers. The brain forgets but the hands remember. It might be the most important lesson I’ve ever had in what it means to be a ‘real’ player.
Any Colour You Like
The ultimate guitar pub quiz would have a “match the custom Strat to the car company” round. Foam Green, Olympic White, Sonic Blue, Shell Pink, Fiesta Red; all of them started out on a very different kind of bodywork (respectively a Buick, two Cadillacs, a Chrysler and the mighty T-Bird Fairlaine). Such was the way in the 50s and 60s, not just with Fender but over at Gibson, Gretsch and anywhere else that wanted to keep up with the rock’n’roll zeitgeist. The trend owed as much to the development of the new, ultra-shiny, mega-durable nitrocellulose lacquer as it did to 50s fantasies. Trouble is, on wood, the lighter colours have a tendency to yellow, fade and ‘craze’ (though some of us weirdos actually like that kind of thing) and science, as well as fashion, has moved on. A shame, that, because nitrocellulose has a fun history and certainly helps in the desperate search for an original conversation-piece when you’re stuck in a corner with your local pub’s resident guitar-nerd. Which may well be yourself, but we’ll move on…
Like most highly combustible substances, nitrocellulose was discovered by accident. Feel free to invent your own comedy scenario. Anyway, the previously unidentified compound that so radically redesigned a 19th century, Swiss-German cooking-apron soon became known as ‘gun cotton’ or ‘flash paper’. The clue was in the name, really. This message didn’t quite get through to the genius who invented nitrocellulose billiard balls. It was already clear that one particular offshoot product (celluloid) was pretty volatile from the number of unplanned fire-brigade dramas it was creating in cinemas across America. If only those exploding poolhall orbs – a well-intentioned replacement for ivory - were still around today. The owner of one Colorado saloon wrote to the inventor, a Mr. Hyatt, suggesting that, while the added, spontaneous entertainment factor was not an issue, it was leading to the instant and unwelcome brandishing of firearms every time a ball went off. Bad for the leisure industry. But great for guitar business a few years later. And for recording, in the form of acetate.
So, please treat your Shoreline Gold Jazzmaster with the respect it deserves and be wary of loose talk along the lines of lighting up the stage etc. Besides, it used to be a Pontiac. Drive carefully.
Not that it’s new but the “Inside Llewyn Davis” concert-companion movie, “Another Day, Another Time”, must surely be one of the most enjoyable little guitar-fests on film. It’s a non-stop catwalk parade of beautiful vintage instruments, played by some of the most gifted acoustic musicians around, that offers the added bonus of close-up studies of the wonderfully intricate – yet always complementary – accompanying styles of David Rawlings, Kenneth Pattengale, Chris Eldridge and many more. It’s also another nod towards T-Bone Burnett’s skill in bringing fine players together and getting the very best out of them.
Could it be? Could the US’s most prestigious guitar periodical, Fretboard Journal, really be taking its cues from little ol’ TNAG Notes? The gloss-tastic doorstop has introduced an excellent new feature called ‘Five for Friday’ that strings together (ahem) a handful of random guitar thoughts for its readers’ weekend entertainment and further exploration. Coincidence? We like to think not. So, with extra fanfare, we humbly present the original…
This Fortnight’s Fab Five!!
Nigel Hendrix? Sadly, no. Nor is there any sign of a Bob Segovia or Roberta Johnson. The guitar world is, nonetheless, full of outstandingly talented offspring; the children of drummers (Derek Trucks), bass players (Blair Dunlop, of this parish), Broadway singers (Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb) and even sitar masters (Norah Jones). But what about the great guitarist children of great guitarists? Hmm. Not so many. A bit like footballers. But here, with apologies to a strong bench including Lukas Nelson, Duane Betts, Jack Moore and any number of random Reinhardts, are five superb players worthy of TFFF first team selection.
- There can’t have be too many stuntman guitarists over the years – “Won’t somebody think of the fingers?!” – but chucking himself downstairs and out of speeding vehicles hasn’t seemed to do Thom Bresh any harm. It’s only fit and proper that he continues to carry the flame for Travis-picking - what with Merle being his dad - and young Thom can be heard at his lightning-fast finest on all manner of Nashville-based barnburners. The bouncing “Guitar Rag” is probably the best place to start, if for no other reason than he sings it so well, too.
- With a name like Dweezil Zappa, you’d better be good at something. Fortunately, the Son of Frank (Ian to his parents) is a consummate player in his own right and, like the aforementioned Mr. Bresh, is probably the pre-eminent interpreter of his old man’s vast back-catalogue. For a shot of the unexpected, listen to Dweezil’s ‘puking wah-wah’ contribution to his dad’s thundering 1986 take on the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” then jump twenty years to the head(phone)-spinning, stereophonic swirlings of “Rhythmatist”. In the family tradition, it’s often complex, but it’s always fun.
- The least- known member of our champion five-a-side outfit is Jack Tuttle, multi-instrumentalist, Bay Area legend and father of the marvellous Molly. Jack probably prefers his near-anonymity as he’s dedicated most of his working life to teaching others through a mastery (of bluegrass techniques in particular) on fiddle, banjo and mandolin as well as guitar. There’s not much evidence of Jack on CD or vinyl but his frequent, multi-instrumental backing of his prodigiously talented teenage daughter on her early recordings is pure class throughout. And who wants to be famous, anyway? Especially when you’re that good and enough people know it already.
- Maybe having a dad who’s universally revered as the main man in any field is a slight drawback to the aspiring follow-up generation but that didn’t seem to put Merle Watson off. Nor was he too worried about Doc stealing the limelight as the two of them played together as a duo, live, and on some of the finest bluegrass guitar recordings available, until Merle’s tragic early demise in 1985. You have to dig around a bit to find Merle’s solo stuff but his spare and lilting version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on the first Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will The Circle…” album is an object lesson in lyricism and plain old good taste.
- Any winning outfit needs a touch of the unpredictable, the mercurial, the Marmite, even. Roy Harper’s lad, Nick, has never had the recognition he deserves, either as a singer-songwriter or phenomenally gifted guitar player. Seeing him live can be quite an intense experience (not least for his guitars as they can sometimes take a bit of stick) and you’ll probably come away wondering how he came by all those extra fingers. “Blue Sky Thinking” is probably his best-known song but check out Nick’s brilliantly barking-mad version of “Guitar Man” on Youtube. Elvis would love it.
See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett