TNAG Notes #24 by Stephen Bennett
Greetings, reader, from the ’gator-plagued retirement home of hurricanes, dubious building regulations and, of course, rampant cosmetic surgery. Yes, we’re talking Florida. And as we weigh the relative merits of a distressed, original sunburst over a queasy high-gloss, Flamingo Pink do-over, let’s not forget that this is also the land of Tom Petty, Derek Trucks, Blind Blake, Gram Parsons, Thurston Moore, Gary Rossington and the great Dickey Betts.
All of which, alongside Notes 23’s similar engagement with contentious notions of style and taste, leads us to take a deeper dive, below, (how’s that for tautology) into the attitudes and aesthetics attendant to the physical development of both the acoustic and electric guitar. Plus, in other news, we stumble across a shrine to guitar music in all its recent forms and continue the relentless pursuit of an acoustic Bigfoot.
Classical v Modern? Where were we...?
Last time out we eulogised some of the more off-beat flights of fancy in the world of electric guitar design. The term “off-beat”, in itself, presupposes an established status quo that is somehow superior in terms of acceptability, reliability and overall aesthetic appeal. Hmm…
Almost a hundred years ago, European artistic culture was turned upside down by a sudden tidal wave of the unclassifiable ‘new’; James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and the Ballet, ‘Parade’ (music by Erik Satie, sets by Jean Cocteau and Picasso, choreography by Diaghilev). Now there’s a night out. Books without proper punctuation, poetry with no recognisable form, ballet without tutus…scandalous, all of it. While the seismic historical impact of ‘Parade’ is mostly forgotten, the book and the poem - so outrageous in their day – now represent two of the cultural highpoints of the 20th century.
Barely fifty years before these rebellious cris-de-coeur cut through the cobwebs, the outlandish daubings of the bunch of charlatans insultingly dubbed “Impressionists” couldn’t even find wall space at the Paris Academy. Today, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro and their mates are all acknowledged, even revered masters. And while their ‘traditional’ forefathers; Davide, Ingres, Delacroix et al are still acknowledged as possibly the greatest draughtsmen of all time, it’s the rejects who’re now the real rock stars. Which, you’ll be relieved to hear, brings us back to the guitar.
Just as the introduction of the OM transformed the acoustic market in the late 1920s, it may be that we’re in a similar age of transition. We have our icons; the body shapes upon which the industry relies and which, crucially, inform the long-settled perceptions of just about every folkie, finger-stylist, blues fan, jazzer or rocker on the planet. Yet, more than ever, as technological design-potential develops, so does the scope of the luthier’s imagination. There will always be dreadnoughts, parlours, Les Pauls, Strats and Teles and they’ll always be cherished, rightly so, as the pinnacle of a gloriously fertile branch of popular culture. Thus, straying too far from the established template is a bold statement, indeed. For a small builder, it could be disastrous. Yet, as the aforementioned modernists knew, it’s only by challenging the established order that art progresses. And we’re definitely talking about art, here. As with the novelists, poets, painters and composers of a hundred-plus years ago, instruments that look revolutionary and outlandish now might well be the unquestioned, admired embodiment of their particular art-form in the not-too-distant future.
It’s not too wild a stretch to suggest that while Paris had its Salon des Refusés in the 1860s, exhibiting and selling the works of all those artists whose mission was to break down the hidebound conservative mindset, we modern guitar-lovers can look to TNAG – and a handful of like-minded dealers around the world – as the showroom where the really interesting new stuff, the future of the art form, is both on display and readily available to those in the know.
A short, virtual gallery tour, then? They’re all the rage these days, so why not.
Perhaps the most left-field instrument on the TNAG inventory is the Teuffel Birdfish, a fantastical Heath Robinson affair, all gleaming tubes and plates. It’s indisputably a work of art. It’s also an astonishingly successful musical instrument; a distillation of its maker’s ongoing exploration of form and function. It’s all too much for some, sure, but wait ‘til Ed Sheeran turns up playing one at Glastonbury. Likewise, Jens Ritter’s guitars; ambassadors of a rare, exotic species proud of its strange, alien beauty. Only a matter of weeks before there’s one on Jools Holland and the internet explodes with enquiries.
A personal favourite, and the perfect marriage of retro with futuristic, is Tobias Lindberg’s über-cool TLL Marvin. It’s the kind of guitar you want in every available colour and that lolly-stick headstock is surely the finest bit of simplification-meets-innovation we’ve seen for years.
On the acoustic front, it’s probably more about structure than overall ‘look’. Michi Matsuda has been up to all kinds of construction-based magic since his earliest designs blew away the guitar show cognoscenti at the turn of the century.
And right now, people are looking at the work of Matthew Rice and Matthias Roux at Casimi and no doubt wondering, whoa…what’s going on there? Yes, they’re spectacular looking but how can they sound so amazing with so much wood missing? If we think about their C3, for example, in terms of architecture, it’s all about understanding and developing the potential of the materials you’re building with so as to fulfil an aesthetic vision. Medieval cathedral-builders figured out you could keep going higher and emptier by incorporating a new form of lightweight bracing known as the flying buttress. The versatility of steel girders allowed for the previously unimaginable, cantilevered horizontal spans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house designs. They were simply, brilliantly, exploring and expanding space; creating it within previously familiar solid forms. Do we really need that load-bearing wall? Nah. The Casimi C3 is doing the same thing.
Are these arguments overblown? Probably. But then, can any of us be arsed to engage in a half-arsed debate? The guitars coming into TNAG (and regularly leaving for good homes) represent not the culmination but the absolute current refinement of the art form. Shapes and structures keep getting tweaked with the single aim of pursuing a builder’s, listener’s, buyer’s, concert-goers notion of guitar perfection. No one expects to achieve it but everyone is on the same path. A hundred years from now, your radical, high-end one-off will be the original, surrounded by a million knock-off imitators. And it’ll be worth a fortune!
As you read this, there’s a bunch of twitchy execs in the corporate boardroom of a guitar-building multi-national somewhere, looking at the Birdfish and the C3 and trying to decide whether, without getting too radical, their next big NAMM launch might incorporate a couple of those funky features – nothing too radical – that might get the kids excited. And so, ever so slowly, as in every art form there’s ever been, the establishment absorbs the fringe and thus, the bar that says, “this is now” moves up another notch. The ‘new’ becomes, first, the ‘new normal’ then, eventually, the normal. That normal lingers just long enough to be confronted by the new ‘new’ and the whole cycle repeats itself, not ad nauseam but ad astra. To infinity and beyond. Which, granted, is a line not generally associated with guitars. It should be.
Like a river that don’t know where it’s going…
…I took a long walk and I suddenly stopped going. With apologies. Anyway, a few days ago, I got the nagging urge, as you do, to call in at a storied Greenwich Village café, not to check on the veracity of its claim to have an original Caravaggio on the wall (it’s true!) but because it has its own theme-tune. In between the wah-wah and low-down funk of Isaac Hayes’s 1971 soundtrack to ‘Shaft’, lurks the graceful, floating musical confection that conjures the wonderful Caffe Reggio, a long-time fixture of the MacDougal Street art scene. Almost there, I almost didn’t make it, finding myself transfixed, a block away, on the corner of Minetta Lane outside the legendary Café Wha’? Nobody could claim it’s a picturesque venue (photo attached). In fact, it has the look, in our own UK vernacular, of ‘a right dump’ but this is one of a handful of places where everything we’ve come to know and love about guitar music lives or was generated from. How many dreams and visions (yes, him again) have come out of this sweaty, one-time underground horse-stable?
Dylan played here, Dave van Ronk before him. Chas Chandler watched Jimi Hendrix set the place alight – though not literally, for once – and thought the gawky-looking lad might just have a future in the UK. Peter, Paul and Mary spearheaded the folk revival of the early 60s here. Springsteen and The Velvet Underground turned up the volume so much here that you could avoid the entry fee and just get the full audio version out on the street.
And it’s still buzzing. The house band is the absolute bee’s knees – which helps – though the coffee’s probably better at Caffe Reggio.
Not for any kind of unattainable Grail, you understand, but in guitar terms, this might come pretty close. Notes recently discovered that Kim Walker, builder of the little masterpiece currently residing at TNAG Towers and many other works of six-string genius, is, it turns out a near neighbour. Apparently, he’s a lovely bloke but is somewhat wary of interviews. Who can blame him? Sightings are rare. Some claim he’s just a myth, despite the grainy footage. However, having wandered into the woods of North Stonington and left a few meagre tokens at the side of the trail, we now have a sign! There is hope. It’s a delicate business, reader, so watch this space. A ‘chat’ is in the offing – though not an interview. Anything but that. ‘Til then…oh, well…it’s back to the bars, as Todd Rundgren would say, for another round of Florida fruit-based beer and Jimmy Buffett. At least I’m the youngest person here!
The ever-popular Fab Five feature will be back next time.
See you then. SB
by Stephen Bennett