TNAG Notes #27 by Stephen Bennett
Rejoice! Guitarists the world over are entering a new and unaccustomed phase; self-isolation. Throughout history, until now, we’ve been shunned, ignored and told to clear off to another room at the first creak of a case hinge. More of a socially imposed isolation. Yet now, brothers and sisters, we can at last take the moral high-ground and insist it was always our idea in the first place. Let us all smugly self-isolate - with guitars - for as long as it takes and Things (at least on the repertoire/manual dexterity front) Will Only Get Better.
Seriously, though. Stay healthy, observe the protocols and consider others. For some reason, that seems to be the enlightened new rule when surely we’d always thought it pretty much the right way of doing things all along. Did we really need the governmental prod to remind us of our basic human values? Well…probably.
But what of the ‘outside’ guitar world? It won’t be going away, that’s for sure, so, come to think of it - and laying all cynicism aside - there’s never been a better time for a bit of virtual shopping. Which notion brings us to a strange and very modern paradox.
We’ve oft extolled the virtues of the actual, physical and social experience of guitar-buying; celebrating the thrill of the hands-on, the in-store muso-vibe and the dodgy aroma of the Denmark Street carpet. That it requires a certain energy and commitment, we take for granted. And we trust in the process because we’ve been an active participant.
That’s not quite the same when it comes to the on-line buying experience – and here’s the weird thing. We pore over the images, we study the specs, we search for film clips of the instrument being played, we put the kettle on and ponder then go back and repeat the entire palaver with a growing sense of existential angst. To plunge or not to plunge? We have the bank card poised. We really want that guitar. And then…we stop. Why? (and here’s the paradox)…what if we end up having to send it back?
Imagine the huge effort and emotional expenditure involved in resealing the box then having it picked up by a courier at no expense to ourselves! Put it like that and it sounds laughable, yet there’s something in the human psyche that shies away from that embarrassingly un-daunting prospect. It’s almost as if we’re admitting to some kind of abject personal failure. To losing face, even when no one can see us. Especially as we’re all such self-appointed experts in the field. We agonise over the notion of returning an instrument as being ‘too much trouble’ yet the commitment involved is a fraction of that we’d need to get on the train and head into London, Nashville, New York or Newcastle and buy something to carry home – and possibly back – in the first place. It seems we 21st century humans have an increasingly skewed view of what constitutes risk, in that we always feel the need to control it. Another paradox. Out there in the real-life, ‘actual’ guitar showroom, there’s less pressure, less individual responsibility, in rejecting something. We can discuss things with a friend or with the dealer, shrug a bit, offer a few carefully nuanced negatives before moving on to that shiny red one in the corner. At home, on our own, all that decision-making responsibility is on us. And we’re wimps. There’s no one to tell us it’s a bargain or that (in our awesomely talented hands) it sounds fantastic. We’re stuck with ourselves alone and with our own judgement – and that’s scary.
But these are scary times! Let’s embrace the wisdom of the ancients and adopt that wisest of mantras…’sod it’. If you want the guitar, stay at home, get on the laptop, pay for it, have it sent, play it and, if you don’t love it, send it back so that someone else can. No one will point at you on the street. There’s no one out on the streets, anyway. Apropos of which…
The Best Acoustic Guitar Sound Ever…
…has never come from any one particular instrument. It isn’t related to the cost or (deep breath) even the quality of the instrument making that sound. The wood combination is neither here nor there; spruce, cedar, Brazilian rosewood, mahogany, koa…who cares? TNAG provides a (temporary) home to some of the finest, and finest sounding, acoustic guitars ever built. There are Kostals in the showroom, Gerbers, Matsudas, Somogyis and Casimis. They’re all state of the art in terms of both aesthetic and sonic quality and yet, in a way, their beauty and sonic capability exists in a vacuum. The best acoustic sound ever is an entirely subjective concept. For some, it’s Leadbelly on a cheap Stella, the Everlys on those big Gibsons or Taylor Swift strumming a Baby Taylor. For others, it’s Django Reinhardt’s Selmer-Maccaferri or the 1935 Epiphone Olympic that David Rawlings wrestles into such sublime melodic contortions. The point is, of course, it’s not so much the guitar as the music that comes out of it. The best acoustic sound ever is the one delivering the music we love the most and no one can seriously argue with that. As for those lutherie masterpieces lining the TNAG walls? Yes, they’re capable of producing sounds none of the aforementioned instruments could even dream of. The only difference is, they need to be played. They need to make the kind of music that has someone stop in their tracks and say, “that’s the best sounding acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard”. The capacity for exactly that is in all of them, waiting to be exploited, and – because we’re not all musical gods like Django or Leadbelly – isn’t it nice to think, in playing any one of them, we’ve already got an enormous head start.
And speaking of Shame (see self-isolation section)…
Sometimes the joy of ‘discovering’ an artist is mitigated by the potential embarrassment of sharing the awful truth with your reader(ship?) that you’ve never heard of them ‘til now. One such artist, new to this column but clearly dazzling more-enlightened audiences for decades is the awesomely talented Johnny A. He’s even got a very cool Gibson semi-acoustic named after him. Who knew? (Careful…Ed.)
John Antonopoulos grew up in Boston and has been gracing bands with his stunning six-string artistry since the early 1970s. He played with Delaney & Bonnie (always a good marker), Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos fame and J. Geils singer, Peter Wolf, before focussing on a solo career with occasional touring duties as a Yardbird, among other things. Johnny’s only released a half dozen solo albums but you won’t need to listen to much - just try ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Oh, Yeah’ or ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ on YouTube to reveal what you’ve been missing. Or maybe you haven’t been missing it at all and this column really does need to wake up. In a band format, think of a jazzier Jeff Beck in perma-tasteful mode with hints of Bill Frisell at his most melodic. Johnny really is that good. He’s taken to some serious looper pedal for solo gigs, of late, but catch him with his bass/drums trio for a true sense of the man’s incredible talent. And to think he’s been out there all this time. Notes hereby hangs its head and shuffles off into the Slough of Despond (one for all you 17th century allegory-lit fans, there) only to be rescued (at lighning speed, no doubt) by…yes…
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
‘Git-tar pickers’. As in good ol’ Bluegrass. Yee-haw. But it’s a mite tough to pick just five from so many. Fortunately, this isn’t a ‘best’ list in terms of technique, speed or genre-bending innovation. If it were indeed such, Tony Rice would probably head the list. In the same way as the Jazz Manouche world is bursting with jaw-droppingly dextrous players – partly by the very nature of the technical demands of their chosen style – Bluegrass virtually insists that if you’re going to play it to a standard whereby your name gets known, you’d better be pretty damn good. So, with apologies to fans of long-time greats like Dan Crary, Vince Gill, Charles Sawtelle or Jimmy Martin, and to the newer brigade led by the likes of Chris Eldridge, Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings, here are five genuine masters of the art whose work – while admittedly occupying a space many (churls!) feel to be a little bit narrow - never gets old.
- How cool was Clarence White? None more cool. Maddeningly laconic and so generally laid back as to be virtually horizontal, Clarence delivered the ‘crossover’ goods from his Kentucky Colonels, pure Bluegrass background to supply The Byrds with the keys to country-rock heaven. “Live at the Fillmore – February ‘69” is an excellent place to start. Possessed of both a dazzling, unorthodox technique and an effortless rock-star vibe, Clarence was struck and killed by a drunk driver while loading up the car with his mandolinist brother, Roland, after a gig in Palmdale, California in 1973. He was 29 years old.
- It’s not the first time Norman Blake has featured in this section (and not the Teenage Fanclub NB, by the way, though he’s pretty good, too). Of all the quietly unsung virtuoso players of the past fifty-plus years, this Norman might well be the most unassuming. His CV – alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and latterly, Robert Plant – is second to none and over the years, he’s composed any number of tunes now regarded as Bluegrass standards, including ‘Ginseng Sullivan’, ‘Slow Train Through Georgia’ and the classic, ‘Church Street Blues’. No flash, just pure, understated class.
- While he does little to allay the suspicion that he’s as mad as a box of frogs, there’s no one out there who handles a dreadnought with quite the style and panache of David Grier. Just listen to his live take on “Angeline the Baker” from ‘Live at the Linda’. He’ll first tell you how boring it’s going to be, then blow your head off with some of the most elegant (and yes, warp-speed fast) melodic variations you’ll ever hear from a solo guitar tune. Genius.
- Both a great player and a great teacher (not always the case, let’s be honest), Bryan Sutton may well be the current leading light of the Bluegrass guitar scene. If you can judge an artist’s merit by the company he keeps then Bryan’s work alongside Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile and Béla Fleck is enough of a giveaway. Nashville TNAGers might also be lucky enough to find him sitting in with the house band on Monday nights at 3rd and Lindsley.
- Arthel Lane ‘Doc’ Watson. Of course. His influence is all pervasive throughout not only modern Bluegrass, as the man who adapted so many traditional fiddle tunes for the guitar, but in every aspect of country music. He was the first white player to bring non-blues-based ‘rural’ guitar music to an urban audience and make it stick. Every young player, in whatever style, looked to learn (sorry, steal) from Doc Watson, who himself transferred his early Les Paul technique to the Gallagher G-50 he stuck with for most of his professional life. Try the multi-CD collection ‘Legacy’ for both an ideal introduction and a full, deep dose of the Doc.
So…in the words of the great “Hill Street Blues”, be careful out there. See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett