TNAG Notes #28 by Stephen Bennett
Shutdown Special! And if that sounds more like a fabulous new electric model than the latest iteration of your favourite guitar blog…read on!
Yes, it’s that time again. Time to enter the bunker, sweep the cat off the keyboard, cast aside the velvet smoking jacket and the giant Mono-Slipper, wave (a short) farewell to the chocolate Hobnobs and cast two insouciant fingers in the vague direction of any lurking microbial menace. For such is the glamorous lifestyle of writers everywhere. Apparently.
Anyway, as we find ourselves tied to the cold metal chair of Unaccustomed Helplessness, exposed to the naked, swinging lightbulb of Harsh Reality, the mind starts to play strange tricks. In particular, with the surfeit of free time befuddling our customary worker-bee sensibilities, we begin to fancy ourselves as having hitherto untapped skills with which to beguile the empty hours. Hence, I’ve decided to paint my own guitar. Yes, we are certainly living through strange times. Following a quick trip to the Interweb, a pristine, unfinished body is currently winging its way in the direction of my rampant, acrylic pinceaux (Steady on – Ed.). Watch this space, we suggest, if only for the ensuing fortnightly hit of schadenfreude. Or bemusement. Or sheer pity. Though, what’s the worst that can happen? Eh? Ah.
All of which leads today’s Notes to dwell (now THERE’s a skill) on the nature of the painted guitar ‘in genere’, and it’s abundantly clear, from the many examples plastered all over Insta-grim, that the vast majority fall under the category known to us Northerners as ‘a right mess’. The trick, it seems, is to avoid overdoing it and to narrow things down to what actually works. There’s a long and proud tradition of whimsical ‘cowboy’ decoration that’s still kept up by Martin and Collings, in particular, and a similar, (mostly) stencilled design concept also forms an integral part of the history of Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles. Somehow, they manage to pull it off. It helps that the acoustic guitar offers a more open canvas than most electrics, being free of buttons, knobs, pick-up and all that other – albeit necessary – clutter. So, getting it right on a solid body is tricky. Once the design gets too busy, you’ve lost it. As the Cubist painter, Georges Braque, wisely pointed out, too much colour equals no colour at all. The artist Claude Utley somehow makes ‘busy’ work superbly on Bill Frisell’s guitars but he’s a rarity in that he’s, well, really good.
There have been all kinds of famous, and even much-loved, instrument-defacings over the years. This column yields to no one in terms of respect for the great George Harrison but, really, what was he thinking? Even Jimmy Page’s dragon-y-efforts wouldn’t really suggest giving up the day job. Where to look then, for inspiration? Eyesores abound. Just take a few minutes to look up ‘painted guitars’ on your laptop but be warned, keep the aspirins and Ray Bans close. Fortunately, there are a handful of genuine ‘creatives’ who’re capable of balancing the cool against the kitsch and who know where the top is without ever quite going over it. It’s a time-honoured design principal that’s held true for everything from the Chanel black dress to the Coke bottle and the AC Cobra. Classics all. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it – even deluded idiots who should be focussed on that pesky film script instead of defacing a pristine block of undeserving Swamp Ash. So. Inspiration.
Journey with us, if you will, to the shores of Lake Champlain and to beautiful Burlington, Vermont, home of TNAG luminaries Dale Fairbanks and the amazing Iris Guitars. We’re not just hovering round the region, though, we’re zooming right into the very workshop currently occupied by those two mighty lords of lutherie (!). Well, they occupy two thirds of it. The other bit is the Batcave of one Creston Lea, who makes fabulous solid-bodied electric guitars of various shapes and sizes, both reassuringly ‘classic’ and pleasantly off-kilter. A lucky few of his customers have had their orders adorned and enhanced by the gorgeous artwork of Sarah Ryan, who adds stylised birds and plants via designs somewhere between Norfolk narrowboat and Mexican Day of the Dead. They’re stunning, (see images below). It’s not just the use of space, either; the colour combinations are sublime. Taken all together – especially in conjunction with that classic body-shape – these are mini-masterpieces. Just don’t leave them hanging them on the wall. Made, as they say, to be played.
So, stick with us (there’s time unfortunately) and, providing UPS keeps going, watch the TNAG Shutdown Special turn from Frisell-ish fever-dream into gloriously solid objet d’art! And far from presuming to emulate the style, we merely hope to channel the tastefully overstated aesthetic. As mentioned previously, that’s an elusive trick to attempt and, if it can’t be repeated here – which we all suspect – then it’s a good thing Creston Lea actually sells them. What better safety net? And Notes is currently saving a fortune in bus fares.
In times like these, we’re obliged to take whatever positives we can and make the most of the hand we’ve been dealt. Fortunately, it hasn’t taken long for those musicians deprived of the shared experience of the concert hall to try and compensate by means of social media. So, wherever we can, let’s celebrate and support the dozens of artists broadcasting live from their living rooms via Facebook (or whatever platform-of-the-day the under 25s have devised to confuse us). Some of it may be rough and ready but it’s all welcome. Besides, fans spend so much time clamouring for a glimpse into the lives of their heroes that it really would be churlish to quibble. We’re all stuck in the house but, as Keith Richards insists with regard to the post-austerity cultural explosion of the early 60s, a lot of good stuff can come out of boredom and confinement. Here at TNAG Ranch (USA), for example, we’ve found the perfect couch-companion in a long-neglected Boss eBand JS-8. Plug any old piece of junk you like in there and you’ll be sounding like Carlos Santana or Stevie Ray Vaughn in seconds. An hour of that followed by a cleansing acoustic warm-down and, magic - another day gone.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
…great guitar albums recorded in (voluntary) isolation. Perhaps not all ‘recorded’, as such, but certainly conceived and nurtured to all-time classic status far from the madding crowd. Clearly, Samuel Johnson was on to something when he suggested that nothing focusses the mind more than the thought of going back to London in the morning. And there are plenty of contenders for the list below; Iron & Wine, David Grey and Emmitt Rhodes all managed to produce landmark home-recorded albums, and most of Robert Johnson’s legendary tracks were laid down in a guest room of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Bruce Springsteen’s sparse and seminal, “Nebraska”, is an accidental isolation album (so doesn’t qualify) in that he chose to stick with the demos after the band arrangements failed to enhance the songs in the way he’d hoped. Some might suggest that Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ should make the cut as a home-recording but only if you live in the kind of home that has areas roped off from the public. They’re very posh in Bath. So, the following five, all essential and, of course, all analysed to death elsewhere, get the Notes nod for today.
- Justin Vernon was far from the first artist to retreat to the metaphorical (or in this case literal) log cabin to escape the crushing pressures of the Great Big Music Machine. In 1969, a similarly stressed-out and physically exhausted Paul McCartney had also vanished into the wilderness to record his first solo album on a basic 4-track. ‘Bon Iver’ opted for an old Mac and the wilds of rural Wisconsin to compile the fragile and icily beautiful document that would go on to launch his stellar career.
- So much has been written about the Stones’ seedy sojourn in the south of France that it’s easy to forget that ‘Exile on Main Street’ is one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. Yes, they were dodging their taxes. Yes, the whole thing was a bleary slow-motion riot of drug-fuelled hedonism and, yes, the villa Nellcôte had once been a Gestapo headquarters but, as is so often the case, the art here transcends the circumstances of its creation or the myriad personal ‘foibles’ of its creators.
- No band has ever been hit harder by fate and tragic circumstance than Fairport Convention. After the devastating road accident that killed drummer, Martin Lamble, and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, and left Ashley Hutchings hospitalized for weeks, producer Joe Boyd set the shattered remnants up in a big old house in Farley Chamberlayne, Hampshire, to – first - recuperate and later to explore a whole new approach. The resultant ‘Liege and Lief’ is to English folk music what The Band’s ‘Music from Big Pink’ is to Americana; both the original touchstone and the unmatched pinnacle. No one else, on either of the Atlantic, has ever come close.
- There must’ve been something in the air back then. Possibly a sense of, “if it worked for that lot, maybe we should give it a go, as well”. It’s possible record companies were a little more patient and enlightened. Though unlikely. Whatever fell into place for Traffic’s lovely first album in Aston Tirrold, Berkshire, and for Fairport in Hampshire, brought a global-conquest-style triumph for Led Zeppelin in Wales. Bron Yr Aur, in Machynlleth, Snowdonia – the remote cottage where Robert Plant had spent his childhood holidays – proved to be the crucible for a sonic alchemy that no rock band has ever quite matched since. May I submit items III and IV, m’lud?
- It’s too easy to romanticize the notion of being locked away with a few mates, a fully stocked fridge/pantry and an array of vintage instruments but we’re all guilty of it on occasion. If you’re Bob Dylan, those mates are The Band, and the result is the blissfully ramshackle, ‘Basement Tapes’ then, whatever the reality, as per that old, received Liberty Valance wisdom, Notes is happy to print the legend. Love it or hate it, it remains the ultimate rock vision of the perfect after-hours, lock-in escape.
Just when you thought the world couldn’t get any madder comes news of a ‘body-percussion’ pick-up for inside your guitar. Really. For those not instantly transfixed by the potential thereof, may we suggest the budget alternative - a cajon. That does involve interacting with a real-live drummer, though. We may need to rethink this paragraph.
See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett