TNAG Notes #8 by Stephen Bennett
At the risk of jinxing an entire (and reputedly annual) global phenomenon, today’s Notes is delighted, finally, to announce the arrival of Spring; a time of renewal and, we’re told, vague animal stirrings in the “procreative” style. While TNAG would prefer to draw a bromide-infused veil over the latter, we’re nonetheless poised, as ever, to accommodate the renewal bit, should you be wrestling with the primal urge to replace your worn-out, Lidl’s own-brand Super 400 with a sleek and sensually-stimulating Somogyi. But let’s save the guitar porn for later, as (in the confident assertion that our readers have come to expect only the Highest Cultural Content from this column) we turn our attention to a bit of trademark, delicately nuanced social-history, featuring a cast of dozens, including such intellectual titans as Charles Dickens, Carl Sagan, Mr. and Mrs. Maunder (!) and of course, Keith Richards.
THE INTERNET GIVETH…AND (you fill in the rest)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. So said the aforementioned Chuck D., evoking a time even more tumultuous, perhaps, than our own. What makes the line so clever, of course, is that it’s always true; it could define any era. As we recoil from the shock of the new, we seek refuge in the comforts of the familiar. Speculation regarding what’s been gained and what’s been lost fuels the debating-armoury of litigants on both sides of the argument and often, maddeningly, both sides are right. And so to the web – with all that word’s dubious connotations of sticky, bewilderingly-complex captivity. A gift to humankind, you say, and – looked at solely in the light of guitar-geekery, that’s hard to argue (but we will – shortly). Apart from drooling at glossy pictures of voluptuous, polished bodies for hours on end (right…that’s the porn bit out of the way), the internet gives us access to free lessons, clips of our favourite players and seemingly endless information and opinion on everything from plectrums and capos to digital home-recording and how to spot a fake ’59 Les Paul by the fret-width and neck radius. Got ‘sensory-overload’ if you want it. Which almost-Stones quote brings us to the Wisdom of Keith, whose intriguing thoughts on the much-maligned virtues of boredom deliver the perfect counter argument. The great man posits the notion that post-war austerity and its related teenage ennui led to a remarkable era of creativity; that from the fetid, back-bedroom miasma of bored youth comes the creative spark and ground-breaking 60s invention of rock and pop. There was nothing else to do. Now there’s so much to look at, so much to grab our attention and, once grabbed, so little time to linger. Fair points on both sides. We’ve gained a massive amount of guitar-based, pleasure-possibility from the instant access afforded via the internet. And yet…whither the anticipation, the mystery, even the adventure. Someone mentions a new John Mayall album featuring this Beano-reading kid on the cover. Someone else reckons Nirvana are going acoustic (or Dylan, electric, come to that). Someone’s mate at school has got a Hofner Verithin (!?) and you’re all going round to their house later to marvel at it. Rumour even has it there’s a whole street in London that’s got nothing but guitar shops. Imagine. Is that what we’ve lost? Certainly, the denizens of Denmark Street - and any number of hands-on sellers, not to mention print-media publishers – would say so. But then, why trail all the way to the capital on rip-off public transport to check out the Strat copy you can have delivered by morning – cheaper? So, if both arguments have merit, where’s the middle ground? For retailers, it has to be in adaptability; the acceptance of - and the capacity to embrace – both worlds, while, essentially, never losing sight of the “personal”. TNAG’s current initiative may not be perfect – yet – but the opportunity to have a particular guitar demonstrated, live on screen, over the internet is surely a massive step in the right direction. You get to ask questions, check the instrument from all angles, hear it in amplified or acoustic setting and, if you’re not happy, get back on the bus and go home. Or are we getting a little mixed up there? Either way, it’s always a risk, letting go of our learned experience to venture into unknown territory. But then, that’s how we move forward.
MORE HISTORY (or…”Climate Change: The Good News!”)
Hmm…maybe not. At TNAG, though, we’re often contemplating the weightier matters of global import (so you don’t have to) and one such, of course, is the ongoing deep significance of the Little Ice Age in shaping the cultural character of the modern world. Come back, reader, this is important (not least to aficionados of fine acoustic instruments - i.e. you). It’s about the wood, you see. Tree growth in Europe during the profoundly nippy Maunder Minimum period (around 1645-1750, look it up) was slower, leading necessarily, to the harvesting of more stunted log specimens consisting of unusually dense wood. The period coincided with the golden age of Stradivarius and Guarneri violin-making in Cremona. Furthermore, the maple the Italians were importing came, via Venice, mostly from the forests of northern Croatia, where they were having it pretty chilly, to say the least. Other possible explanations for the exceptional sound quality of stringed instruments from that era include the special – often secret - composition of varnish and the animal-based glue used in construction. We may not be heading for another Ice Age but for anyone steeped in the high-end luthier-lore of the 21st century - admit it - all this history-stuff sounds remarkably familiar.
THIS FORNIGHT’S FAB FIVE
Son House, Kelly Joe Phelps, Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt – even George Harrison; how many great players have made their mark in Open G or Open D (the former for rhythm, the latter for lead – just ask Ry) and thus inspired generations of imitators. Be it knife-blade, home-made bottle neck, state-of-the-art Wolfram or plain old brass tube, the tools of this particular trade remain refreshingly simple. Here’s a handful of the greatest practitioners, members of the jury, for your esteemed consideration…
1. In 1977, as part of the Voyager probe to search for other life forms in the universe, Carl Sagan and his research team put together a package of data to represent various aspects of both our physical planet and the wider human experience. Blind Willie Johnson’s, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was chosen partly because in NASA’s words, “since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight". So, for all you aliens out there, this is the immortal sound - probably conjured with the aid of a pocket-knife blade - of the man who inspired Robert Johnson’s crossroad-quest to find the musical secrets that might transport his own playing beyond the popular imagination and, literally, into another galaxy.
2. Unfettered by the restrictions of recognised (or recognisable) tunings, Sonny Landreth is, paradoxically, a glass-and-little-finger classicist whose technical wizardry, sheer verve and Strat/Dumble tone-combo make for an instantly identifiable sound-signature. While his earlier albums chronicle a more straightforward (for him) account of classic blues and zydeco, 2017’s “Recorded Live In Lafayette” finds the maestro on home turf and touching all the stylistic bases. His “playing behind the slide” technique is truly mind(and finger)boggling.
3. Is there a more influential riff in blues-rock history than the galloping 12th fret call-to-arms of “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James? Like B.B. King and the aforementioned Mr. Landreth, Elmore only has to chuck out a two or three note phrase for instant audience-recognition – something infinitely more valuable than a lifetime’s worth of lightning-fast, fretboard frippery. On most of those iconic Trumpet, Fire and Chess label recordings, he’s either caressing, with aching tenderness, his trusty Kay dreadnought acoustic (complete with De Armond sound-hole pick-up) or, alternatively, bashing the living daylights out of it. The electric Silvertone did look better in publicity shots, mind.
4. Bukka White may not be everyone’s choice to represent the warmer, less hellhound-haunted strains of the country-blues and his preferred E minor tuning has long fallen out of fashion but still, there’s no more uplifting two-and-a-half minutes in the slide repertoire than his “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues”. He used the same tune to relate his prison experiences in the notorious Parchman Farm (for assault) and somehow manages to make even that sound positive. Led Zeppelin owed him a massive debt for “Shake ‘Em On Down”.
5. And finally, ladies and gentlemen, keeping that classic, Coricidin-bottle tradition alive and providing a living study of where Duane Allman might’ve gone next, we present the peerless Derek Trucks. Possibly the most tasteful exponent of electric slide-playing out there, what marks Derek’s genius is the way he communicates such a wonderful sense of inclusivity both on stage and on record; be it with partner, Susan Tedeschi, Allmans other-half Warren Haynes or any number of like-minded collaborators. It’s all about the tune. On countless YouTube clips, watch Trucks as he listens and waits before picking up the baton at the (note) perfect moment then soaring off into the slide stratosphere. It’s what the SG was made for. See you next time. Meanwhile…your thought for the day; “impactful”. No such word. Resist!
by Stephen Bennett