TNAG Notes: The Rules & How To Break Them, The Most Influential Acoustic Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of by Stephen Bennett

Welcome to #4 in our ongoing series of sidelong six-string sagacity, shameless story-spinning and singular sonic speculation. So…without further alliteration…

The rules (and how to break them). Not just how but why.

Who’s your favourite player? You may have a few. Maybe there’s one for acoustic and one for electric. Maybe it changes depending on your mood; Bill Frisell one week, Richard Thompson the next. One thing you can be sure of, though, whoever you choose, it’s mostly because they don’t sound like anyone else. Each one will have honed a sound that is exclusively his or her own and, in most cases, that process will have been shaped by one single, albeit complicated, factor; the unique formula of personal traits that underpins what we recognise as ‘individuality’.

“You know why I love that Django Reinhardt? Because he sounds like everybody else.” Er…no. Same goes for Jeff Beck, Johnny Marr, Michael Hedges…the list goes on. Of course, no guitarist wants to sound like everyone else; it’s an absurd notion. We all want to be recognised as ourselves yet we all (okay, that’s a slight generalisation) spend our practice-hours trying to emulate the styles and techniques of our heroes. And that’s great – up to a point. Somewhere along a similar line, no doubt on a similar sofa, our favourites were doing the same thing and yet, at some crucial point, they all tipped the process upside down by declaring that, from now on, the technique I’ve accrued will serve me, my personality, my individuality and thus they emerged from the herd as, if nothing else, instantly recognisable. We should all aspire to a similar course. We can learn fabulous technical lessons – not least in terms of chord vocabulary – in studying, say, the gorgeous pop-jazz instrumentals of the Pat Metheny ‘baritone acoustic’ albums but the truth remains that Pat’s version will almost always be a better listen. Slip a few of those left-field chords into your own arrangements, though, and you’re suddenly in previously uncharted and exciting territory. You suddenly start to sound (a bit) like you. And from there it’s an upward spiral. Know the rules then by all means break them but - better still - master them then rewrite them as your own.

And on a similar note…

Two thoughts to consider – then just the one. Recently, a luthier friend of TNAG who has repaired and set up some of the most iconic guitars in rock history (not least Mike Bloomfield’s legendary ’63 “Newport” Telecaster*) announced, in discussion of all-things-vintage, that “originality is vastly overrated”. Then, earlier this week, we saw a posting from StewMac advertising amp-kits based on the series of ’68 classics (Fender, Marshall etc.) used by the likes of Carl Perkins at Folsom Prison, The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, Cream at the RAH and Buffalo Springfield pretty much everywhere on the West Coast. Both instances brought to mind an interesting take we heard recently on the nature of what’s probably best described as “the vintage market”. It goes like this…what makes Gibson’s early-20s Loar mandolins and wartime J45s, Martin’s anything-from-the-mid-30s or Fender’s ’54 “Blackguard” Teles and pre-CBS Strats so precious is not the actual intrinsic value of the instrument itself more the power of the music that was made on it during a certain period. We’re desperate to recreate “that sound” – whatever it might be and so, logically, in our determined (and costly) efforts to do so, we go back to the equipment involved. What we tend to leave out of the purchasing equation is the tiny detail that the genius players responsible for said sounds were all working on the tools that were most readily available and would do the job required of them to the highest possible standard. Those guitars (and mandolins) sounded fabulous because of a unique coming-together of circumstances; the innovative craftsmanship, the musical zeitgeist, the player, the recording equipment, the sociological significance of the moment…too many factors to even start listing. Which isn’t to say that coveting a 12-string, ‘20s Stella because you love Leadbelly is a daft thing to do – you’d be owning a part of musical history – but far too often, “vintage blindness” (okay, we just made that phrase up but still…) surely gets in the way of logic. The current wave of high-end luthiers – Kostal, Greenfield, Rick Turner, Froggy Bottom, (Collings/Waterloo in the Leadbelly case) et al – know those classic instruments inside out. That’s how they learned. They take old guitars apart and put them back together again, and in some instances, while nonetheless marvelling at the Wisdom of the Ancients, figure out how to improve on the amazing work of their predecessors. Does anyone really imagine high-end sports cars aren’t more efficient machines than their vintage counterparts? No – and both are coveted for different reasons. The current state of customer-choice in the guitar world is better than it’s ever been. Standards are consistently higher. If you want “that sound”, you can get it on a new instrument (or amp) that doesn’t play like a converted beer-crate with the action of a bow and arrow. That “originality is overrated” line came only partly tongue-in-cheek. Trust the new generation – they really do know what they’re doing.

*No…not the bloke on YouTube

The Most Influential Acoustic Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of…

…and if you have, we apologise. Still, it’s worth reminding everyone who ever picked up an acoustic guitar just how important, brilliant and (perhaps most significantly) wonderfully accessible the music of Joseph Spence remains, abides, even, for ‘laid back’ is a term that could’ve been coined by the Dude himself to define the multi-faceted Bahamian maestro. Born in 1910, Spence worked as a sponge-fisherman, stonemason and carpenter in his native Andros, as well as a cane-cutter in the US. Imagine what those hands looked like. Spence’s lyrical, folk-gospel stylings provide the bedrock on which a whole generation of American – and quite a few English – musicians built their roots repertoire. Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, The Grateful Dead, Bob Brozman, slide-wizard Catfish Keith, Ralph McTell, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn and even The Incredible String Band all owe a significant debt to rolling, rambling, dropped-D gems like, “I Bid You Goodnight” and “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer”. When the musicologist Sam Charters first heard Spence play in the late 50s, he swore he was listening to two players in duet and the subsequent recordings started a musicians’ pilgrimage to Spence’s front-door that led to a mid-60s US tour in support of the Spence/Pinder family-collaboration album, “The Real Bahamas, Volume One”. Listening now, in our age of impeccable sound-quality, some of Joseph’s stuff sounds more than a bit rough and ready but it’s all the more enjoyable (and of course, authentic) for that. Spence is no slave to time or structure in his playing, that’s for sure, and his mumbled growl vocals may be a little too idiosyncratic for some but album-wise, you might still want to find a place for “Good Morning, Mr. Walker”. It features most of his signature tunes; “Out On The Rolling Sea” and “Brown Skin Gal” being two of the most essential. And in the middle of a wicked British winter, Spence’s playing does what all the best music should – it transports you to a different world. A far sunnier one, in this case.

This Fortnight’s Fab Five

1. How often do we see the term, “Lost Treasure” in relation to an album that has faded into the mists of time yet (supposedly) retains the power to astonish half a lifetime later? Well, certainly, there have been a few that live up to the hype; the solo work of Dennis Wilson and Gene Clark springs to mind but one that really deserves investigation, especially by guitar-players, is straight-ahead jazzer Howard Roberts’s startling 1971 stylistic swerve, “Antelope Freeway”. In keeping with the mood of the times, it’s a ‘concept’ album that stands up today as one of the great, West Coast acid-rock projects ever. Imagine discovering a forgotten recording of a stoned, cosmic freak-out involving Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia and George Benson. Awesome – and what’s more the current CD package includes the 1972 follow-up, “Equinox Express Elevator” which might well be just as good.

2. Speaking of jazzmen exploring different paths, have a listen to John Scofield’s brilliantly-titled, “Country For Old Men”. The opening track, “Mr. Fool” is a masterclass in how to explore a simple theme (a touch of the Tennessee Waltz, here) and launch it into the stratosphere by means of immaculate tone, touch and sheer old-fashioned good taste.

3. That big, hairy bloke in Robert Plant’s bands and myriad other projects usually bearing the T-Bone Burnett stamp. No, not Buddy Miller - genius though he may be - we’re talking about the mighty Darrell Scott. If it’s got strings, he’s a master (he plays a mean piano, too) who also boasts a wonderful singing voice and writes fabulous songs. In fact, whether it’s solo or alongside regular partner, Tim O’Brien, Scott pretty much defines the term ‘class act’.

4. If you haven’t listened to their (relatively small) CD output already, you’ll be delighted to discover the Milk Carton Kids. They’ve been accused of Simon & Garfunkel clonery (which we now declare ‘a word’) but the virtuoso guitar interplay (a vintage Martin/Gibson combo) takes the scarily-gifted duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan into a territory all of their own. Great live, too. Check out the “Another Time, Another Place” concert DVD.

5. And finally, tin-hat time. Who’s done the best job so far; Trey Anastasio, John Mayer, Jimmy Herring or the tag-team of Kimock and Karan? Answer (well, ours, anyway): who cares? The musical legacy of the Dead is in safe hands. They’re all great players and the pleasure now is hearing each one’s take on those established classics; so many wonderful songs that now have a new lease of life. Also, (whisper it) the post-Jerry bands are, for a number of reasons, that bit tighter and more focussed. We think. Now that’s controversial. See you next time!

by Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett is a multi-award-winning TV scriptwriter, theatre director, musician and reviewer/interviewer for the sadly, now-defunct, “Acoustic” magazine. He lives with his wife, Gabrielle, in Mystic (which is a real place) and owns far too many guitars to deserve such a happy marriage. He once played football against the Brazilian national team (no, really) and will happily discuss the narrow 12-1 defeat at great length – with anybody.


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