TNAG Notes: The Six-Stringed Elephant In The Room & B&G Business by Stephen Bennett
Welcome to the first of what we hope, with your indulgence, will be a fortnightly, fret-based feature exploring the world of acoustic and electric guitar in all its multi-faceted glory via interviews, analyses, arguments and explorations of topics we think might, to paraphrase the great Lord Reith, inform, entertain and yes, even educate. And if that last one sounds a bit “up itself”, we confidently expect it to be a two-way process so feel free to tell us where and how we’re going wrong and indeed, what we should be writing about instead. We’ll give it a go.
In the meantime, our maiden voyage will visit many exotic lands (this might not literally be the case but serves as an example of the tortured metaphor you may have to navigate over the coming weeks – Ed.) and touch on a variety of themes; from creative “block” to why perfection is overrated and whether cutaways are cool (or not). Objective journalism may suffer but, hey…that’s the point; we’re claiming the right to have opinions, too! We’ll also be featuring a fortnightly Fab-Five of random recommendations to enliven your daily commute, lunch-hour, bath-time etc., pointing you towards a few favourite tracks, YouTube clips and great guitar players you may have forgotten or never knew existed. So let’s get on with it...
The Six-Stringed Elephant in the Room (or 4, 7, 8, 12-string and not an actual elephant - Ed.)
Ever feel like you’re getting in your own way? You’ve reached a plateau and it’s been a long, hard climb. It’s comfortable here and the next ascent looks particularly daunting. Time passes. The inevitable sense of stagnation starts to creep in. And the longer it goes on, the steeper that next slope appears. Still…back to the elephant. Sort of.
Woody Allen once based a whole stage-routine on how he felt intimidated by his household appliances. They were whispering together in cupboards and on shelves; plotting against him. He tried in vain to avoid their accusatory gaze; he felt it boring into his timid soul. Similarly, we guitarists have a voice in our heads; more notes than words, in our case. It’s the sublime noise we yearn to conjure from that bloody annoying box-thing propped up in the corner and yet…the pressure. “Why am I watching internet cat-videos when I could be practicing?”, you ask. And the answer only reinforces your mounting sense of shame and guilt. “Because you’re a wimp. Just play me and get over it. Besides, I (probably, if you’re reading this) cost an arm and a leg.” As with Woody and his kettle, our instruments start to assume the moral high-ground. We fear the inability to fulfil our own musical expectations. The great 20th century artist/educator, Paul Klee, had a few interesting theories about how the creative mind struggles with the tools it needs for expression. The raw materials are so pure, ordered and laden with potential…they scare the crap out of us. What can the faint-hearted painter do with a clean, white canvas except make a pig’s ear of it? Our reticence leads us down the dismal path to disappointment and ultimately, perceived failure. So how do we get past it? Klee developed the notion of “taking a line for a walk”, a means of unblocking creativity by lowering the expectations of a “perfect” result. Basically, it involves drawing without ever taking the pencil off the paper. His methods espoused the value of the active process over any preoccupation with the finished product – which often turned out to be far more pleasing than the results of any hidebound, ‘traditional’ draughtsmanship.
We guitarists – especially those with aspirations to recreate the technical excellence and lyrical beauty of the great players – need to adopt a similar mind-set. Reproducing an Andy McKee or Tommy Emmanuel piece (good luck with that) is essentially pointless unless it opens a technical door to our own new explorations. “Noodling” is the most important creative tool we have; it carries no expectations and knows no formal boundaries. What it does have is the capacity for “distillation”. We hit on an idea, a phrase, a musical motif and from that we literally fine-tune our own compositions. That’s where the fulfilment comes in; where the real joy is. And it doesn’t start with the stifling demands of “it’s supposed to sound like this”.
Whoever came up with the faux-simplistic, “writers write”, captured the whole essence. We pick up the equipment, we put it to its intended use and before long ideas WILL start to flow. So grab a guitar, maybe drop that bottom E to D for a while, forget about goals - yours or anyone else’s – and just enjoy yourself. That is why you bought the bloody thing, after all.
Which brings us to something (just a little bit) more specific…
What Is It With All This B&G Little Sister Business, Then..?
While we all dismiss the er…myth of “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome”, sometimes, we just think, “I want one” and can’t really explain why. Little Sister? Want one. Is it the look? Partly but plenty of other guitars can be just as aesthetically pleasing, if not more so. Is it the sound? Of course. But there are other guitars that sound similar, some might even say even “better” (whatever that means). It’s all subjective. The price helps, of course. They won’t break the bank.
Buy any guitar and you’ve just entered into a fifty-fifty contract between player and instrument; neither party is much use without the other. Fix me up with a ‘54 Blackguard Tele, though, and the balance is off. In my mind (perception/expectation?), it will always bring more to the table than I can. And here’s the counter to our earlier argument - I won’t do it justice. Hence, I may love it but it will never love me. We’ve all been there (see above). We could get technical here but it’s already been done elsewhere and we’ll save that for future editions. Yes, we love those PAFs and the parlour-sized body. And who isn’t a sucker for a bit of brass (tail-piece) that looks like it’s been adapted from some ancient farm tool? Is the non-cutaway model cooler than the cutaway? The subjective says “yes”, the objective says, “who cares?” Also, with the initial concept having being dreamed up by a jewellery designer, David Weizmann, it’s easy to imagine an even smaller version making a pretty fabulous brooch. Especially now they’ve expanded the colour-range. For once, though, let’s just consider the psychology of our relationships with our guitars. It’s arguable that the reason we all want to play in the first place is based on fantasy; a vision of ourselves as part of an idealised musical universe. We just feel that deep need to push through the back of the wardrobe and enter into a whole new landscape of the imagination. We want the experience to take us somewhere new – or in this instance, somewhere old. The Little Sister looks like a guitar that’s been around, had a life and could no doubt tell you a few stories. Its visual beauty draws on the eternal paradox of ‘not-quite-right’ being more appealing than physical perfection; the obvious Gibson-y vibe coupled with a slotted headstock? On an electric. What’s all that about? And physical perfection is far too intimidating, anyway. There just isn’t time.
Behind the conscious, “got a problem with this?” cool of its retro-rough-diamond looks, the Little Sister seems to draw on a sonic DNA that’s pre-programmed to growl and churn from the depths of its very own Delta swamp-scape (actual slide not included). There’s no great stretch needed to picture it back-porching and freight-training its way across the Deep South, playing all those legendary rough dives, dodging flying beer bottles, soaking up an unhealthy dose of spilled bourbon and never missing a single, singing note. It wants to play the Blues but doesn’t mind indulging your soul-tinged, Ry Cooder obsession. It doesn’t expect you to be a virtuoso but it will demand your total commitment.
And it’s here we get back to that “contract” thing. The Little Sister will meet you half-way. It’s ready to dance and you’re the lucky partner so get off your ass and start shakin’ it. If you (maybe wisely) decide to keep these dreams private, only unlocked by your personal access code - don’t be shy. Make your new user-name Lightnin’, Stevie Ray, Hambone or Mudcat. They all fit perfectly with Wilson, Smith and Jenkins (try it).
The point is, we’re talking pure pleasure. But if it’s technical you want, ask Howlin’ Wolf – the Little Sister’s built for comfort AND speed. Want one?
This Fortnight's Fab-Five
1. “Midnight in Harlem” (live from eTown) by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band on YouTube. While Susan continues to morph into Bonnie Raitt - vocally at least – Derek drifts along on a delicate raga-tinged vibe before soaring into the slide-guitar stratosphere with a sublime SG solo bliss-out that would have his long-gone, Allman Brother family inspirations in raptures.
2. Billie Marten. Still not 20, she’s intense, ethereal, a bit Joni Mitchell, a bit Vashti Bunyan, a lot talented. Definitely (already) a cut above the whiny, “millennial”, singer-songwriter herd.
3. David Lindley. In general. Armed with acoustic or electric guitar (plus a myriad “world” instruments), the mighty Mr. Dave proves that it’s possible to have immaculate taste in playing while retaining possibly the worst dress sense in the history of music. In a variety of settings; behind Jackson Browne for years, in duets with Ry Cooder or leading his own bands (every mix-tape should include “When a Guy Gets Boobs”) he is, indeed, The Man.
4. Nathan Salsburg. Intriguing, instrumental, acoustic adventures from a (relatively) new name. Stealing (sorry…borrowing) his DADEAE tuning from “B.B.” has opened a hitherto locked door in the TNAG Towers Creative Dept.
5. YouTube footage of Delaney and Bonnie (with Eric Clapton and Dave Mason) doing “Poor Elijah/Ballad of Robert Johnson” (BBC, 1969). The ultimate funky, acoustic groove-fest.
See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett