52 Guitars Feed

52 Guitars: Week 52

Andrés Segovia

I wanted to close out this series with a really important guitarist, and it would be hard to find a more suitable candidate than Segovia, who did so much to bring the guitar into the mainstream of classical music. In a career that spanned the greater part of the 20th century, he advanced the repertoire of the instrument and made technical contributions that assisted its spread, notably the use of nylon strings, which stay in tune much better than the old gut strings. And of course his career coincided with an enormous surge of interest in the guitar in all kinds of music, so that people who might otherwise have had little interest in classical music were interested in classical guitar.

I'm not at home and have limited internet connectivity; worse, I've been pretty sick for the past several days, sicker than I can remember being for at least the past decade or more, and am still feeling pretty bad. So I'm not going to spend as much time searching out Segovia gems on YouTube as I would like. Instead, I give you the complete Guitar Concerto #1 by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which was inspired by Segovia. I think this is the same performance I have on some no-name LP, probably sort of semi-bootleg. The original recording is none too great, and this is just a recording of the vinyl, with a lot of surface noise. You'll need to turn the sound up some. But I think it's worth it--it's a simple and charming piece.

Moreover, for some reason the person who posted it on YouTube has disabled embedding on the first movement, so click here for it, and then proceed with the next two:



And so ends the year of guitar music. I hope you've enjoyed it. It crossed my mind the other day to wonder whether I could come up with another 52 guitarists. So I started writing down names as fast as I could think of them, and in ten minutes or so had come up with 40 or so. But I don't plan to do another year.

52 Guitars: Week 51

Mississippi Fred McDowell

I wish I could say that when I was growing up in rural Alabama I heard this kind of music alive in its native culture. But I didn't; I heard it on records in the living room of an aunt and uncle who had a great interest, very unusual for white people in that time and place, in the country blues. I was fifteen or so, and the love I soon felt for this music has never slackened. If I remember correctly, the first slide player I heard was Furry Lewis. I do remember feeling the same thing that B.B. King described on hearing the slide guitar of Bukka White: the sound "just went all through me." And beyond that immediate sonic appeal, I recognized the voice and the heart of people I knew, and was beginning to realize that I loved. 

I believe this was the first thing I ever heard by Mississippi Fred McDowell. It's among the many field recordings made by Alan Lomax. I think the woman singing with him is his wife.

"Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning": 


"You Got To Move": 


Don't be misled by the religious themes into thinking that McDowell was a purely religious writer; his work contains the mix of deep religiosity and profligate sexuality that was typical of rural black culture.

I don't know if Dylan had heard this before he wrote his famous song, but if it wasn't this, it was probably another version; it often seems that there are no original songs in the blues. "Highway 61": 


Here's more information about that highway.

52 Guitars: Week 50

John McLaughlin

McLaughlin is very well known in jazz circles, but I've never really listened to him very much. I heard him back in 1970 or so when he appeared on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, which I did not really get then and still don't, although it's considered a masterpiece by many. 

But as with a couple of other people I've posted about in this series, my interest in McLaughlin was piqued by his appearance on one of the Crossroads Festival DVDs. I thought this was dull at first hearing, despite the virtuosity, but it grew on me. "Maharina": 


McLaughlin is probably most widely known for his 1970s work in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As with Bitches Brew, I didn't care much for what I heard of them at the time. I remember finding it almost shocking, because I had for some reason expected a serene meditative sound, but it was fiery. Eight or ten years ago, in a period of re-considering progressive rock and other types of music that I hadn't cared for at the time, I heard the M.O.'s Inner Mounting Flame and really liked it. It's generally classified as jazz-rock fusion, and unlike much of that genre really merits that description. This is the first track, "Meeting of the Spirits": 


About twenty years ago McLaughlin had a trio of which the other two members were Joey De Francesco on organ and Elvin Jones on drums. Appropriately for the presence of Jones, the drummer on many of John Coltrane's greatest recordings, they released a CD which included several compositions either by Coltrane or forever associated with him, including "My Favorite Things." I don't see the album track on YouTube, but here's a live performance of it, not without flaws--the guitar actually sounds out of tune in places, though I think that may be due to a slightly misused or badly-adjusted chorus effect--but still worth hearing. The drummer here is not Jones, however.



52 Guitars: Week 49

Frank Zappa

I want to say more or less the same thing about Frank Zappa now that I did in a 2007 review of Hot Rats, so I may as well not bother rephrasing it, and just quote:

I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravyand Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.

Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-timePlayboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music. 

I went on to be pretty positive about Hot Rats (I'm not linking to the review because it seems somehow not to have made it over to this blog and is still on the old one, which is going to be taken down Any Day Now).

Zappa's more dedicated fans remind me a little of dogmatic libertarians: intelligent in a constricted, rationalistic sort of way, a little deficient in understanding of the totality of the human. (Dogmatic Thomists can be somewhat the same way.) And Zappa's music seems similar: in the realm of pop music you couldn't get much further away from the emotional power of, say, Van Morrison. 

One thing the fans always insist upon is that he was a great guitarist. Other than "Willie the Pimp" on Hot Rats, I had never encountered much evidence of that. But it's true. I don't hear anything in any of the three clips that follow that reaches down into the emotions the way, for instance, a much more technically limited blues guitarist can do. But his playing is certainly interesting

"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar": 


"Chunga's Revenge": This is one of the best Zappa solos I found on YouTube, but embedding is disabled, so click here.  This is a live performance, and there are embeddable copies of the album version, but it's not nearly as guitar-centric and generally as appealing as this one. 

And here's an interesting case study of what I said above about the head-vs.-heart contrast. I was very surprised to find Zappa playing the Allman Brothers' intense classic "Whipping Post". Zappa's solo (a couple of minutes in) is not very bluesy, and is very--here's that word I can't seem to avoid--interesting, but overall, in spite of the singer's earnest effort, this just doesn't touch the emotions in the way the Allmans' original does (click here if you don't know it).


More than twenty-five years ago I lent someone my original 1967 copy of the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out album, and never got it back. I wish I had. What a fascinating curio from that time it is.

52 Guitars: Week 48

Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie (ING-vay) is arguably the very fastest guitar player in the world. Which certainly doesn't mean he's the best musician; I have to say that to my taste, a little of this goes a long way. But dang....

"Black Star": 


Many minds were boggled, I understand, when his album Rising Force was released in 1984.

"Far Beyond the Sun": 


As a piece of music, this might be my favorite of the three that I've posted: "Leviathan":


52 Guitars: Week 47

Glenn Phillips

If there is anyone reading this who has heard of Glenn Phillips, I'd like to know. Without looking back over the whole list of people I've posted about this year, I feel pretty sure he is the least-known. I believe--again, without checking--that he's one of the two people I've featured whom I've seen in live performance. The other was Jimi Hendrix.

Sometime around the turn of the year 1967-8, between semesters at college, I went to visit some friends who had relocated from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. They took me to a club to hear Ellen McIlwaine, a blues singer at the beginning of a moderately successful career. On the same bill was a group called the Hampton Grease Band. They were a strange outfit whom I would have compared to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band if I had ever heard of the latter. Hampton, the vocalist, wandered around yelling and talking, while a pretty interesting pair of guitarists and a rhythm section played. One of the guitarists was named Glenn Phillips. Though I doubt I remembered the name from that night, I heard more about the band later.

A few years later the Hampton Grease Band put out a double LP called Music To Eat. I bought it, and only listened to it a couple of times. That was a disoriented time in my life, and it was a disorienting record, and I didn't want to hear it anymore. Hardly anyone did, apparently; it was a decidedly un-listener-friendly album, and reportedly the second worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records at that point. I don't know what happened to my copy, but I wish I'd hung on to it, as it apparently became something of a collector's item later on.

Another decade and a half or so later, I ran across Phillips's name in Guitar Player magazine, and learned that after the Grease Band broke up he had embarked on a solo career, and though he'd had no commercial success was highly regarded by other guitarists. I've been meaning for years to find some of those recordings. I didn't find a great deal on YouTube, but what I found is quite interesting, and makes me want to hear more. Apparently he's still living in Atlanta, and for the past forty years has continued doing what he started doing in the early '70s--playing in clubs and making recordings.

These are all live  performances. Neither the sound nor the video is of very high quality, and the performances are kind of rough around the edges, but I think you can get the idea. 



"John Marshall": 


"I Say No":


What I like most about his soloing is that it's so melodic, and at times almost joyful.

Oh, and about the Hampton Grease Band--here's a sample:


52 Guitars: Week 45

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

Just a country boy and his dobro:


I didn't have in mind to venture away from standard guitar in this series. The other night I was watching the 2004 Crossroads concert, a guitar festival organized by Eric Clapton to benefit a drug treatment center he founded. It's two DVDs, four hours, of mostly blues and rock guitar, and I certainly recommend it to guitar aficionados, or anyone who likes that kind of music. The performance above came as a complete surprise to me. I had seen some brief mention, years ago, of an amazing Indian musician who had taken the American steel guitar (of which the dobro is a variety) and adapted it for Indian music, but this was the first time I'd heard him. I decided immediately that he would be this week's musician.

I included the Crossroads performance first here, because I have a feeling a lot of people won't care for this kind of music, and it's shorter than the next one, "Meeting By the River," from an album of the same name in which Bhatt collaborated with Ry Cooder. But I think this one is better.  So if you did like the first one, settle down--it's fourteen minutes long--and listen closely.


Now I want to dig out my old Ravi Shankar LPs. The vogue for Indian music came and went in the 1960s, and I suppose an association with a very dated sort of hippiness may still cling to it. But that's very unfair to the music, which was beautiful then and is now.

52 Guitars: Week 45

Gary Moore

When Jack Bruce died a week or two ago, all the obituaries described him as "former Cream bassist." But Cream only existed for a couple of years, and Bruce had a very long and productive career afterwards, including several albums which are more interesting to me than Cream's stuff. He worked with a lot of people, including several in a guitar-bass-drums trio format that naturally seemed an attempt to revisit or revive or surpass Cream. In reading the obits, I learned of the existence of one of these I'd never heard of before: BBM, for Baker, Bruce, and Moore, or perhaps Bruce, Baker, and Moore.

"Moore" was Gary Moore, and until he died several years ago his name meant nothing to me. I saw obituaries saying, as with Bruce, that the "former Thin Lizzie guitarist" had passed away. Well, that didn't mean much, either, as the only thing I'd ever heard by Thin Lizzie was that '70s radio anthem, "The Boys Are Back in Town." But a European friend posted this video of "Still Got the Blues" on Facebook, and it got my attention.


It seems that, as with Bruce, Moore's career encompassed much more than a fairly brief stint with a popular band. I've heard him described as "under-rated," and that certainly seems to be true, at least as far as attention on this side of the Atlantic (he was Irish) was concerned. 

One of the legendary Roy Buchanan's signature pieces was the instrumental "The Messiah Will Come Again." It takes a lot of nerve for anyone else to play it--not that the tune itself is difficult, but Buchanan loaded it up with such spectacular fireworks that I wouldn't think anyone would be eager to put himself in the position of being compared to him. But Moore did, and...wow:


 And about BBM: my opinion, after hearing their one album on Rdio a couple of times, is that it's good but the songwriting is less than inspired. And to tell the truth Baker and Bruce don't exactly seem to be on fire. You might expect that in such a combination the guitarist would suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Eric Clapton. But he's actually the strong point. I hesitate to say this, but he's at least as good and interesting a player as Clapton. Here is BBM live, "White Room":


52 Guitars: Week 44

Robert Fripp

I hadn't planned to include Fripp in this series, although he is a very highly regarded player. Apart from his work with King Crimson, which doesn't necessarily offer that many examples of his playing apart from the band, I really haven't heard that much of him. But having Daniel Lanois and Michael Brook in mind for the past couple of weeks, I naturally thought also of Brian Eno, who collaborated with both of them, in particular as co-producer on U2's The Unforgettable Fire. And that made me think of the Fripp and Eno collaboration Evening Star. This is the title track:


The long long tones you hear in that are produced with a tape delay system he calls Frippertronics. Here's a live demo (I must say, sometimes I love YouTube):


You may have the impression, after ten months of these posts, that I spend hours searching for the right YouTube clips to demonstrate the skills of each player. Maybe not hours, or at least not many hours, but it does take time. And an hour or so of searching for Robert Fripp solos has not turned much that demonstrates his skills distinctly from other members of various ensembles in which he's participated. So I'm falling back on this classic by The Roches, to which Fripp makes a significant contribution: "The Hammond Song." 


When I first heard this song, around the time it was released in 1979, I thought it was funny and poignant. Hearing it again now for the first time in many years, I find it almost heartbreaking: a slightly curious reaction, considering that now I've lived long enough to see many situations that seemed headed for catastrope resolved in something much less dire, sometimes even happily. The difference, is that in 1979 I was more sympathetic to the one leaving, and thought the warning voice of the parent (or is it older sibling?) a little ridiculous. Now I understand that side of it much, much better. 

 Where is "on down the line"? How far away?

52 Guitars: Week 43

Michael Brook

After Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook naturally comes to mind. He's another guitarist whose strength is in colors and atmospheres rather than power and speed. And Lanois produced Brook's album Cobalt Blue, which is well known among both guitar and ambient music fans--I first heard it on the ambient radio program Music from the Hearts of Space. He invented something he calls "infinite guitar", which I take to mean that it can sustain a note until the player decides to stop it.

"Ultramarine" (apparently this was used in a movie called Heat):




"Shona Bridge":


If you like these, you won't be disappointed in the album.  And if you think you hear a suggestion of Joshua Tree-period U2, especially in "Ultramarine," it's apparently not a coincidence.

52 Guitars: Week 42

Daniel Lanois

Most of my entries in this series have emphasized technical brilliance, though not, I hope, empty brilliance: I haven't included anyone who doesn't have something interesting to say musically. But there's a place for people who don't dazzle you with speed, and yet have the ability to move you. Daniel Lanois is one of these.

If he has a lot of money in the bank, it's probably because of his work as producer for many artists whose names are better known than his: Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind), U2 (The Joshua TreeAchtung Baby, and others), Emmylou Harris (the masterpiece Wrecking Ball). One thing most of those recordings have in common is a richly reverberant and mysterious guitar sound which is something of a trademark with him. He's also a brilliant artist in his own right, and if you listen to one of his solo albums you see immediately where that atmosphere comes from. Here are two selections from his solo instrumental album Belladonna.

"The Deadly Nightshade": 




To my taste his albums are a little uneven, but if you were to take the best of all of them you'd have a body of work that would stand with anything produced in the past 50 years. Not only is it brilliant musically, but it shows a deep religious sensibility. From his first solo album, Acadie, here's the instrumental "White Mustang II": 


And here's a non-instrumental track which is a great example of the guitar-based texture and ambience he creates for a song. He's the only player/producer I know who can make a full-on distorted guitar chord feel like a warm embrace. You really need to hear this on a decent sound system to appreciate the instrumental work, because there's nothing ostentatious about it. There's a deep bass line that you probably won't even hear on computer speakers. From Shine, "I Love You":


What is that rare quality that makes a work of art a tear-jerker even though it's not sad?

52 Guitars: Week 41

Doc Watson

I'm pressed for time today, but I don't want to put this off, so I won't say much. You already know who Doc Watson was, right? If not, you can read about him here. I'll confine my remarks to repeating what Dylan said about him: that his playing was like water flowing from a spring. 

"Windy and Warm": 


"Black Mountain Rag": 


"Deep River Blues": 



52 Guitars: Week 40

Chet Atkins

This is for Robert Gotcher, who asked if I was ever going to feature Chet Atkins. Actually I wasn't planning to. I know Atkins was an extremely good player, but the kind of music he played has never been all that appealing to me. And I have to admit I was prejudiced against him early on, by a classical player who was dismissive of Atkins's forays into that repertoire. That's really beside the point, of course;  I doubt that Atkins intended to put himself into competition with Julian Bream et.al.; he probably just wanted to play good music of any kind.

On the basis of what I've been able to find on YouTube, my first reservation still holds. But man, the guy could play. "Stars and Stripes Forever":


I don't know if it would be correct to call "Wildwood Flower" his signature tune, but it's one I used to hear associated with his name. Embedding of the video has been disabled, so I'll just have to link to it: "Wildwood Flower".

Also not embeddable: "Orange Blossom Special". Astonishing clarity and fluidity--and he makes it look so utterly effortless.  (Sorry about the harp player's getup etc.--he is really good, though.) I recall a friend, many years ago, saying "If you ever start thinking you're good [on guitar], go to Nashville." Well, notice in the "Orange Blossom" clip that the other guy is doubling Atkins's lead through most of it, except for the really high-speed stuff. 

52 Guitars: Week 39

Ralph Towner

I don't think I had even heard Ralph Towner's name when I saw Blue Sun in a record store sometime back in the 1980s and bought it on the strength of the cover art. I don't know how well you can make out the photograph that occupies the center of it, but it's a very beautiful sea and sky picture that makes me think of a Scandinavian summer.  



Image swiped from the great ECM fan site between sound and space 

Not everything on the album lived up to the promise of that image, but enough of it did that I didn't regret the purchase, and have bought two other Towner albums over the years. Most of his work is on the wonderful ECM label, and I've learned since that I can pretty well rely on finding anything issued on it at least interesting.

Towner's music occupies a sort of indeterminate territory which comes out of what could broadly be considered a jazz culture or sensibility, but is not exactly jazz, and not exactly anything else, either. It could be called ECM territory, as a lot of the label's output fits there. 

From Solstice, which I don't have, but which Allmusic.com says is his best album, and so worth investigating, here is "Nimbus":


From Ana, "The Reluctant Bride" and "Green and Golden":


I don't know of anyone else in the world who can play a 12-string like this. "Spirit Lake" can be found on Solo Concert, but this is a different and even more spectacular performance. 


52 Guitars: Week 38

Jim Thomas

Who? Well, allow me to introduce you to The Mermen. Don't be too quick to turn up the sound.


They're an instrumental trio who began around 1990 as a sort of neo-surf band, but they've gone far afield from that, though you can still hear some of it in their sound, which at times might be described as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. Their web site calls it "psychedelic instrumental ocean music," and says that the band's name was derived from the Jimi Hendrix song/soundscape "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be").

Thomas is the guitarist, and along with bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones the Mermen make music that is both fierce and melodic. Their 1995 album A Glorious Lethal Euphoria is one of my all-time favorite albums, period. The opening track from it, "Pulpin' Line", is the one I really wanted to use instead of the preceding track, but the album version is not on YouTube. There are some decent live performances of it, but they don't have the same intensity, and the sound quality is not so great.

Here's something from that album. Again, don't be quick to turn up the sound.


They aren't always fast and loud and noisy; sometimes they're slow and loud and noisy, and sometimes they're even quiet. "And the Flowers They'll Bloom", all nearly-ten-minutes of it, is a showcase for the expressive power of an electric guitar and a rack full of effects.


There is a strangely mystical quality about the album, as is suggested by the cover (what you see in the two "videos" above), and by some of the song titles: "The Drowning Man Knows His God," "With No Definite Future and No Purpose Except to Prevail Somehow." Other titles are just whimsical, often somewhat bent, e.g. "Scalp Salad."

The Mermen seem to have become a sort of cult California jam band. Until a few minutes ago, when I looked at their web site, I didn't think they'd released an album since 2000's Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, but there is a more recent one, In God We Trust. I like Road Show but I'll be surprised if they ever surpass Euphoria. If you like what I've posted here, get it--you won't be sorry. (The first track is from Songs of the Cows, a less-than-full-length follow-up to Euphoria and sounds very much like it, and is almost as good.)

52 Guitars: Week 37

Albert King

Here's the third of the Three Kings. Albert is maybe the least striking of the three: not as sophisticated as B.B., not as fiery as Freddy. But just as satisfying, and pretty much perfect as a representative of pure straight-up blues.

"Born Under a Bad Sign" contains one of the immortal complaints of the blues: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." I think that was probably a folk saying before Booker T. Jones and William Bell wrote the song, but that doesn't matter. (I see it had occurred at least once before in a commercial recording.) People of my generation, and younger ones who like the music of the '60s, have probably heard the song as performed by Cream on the Wheels of Fire album. Personally I never found Jack Bruce very enjoyable as a blues singer, and although that version has a lot of rock-and-roll intensity, it misses the mark in comparison to King's original. Here is his studio version, which does not particularly feature the guitar, but makes that famous riff pretty clear: 


And here's a very good live version:


 I only recently heard "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" for the first time, and was really struck by the lyric. Not a sentiment one can approve, obviously, but it tells a truth about the difficulty of the struggle against jealousy and misdirected romantic love: "After all, I didn't make myself."


And here's a great live version of the Elmore James classic, "The Sky Is Crying":


Here's King's Wikipedia entry. He was a big influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan (which is obvious if you've heard Vaughan's "Sky Is Crying") and there is an hour-long video of the two of them playing together, which can be found on YouTube, of course, no doubt in massive violation of copyright. I hadn't planned to feature Vaughan in one of these posts, which may seem surprising. He's a very very fine guitarist, obviously, but somehow his take on the blues has never appealed very strongly to me--it seems tense and overdriven. I reserve the right to change my mind, though.

52 Guitars: Week 36

Freddie King

Of all the black blues players from whom the English and other young white kids of the 1960s learned, Freddie King is probably the one who will strike a new listener as sounding more like, for instance, Eric Clapton, though the influence is of course the other way around. He has a loud and aggressive sound, closer to what would become blues-rock than some of his peers, like B.B. King.  I found a number of live performances from the early '70s on YouTube, and discovered that although there is some killer guitar work in them, overall they tend to seem over-driven and harsh in comparison with some of his earlier recorded work. 

Here, for instance, is a song for which he was well-known, "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?", in a live performance from 1970.


And here's the same song from the original 1960 recording. The sound is not great, and since the song had to fit on a 45 single, there's not room for a whole lot of guitar. But the vocal is richer and more varied, and overall it's just a more comfortable-feeling performance.


"Tore Down", 1963:


For another comparison, here's a live performance which I think is ca. 1970, though there is no info with the clip: faster tempo, impressive guitar, but overall just lacking in feeling, in my opinion.

But this "Ain't Nobody's Business", which seems to be from the same performance, is good--though to my taste it's still pushed a little too hard. I don't know if it was just his personality, or if the rock influence had begun to flow the other way.


There is an excellent compilation from Rhino, Hideaway: The Best of Freddie King, which includes 20 tracks recorded from the late 1950s until 1970, with emphasis on the earlier stuff. (Why "Hideaway"? Because it was his most popular single, and made the non-R&B pop charts.)

52 Guitars: Week 35

B.B. King

It's time for the Three Kings: Albert, B.B., and Freddy. B.B. is by far the most famous outside the blues world, but that's not why I'm featuring him first. It's because it only took a few minutes for me to find three good YouTube clips for him, and I need a bit longer for the other two.

According to the person who posted this on YouTube, King considers this to be one of his best performances. It was filmed at Sing Sing Prison, sometimes in the 1970s judging by the clothes. And I think that opening guy was on a TV show that I can't remember the name of. This is one of his signature songs, "How Blue Can You Get?" There's actually not all that much guitar in this number, but wow....


The first line of this is one of my favorite lyrics in all the blues.


And the classic "Stormy Monday":


Coincidentally, I've been watching the DVD of Eric Clapton's 2007 Crossroads Festival. B.B. King is there, and he gives quite a moving tribute to Clapton. That segment of the concert is on YouTube, including parts of one of the songs he played, the massively politically incorrect "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss." And by the way I strongly recommend that DVD to anyone who likes electric guitar.

52 Guitars: Week 34

Bill Frisell

Like his contemporary Pat Metheny, Frisell has done a huge amount of recording. He also shows the influence of rock on their generation of jazz players (they're both in their early 60s). Unlike Metheny, though (as far as I know), Frisell has often taken to the noisy effects developed by rock guitarists.

I don't have enough acquaintance with his music to be able to select anything that I could call his best or even most representative work. The album I know best is a slightly odd one from 1991 called Where in the World? Judging by it, and of a couple of his more recent albums, he seems to be a very humble bandleader: though the collection is credited to The Bill Frisell Band, it's hardly a guitar showpiece. The compositions, all by Frisell, are interesting, somehow off-kilter things like this one, "Rob Roy": sometimes melodic, sometimes raucous, never conventional. Let me warn you that this one pauses at 3:15 and then comes back rather loud. 


Some years ago while browsing the CDs in the local library I saw one by the Ginger Baker Trio called Going Back Home. I thought that sounded intriguing and checked it out. I recognized the name of the bass player, Charlie Haden, a very famous one in the jazz world. But I don't recall that the name of the guitarist, Bill Frisell, meant anything to me. (Everybody knows who Ginger Baker is, right?) I liked the album pretty well. Looking around for YouTube clips for this post, I found what seems to be most of a concert by that trio, and it's very good. Since it's a trio and Frisell is the lead, these songs will do very well to demonstrate his gifts. Mostly he uses a more or less normal jazz kind of tone and technique here, but he kicks in the effects at one point in the twelve-and-a-half minute jam "Ramblin'".


As you can hear, his playing tends to be kind of eccentric, with a lot of space and and what often seems to me an odd relation to the beat. But it's always interesting. "When We Go" is more conventional than the two pieces above, though not in a bad way at all. This is a lovely little thing, and Frisell's solo is a jewel of subtle variations.


I have to say, before I go, that it drives me a bit crazy to look at that headless guitar. I'm glad that design didn't become the norm.

Charlie Haden died last month at 76, after a long and very illustrious career. RIP.



52 Guitars: Week 33

Pat Metheny

I've been thinking that I should include some more jazz guitarists, because there are certainly plenty of them who are very impressive musicians. But I really don't have a lot of acquaintance with their work, which is because I don't listen to jazz guitar all that much, which is because I don't really respond to it the way I do many other forms of guitar music. That's partly because jazz guitarists typically use a very clean and pure tone, and when it comes to electric guitar I like the dirty and sustained tones that rock and blues players tend to use. To my ears, the typical jazz guitar tone is just less expressive than that of either a purely acoustic guitar or a noised-up electric.

But more importantly, I frequently don't grasp what's going on musically in jazz. I don't have much technical knowledge of music, and I can't describe in musical terms what's involved in, say, Mark Knopfler's famous "Sultans of Swing" lead, but I respond to it. I can on some level feel, if not articulate, the connection of what he's playing to the fundamental structure of the song. But much jazz has a more subtle and complex harmonic structure, and less elemental appeal, and requires a better ear and more knowledge than I have to be really appreciated.

Such were my thoughts over the past few days as, having decided to feature Pat Metheny this week, I looked around for a few things to post. He has a huge body of recorded work, and I've only heard a few bits of it. I sampled a number of jazz tracks, but there weren't many that really grabbed me. Perhaps if I listened to them more...but I didn't have time. I knew, though, that I would use the title track from one of the two or three Metheny albums I own, New Chautauqua, from 1979. It's not very typical of his work from the '70s, being all acoustic, and all multi-tracked Metheny, and not really jazz at all. I don't know what genre to call it, but I really like it.


Another Metheny album that I own, and like a lot, is 1980's As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. It's not, strictly speaking, a Pat Metheny album, but a collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays, and is really more a keyboard and group album than a guitar album. But roughly the last half of "It's For You" features a really fine guitar solo. 


It occurs to me that the title phrase will soon entirely lose the meaning it has for anyone who grew up before cell phones, when there was generally one telephone line and one telephone number per household. The phone rang, someone picked it up and said "Hello," and, if the caller wanted to speak to someone else, yelled "It's for you" to another person in the house. Already for some time the scenes in movies where someone in trouble searches desperately for a pay phone have seemed very dated.

 And here's a good one from 1978's self-titled album by the Pat Metheny Group, also featuring Lyle Mays: "Phase Dance".



52 Guitars: Week 32

Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore and Lee Rinaldo)

I'm cheating; this week's installment is actually two guitars. But I can't separate them--they don't alternate solos or anything like that, and they produce one sound that I doubt could be produced by either of them alone. Perhaps one of them is more responsible for the strangely appealing dissonance that Sonic Youth produces, but if so I don't know which it is. Apparently a lot of it involves tuning guitars in very strange ways (I mean really: GABDEG? GGDDGG?!).

The only album of theirs that I know very well is Daydream Nation, which a lot of people seem to think their best.  Here's the opening track, "Teenage Riot," which is pretty mild and tuneful, and allegedly uses the tunings mentioned above.


Somewhat noisier: "Cross the Breeze". The image there is the cover of the album.


And here is something from an earlier album, Evol (orthographic pun intended, I assume), which is perhaps a better example of what they were exploring. I'm not crazy about this track, but from the musical point of view it's very interesting. 


Whatever you think of them, it can't be denied that SY discovered some new possibilities in electric guitar. Personally I think their techniques are very expressive, and if I were a musician I would try to figure out a way to use them. 

52 Guitars: Week 31

Phil Keaggy

CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) is not the place you'd normally go to hear some shredding. That's part of the reason why Phil Keaggy's name is not widely known outside the circles of CCM and guitar aficionados and players. (He converted to evangelical Christianity as a rising rock musician with the band Glass Harp, and has remained committed to his faith ever since; that's impressive.)


Someone extracted that solo from an 8-plus-minute performance of a song called "Time." The whole song is on YouTube as well, and may help to explain the limited appeal of much of his music, even apart from its categorization as CCM. To my taste it's just not a very captivating song.


He's also staggeringly good as an acoustic guitarist.


Daniel Nichols introduced me to Keaggy many years ago via some good tracks on a cassette, but I can't remember their names now. The only album I ever bought was The Wind and the Wheat, a somewhat New-Agey one that came out in the 1980s. I haven't heard it for a while, but as I recall "The March of the Clouds" was one of my favorites from it. 


There is a persistent story that Jimi Hendrix, when asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world, said "I don't know. You'd have to ask Phil Keaggy." It is apparently false. But he is mighty, might good. I imagine there is a lot of great playing to be discovered in his extensive discography.

52 Guitars: Week 29

Derek Trucks

As I mentioned last week, Derek Trucks is the nephew of Butch Trucks, one of the three original members of the Allman Brothers Band who are still with the group today. And starting in 1999 and continuing until just recently Derek was in it, too.

He was a child--well, ok, a teenaged--prodigy, as the first video attests. The tune is "Mr. P.C.", which jazz fans will recognize as a John Coltrane composition featured on the famous Giant Steps album. It's well known enough to have its own Wikipedia page, where it's described as a "simple 12-bar minor blues." Well, simple by jazz standards, I guess. but it runs at breakneck speed (about 10 seconds per chorus). Derek Trucks is fifteen years old here. Pretty audacious, to take on a tune so closely associated with one of the giants of jazz.


He recorded his first album, The Derek Trucks Band, at seventeen. It included "Mr. P.C." as well as other jazz tunes, like Miles Davis's "So What?"

His musical interests clearly extend well outside of rock and blues. Here's a composition by the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:


 And here's something from the same concert, not exactly blues, but bluesy:


I was a bit surprised that no one complained last week when I featured Duane Allman and didn't mention Derek and the Dominoes (in which he worked with Eric Clapton). It wasn't an accident: I always found Layla a little disappointing--a minority opinion, I know. I think it's partly because the guitars are recorded rather distantly in much of the album. But at any rate it certainly has its great moments. One of my favorite songs from it is "Anyday." Here it is performed by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, proprietors Derek Trucks and his wife, Susan Tedeschi. Notice the guy in the white shirt and glasses singing along, about a minute or so in.



52 Guitars: Week 28

Duane Allman

In my none-too-humble opinion, the Allman Brothers when Duane was still alive were the greatest blues-rock band there's ever been. (For those who don't know the story: Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, at the age of 24. You can read the band's entire long story at AllMusic.com.) Without him they were still an extremely good band, but Duane's playing had a magnetically intense quality that, along with Gregg's singing and songwriting, lifted those first few albums into the realm of the extraordinary.

It was of course a two-guitar band, the other guitarist being Richard "Dickey" Betts, and the harmonized leads that framed many of their songs were an important part of what made the band distinctive. When the soloing starts, I can usually tell who's who, but not always. Great as Duane is, the band wouldn't have been the same without Betts, and it must have been a frustrating situation for him to be somewhat in Duane's shadow, even after the latter's death. 

Here's a live version of one of their signature songs, "Whipping Post." It's a little faster than the studio version, but twice as long, with a lot of jamming. I wonder now how 22-or-so-year-old Gregg Allman came to write those exhausted end-of-the-line lyrics:

Nothing seems to change
The bad times still remain
And I can't run

Not to mention the 50-year-old voice.


But maybe I shouldn't wonder at Gregg's melancholy, because I was the same age and felt exactly what he was describing in "Dreams":


By way of justifing my original claim, here's some straight-up blues-rock. But of course their music ranged much further than that, as you can tell from the preceding two tracks.


I don't know who's playing when on those two tracks. But just in case you're wondering, here's proof that Dickey Betts was his own man, on another of Gregg's classic songs, "Not My Cross to Bear":


Dang, they were good. By all accounts the version of the band that's been in existence for the past ten years or so is also extremely good, but I haven't checked them out yet. I will be doing so over the coming week, though, because next week's guitarist will be Derek Trucks, nephew of Butch Trucks, one of the original drummers, and a member of the Allman Brothers Band for the past ten years or so, until earlier this year when he decided to leave. 

52 Guitars: Week 27

Danny Gatton

An obvious follow-up to Roy Buchanan: another Telecaster master with mind-boggling technique, not very well-known outside the circles of those who are specifically interested in electric guitar. Like Buchanan, he was even called "the world's greatest unknown guitarist." He was also nicknamed "The Humbler" in reference to the way other players felt about him. Sadly, also like Buchanan, he took his own life. 

I've only heard one of his albums, 88 Elmira St. To tell the truth, it's really not that great, as an album: a hodge-podge of miscellaneous styles and compositions, including, for instance, the theme song from The Simpsons. But no matter what the material, as soon as the basic presentation is out of the way and Gatton just starts playing, it's fantastic. Here, for instance, is something only older people and relatively young hipsters would recognize: "Quiet Village," from a 1957 album by Martin Denny, Exotica, which included Hollywood-ish Latin and "tropical" sounds, including bird songs and other sound effects. No doubt considered very sophisticated in its day, and laughable a decade or so later, it and similar recordings had a semi-ironic vogue ten years or so ago, which for all I know is still in progress.


And here's a live version of another tune which appears on the Elmira St. album, the Beach Boys' "In My Room." The sound quality's not that great, but it's good enough for you to appreciate his playing.


And another live recording, of not so great but adequate sound quality: the '50s classic "Sleepwalk." It's apparently been edited, as you'll note a reference to an unheard saxophone solo.

Here's the Wikipedia bio

One thing that really strikes me about both Gatton and Buchanan is the almost total absence of theatrics in their live performances. They just stand there and play: no flailing, no jumping, no striking of macho poses, no simulated sex with the guitar, which is held at a height for accessibility rather than sexuality. Of course neither of them would have done very well at trying to play the Lizard King rock star role, had they wanted to try, but I don't get the impression that they wanted to.

52 Guitars: Week 26

Roy Buchanan

That's the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, once introduced as "the world's greatest unknown guitarist." He never did become very widely known, but he was certainly admired, respected, and influential. I reviewed the double-CD collection Sweet Dreams here a few years ago...well, over seven years ago...and for further information, and an opinion which hasn't changed, I'll refer you to the two separate entries for disc 1 and disc 2

And for this post, I don't think any assortment of individual YouTube clips would serve any better than this Austin City Limits appearance from 1976. It's thirty minutes long, but you'll know after four or five if you want to hear/see the rest.


I bet those two guys sitting right in front of him are guitar players, or trying to be. I still sort of wish he had played something other than a Telecaster, which has a brighter and thinner tone than some other guitars, or at least it usually sounds that way--it's traditionally associated with country music. But that was the tone he wanted, obviously.

For more information about his life and career, see the Wikipedia entry.

52 Guitars: Week 25

Terje Rypdal

A Norwegian player whose work is most often something that could be roughly classified as jazz-rock fusion, Rypdal is a long-time ECM artist, going back to the mid-1970s, which really tells you more about him than an attempt to place him in a genre. I'm familiar with maybe four or five of his many releases, and even within those there is a great deal of variety, as will be evident from the clips below. And I didn't even touch his work for orchestra and other ensembles that aren't as guitar-focused.

"The Return of Per Ulv," from If Mountains Could Sing:


The title track from After the Rain:


A basically simple, but wonderfully moody and evocative piece from Chaser: "Ørnen", which Google Translate tells me means "The Eagle." I think a better title would be something having to do with a slow dance in 1959.


I said to someone not long ago that I probably have all the Rypdal I need. But based on my sampling of a number of albums while looking for material for this post, I don't think I do. Here's one more from Chaser, "Ambiguity." It's pretty much out-and-out rock:


52 Guitars: Week 24

Joe Satriani

 I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Satriani was Steve Vai's teacher. I like Satriani better, to the extent that I know his work. His material just seems more appealing to me, more overall-musical. I reviewed his Flying in a Blue Dream album several years ago, and am still of more or less the same opinion. Here's something from that album, "The Forgotten."


I don't know what album this song--"Always With Me, Always With You"--is from, but it must be an earlier one, because he looks pretty young, and not bald. For some years now he's always appeared with a shaved head, or occasionally a stocking cap, which I take to be his solution for the problem of balding. Anyway, it's pretty, and also includes a very expressive solo. And it's a pretty video.

Something more recent: 


My memory is really getting bad. I was thinking, after having featured Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani in this series, that I would close it out with something from G3, which is a trio of guitar heroes featuring Satriani and a varying list of others. So I looked on YouTube, and I didn't find much featuring the Johnson/Vai lineup. This is one of the few. "Red House" is a blues, well-known to Hendrix fans (Johnson starts it off with Hendrix's riff). So I set up the link here. And then when I searched the blog for Satriani's name so that I could link to my old review above, I discovered I'd already posted this, and only six months ago. Well, here it is again.


Whose solo do you like best? I like Vai's a whole lot. Maybe the limits of the blues kind of kept him a bit more down to earth.


52 Guitars: Week 23

Steve Vai

Well, for the first time in this series, and the last, I'm going to feature some music that I don't really like all that much. I know Steve Vai's work more by reputation than actual listening, and had decided he would be next. But when I started looking for clips to post, I didn't find anything that really grabbed me. There is virtuosity in excess, but also a lot of gimmickry, and nothing that really touched me as music. And by the time I had come to that conclusion it was too late to start over with someone else. So here are a couple of instances. 


Here's a live performance of the same tune. It's interesting to see him produce some of those wild effects, although seeing is not understanding. Electronics obviously play a big role, but I don't know how much--I mean, how much of this could you do with a guitar and an amp and some basic effects, and how much involves an almost complete electronic transformation of the original sound?


If you found the theatrics of that performance a bit annoying, as I did, you might be interested in these two videos. First is a track called "Freak Show Excess" (I wonder if someone described one of his performances in those words). Next is a 14-minute video in which he explains how he went about composing the track. The contrast between his down-to-earth, intelligent, and engaging demeanor in it vs. the live performance above is striking. He's certainly one of the more technically accomplished people in this field.