A manual b-string bender

This week I heard one amazing guitarist whom I will not easily forget.  Will McFarlane commanded the stage with his long lanky frame and goateed beard that masked his seasoned sixty-years.  With a cheap Mexican Tele in hand (I kid you not!) he created the sound of a pedal steel, a powerhouse blues player, a sophisticated Steely Dan-type rocker and a country twanger all rolled into one. 

Once a sideman for Bonnie Raitt, and now a Muscle Shoals, AL-based session star player, McFarlane exploded with energy and creativity.  What a treat for the local Durham, NC crowd…who actually get to see him there from time to time since he has family nearby.

McFarlane is a consummate stylist who embodies so much style it’s hard to describe without hearing.  It’s like describing a master ballet performance…..the art of performing is something that must be seen (or heard in this case)….the music is it’s own language that cannot be accurately described verbally. 

A brief conversation with McFarlane afterward revealed the secret to his tone:  There is no secret!  No special effects or pumped up electronics within the guitar.  It’s pure expertise tempered with style and good taste.  Mind you, many many years playing with other high caliber top-notch musicians is the real secret! 

The most amazing technique he displayed was his ability to bend all the strings he fretted at once, creating the sound of a pedal steel.  Definitely a stylist tour de force!

Go hear Will McFarlane if you get the chance. 


It’s all about the feel……

“It’s all about the feel.”  Ever heard that before?  Of course.  The best musicians and stylists create their own feel that becomes a part of their sound…their style…their brand.  I’m sitting in a funky college coffee shop right now hearing a wide variety of music.  What strikes me are the musicians on these recordings who play with intense passion.  Listen to any recording or live performance and you can pick out the players with passion.  Some players (any instrument) play hard and fast, but without passion.  How do you identify passion in a performance?

For me, I identify passionate players as those who bend notes, change their dynamics (volume through force) and pour emotion into the instrument just like great singers do.

Cupcakes and Ukuleles

As a musician, how important is keeping up with new technologies? New technologies are affecting music performance, production and recording as much as any other field (social media, telecommunications, advertising).

Like waves reshaping a beachfront, trends reshape society, change habits and inspire new creations. Ignore the trends and you shun a big part of life. The trick is to embrace change and at the same time preserve your own voice, your own stylistic approach to creativity.

Some technologies, like auto-tune, are a shortcut, helping some musicians hide a lack of talent (like the inability to sing certain notes). Others, like various guitar pedals (volume pedals to create swells, for example) provide extra palates for the artist on which to extend his stylistic voice.

It’s fun to hear low tech trends, though, like the ukulele craze that’s developed over the past couple of years. Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” undoubtedly helped spark the craze. Walk into any music store these days and you’ll see a wall full of ukuleles of various shapes and sizes. To most players, it’s a different and new instrument where they have to study and invest time and energy. There are few shortcuts to learning a completely new instrument. It’s a refreshing trend surfacing above the barrage of technology.

Like cupcakes (you gotta love all the different flavors and sizes), ukuleles represent the latest happening thing. Embrace and enjoy!

Teach Your Children Well

What did Steve Jobs and Keith Richards have in common?  After reading both biographies, something struck me.  These very successful creative mavericks had something in common: their parents believed in them.

In Richards case, his mom simply said, as he strummed some of his first chords, “Is that you?  I thought it was the radio.”  To which Richards thought, “I’m in.”

Steve Jobs, raised by his adoptive parents, talked about how his parents treated him as special and how, eventually, it dawned on Jobs that he was smarter than the dad who had such a huge influence on him.  It was OK with his parents.  They realized it too, and biographer Walter Issacson points out, “they would go to great lengths to accommodate him.”

Parents have such profound influences on children.  Those who were fortunate enough to have parents who believed in them recognize this.  And those who have kids aspiring to be musicians or computer scientists or designers or whatever, should help their kids uncover their true talents and should encourage experimentation.

Keith Richards experimented, created, thrived and survived because his mom, Doris, planted a seed that, yes, he could be on the radio.  Steve Jobs knew he was a “chosen one” because his parents told him they chose him when they adopted him.  This theme seemed to come up often in his early life and, no doubt spawned his ability to freely create and break through boundaries.

So, in the words of another great musician, Graham Nash, teach your children well…..and give them all the confidence and faith you can, and watch them flourish.

A Surprise Star Among Stars

An “aha” moment came to me while watching the recently debuted HBO special on George Harrison. Ringo and others in the show were commenting on Harrison’s mournful slide playing, how it was so full of expression. So that WAS George Harrison playing all those great lines on “Give Me Love,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All You Need is Love” and other classics.

Who talks about George Harrison’s slide playing? No one. Who gives him credit for creating a unique voice in the world’s ultimate rock band using an instrument known almost exclusively for blues. No one. Well here goes: George Harrison was a true stylist on the slide guitar.

Historical accounts and even his bandmates (notably John Lennon) downplayed Harrison’s talent on the guitar and as a singer songwriter. But as a stylist, Harrison really made a mark. All those years hearing his slide playing on the car radio made an imprint in my mind. Oh, it was a sweet sound and it perfectly fit the mood and feel of the song, but….it must have been Clapton playing all that stuff. That’s what I (and many others I’m sure) always thought.

What a remarkable job HBO and Director Martin Scorsese did revealing the true Harrison as a talented stylist wedged between the genius of Lennon and McCartney. Harrison may not have been a genius, but he developed and showcased something all players dream of doing: a personal style that branded his sound forever.

A Cropped Style

Among electric guitar stylists, there are few that occupy a time and place and still live on. Steve Cropper made his imprint using his smart “cropped” style back in the 60’s with Booker T and MG’s. He never blew me away (or anyone probably) with a flashy technique, speed or pyrotechnics. But he did blow people away with his style. It was a tightly wound, biting approach to lead playing that contrasted perfectly with Booker T’s smooth Hammond B-3 playing and the funky backdrop of locked bass and drums.

Steve Cropper helped to define the Memphis sound that helped to shape rhythm and blues, rock, pop and so much more. I recently discovered Cropper’s latest CD, “Dedicated.” (Billed as a tribute to the 5 Royales.) All of Cropper’s bite and tasteful note selection from the 60″s live on in this new recording, and it’s a great example of a stylist with a simple but impressionable approach stuffed with soul and passion.

The Art of Strumming

Working with a new acoustic partner I’ve learned that, despite all my years of playing and, in my view, perfecting my playing, I’ve missed something. Strumming the acoustic guitar is indeed an art much different than strumming an electric.

With an electric you have instant power at the twist of a knob or flip of a switch. With an acoustic you have instant chaos strumming too hard and banging away at chords. The acoustic encompasses a subtle delicate feel, even when played with powerful intentions.

Listen to the late, incomparable Michael Hedges, who mastered the dynamics, harmonics and color of the acoustic steel string guitar. Hedges truly exuded the power of dual humbuckers and a Marshall stack all with his simple solo acoustic guitar.

I only saw Hedges play live once, and was not close enough to see, but I heard the results of his unique wrist action, tasteful string slaps and careful hand mutes that painted his extraordinary aural portraits.

The title of Aerial Boundaries, one of my favorite Hedges recordings, says it all. Hedges used space to create boundaries in his music, giving it strong imagery like an world-class artist would his canvas.

So, all those great acooustic strummers, from the Everly Brothers to the Goo Goo Dolls, deserve credit for their subtle artistry. They may not have the flash of a Hendrix or a Clapton, but the right approach to acoustic strumming adds invaluable depth, body and color to many of the greatest songs.

Start Early and Start Young

Joe Bonamassa is a player I discovered on satellite radio. A superb blues and rock stylist who blends elements of Clapton, Beck, Stevie Ray and other masters, Bonamassa, it turns out, decided he wanted to be a musician at age 4, according to Wikipedia. His parents owned a guitar shop and their musical tastes enveloped his sphere of influence.

Nothing can replace young brain cells absorbing stimuli. I was lucky enough to take piano lessons at age 6 and I’m sure it helps me to this day. Like a personality, a musical ear is a product of heredity and external stimuli. More years listening, practicing and even trying to emulate others equals deeper understanding of the instrument and approaches to take while playing phrases.

You can hear Bonamassa’s influences with every note….what he listened to, what he liked, and who he emulated early on.
The refreshing thing is that, according to what I’ve heard on his radio show, he readily admits his influences and acknowledges them with praise. Honesty is the best policy, and his honesty helps me accept his role as an individual stylist of amalgamation. As a result, I’m starting to recognize his playing as a unique voice, which is the ultimate brand of a true stylist.

Having a listener say “I like your style” or “I like your approach” is the ultimate compliment. After all, does anyone say to anyone “you sound like Clapton” or “you sound like Beck” or “you sound like Santana”? Rare words indeed.

Celebrate your influences, your ear and your time spent listening and practicing. Then try something new using the tools you’ve developed and you’re on your way to creating your unique voice.

A Brit with some grit

I recently discovered blue-eyed soul and blues man James Hunter.  Heard him on satellite radio and then noticed he was performing in Beaver Creek, CO, right after my visit.  Who’s this guy?

Hunter is a blend of James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Van Morrison (who’s a big fan, turns out) and many R&B singers of the past.  Really, he’s got the perfect Beach Music (Southeastern US-style) sound.  A Beach Music artist from Essex England?

I’m always amazed at the ability of the British, with all the pomp and circumstance as part of their culture, to sing the blues.  Hunter sounds pretty close to James Brown at times and even a little like Ray Charles.

His guitar playing, however, sounds like a garage band player just starting out.  It’s a choppy, frenetic, nervous style that hits the right notes but doesn’t sound confident enough to stay there.  I  believe this is a case of the band leader (with an incredible voice) taking control and deciding he’s going to be the guitar player!  It’s all OK, because the band….horns, Hammond B-3, drums, bass….is really excellent, along with Hunter’s vocals, of course.

When you’ve got the power (in this case, Hunter’s vocal prowess), you don’t have to be a world class stylist to be a world class performer.

Close your eyes, Local can be just as good

An ad agency president friend of mine told me once he doesn’t believe incredible talent dwells only in rich and famous superstars.  “You can go to church and hear a guitar player who’s just as good as anyone,” he offered.  While the conversation started around great advertising, his point about guitarists struck a sensitive cord (chord?) with me.  He’s probably right, I surmised.

I witnessed this fact Thursday night at a local wine bar.  Two local jazz artists I know were ripping through jazz standards with incredible skill, branding the tunes with their impressive techniques.  Before long, I closed my eyes and was in Greenwich Village, maybe at a showcase like Smalls, far away from the suburban piedmont Virginia wine bar.