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.