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.

Ripening the tone

I was in the Bahamas last week chatting to some wonderful musicians about their instruments.  One had a solid mahogany Warwick 5-string bass he proudly pointed out was one piece through the neck and body.  Said he was 43 and had been playing since he was 11 or 12.  “You do the math,” he said.  I told him how lucky he was to be playing music for a living, adding, “I’ll bet a lot of people down here tell you that.”  He replied, “thousands have!”

The guitarist in the band sported a maple-neck Stratocaster that looked aged and worn.  “It’s a 1969,” he said.  “Wow,” I exclaimed, “Do you know how much that is worth?”  He answered, “somebody told me maybe $20,000 in the states.”

With musical instruments, nothing can take the place of old wood.  Old wood resonates better, provides richer tonal colors and seems to sustain notes longer.  The Bahamian band sounded quite good, but part of the fun was the garage-band tones they broadcast with their 60’s instruments.

If tone affects the style….and it does, doesn’t it?…..then the wood affects the style, right?  So I might play a little differently if I had a 50-year old guitar?  I just might.

The Ric 12

The Rickenbacker 12-string has had a remarkable effect on many different genres.  Particularly, the Ric 360 12-string, touted as the world’s most popular electric 12-string, played a big role in creating the sound of The Byrds, The Beatles, and many other influential bands.  The instantly identifiable, ringing, chimey sound of the Ric 12-string evolved into what many would refer to as a style.  I believe that the sound affected the style of the player; thus the guitar itself, to a degree, helped to create a style.



Becoming Clairvoyant

•April 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment (Edit)

Robbie Robertson released his fifth solo album today…..”How to Become Clairvoyant.”  One of the great guitar stylists in rock….witness his passionate, inventive solo on The Band’s “King Harvest”…..Robertson apparently PO’d his bandmates in The Band after grabbing most of the songwriting credits while his bandmates were partying it up in the late sixties and early seventies but nonetheless, this guy is a gifted writer, singer and guitarist who brings his unique brand to the table in style.

“How to Become Clairvoyant” opens with a burner set up by Robert Randolph on the pedal steel.  Randolph’s another great stylist who plays his instrument as if it were a slide guitar (but, of course, the pedal steel is much more capable with wider range and a fatter tone).  Instantly you recognize Robertson breathy, whispery vocals in this opener, “Staight Down the Line.”

Robertson’s Stratocaster shines on “When the Night Was Young”….a stirring soul tune that harks back to the magnificent Curtis Mayfield, background vocals and all.

Clapton’s help in “He Don’t Live Here No More” doesn’t do much to lift this tune….sounds a little like his duet with Hornsby back in the 90′s….nothing new.

However….”The Right Mistake” with Clapton and Winwood is another story.  This song drips with soul and Clapton and Winwood are almost to performing as what Lennon and McCartney are to songwriting.  Put these guys in the same studio and it just doesn’t get much better anywhere.  Winwood’s Hammond B-3 skills are brilliant….just the right amount of everything.

The next three tunes feature Clapton with Winwood on two of them as well, complementing and backing up Robertson’s reasonably well-crafted vocal lines.

Madame X justaposes Robertson with another musician who made the successful (and I’m sure very competitively fought) journey from rock to cinema: Trent Reznor.  The Nine Inch Nails founder just won an Academy Award for his soundtrack compositions on “Social Network;” Madame X is full of imagery and expressiveness, like any strong soundtrack should be.  I can see a madam walking in the rainy night with car lights flickering by…..

Tom Morello shakes things up with his guest appearance on “Axman,” an appropriate nod to a guy who deserves more credit as a outstanding stylist in the rock and rebellion anthem genre.  Robertson credits everyone from Elmore James to Link Wray in this sure-to-please-every-guitarist number.

“Mistress of magic, goddess of night” sings Robertson on the title cut….”how to become clairvoyant, that’s what I gotta know”……another breathy question from Robertson….how do you…”be one of the ones to see around corners?”…..not a bad subject for a song.

Tango for Django doesn’t really sound like Django Reinhardt to me, although it has a strong gypsy feel, the speed and dexterity of the master is missing.  But of course, it’s a tribute, not a reproduction!  (Rest assure, Django will be a subject for a future blog.)

“How to Become Clairvoyant” has no blazing guitar statements from Robertson like “King Harvest,” but it’s a worthy work of art and collaboration by some of the most impactful stylists of the past several decades.

Collective Style

I love the way some players can shift styles from song to song, sometimes even within a song.  Play a cluster of jazz licks in one song and a kickin’ country twang in another song.  It ain’t easy, but some players pull it off beautifully.

Most well-known players I can think of still sound like themselves regardless of what genre they’re playing in.   A few years ago, I met Les Paul, and was impressed with his ability to play jazz, country, pop, blues in the same night.  He was a master and pulling all these styles together, sometimes within the same song.  But he still sounded like Les Paul.  I was amazed at the authenticity of his country picking.  Of course, he was a jazz guy, for sure, but he had what takes to bring out country grins.





While I play in a jazz quartet and a country blues trio,