The Guitar: On Aging, Mortality, & Respect
The Reverend Gary Davis said to me, “I am not now what I once have been”. He was probably in his early 70s.
Little by little, I’m catching up, and, over time, I’m coming to see what he meant. There are a lot of things that I can’t do on the guitar anymore…and the things I can do seem to happen slower than they used to. So my motto is becoming “Nothing Flashy”. The bad news is that it’s a limitation, and that it’s humbling to face this inevitable effect of aging. The good news is that I’m much less tempted to show off, or to make flashy choices. This has made me strive to maximize the musicality and emotional content in my playing. Maybe that motto should be a mantra: “Say No To Flash, Say Yes To Taste”. It’s one I’ve been trying to live up to. Recognizing that many of our most celebrated guitarists have both flash AND taste, it’s an emotional struggle at times.
At one time, I studied T’ai Chi Ch’uan with a famous Chinese master called Dr. Tao. He was in his 80s and as slender as a twig (he refused to tell us his weight…), but I never saw anyone best him. He told us that HIS teacher, realizing how weak Tao was, had said, “Everyone else will have two methods: Power and elusiveness. You will have to make do with just one method.”
Now, more and more, I feel like Dr. Tao on the guitar; “No Flash…Just Taste”. And so it goes.
On the other hand, I’m alive, which can’t be said for many of my heroes. Some, like Rev. Davis, Lenny Breau, Clarence White, Jack McGann, and George Van Eps, have been gone for many years, or decades. But now I’m of an age where my idols seem to be passing away with great regularity. I was inspired by so many players, in so many styles. In the past 3 or 4 years, we’ve lost Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Doc Watson, and Steve Mann, among others; all early heroes and huge influences to me. Dave Van Ronk was just a few years before.
And now Phil Everly has passed away. I look back on my life, and my serial obsessions. When I was 7 or 8, I was totally consumed with the Everly Brothers. I didn’t even own a guitar, but I WANTED one so badly because I idolized these young gods of rock-n-roll and country. I finally started playing guitar when I was 15, and, within a couple years, I’d become obsessed with fingerstyle guitar, and especially the playing of Bert Jansch, Dave Van Ronk, and Davy Graham. Another year or two, and it was Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. A few years later, in my mid-twenties, I moved to San Francisco and heard the tapes and legends associated with Steve Mann. Until I got serious about jazz, about ten years later, I ate, slept, and drank all of that music, struggling to comprehend these musical giants through 20 years of daily practice…
Of course, some of my heroes from that time are still alive: John Renbourn, David Bromberg, Pierre Bensusan, Guy Van Duser…the mishmosh of all of their styles helped me forge what has become my own style, and inspired my own creativity as a musician…. But here’s a point: The ones who are gone; I find that, more and more, I want to play their tunes, just the way they played them. It’s an almost irresistible tendency to homage. I do it partly to honor them, but mostly because their music was so good that it makes me feel good to reproduce it fairly faithfully.
This desire to play Davy Graham’s “Tristano“, Steve Mann’s “Amazing Gospel Tune“, or Rev. Gary Davis’s “Buckdance“, note-for-note, more or less, is a sign of genuine respect for the players who paved the way for the guitar players of today and of tomorrow…I’m a big proponent of teaching students how to think and arrange for themselves, and a large percentage of tunes I play were either written or arranged by me, but I recognize the value, and the sheer pleasure, of standing on the shoulders of those who came before by learning their masterpieces….and, who knows…maybe someday, someone will be learning an arrangement of mine, and I’ll get to pay it forward…