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I don’t usually do reviews here, but this guitar, built by Collings Guitars, is such a unique instrument that I think it bears some discussion. The guitar is a “retro” design, meant to evoke the feel and sound of the ’30s Gibson L-00 and Kalamazoo KG-14 guitars. These were low-priced, plain Jane, depression era instruments. The ladder braced KG-14, in particular, was not what we’d call a “fine instrument”, and they were built so lightly that few have survived in any kind of decent condition. The X-braced L-00, on the other hand, was a plain instrument, but a very decent one, and they are commonly available as vintage instruments. They’re very popular with fingerstyle blues guitarists and “old time music” rhythm guitarists for their punchy, incomplicated clarity of sound. Both the KG-14 and the L-00 were lightly built and very resonant instruments; you can feel them vibrate when you play one, especially since the wood has been drying out for 80+ years. As an example, here’s a piece played on my ’34 L-00:
I received my Waterloo WL14X (X-braced) yesterday. The guitar comes in two versions: X-braced, like an L-00, and ladder braced, like a KG14. In shopping on line, I found my guitar essentially new but sold as “used”. Think of it as a “demo” model…The street price on a new one is just under $1900, which sounds like a lot to the average citizen, but is a pittance compared to many new acoustic guitars.
Once I tuned up the guitar and started to play, I was disappointed in the sound and feel. I had hoped for something like a new version of my old L-00, and the guitar at first sounded thin and kind of flimsy. After a few minute of playing, I realized I was very unhappy with the feel of the strings on it, so I put a set of my usual strings on. Immediately, the whole tonal and tactile feel of the guitar changed dramatically. Don’t ask me why. All I’d say is that, if you get a Waterloo and don’t like the sound and feel, make sure you have strings that you like. My favorites are Elixir Nano light gauge, and, at least for me, they work beautifully with this guitar. Once I’d played for a few minutes, I decided to record the A-B comparison seen below:
Now the two guitars sounded extremely similar to my ear, albeit not identical. I think the Waterloo still has a slight bit of that thinness that I associate with the Kalamazoo, but it has enough L-00 in it to compensate.
After I made the video, I continued to sit and play the Waterloo. The room was in semi darkness, and, as soon as my mind wandered a bit, I realized that I was unconsciously assuming that I was playing my old L-00. Everything about the neck felt identical. The best way I can put it is to say that this guitar has more “mojo” than any new guitar has a right to…the look of the sunburst, the neck shape, and the light weight of the instrument are all perfect. The matte finish looks like a $35 Stella from 1965, but it also looks like it will age and attain a patina. The extremely light finish serves the double purpose of recalling the guitars of yore and allowing the top to vibrate very freely. For me, throughout, the guitar is a very unusual combination of excellent workmanship (it plays like a dream, and intonates as perfectly as any Collings) and these little idiosyncrasies, but, like all Collings Guitars, it is a working man’s instrument in the important ways.
Here’s an interview with Bill Collings about why he created the guitar:
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the Japanese interviewer is trying from every angle to get Bill to explain why he has chosen to build a guitar that is not as perfect as his Collings Guitars. What’s clear to me is that the guitar not only occupies this unique ground of being truly retro in what might be regarded as both the best and the worst ways, but it allows Collings to cut back on labor and material costs, enabling him to build a (relatively) low priced instrument that works as well as any Collings.
Here’s a little rag I wrote in honor of the Waterloo’s retro sound and feel:
This guitar is not for everyone. I think you need a light touch to play it properly, and you may need to pay special attention to setup and strings, but I have a strong feeling that it’ll be a favorite around here for certain kinds of music (blues, ragtime, swing) for the foreseeable future!
Recently, I had a wonderful experience performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Andy Braunfeld asked me to do a guitar workshop. Now, I’ve done these several times before over the past 35 years, and they usually involve 5 or 6 musicians sitting on stage hoping the other guys don’t hog too much of the time. This time, however, Andy envisioned it as just being me and one other performer, the esteemed Canadian songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn, sharing the stage for an hour. It sounded like a great opportunity for me to share some of my favorite guitar pieces with a large and appreciative audience in a non-competitive, supportive atmosphere. And, sure enough, that’s exactly how it played out! Bruce was very gracious, we seemed to enjoy each others playing equally, and the audience was very positive both during and after the workshop. In short, one of those moments that musicians live for!
In discussing this on Facebook, I said that, as someone fairly low on the folk performer “food chain”, I was very pleased to have this opportunity. People wrote me to say, “You’re a great guitarist! You’re not low on the food chain!!” It set me to thinking, and this is what I thought: I AM low on the food chain, because the idea of a competitive measure of performers, in this sense, actually is an indicator of popularity, or “draw” in business terms.
I’m not a big draw, for several reasons:
- I play acoustic fingerstyle guitar, not “electro-acoustic” guitar, and my specific vision of the music is not very “in your face”. This does not mean that I disapprove in any way of showier playing than my own, provided I think it’s good music. Sometimes, I envy it. Often, I respect the virtuosity of it. It just isn’t “me”, and this is especially true as I’ve aged.
- I am not an entertainer. I am, instead, (and this is a crucial element of how I’ve come to define myself as a musician), a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar. I like to share my music, and, with nearly a half century of performing under my belt, I think I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not driven to compete in the marketplace.
- I don’t have a great voice, and, while I love to sing, and can probably put a song across pretty well, I doubt that there are many people who would prefer me to Ray Charles or Mose Allison.
- I only play music that I love. Like any good performer, I try to plan a set in a way that will be most engaging to my audience, but my planning will NOT include music which I do not love. Someone mentioned to me a while back that the word “amateur” means something along the lines of “lover of”: It originally reflected on the idea of someone playing for the love of the music rather than money. It didn’t mean “less talented”. I still like to think of myself as an amateur in that older sense.
- I decided long ago that, on stage, I just want to be myself. Some people get up on stage and put on the mask. Others get up on stage and take off the mask. I’d prefer to be the latter…within reason, of course, which means that I try to just be myself on stage, not a “showman”.
Here’s the thing, though: Being low on the food chain of performers does not necessarily mean that I’m low on the talent chain, or the musicianship chain. Those judgements are for others to make, but my own wish as a guitarist has always been simply to have the respect of my peers, and, to a great degree, that has come about. Seeing someone like Bruce Cockburn smile approvingly at one of my original instrumentals, or having my friend Mike Dowling, whose musicianship I respect immensely, recommend me to a new music camp, is plenty good for me. I chose long ago to lessen, to some extent, the influence of money (or the need for money) on my music, and I’ve been lucky to make a living doing other things I enjoy, and still have time and energy to devote to music.
So, as mentioned earlier, when I ask, “Who Am I?” as a musician, the answer is simply this:
I’m a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar.
Sometimes, my ego gets out of control, and I suffer from a touch of “That Should Be ME Up There” syndrome. Then I need to remind myself of who I am, and of who I am NOT … So, that’s my story. In the next installment, I’ll answer the “Who I Am” issue in a more conventional way.
For the rest of the month of April, at rollybrown.com, order 2 DVDs at the combo price of $40, and you’ll get a listening CD for free! Just go to http://rollybrown.com/store.html , place your order, and, during the Paypal part of the transaction, write “free CD” and the title (“Sunday Morning”, “This Vagrant Heart”, “Dog Is My Co-Pilot”, or “No Need For Words”), and it’ll be included in your order, all for the price of $40 postpaid! The video below gives more info!
My Manifesto: I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.
Recently I had the good fortune to take an afternoon workshop with Howard Alden, a great jazz guitarist. Howard was affable, clear, and responsive to questions, and I went away from the workshop with some concrete things to work on. But I also left the workshop thinking about the whole issue of what “progress” means when you’ve been playing the guitar seriously for 50 years. When we’re young, we focus on technical progress, and I often describe the mania for lots of notes and speed as “a juvenile stage of development” on the guitar. If you’re serious about the instrument, you probably need to go through that stage, and yet, the word “through” may imply that you also, at some point, need to be done with that stage! At some point, one assumes that you reach a maturity that allows you to be more judicious about how “notey” your playing is…or not….
Which leads me to what I narcissistically term “Rolly’s Rule”, because I think of it as being so central to my message as a guitarist and as a teacher. This is what the rule states:
ROLLY’S RULE: The more you can make your guitar, in some way, recall the sound and emotional content of the human voice, the more your listeners will be able to connect with your music.
A pretty simple concept, but, of course, there are exceptions. The most notable one is this: Sometimes, it’s not about the emotion (as in “wistfulness”, “affection”, “joy”, “sadness”, “elation”…). Sometimes, it’s just about The Energy; the toe-tapping, physically engaging musical ride that makes you want to dance or stamp your feet. This aspect is part of most genres of music, and certainly a large part of both Gypsy jazz and bluegrass.
Even if you’re playing a tune in which The Energy is paramount, though, musical maturity should still be enriching the music: phrasing, note choices, use of dynamics (loud/soft), and details of articulation (bends, vibrato, hammers, slides, etc.) all give music more life, even at warp speed.
Then there are issues of note choice; it’s amazing, given that there are only twelve tones in the Western musical paradigm, that there are so many ways of putting them together…
Here’s a calculation done by the great jazz maestro George Van Eps in order to give an idea of just how many ways we’re talking about. Click on the thumbnail to read the text. (You may have to click on the file again to enlarge it, too…)
So, the question arises; if you’re following “Rolly’s Rule”, how many scales and arpeggios and variations do you need to practice in order to maximize your ability to connect with listeners? And, does learning more and more combinations of combining notes always mean that you’re making “progress”? If we assume that the whole idea of “making progress” is unquestionably the goal in attaining musicianship, and we define “progress” as learning more stuff, playing faster, having more note combinations, is that always useful? More to the point, how would our conversational speech sound if we applied the same principles to verbal communication? Have you ever wondered about the motivation of a speaker who continually uses big words when simpler language would work better?
Okay, here’s what I think, noting that these answers are just for me. You need to find your own answers…
- I think that it makes sense to make sure that you’ve done all you can to achieve the best possible technique and speed that your potential allows. Then go on a maintenance program, so as not to lose ground.
- I think that, with most great players, their style is fairly set at an early age. From then on, it’s a matter of how much more development they have within the confines of their musical personality. That development may be for the better, may be for the worse (some players do their best work early on…), or they may just remain where they are. (If Bill Evans never went beyond the level he was at on “Portrait in Jazz”, or Miles Davis on “Kind of Blue”, would that have been such a terrible thing?)
- I think that, for me, I continue to try and add to the number of ways I can put notes together, but only insomuch as it doesn’t stray too far from “Rolly’s Rule”. There are great players for whom I have great admiration, but I don’t want to be them. Often, their music only has emotional content for other musicians, and, while I hope to have the respect of my peers, I also want my music to reach the “average listener”. I actually don’t always like the sound of jazz that’s “way out there”, even if I appreciate the skill involved, so I don’t feel obliged to try and master it.
- I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.
The things I want to improve on the most:
- Groove: having better control of time, and making rhythms more viscerally moving to listeners.
- Access: Rather than trying to learn more and more combinations, I’d like to have better immediate access to the combinations I already know and understand. Sometimes, after playing a solo, I feel like the guy who, after an argument, walks away saying, “What I should have said was_____…why can’t I ever think of that in the moment??”
- Awareness: I want to be more aware of which aspects and techniques in my music are communicating most effectively, and, when playing with others, be more aware of what they’re playing, and of how we’re interacting.
When I show great improvement at those 3 things, then I’ll want to show even greater improvement at those 3 things…
Recently, I re-posted an article I wrote a decade ago about my meeting and brief time with the Rev. Gary Davis, which happened in the winter of ’69-70. This was a landmark moment in my life as a guitarist. As you may read below, I was able to glean the feel and fingerings of more than a few of the Reverend’s fantastic guitar arrangements during the two hours he spent showing me stuff. I was already fairly competent, so it was the perfect moment for me to absorb a lot of music in a short period of time. Equally importantly, the meeting triggered a long study of the Reverend’s style, supported by meetings with other RGD students, including Andy Cohen, Alan Mattes, Tom Hartman, Nick Katzman, Ernie Hawkins, and others; folks who were glad to trade their takes on the Rev’s pieces for my own. Then there were Stefan Grossman’s transcriptions, and my own wearing-out of the available LPs. But mostly there was the memory of those hands, and that sound.
If you’ve never seen or heard the Reverend, here’s a little sample:
And a bit of the style that I absorbed from him over the years, played on a Gibson J200, for that signature RGD sound.
Here’s the article I wrote:
In the winter of 1969-70, I was co-chairing the Kent State Folk Festival in Kent Ohio. We ended up booking Rev. Gary Davis, largely because Folklore Productions, which handled many of the good folk acts at that time, had no one else available, and because I’d heard a recording of “12 gates to the city” and was impressed. Manny Greenhill warned us not to give the Reverend any booze. When my friend Don Hernstrom and I arrived to meet the plane, the Reverend was nowhere to be seen. We finally asked a stewardess if anyone was still on the plane. She gave us a withering look and sent us back, where we found the Reverend (who was accompanied by his 13 year old grand-daughter) asleep in his seat with an empty fifth of whiskey portruding from his pocket. We woke him up and got underway. He was affable enough, but kept saying, “I shoulda brought my gun…” with references to what he’d do if he didn’t get paid the agreed-upon amount.
(Years later I read James Taylor’s account of his first gig. He’d opened for the Reverend at a club on Martha’s Vineyard and, when the owner refused to pay Davis and Taylor the amount agreed upon, Davis, [he was BLIND, remember], had indeed pulled a revolver and waved it around, maybe even shot once or twice, until the payment was received.)
Anyhow, the Reverend made it clear, in terms that echoed Muhammad Ali, that he was “the greatest”, and no one had ever been better. That evening, as we waited backstage for his performance, and he listened to several student acts performing folk, blues, and singer/songwriter stuff, he seemed a bit more despondent. The quality of the acts was technically pretty good, and the Reverend said to me something to the effect of “I USED to be the greatest, but I am not now what I once have been…”
Well, I led him onto stage for the final set of the night, not knowing quite what to expect. He was playing his Bozo 12 string. I think he’d quit using the six because his coordination was going a bit and he felt the 12 sounded fuller. He started out with “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. He looked like he might totter over at any second, but the voice and the guitar were big and strong, and the audience was transfixed. This was a bunch of white-bread college kids who thought “folk music” was Judy Collins and “blues” was Cream.
Davis went on with one amazing rendition after another, filled with good humor and spirit. At the end of his set, these amazed college kids gave him SEVEN encores, and wouldn’t let him off the stage. My eyes brim up a bit as I write this.
The next morning, we arrived at the Reverend’s lodgings (campus guest housing) early and hung out with him until his afternoon workshop. Every time a young woman (the place was crawling with pretty coeds) would enter the room, the Reverend would say, “Ya know….the doctor says…….if I don’t get a purty girl to kiss me every day……I’m gonna DIE!!” Damned if it didn’t work every time! He was having a great old time, collecting kisses from one young sweetie after another.
I had a Gibson “country western” model at this time, and I played a bit for him (at his request). He kindly said, “You’ll be alright…you just keep on”. He took the guitar from me, brought it up to about an inch away from his face, and said, “Hmmmmm….mahogany!” I guess he had that little bit of sight. Then we went off to his 2 hour workshop, where he sat in the student union basement and played for 3 hours straight. I was just amazed by his hands, and the music that came out of his guitar. There was counterpoint and melody and bass movement, but his left hand seemed always to be holding a chord. It totally transformed my vision of how the left hand should operate. To this day, that weekend probably did more for my guitar playing development than any other 48 hours in my 39 years of intensive guitar playing.
At the end of the afternoon, we had two hours to kill till we left for the airport. Reverend Davis had already been playing guitar all day long, but he turned toward me and asked, “Well, what do you want to learn?” I was dumbfounded by his generosity, but recovered quickly, and started naming tunes: Buck Dance, Slow Drag, Talk on The Corner, 12 Sticks,….he went through them all pretty patiently. I didn’t ask questions because I figured he probably was just a great “ear” player, but when I had trouble following him on the downward
chord sequence in Slow Drag, he finally, exasperated, said “C, Bb6, F with an A in the bass, and Ab!”…so much for my stereotypes about old illiterate blues guys…
After two hours of this, we took the Reverend to the airport and sent him off to New York. I think it was about a year later that he passed away. I envy those guys who got to study with him for years in New York, but I also value the brief time I spent with him, and I worked hard to make the most of it for a long time afterward.
I saw a lot of the old blues guys perform: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, and others. None came close to Gary Davis, in my opinion. And none was more beloved. He was a man of great spirit, and he WAS the greatest.
Happy Holidays to you all!
Bob Dylan is not the reason I took up the guitar…the seeds of my hardwired obsession with the instrument were planted at a very early age by the Everly Brothers and Chet Atkins. That said, when I finally got a guitar and started learning at age 15, it was early Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s renditions of his early songs, that made me say, “I want to sound like THAT!”
I saw Dylan “live” on Nov. 12th, 1965, in Cleveland, land of my birth. He was 24 years old. I was 16. Other than his singing, he only said one thing the whole night. Still under fire for “going electric”, (he played an acoustic set followed by an electric set with The Hawks, soon to become The Band,) while struggling to get his acoustic guitar in tune, he petulantly remarked, “My electric guitar never goes out of tune…” Last night, I saw him again, and he spoke even less… He is now 73 yrs old, and I’m 65. We’ve changed.
The voice once accused of being strident and nasal is now low-pitched and powerful. The weird, and instantly recognizable prosody (i.e., “
So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they do with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
And here’s an approximation of the current lyric he sings:
Now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
And tomorrow, ______?
Well, some of them, live up on the mountain
And some of them went down in the ground
Some of the names appeared in flames
And some of them they just left town
Me, I’m still on the road
And I’m tryin’ to stay out of the joint
We always thought the same
Depending on your point of view
Tangled up in blue
I love the “tryin’ to stay out of the joint” line, but the “some went down in the ground” speaks more profoundly of stage of life…
So, here’s the crux of the matter: If you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t go see Dylan with any expectation. Like all great artists, he has chosen his own path, not to be encumbered by either his fans or his critics. I’m happy there was a young Bob Dylan, and I still love to play and sing some of those early songs…here are a couple links.
But that was another time. We’re lucky to have audio recordings of it, but Dylan has moved on, and we can do that, too, without losing the earlier artist.
I respect the immense power and intensity Dylan still brings to his performances at his current age, and, to a certain extent, see his metamorphosis as being one of a very high quality coal, through age, pressure, and heat, being transformed to diamond.
Just my .02. If you can see him, I highly recommend it!!
George Van Eps, the great orchestral jazz guitarist, once said something to the effect that voice leading on the guitar was just a matter of getting 3 or 4 voices swimming along with each other…if you didn’t like the sound of it, you just gave the voices swimming lessons.
After recently recording an off the cuff version of a jazz standard called “Just You, Just Me”, I started to mess around with a chord sequence in the tune which could also be used as a turnaround. I was just thinking about how the voices could move. In the first version, I used a Lenny Breau concept: Simple, but sophisticated; you just pick a voice to stay on top, and you keep it there while you move through the chord sequence. Of course, if you don’t like the sound, you do “swimming lessons”! Then, I intentionally did a second version, higher up on the neck.
This facilitates memorization: By alternating the practice of the two versions, you’re forced to re-remember each version each time, rather than keeping your one version in your short term memory like a phone number that you repeat again and again while you reach for your phone…
Anyhow, the video is sort of self-explanatory, and I hope you can learn my versions, or, better yet, come up with some interesting turnarounds of your own!
But, in addition, she has won great acclaim as a guitar teacher, and was recently highlighted in Gary Marcus’s book, “Guitar Zero“. One of the tools she invented is her deck of “Fretboard Vitamins” cards, and Terre and I have recently been talking about how these cards, which bear Terre’s uniquely creative stamp both visually (with her artwork) and conceptually (with her unique approach to learning) are a perfect fit with my recent “Uncaged and Free” DVD, which teaches (and enlarges on) the “CAGED” system for understanding the fretboard.
The Fretboard Vitamins cards offer you tools for thinking about music. “The purpose,” Terre says, “is to help you to slow down, give yourself the gift of discovery, and deepen your understanding.” This is accomplished by going through a set of exercises, and the CAGED system is part of the foundation of this “CAGED Contemplation Method of Practice”.
The “Uncaged and Free” DVD teaches the CAGED system in its fundamental form, showing the five chord shapes, C, A, G, E, and D, and, among other things, how to superimpose major, blues, and minor scales over them. It also teaches you how to move smoothly up and down the neck, so as not to get stuck in an overly rigid compliance to the CAGED system.
Terre and I feel that these two tools offer two different but very complementary approaches to the same goal: a deeper understanding of the guitar fretboard. We’re thinking about maybe doing a workshop together where we’d explore this terrain.
For the time being, you can order “Fretboard Vitamins” here,
and “Uncaged and Free” here.
Stay tuned for further developments!
When I started putting up Sunday Morning Videos on Facebook and Youtube, four years ago, I didn’t realize that a small legion of fans would start clamoring for a CD or DVD to match, but that’s what transpired. The 200 or so videos that I’ve posted were meant to be quick sketches, and, while I often do several takes in order not to totally embarrass myself, they are not perfect little gems. I figure that, while they remain available forever (or what passes for “forever” on the internet), they basically get only their 15 minutes of fame. Not so with the CD, which one hopes will be played time and again.
Therefore, I went into Jay Ansill‘s “Cheesy Road Studios” with the intention of recording a less imperfect collection of some of my favorites of the Sunday morning tunes. Many of these tunes are originals, some of which were composed on the spur of the moment, and later revised into more cohesive arrangements. Others (particularly “Tristano”, “Angie”, “Holly”, and “The Gospel According To Steve Mann”) were homages to Steve Mann, Bert Jansch, and Davy Graham, all early and forever heroes of mine. Still others were jazz tunes, traditional folk music, and one lovely little rag written by my old friend Janet Smith.
Going into the studio, I took along several guitars to try out, but, in the end, most of the tracks were recorded using one of my two “signature model” Mario Proulx guitars, or the ’38 Gibson L-O on which they were based. You can learn more about the Proulx “Rolly Brown model” here.
Jay’s function in this process was twofold: His engineering expertise allowed me the luxury of editing the most listenable version of each tune, and his friendship and musicality created an atmosphere in which I could have a trusted set of ears to help me decide what was good enough, and which tunes needed more work, or total retakes. This ended up working out beautifully, and eventually got us to the “post production” phase. The stars of this part of the project were photographer Sergio Kurhajec, whose beautiful photo graces the front cover, and CD mastering maestro Charlie Pilzer (of Airshow Mastering), whose expertise puts the final polish on the recording, and makes it come more alive. I decided to do the graphic design myself, mostly because I’m a control freak, and included a foto that Janice suggested and snapped, which shows me in my Sunday morning recording mode, and, for the back of the jewel case, a great pic that Marcy Marxer took of me while we were in mid-performance at the Perkasie Patchworks Coffeehouse. Then everything went off to Discmakers, where their efficient and attentive staff did a fine job of proofing and manufacturing the final product.
While the CD is available through CDBaby (where you can preview tracks) and through iTunes, it’s always nice to cut out the middle men and give the artist his fair share of the profits. You can read the full album notes and order the CD with a couple simple clicks at my website!
Also, check the “gigs, etc.” page here for some CD Release events, at which CD’s will be available at a special discount!
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…