Welcome to the May/June issue of ShortRiffs — the monthly column that focuses on all the guitar, music and life things going on around The Guitar Cave. I have an awesome, splendiferous and pretty jam-packed issue this month, including some very sad news. No matter what age one arrives at, one never loses the capacity to be shocked by the unexpected and downright tragic. As always, though, thank you! for your continued patronage.
The news about Chris Cornell was just terrible — a very sad situation. He was an extremely talented singer, writer and guitar player. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Soundgarden is some the best music to be released in the last 25 years and I spent many an hour back in the day playing those riffs with complete and utter rock abandon. That is one reason I recently profiled Soundgarden’s Head Down as a GuitarSong. The band represented everything that is GREAT about heavy and dynamic guitar rock and, of course, Chris’ talent and vision was a huge part of that heaviness. He fought bravely against the demons that populate the nightmare landscape of the mind and in the process, gave the world a whole lot of great music. I hope he has found peace.
One of the best things about Facebook and YouTube is how easy it is to see awesome videos like classical Vietnamese guitarist Thu Le practicing. She takes “relax while you practice” to a whole new level! People all over the world are fanatical about playing guitar and reaching high levels of ability and achievement! Isn’t that great? I think it’s fantastic. Classical guitar played well just doesn’t sound like anything else! Since graduating from the Hanoi National Conservatory of Music in 2001 Thu has become an internationally acclaimed artist. She has lots of great videos on YouTube and I’ll be looking for her to keep bringing her \m/ classical riffing to the masses!
Last year I wrote a post on Barney Kessel and I have his Yesterday album reviewed in the right column on the blog’s main page. Though this disc has been a long-time favorite of mine, recently I went on a daily listening jag and, in the process, learned most of his licks from the Beatles’ cover Yesterday, the namesake of the disc. I’ve also been playing through his cover of Old Devil Moon. In addition to the Yesterday licks from Barney’s version, I have also been incorporating licks from another version I found on YouTube from Helmut Kagerer. I have no idea if he based his version on Barney Kessel, but it’s close enough for me! Solo Yesterday is absolutely a fun little piece to play once you start getting it under your fingers. Here is the Barney recording on YouTube and Helmut’s is below. Below that is a nice little run through of the head and a chorus or two of Old Devil Moon by a gent named Alessio Menconi. Very nicely done. Great feel and sound on the solo! So if you ever have a desire to play either of these songs, this will get you started for sure! Also, HERE is a podcast of Barney solo guitar that was recorded in a restaurant in the early 1980s with just a few people hanging out. Barney also cracks jokes and shares his philosophy on life and guitar. The audio isn’t great, but a really cool find and some great solo playing!
Speaking of Barney Kessel, here he is with two other jazz guitar monsters — Kenny Burrell and the one and only Grant Green. I think these are the only videos online of Grant Green playing live so they’re pretty meaninful. Kenny and Barney are both fantastic players and they have a HUGE presence on “The Tube“. I found myself wondering the other night how many gigs did Barney play with that Gibson ES-350 of his? In case you didn’t see, here he is talking about it.
Back to Grant Green though…I have his Matador and Standards discs. I have been listening to the Matador disc quite a bit recently. Green is not your typical jazz guitarist; some would probably his soul/funky blues lines too rudimentary or limited in a real jazz setting and there are definitely times on the Matador disc when McCoy Tyner almost overwhelms because of Tyner’s ability to dazzle with his piano chops and bend the harmonies of all the tunes in so many different directions. Green is a very rhythmic guitarist and makes great use of time and space, does not employ many chromatic lines and uses repeat figures as motifs in all of the tunes. The end result is a very modal, angular improvisation that is beautifully articulated on all tracks. His sound was a very mid-range; part Charlie Christian, part blues, achieved by using a Gibson 330, a Fender Twin (at times) and, doing this (Barney Kessel had a similar sound). The Matador album also features the great Elvin Jones on drums, and Bob Cranshaw on bass and along with the aforementioned McCoy Tyner. All of these guys are jazz legends and the ensemble sound is great! Featured is Green’s low-down version of My Favorite Things, which, at the time, (early 60s) was John Coltrane‘s song. (His recording also featured Tyner and Jones). Other tracks include the righteous 11+ minute workout Bedouin, the chitlins-circuit style cut Green Jeans and funky-jazz title cut, which evokes all of the atmosphere of a smoky, early 60s jazz club. This is a hot quartet firing on all cylinders believe you me and I love the SOUND of these early 60s records. Totally cool!
BonaFide Rock Legend Greg Allman of The Allman Brothers has also passed away. Damn! My blog is turning into the Blog of Death or something…I’ve written on the Brothers a few times — pretty much everyone from my generation was influenced or at least heavily aware of the musical greatness of this band and all of the people associated with it. The earliest musical jamming situations I was in were influenced by The Allman Brothers and One Way Out is one of the first songs I played a good solo on. Greg and his very influential brother, Duane, along with Dicky Betts, Butch Trucks (who died in January), Berry Oakley and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson created a few new styles of rock and in the process became one of the most important American bands to come out of the riotous 1960s. As I wrote in GuitarSong #3 the Brothers music still (and will always) have the power to move people. I witnessed this myself not that long ago. The fusion of different musical styles and elements that became the foundation of ABB’s music is so transcendent, and such an important part of the American music fabric.
Over the years so many other great players, including Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, and Allen Woody helped continue the ever-evolving musical sojourn / road trip that was The Allman Brothers. While Gregg was known mostly as the band’s lead vocalist and B3 organ player, he did play guitar and wrote quite a few tunes on guitar, including the mega-classic, Melissa. While he had been in ill-health lately, some years before he had successfully purged himself of the substance demons that had dogged him for most of his life. He died peacefully at home and hopefully…fully aware of the amazing legacy that he has left in his wake.
I follow Denis Chang (who I’ve written about here, here, and here) on Facebook and not only is he a great musician and savvy businessman, but his knowledge of music and transcription is impressively effin’ BOSS if you ask me. This video is an educational demo of the finer points of transcribing some tricky stuff from jazz legend Pat Martino using the Sibelius app. Denis and his crew crank out a mega-load of musical excellence every year and you can peruse the very fine DC Music School catalog here.
My sister gave me this book, Dreaming the Beatles, a new take on the Fab Four, written by Rolling Stone reviewer and author of other stuff, Rob Sheffield. While I do enjoy reading about the Beatles’ music, I should’ve avoided this one, but it was a gift and. I did try to keep an open mind, but I do better with authors who bring some kind of real musical background to their writing, or interview and quote people who do. I imagine people who aren’t musicians or people who like reading about pop culture will like this more than I did, but I’m just speculating. The point of the book, as described on the Amazon page:
…is a collection of essays telling the story of what this ubiquitous band means to a generation who grew up with the Beatles music on their parents’ stereos and their faces on T-shirts. What do the Beatles mean today? Why are they more famous and beloved now than ever? And why do they still matter so much to us, nearly fifty years after they broke up?
None of these questions really interest me and this is the type of book where you either like the author or you don’t and if you don’t, you won’t like the book because the author is a major part of the story. Which sucks. Because I wanted to read about the Beatles. I honestly can’t tell if the book is a gigantic troll-job or if the author is looking for his own talk show or a kaffeeklatch with Oprah. He’s way too emo for me. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about himself and how he relates to the Beatles and then tries to insinuate this is how all people relate to the Beatles…or should. (This is the methodology of how we are supposed to arrive at the answers to the questions the book poses). At times his anecdotes in this regard veer completely off the rails, like this example from a chapter titled, The Scream:
When I listen to Hollywood Bowl, I do not imagine being one of the Beatles; I fantasize about being a girl in the upper-balcony cheap seats, ripping out my hair and shrieking, tapping into the eternal gnosis that not even the boys in the band could ever know.
See what I mean about being too emo? I’m not sure why a guy in his 50s (as the author is) would be fantasizing about shrieking like a teenage girl. In 40+ years of listening to the Beatles, playing Beatles music for people, and knowing other Beatles’ fans I have never heard anyone, male or female, of any age, express similar sentiments. The above sentence is prefaced by another doozy: any fan who claims they don’t share this desire has to be lying. Whatever. The author also attempts rewrite Beatles’ history and/or interpret Beatles lyrics in the same out-of-left-field manner, sometimes with truly bizarre results. Like this little gem about the songs My Love and Something.
“Something” became George’s greatest hit, as well as the one that made John and Paul most jealous. It was the first time the Quiet One got the A-side of a single. Oh, how it must have burned Paul that he didn’t write this song. And that’s how “My Love” happened. (page 207)
There is no evidence to suggest that Paul McCartney’s My Love was anything but a heartfelt paean to his wife, Linda, but because Sheffield thinks My Love is the worst song (not even close) in the Beatles’/post-Beatles’ catalog he constructs this elaborate conspiracy theory that would make Alex Jones proud. What’s interesting is My Love was a bigger hit and was the #5 song for 1973. I’m not sure how a song that spent a month at #1 qualifies as the worst Beatle/post-Beatle song in any rational person’s universe.
There are many moments like this scattered throughout the book and it’s annoying. I can’t recommend the book and I don’t have the patience for this kind of music writing anymore because I can never completely suspend that inner voice that is telling me I’m being gamed.
While we’re on the subject of the Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 this month. Of course a whole new package has been rolled out to commemorate the occasion, including a complete remix done by Giles Martin (son of George Martin). Here is an interview where he explains the process. I imagine the record sounds a lot different now; back in the day they had to bounce so many tracks down to just a few (I believe the original album was done on 4 tracks) so the sound panorama now is a lot more vivid. It must be an interesting listening experience. I have never liked Pepper as much as the earlier Beatles stuff, but I do think it was the last great Beatles’ record. I don’t know that I really need to hear an updated version though.
Here is a fascinating clip — the original lineup of The Byrds, playing live on The Big T.N.T Show in late 1965. This performance captures all of the fantastic weirdness of this band and how amazing it is that they are always (rightfully) considered as possible candidates for best American band of all time. They influenced the Beatles, REM, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Eagles, The Smiths and many more. While they would go through many lineup changes and musical permutations, this is the classic group: Jim “Roger” McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clark. Often described as one of the most dysfunctional bands ever, they were only together for less than two years before things started falling apart. But by then their legacy was assured because of their unique sound.
Of course a very important component is the Roger McGuinn guitar sound — achieved with the 12-string Rickenbacker. Here is his explanation of how important compression was for the recording of his guitar sound. The ringing and very chiming effect can be many things simultaneously and over the course of the Byrds career it was; veering from early psychedelia and folk rock to jazz (Eight Miles High) and raga rock (Why) to country and country rock. He was already a very accomplished guitarist at this point and it didn’t hurt that he drew inspiration from a wide circle of influences. McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmonized very well together, but there was a raggedness about the band that recalls the lo-fi brilliance of the Velvet Underground. Michael Clark, by all accounts didn’t really play drums like a drummer, but in the vein of Keith Moon of The Who or Moe Tucker of The Velvet Underground; he made a rhythmic noise (that you can see people responding to in the clip). It’s not exactly your standard fare rock and roll of the time though. Crosby has stated that he and Hillman had to adapt their rhythms to fill in the gaps where the drums should have been, so of course this throws the music into a completely different thing from most bands:
Well the drummer couldn’t play…never could. He looked right but he never was a very good drummer, he was a nice guy. That’s one of the reasons I learned to play that chop and smack kind of rhythm because I had to learn how to play drums on the guitar. Somebody had to do and so it was me and Chris.
— David Crosby – Musicangle 2004
Even though the Byrds would develop into pretty good songwriters, and their music would evolve into many things, the band hadn’t really come into its own at the time of this performance and the limitations are evident. There are 3 songs and all three are covers; Mr. Tambourine Man was written by Bob Dylan, The Bells of Rhymney and Turn, Turn Turn were both adapted to song by Pete Seeger. All three songs are “folk” songs. All three songs are in the key of D major. All three are are about the same tempo (right around 110-114 bpm). McGuinn’s guitar, the somber lyric content, the close 3-part harmony, the tempo and their rhythmic chops give the whole performance a very druggy, out of focus sixties feel. McGuinn really was the original Stonerrocker, although I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate that characterization. 1965 was a pivotal year for rock and pop growing up and getting serious — The Beatles were recording Rubber Soul when this show was filmed. Of course the folkishness doesn’t stop the teenyboppers from having a good time. I’m sure they wanted to rock, or at least pop! like Beatlemania.
As I said above, Pete Seeger set the Idris Davies poem about a Wales mine disaster and General Strike to music and the verses of the Gwalia Deserta became the song The Bells of Rhymney. Pete was a giant of folk music; a spiritual presence who was an intense part of the American music fabric for almost 70 years. While he may be known more for the banjo and more subdued accompaniment, the above clip demonstrates that he knew how to get down on the old guitar too. That’s a pretty hot performance I think. It reminds me of what I talked about in these two posts about how interesting that coffeehouse sound of the 50s and 60s was. You have a wide range of artists and real happening guitar players like Davey Graham, Paul Simon, Charlie Byrd, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and many more in various US and British cities who came up or got their start playing some semblance of folk or roots music in these small wine and coffee places. Folk, skiffle, jazz, blues, latin, and country all overlapped with some very interesting permutations. The Byrds took that all one step further into the pop, rock, acid rock, raga rock and country rock categories as their career went along. But it all kind of starts on an acoustic guitar, doesn’t it? Speaking of which, here’s another guy playing the blanky-blank out of The Bells of Rhymney. Great performance by John Denver — another very famous guitar guy from the folk / coffeehouse or cafehaus school of getting down on a 6-string.