Archive for Elvis Presley

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

Posted in Education, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by theguitarcave

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you in a certain direction.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Guitar Teevee in the 1970s

Posted in Music Business, Players, Playing, This and That with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2016 by theguitarcave

Back in the day it was an everyday occurrence to see people with real talent playing a guitar on television. Sadly, that’s not true anymore, but through the magic of YouTube we can return to the days when variety shows, live concert shows, and even situation comedies had great music. Judging by the views on some of the videos I check out, there are a whole lot of other people out there viewing these videos too. Oh yea!

Roy Clark was all over television in the 1970s. He was a bonafide recording star, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and a proven marketable guy as Hee Haw, the show he co-hosted with Buck Owens, was on for over 20 years. He guest-hosted for Johnny Carson and also made appearances like the one above where he is plays a country medley with the always funny Flip Wilson on The Flip Wilson Show. It was awesome how these skits and musical numbers could show up anywhere and how live, well-played music was an integral part of many entertainment shows. Below Roy stars in an episode of the Odd Couple that includes his pop hit Yesterday (When I Was Young).

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Another country-type who was all over 70s television was the incomparable master of the 6 string, Chet Atkins. His performance of the popular song usually associated with Anne Murray, Snowbird, is a study in fingerstyle guitar wonderama. Check out the sweep picking he works into this performance! Unfortunately I don’t know what show this is from, but the medley performance below is taken from The Johnny Cash Show. It’s gems like these two videos that show Chet was always so much more than a country picker.

Speaking of Snowbird, like Stewie from Family Guy, I
💘 Anne Murray and this performance. Pretty lady, beautiful voice and a very poignant song. Always loved the harmony vocals too!

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This vid of John Hartford playing his song Good Old Fashioned Washing Machine is probably one of the oddest things on YouTube. It’s actually from 1969 and is one of Hartford’s “novelty” numbers. He gets a lot of help from The very bubbly and photogenic Lennon Sisters, Perry Como(?) and Jimmy Durante, who fell over after the song ended. Weird. In the old days television was geared toward a mostly rural and less er, sophisticated audience. In 1971 there was a “Rural Purge” of a lot of these kind of shows from the networks and the programming changed to more “urban” material (All in the Family and all of it’s spin-offs), shows dedicated to more controversial subject matter (MASH) and shows that appealed to a younger audience. This was the beginning of a new direction in television programming and was certainly reflective of all of the change that had occurred during the 1960s, and a new generation of viewers.

One neat-o thing that came out of this change was that shows that featured rock band performers started appearing and sometimes the bands really played and didn’t just mime their way through the performance like this great clip from The Doobie Brothers from a 1975 Midnight Special performance. As far back as the 50s when Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan put Elvis Presley on television, rock and roll was a big seller and it continued to be a popular way for bands to reach an audience in the days before video and MTV. Great performance of the always awesome Doobies in their prime!

Another show from this period was Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Sometimes the performances were dubbed like this one with Bad Company. The vocals and harmonica (who’s idea was that?) are live but I don’t think anything else is. There were a lot of DKRC that were live and pretty killin’ though and a search on YouTube will turn up some good ones including Focus, The Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and a great 1975 set from Black Sabbath including Snowblind. Like how I’m working the snow angle today? Another great performance was the almighty George Benson playing his signature hit Breezin’ in 1977. George was playing his butt off!! during this period and still is all these many years later.

In England there was a show named the Old Grey Whistle Test that presented all kinds of great music from the era. I have a couple comps videos of all kinds of assorted performances and they were all pretty BOSS! Here is a very un-Priestly looking Judas Priest playing Dreamer Deceiver on the OGWT in 1975. They almost look like Lyrnyrd Skynryd. This song was later used as the title for the documentary Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance Vs. Judas Priest, which was the famous court trial where Priest were accused of putting subliminal “kill yourself” messages in their music that resulted in two “fans” shooting themselves. The band prevailed and the charges were dismissed once Rob Halford took the witness stand. Quite a long way from Roy Clark playing Mountain Dew, but hey…nobody ever said life was easy.

I think this is a good idea for a series. There is a lot of good and sometimes unusual stuff out there and as long as the links hold up on YouTube, it’s all GooD!

The Ramones goes GOLD

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by theguitarcave

photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame

I remember when I bought this record — it was late 1979, at this cool record shop located in a strip mall. I was driving around with a soon-to-be ex from high school and we just stopped in to browse and when I saw the cover of The Ramones I thought “well this looks interesting.” The soon-to-be ex wasn’t nearly as enthralled, especially once we heard it. Released in 1976, The Ramones’ eponymous debut has been heralded as genre-defining and immeasurably influential and it only took 38 years for it to reach GOLD status. I know my first copy of the disc lasted a little over a year. I took it and a stack of other albums to a party and left them up against the electric heat vent in the room. Needless to say it was unplayable after that. I bought another copy that lasted much longer, but I guess a whole lot of other people didn’t follow my example (of buying it, not leaving it against a heater).

While I was aware that The Ramones never had the numbers to compete with Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson, I was actually quite surprised that the record wasn’t already gold. I bought 2, so that means only 499,998 more had to be picked up by people over the years and you would think that for all the people who have raved about and praised the band for their importance, the disc would’ve moved. There was a point in the East Village, NYC (1989-91) when it seemed like every other person was wearing the classic Ramones t-shirt. It was a very trendy fashion identifier for the grunge/punk era in NYC. Kind of like beards are now. I wonder how many Ramones shirts have sold since 1976? Maybe more shirts than records? Perhaps this is a lesson in perceptions or perhaps what the band represented to many people was more important than their actual music. The Ramones were very pragmatic in their approach to getting a band together and this process served as a blueprint for thousands of bands that followed. They also defined (to music writers and fans) the very egalitarian ethos that anybody can do it. Pop and Rock music was ripped out of the country estates, private jets and huge arenas and brought back to the streets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were guillotined in the press, Led Zeppelin went to see The Dammned in concert and Elvis Presley died because he couldn’t compete with Sid Vicious. The era of rock stars as ROYALTY was over! Hurrah!

It’s interesting that in this interview Johnny talks about how he thinks The Doors were one of the best American bands. Many people who would end up being fans of punk rock and numerous music writers viewed punk as an alternative to anything that smacked of the old guard, but the musicians didn’t necessarily feel that way. Rock writers have always had this love affair with early rock and roll as the almighty pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievements. “The music never had to evolve past Bill Haley and the Comets or Eddie Cochran…that was the real deal maaaan!” Which of course is silly. Very few of these writers would want to be diagnosed with cancer and have the doctor start applying leeches. Not only did music evolve because different people brought different influences and abilities to the table, but technology expanded the scope and scale tremendously. (Watch a Zeppelin video from the 70s and then watch a Beatles video from the first tour only 9 years earlier and consider only the technological differences) Changing social attitudes and the vibrant energy of each new generation continued to up the ante of what was possible — this is what humans do with everything. Why would rock and roll be any different? Here’s an exchange in a Johnny Ramone interview from 2003 that is an amazing bit of synchronicity given the profile I just did of Jimmy Page’s guitar opus Dazed and Confused.

Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?

Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.

Ramone: He’s truly unique.

Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long “concept rock” stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.

Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe “anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin.” Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.

The most interesting this about this exchange (I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Jimmy) is this idea of The Ramones as “a return” and “an antidote.” That originated in the music press, because obviously Johnny never thought that way. Maybe The Clash did…LOL. I would be willing to bet that a number of people who parroted this “antidote” meme over the years are those same people who never bought The Ramones album…bastards! Watch the following clip and notice two things: the way Jimmy Page throttles the low E string on the riff (it’s all downstrokes) and at about 3:30 the kids banging their heads. At least 2 full-blown styles of music (punk and metal) originate with this song; from the musician standpoint (Johnny Ramone playing all of his slashing rhythm guitar with downstrokes) and from an audience standpoint (how people react). Johnny, of course, was Page’s complete opposite when it came to guitar technicality. He decided very early on that he had limited abilities, wanted to create music the kids would dance to and had no interest in anything beyond 2-3 minutes of jump-around thud. This is rock guitar playing reduced to it’s most primitive elements: energy, attitude and song-craft. So Zeppelin’s video and Page’s wizardry is important for the influence and as a historical moment, but the credit for following through on his own vision with mega-conviction belongs to Johnny. He could’ve said, “I’ll never be able to play like Page”, sold his guitar and opened a pawn shop or gotten a degree in anthropology. But he didn’t. It takes a pretty big set of balls and a lot of self-discipline to play only what you can, for no longer than you can, and do it with complete and total conviction. (We all know how hard that is don’t we fellow guitarists?) Less is way more, and Johnny became an icon for his ability to do just that. Of course, audiences responded and boatloads of future guitar players would take Johnny’s approach and run with it… just as he had done… just as people always do.

While I have known some Ramones fanatics over the years — they had the shirt AND the records and loved the band immensely — in the late 70s and early 80s most people looked down on punk music and thought it was stupid. But at parties even die-hard haters enjoyed listening to Beat On the Brat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes while jumping around like lunatics. Even if one couldn’t take it seriously as an art form it was great fun when it was time to let loose. In my early days as a guitar player I was a chord strummer and not much else. I kind of sucked. Later, I started hanging out with people who played guitar really well and while their favorite bands were Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC and Rush, they all liked playing the Ramones and other punk rock for the same reason. It was great fun!! (It’s also much harder to pull off a great 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused at that age). One of the first lead guitar lines I ever played was the break in Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. It was in my friend’s basement and there were maybe 10-15 people there drinking beer and it was awesome. I had gotten a Peavey 50 watt amp over the Christmas holidays a few months before and I played Glue and the intro to Whole Lotta Love over and over.

Throughout my life my musical tastes and guitar abilities have been completely intertwined and related. As my abilities grew and my ears expanded I have continually sought out new horizons for both my ears and my hands. I think this is true of many people, musicians, artists, parents…Because of this reason, and as I explained in this post, I was never a total 100% punk rock fanatic. Those people are a special breed and I admire their dedication and commitment. I played in a few punk bands over the years and saw loads of punk shows and had lots of fun, but have always played (and listened to) many other styles of music. Living in the neighborhood that was the birthplace of The Ramones allowed me to see the whole thing from a unique angle and participate in some of the excitement and good times and for that I will always be grateful. It’s a shame that Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee didn’t live to collect their Gold Records. They certainly earned them. They were idols of an era that has passed, but lives on every time a group of youngsters or oldsters count off a fast 1234 and blast headlong with abandon into a 2 minute rock and roll anthem.

Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Posted in Players, Playing, This and That with tags , , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by theguitarcave
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Absolutely Awesome that my first guitar hero has made it to 70 years of age! Defying all pronouncements and expectations, he didn’t die before he was 30 and has become a rock elder in grand style! Plus he has created so many rad riffs over the years. HO HO HO!!

I still listen to Keith and the Stones frequently. Lately I’ve also listened to Elvis Presely’s The Sun Sessions, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmos Factory, and a bunch of Howlin’ Wolf. I’ve written a couple of things on Keith here and here. I also wrote this on the Gimme Shelter movie, which is my most popular post ever, except for the post on Django Reinhardt’s Improvisation #1.

I haven’t been blogging because of work and I’m back playing regular Gypsy Jazz gigs now. It’s really cool! All the practice has paid off. At some point next year I hope to put some more real guitar stuff on here.

For all of you jazzers: Morten Faerestrand has one of the best instructional channels on Youtube. I highly recommend! That is all!

Finally, it’s that time of the year when you’re going to hear Felize Navidad regularly, but did you know that José Feliciano is an outstanding guitarist? Check it out below in a duet with (of all people) Bing Crosby.

Happy Guitar Holidays to Everyone!

Alvin Lee Has Gone Home

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by theguitarcave

Alvin Lee was an awesome blues-rock guitarist who had a big impact on the rock music world after his appearance at Woodstock in 1969. His band was Ten Years After (because it began 10 years after Elvis Presley’s golden year of 1956) the name of the song that killed people at the Woodstock Festival was I’m Going Home. Check it out below. When I was a kid my dad used to crank this song. He wasn’t a ROCK guy by any stretch of the imagination, but he loved this tune. He taught high school history and law classes and because his students at the time were talking about bands like Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Ten Years After, he checked them out to see what the buzz was about. I couldn’t ever convince him that the Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner was brilliant, but I tried…boy did I try.

Ten Years After had a string of hits in the late 60s and early 70s, all of them driven by Lee’s explosive guitar attack. He was rooted in the blues and early rock and roll, but he and his band made it explosive. I used to love listening to their renditions of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Turned-Off TV Blues, One of These Days, Baby Won’t You Let Me Rock ‘n’ Roll You, I’d Love to Change the World and The Hobbit. Over 10 years before This Is Spinal Tap Ten Years After released an album called Stonedhenge. I think Alvin and his band were the link between old-time rock and roll and those heavier bands that emerged in the late 70s and early 80s (AC/DC, Motorhead, UFO) because there was a blues and rock and roll feel to it but it was so metallic and energetic.

Shortly after the hit single I’d Love to Change the World, Lee left Ten Years After to pursue other guitar projects. A very acclaimed album On the Road To Freedom resulted from a partnership with Mylon LeFevre. The record was partially recorded at Lee’s studio with guest appearances from Ron Wood, George Harrison, Jim Capaldi, Stevie Winwood and Mick Fleetwood. In addition to guitars and harmonica, Alvin played a sitar on this record. I haven’t heard this record for a long time but I remember it being very, very good and very unlike Ten Years After and the pyrotechnic style Alvin was known for. He was a much more versatile guitarist than many people ever knew. He would form other bands, reunite with Ten Years After and embark on projects with other guitar luminaries like Mick Taylor, Scotty Moore, Peter Frampton, Albert Lee and Rory Gallagher. He played a Gibson 335 for much of his career and still had the original Woodstock 335 at the time of his death. Watch below…looks to me that Alvin plays a lotta downstrokes and swept strokes. Maybe he was into Django Reinhardt or part gypsy!

While he never achieved the same plateau of success as the early days, Alvin enjoyed a lifetime of playing bitchin’ and beautiful guitar. I’m Going Home sounds as cool today as it did all of those many years. As my dad would say and do — TURN IT UP!