Archive for Gibson

ShortRiffs — July/August 2017

Posted in Equipment, Music Business, Players, Playing, ShortRiffs with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by theguitarcave

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Welcome to the July/August issue of ShortRiffs — the monthly column that focuses on all the guitar, music and life things going on around The Guitar Cave. Summer 2017 is almost finished…time flies, doesn’t it? One thing that has been grand is all of the summer season fruits and vegetables this year have been excellent! I guess the right combo of sun and rain has really produced a bumper crop! Totally enjoying it!

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Terrifying news items from the internet: The slow, secret death of the electric guitar! I’m not sure that it has been either slow or secret, at least if you’ve been paying attention, are of a certain age, or, read blogs like The Guitar Cave. I certainly have written about this topic, although maybe in not so dramatic terms. Anyhow, we have a Washington Post article: WHY MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS: The slow, secret death of the six-string electric and why you should care. The article included a burning guitar graphic in case the over-the-top title wasn’t enough. The author, Geoff Edgers, is also interviewed on NPR here and it’s kind of a rehash of his article repackaged as Why Does The Electric Guitar Need A Hero? What is sending everyone into a panic is not the fact that guitars aren’t being made or being played. In actuality, too many are being made and they aren’t selling. Probably…too many people think “GAME” when they think “Guitar Hero”, but anyhow…some quotes:

…In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at Sweetwater.com, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.

Things Aren’t Like They Used To Be!

So the guitar isn’t hip anymore? Looks that way, doesn’t it? A half million guitars a year is 33% of sales and that’s a pretty big percentage. However, it seems that the business landscape of the USA isn’t quite as rosy as some would have you believe. There are a lot of retail industries in trouble right now. There was a certain prosperity happening back in the 80s and 90s and that enabled brisk instrument sales. I know, everyone in government says the country recovered from the big 2007-08 recession. Is this true? I don’t know. Another thing — I’ve never fully embraced Guitar Center as I’ve related in posts here, here and here. While I’ve tried to accept that stores like this are how we do business now, I’m about as comfortable there as the people in this clip from the 1996 movie, Fargo: Yea Baby…Dig that TruCoat Finish!

As Guitar Center was ascending (at least where I live), the independent music stores were closing down and I liked and patronized those stores. They did me right over many years of buying, selling, trading, jawing and hanging out. Also, anyone who had been in the scene for a while was cognizant of the fact that as this brick and mortar landscape was changing, the next generation(s) weren’t forming bands and turning out to shows — at least not in great numbers. Plus, this was around the time that whole blazer over the hoodie thing was in fashion…The first guy I saw with that outfit carrying a guitar was a death-knell for rock and I knew it at the time. Anyhow, according to people like George Gruhn:

…What worries Gruhn is not simply that profits are down. That happens in business. He’s concerned by the “why” behind the sales decline. When he opened his store 46 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitar god, inspired by the men who roamed the concert stage, including Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page. Now those boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them.

Gruhn knows why.

“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.

Another factoid:

And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.

The hair-metal era was a long time ago. Those guys are now in their 50s and 60s. Aren’t there any hot younger guitar players who could be called today’s heroes? YouTube is full of people who have obviously put hella time into getting great on their instrument of choice. Could there be something else going on here? At the beginning of the quoted article Gruhn is at the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants Show) show and opines that:

“There are more makers now than ever before in the history of the instrument, but the market is not growing,” Gruhn says in a voice that flutters between a groan and a grumble. “I’m not all doomsday, but this — this is not sustainable.”

Call me crazy, but maybe the solution is less makers? I dunno. While one could say that Hendrix, Clapton, and Page in the late 60s (or the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show) and Edward Van Halen in 1980 caused a whole lot of guitars to be bought, the sales of the instrument could be thought of as a by-product of some pretty big cultural changes too. Most of the cultural changes post-1992 haven’t involved guitars or musical instruments at all. If so, that probably accounts for some of the missing 33% of sales. There was also probably always a 5-15% demographic that bought themselves or their kids guitars and those guitars never left the closet, but in this day and age, why not just buy an iPad? The guitar biz is like the music biz in that it is full of people with economic expectations…that maybe aren’t so realistic. Donald Fagen (from Steely Dan) is hitting the road again because in this era of streaming music, no one is buying albums. But the dude is 69…who exactly should buy his albums? 20-year olds? The people who were 20 when Steely Dan recorded The Royal Scam? When he is on the road will he be selling out stadiums? Probably not. Artists and guitar companies from the glory days of rock have counted on a steady revenue stream in perpetuity, but things aren’t working out.

There is, however, a very futuristic and twisted solution (depending on your point of view) on the horizon, proffered by cutting-edge technologies. The late Ronnie James Dio, who passed away in 2010, is going on tour as a hologram! Take that Donald Fagen! While it looks convincing enough to get people out, not everyone is on board, (like most of the headbangers at Blabbermouth). But, some people are receptive, and once the exploitation thing kind fades who can’t see this taking off? And projecting the possibilities out…can a 2019 tour of the Jimi Hendrix Experience be far behind? I mean, why not? I always wanted to see them live! This might be just what Guitar Center needs to get people in the door! I’m kidding and I find the whole thing a bit creepy, but it does illustrate the crazy world we’re living in and, of course, other people feel totally positive about it! Look at the art world — all of the “late” artists are way more valuable than most of the current ones. Is this going to be a new paradigm? Time will tell.

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A new book on the market that details the history of Progressive Rock! Yea! David Weigel’s, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock is all about those crazy days of the heady, halcyon 1970s. In case you’re in the dark about what exactly Prog Rock is, a list of the 50 top albums can be found here, and there are some really great albums on that list. Prog bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Rush, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, were the bane of critics (and later, punk rockers), but they were major top sellers and very popular with many fans, especially in the USA. The book has elicited a few reviews, like this thoughtful musing in the New Yorker, The Persistence of Prog Rock:

Progressive rock, broadly defined, can never disappear, because there will always be musicians who want to experiment with long songs, big concepts, complex structures, and fantastical lyrics.

And…

Nowadays, it seems clear that rock history is not linear but cyclical. There is no grand evolution, just an endless process of rediscovery and reappraisal, as various styles and poses go in and out of fashion. We no longer, many of us, believe in the idea of musical progress. All the more reason, perhaps, to savor the music of those who did.

Last fall I wrote about Pink Floyd’s Dogs, off of the Animals disc; a classic moment in Prog Rock history that I think is succinctly summed up by these two quotes from the New Yorker article. While there was certainly ostentation and excess to be found during this period in rock history, the best of the genre was well worth the slog through some of the not-so-good bits. Also, everyone knows that the best Prog guitarists: Steve Howe, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, Martin Barre, Robert Fripp, are some of the most influential guitar players who ever strapped on an axe.

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I wrote in last month’s ShortRiffs how I had been listening to Grant Green’s Matador album a lot and here is a cover of the title cut from that disc done by the Iwao Ochi Trio, a very happening Japanese guitar-organ unit. This is a sound I really like; the guitar and organ work really well together and, of course, this has been a thing in jazz going back to the days of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, who recorded a few albums with this configuration. Here is Iwao’s site, however it’s in Japanese so I’ll have to just listen to this really nice list of jazz standard playing found here. Also, speaking of Grant Green, I found a couple of sites that explore his style and even have a few tabs…here is one and here is the other. They are both from Italy but the second is in English and both have easy-to-understand music notation.

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Speaking of Asia…here are a couple guys from Indonesia and they totally rock! See how this guitar thing is just a world-wide phenomenon of great players? First up is Daniel Asbun and his cover of The Magnificent Seven theme is rockin’! He has a site here, with some tabs and fun stuff for the beginner/intermediate fingerstyle guitarist and it’s in English so if that is your cup of tea, check it out. He has an interesting selection of music tabbed — most of it I’ve never heard or heard of.

He also references the guy in the second video, Jubing Kristianto, as the arranger of The Magnificent Seven cover that he does. Jubing, who is also from Indonesia, has been a professional guitarist for many years and is a very accomplished one at that! He is the 4-time winner of the Yamaha Festival Guitar Indonesia. Here is his website (in English) and a list of his very awesome guitar performances. Great stuff!

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I saw on Facebook that super-guitarist Frank Vignola was in some kind of accident and was injured pretty badly. While he will recover, apparently it will be at least a year before he can work again. That’s a total bummer because he’s a great player. Hopefully, there won’t be any kind of long-lasting trauma that limits his abilities. If you have never heard of Frank check out the above clip or any one of his many instructional vids on YouTube. Also, if you would like to contribute to his gofundme that is here.

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Jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb recently passed away. He was an accomplished player as a member of Stan Getz‘s group, in Steps Ahead with Michael Brecker and on his own as a solo artist. A very tasteful player and great teacher who had obviously had a very cool and wry sense of humor (which is sometimes lacking in the music business) as the clip above demonstrates. (I sure could’ve used that first tip back in the day)! Below is a great solo take on Stompin’ at the Savoy.

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Finally, I like to listen to the swinging sounds of Space Age Pop, Bachelor Pad or Exotica online at Illinois Street Lounge on the soma FM Network. Music from this style released in the (1950s-1960s) combines elements of jazz, pop, Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean rhythms with very strange instrumentation like the theremin and all of the studio trickery available at the time. The arrangements are soft and slightly cheesy or silly.

Spaceagepop.com offers a real primer on all of the sub-genres under this umbrella of mid-20th century music and it’s pretty interesting to read and listen to. Back when I was a kid, many of the big names of this music were listed on the record sleeves of (especially) albums from Columbia. They included Ferrante & Teicher, Enoch Light (and the Light Brigade), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and Henry Mancini. We had the Whipped Cream album — that was a total mystery in sound and picture for an 8-9 year old kid. As it turns out shaving cream was used on the iconic cover because whipped cream turned runny under the lights. But that racy image works with the style of the music, which is playful, seductive and naughty.

There is a full list of Space Age Pop artists here and what is interesting is the guitar player names that jump out: The Ventures, Chet Atkins, Jerry Byrd, Mundell Lowe (who I wrote about here), Al Caiola, Tommy Tedesco, and Tony Mottola. All of these guys are six-string legends and got a lot of work in the studios for the composers and bandleaders who produced the music. That’s why right in the middle of some really off-the-wall Space Age Pop rendition of some jazz standard there will some great guitar work and it’s usually one of these guys doing it. Some of the music is very much like The Ventures or The Shadows and other instrumental stuff of the time. It was a very interesting and optimistic period in American music history and it never fails to make me feel like I’m on top of the world. Give it a listen and feel the magic!

Keith Richards — Part II —The 70s

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2013 by theguitarcave

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The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Keith Richards coming into his own as a bona fide guitar hero and entertainment personality, albeit a very notorious personality. If you missed the first part of this expose, you can find it HERE, and the most popular post I’ve ever done, Gimme Shelter, is also chock-full of Keith or, “Keef” goodies. Following the release of Let It Bleed and the infamous 1969 American tour, Keith and The Stones would tour Europe and release two more powerhouse albums before returning to the States for an even more infamous tour in 1972. The albums, Sticky Fingers (parts of which were recorded on the ’69 tour in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and the genre-defining Exile on Main Street, which was basic-tracked in Keith’s rented house in the south of France with the help of the new Rolling Stones Mobile (recording) Unit, would cement the band’s reputation as the swaggering high priests of outlaw rock and roll. These two records also completed the HOLY 5 (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street) run of Stones albums that is pinnacle of their career. All of these albums are very much driven by the guitar style Keith mashed together from all of his favorite blues, country and early rock and roll influences to recreate an updated form of rock and roll that is distinctly American. In that way, this period is very reflective of Keith’s artistic sensibilities and long-standing fascination with American culture in a way that nothing after 1972 would, not even his solo records.

During this time another British band was making their own indelible mark on rock music and as the 70s progressed they would eclipse the Stones in sales, popularity and sheer awesomeness. This, of course, was Led Zeppelin. The two bands had quite a bit in common, especially in the early 70s, the use of the mobile unit to record their groundbreaking records out of the confines of urban recording studios, for instance. There are many interviews with Keith and Jimmy Page that illustrate how much of the sound of these seminal recordings (the Stones 5 and Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti) owe as much to the ambiance of their recording settings as they do the songs, players and instruments. Tales of the Stones recording Exile while dinner was being cooked upstairs or Keith ducking out of a session to put his son to bed (and not reappearing for 5 hours) align with Led Zep lore of the sound of John Bonham’s drum sound on When the Levee Breaks, captured in a Headley Grange hallway or all 4 members of the band dancing on the lawn after hearing first playbacks of Dancing Days. Recording these albums in this fashion allowed for greater artistic isolation because both groups were removed from urban environments, and was reminiscent of the old days when blues/country artists recorded in hotel rooms, kitchens, or on street corners. I believe this allowed both bands to bring a level of authenticity that approached high art to these recordings. Another similarity, one that Led Zeppelin embraced from the very beginning of their career, was that neither band had to be concerned with having a hot single out every two or three months and both had reached the superstar status level that afforded them the luxury of having to answer to no one, as long as the kids kept buying records and concert tickets. The Stones and Led Zeppelin had their own record labels by the mid-70s and this was a very big step (and one that isn’t talked about very often in the current file sharing discussions) of wrestling control away from record company executives and putting it firmly in the hands of the artists who were making the music. Not only was the music written and played in a very sympathetic environment, using all of the latest technology available, but the band (and a very willing engineer or two) recorded and produced the music as they saw fit. Personally, I think this has a whole lot to do with why these albums still rank as some of the best ever made and are very hard to beat for the sound of the BLUUZE excitement that jumps off of them when they are played.

BEGGARS BANQUET

This record was covered in Part I, but as an added bonus here is Street Fighting Man when it was Did Everyone Pay Their Dues? The video is from a trip Mick, Keith, Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg took to South America in 1968. This trip would influence at least one song from Let It Bleed.

LET IT BLEED

A very menacing record – the sound, the lyrics, the subject matter, the way Keith has developed his slashing chord jabs and the relentless, insistent pulse of the rhythm section. 1968-1969 were bloody years and the Stones had their finger square on the pulse of what was happening. Let It Bleed was released in the USA immediately after Altamont and it’s so evil that it might as well have been the soundtrack. John Lennon seemed to believe that “Let It Bleed” referred the last Beatles album and it probably did. Mick Jagger had always been jealous and competitive of The Beatles and their success and with this record he finally came out on top. While Let It Be is a half-assed collection of songs and jams from an aborted pre-Abbey Road movie idea, Let It Bleed is a tightly-focused statement on the state of the world as the Stones saw it at the time. While soon-to-be jettisoned Stone Brian Jones and soon-to-be Stone Mick Taylor both appear on the record, it’s pretty much a total Keith show.

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Gimme Shelter kicks off the record with it’s dramatic, almost cinematic, building intro. Keith’s playing in open-E tuning and the treble chords in the intro set the listener up for the main body of the song because once the descending riff (a variation on Under My Thumb) kicks in he is beating you over the head with it. Charlie Watts is locked in on Keith once the song kicks in and never strays. On top of this rhythmic heaviness, there is some slide guitar, a short Keith solo, a bluesy harp and apocalyptic lyrics provided by Mick, and a female vocal break provide by Merry Clayton that is so intense it was blamed for the miscarriage she suffered after the session. It’s 4 1/2 minutes of mayhem and this is the first song on the record! It’s evil twin brother kicks off side 2. Midnight Rambler, a song that sketches the Boston Strangler, is even more intense than Gimme Shelter. Keith has described it as a blues opera and he and Mick wrote all of the various parts together while vacationing in Italy. Played in an E position with a capo on the 7th fret, the song is a perfect example of how much power Keith gets out of a very basic and compact approach to guitar. Thousands of blues-influenced songs use this E position on the first fret, but putting it up at the 7th fret and swapping in a “D” chord and progression instead of the standard 12-bar B-turnaround, turns the whole form inside out without diverging too far away from it. You can hear it’s the blues, but it’s also much more than the blues. I find the tone of the studio version of this song to be really amazing… it burps, kind of… and staggers along like a pervert in a dirty raincoat clutching a long knife. Keith used the same guitar on Gimme Shelter and Midnight Rambler and he recalled in 2002:

That was done on a full-bodied, Australian electric-acoustic, f-hole guitar. It kind of looked like an Australian copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used. I played it on Gimmie Shelter too… It had all been revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great. It made a great record… (I got it f)rom some guy who stayed at my pad. He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind. You know, Take care of this for me. I certainly did! But it served me well through the album. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOMidnight.html

Monkey Man and Live With Me are two more nasty songs from this very nasty album. The first finds Keith locked in on one of his prototypical riffs; a hard-knuckled adaptation from Chuck Berry that sounds as if it might be in open tuning, but it is in standard C#/E major. This is the kind of hammer-time guitar thing that has made Keith a guitar hero and he probably spent days playing it over and over until it was exactly right. The slide part that happens as a break before the final “I’m a MONKEY!!” is probably open-E. Really nice layering of guitars and a tinkling piano above Charlie’s insistent drums. Monkey Man is a silly song lyrically, but a great music track. Live With Me is a swaggering ode to sleaze that features Mick Taylor on guitar and Keith on bass, which he likes to do from time to time. In concert, the propulsive bass line would be doubled on guitar with those slashing standard-tuned guitar chords played against the rhythm. Saxman Bobby Keyes makes his first appearance with the Stones on this track. On the softer side of things is a very bluesy adaptation of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain that features Keith on acoustic picking and electric slide and Ry Cooder on mandolin. I believe the acoustic is in standard tuning and has a capo on the 3rd fret and Keith uses really cool finger-picking patterns to bring the desolation and loneliness of this song to life. Extra chords were added to the Robert Johnson version so it is a bit more complex than a 3 chord blues. You can hear shades of this same progression in I Got the Blues from Sticky Fingers. Country Honk is the original version of Honky Tonk Women (although the electric single version was released first) and was supposedly inspired by the gaucho cowboys Mick and Keith saw on their trip to South America (see how I tied that together?). Keith was always fascinated with the cowboy lifestyle from an early age and for sure the band is channeling a little bit of Hank Williams and white boy honky tonk music on this one. For this song you can leave it in standard or tune it to open-G and merge with parts Keith plays on the electric version which is definitely in open-G. You Got the Silver is Keith’s lead vocal debut and he plays acoustic and electric slide guitar in open-E/D, with a capo on the 1st or 3rd fret so the song is in the key of F. (Whether you tune to D or E is a personal preference). The atmosphere of this song is simply 60s beautiful and is easily one of the best songs the band ever did. Originally Mick also sang on the track and there are alternate versions out there with him on vocals, but Keith’s vibe is really cool and that makes the album version definitive. Let It Bleed and You Can’t Always Get What You Want round out the album and on both Keith is playing various acoustics and electric/slide guitars. When I saw the Stones on the 1981 tour they played Let it Bleed, which was great because it had never been a concert song before. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (played in open-E or D [acoustic] on the record and usually played in open-G with a capo on the 5th fret live) was a concert staple throughout the 70s.

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Let It Bleed was a critical and commercial success and really was the next big step (after Beggars Banquet) of the Stones’ new image to the world. As with the rest of the studio albums during this period, the best songs would be hits and favorites of legions of fans for decades to come and still make up a big part of any Rolling Stones set list. Musically, lyrically and artistically Let It Bleed is more than an album and is probably second only to Exile on Main Street as the best record the group ever did.

GET YER YA YAS OUT

I include this in the group of must-haves because it’s much more than a live album. A case could be made that it isn’t really a live album as there were a few overdubs done after the fact and any close listening to bootlegs from the tour or clips from the movie Gimme Shelter (like the one above) prove this. Not everything was changed and certainly all of the ingredients for a great live album were already there, but given that the band was on a creative roll and probably wanted to put their very best into their first real live album, it’s understandable they would play around with it. Another crucial component is Mick Taylor. His guitar playing gave the album a very HEAVY blues virtuoso feel in spots and it was smart to make the most of what he was now bringing to the band. He had only been involved for a few months prior to the tour but it was very clear from the beginning he was going to change the sound in a big way. The album rocks from beginning to end and some cuts like Midnight Rambler, Jumping Jack Flash, Live With Me, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy For the Devil have such a powerful sound and energy that it’s almost breathtaking. Taylor’s slide solo on Love in Vain (which he plays in standard tuning) is simply brilliant as is his solo (the 2nd one) on Sympathy. The rapid-fire negotiation of the 4 parts to Midnight Rambler come off perfectly and that song is so sizzling it is downright scary. The band would never sound like this again on a live release and that has everything to do with Mick Taylor, Keith’s good health and the band working with the realization that they have expanded their capabilities and execution and are firing on all cylinders. The maelstrom that was the late 60s probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that this was the first time the Stones had played America with powerful amps and PA systems. They rose to the challenge perfectly and this is a great transition from Let It Bleed to their next offering.

STICKY FINGERS

Sticky Fingers is a really good indication of how SMART The Rolling Stones are. They were always able to integrate whatever was going on at the time into their sonic palette and produce records that were simultaneously timely and timeless (This would also be true of Some Girls). Quite a feat when you think about it. Everything that would follow in the 70s: the debauchery, self-destruction, failed 60s ideals, tired and overplayed musical styles and the indulgences of the “ME” decade is contained in the lyrics and music of this record and really all Keith Richards and Mick Taylor did was further define the twin-guitar style that had already worked for the band for the better part of 7 years. Even though the 70s would be the era of long songs and jams, the Stones always kept it pretty tight around the blues wail/pop song format that had served them throughout the 1960s. While Brown Sugar or Bitch seem like a far cry from Satisfaction or The Last Time, musically they aren’t in terms of complication or excess. The refinement of the riffs, rhythms and parts, a much bigger sound, combined with Mick Jagger’s envelope-pushing lyrics only illustrate how the band grew over time. There are some interesting tidbits about these two songs that anchor each side of Sticky Fingers. Brown Sugar was a Mick Jagger composition right down to the rhythms and salacious subject matter. Keith turned it into a tour de force by adapting it to his open-G tuning, layering electric and acoustic guitars together and adding a very patented Chuck Berry ending to the song. Brown Sugar was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the ’69 tour and as I relate in the post on Gimme Shelter, part of the reason that the band ran into trouble on with various components of the counterculture on that tour was because of the fact that they had already moved on from the 60s (after the drug busts of 1967, the failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Brian Jones’ death) and were already channeling a new decade. While many people from the hippie movement at the time thought that the Stones were an anachronism of a bygone era, the band glided effortlessly into the 1970s more successful than ever. Bitch, on the other hand, was a mess of a song that began without Keith, who showed up to record that day with a bowl of cornflakes in his hand. After listening to the band struggle with it for a few minutes he strapped on his guitar, simplified the riff and WHAMMO! Instant 70s AOR hit.

The rest of the album shows the band’s dedication to American roots music whether it be country; Dead Flowers, Wild Horses, the blues; I Got the Blues, You Gotta Move, or (what became) definitive 70s rock; Sway, Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’. Sister Morphine and the very unStonesy Moonlight Mile round out the record. Thanks to their always on-point music savvy and the addition of Mick Taylor, and a horn section, including saxman Bobby Keyes, the Stones had developed a formidable sound that greeted the 70s with sass, hipness, and their always insistent energy. Taylor’s fluid lead lines gave songs like Moonlight Mile, Sway and the Santana-esque 2nd half of Can’t You Hear (the first part is a brilliant Keith G-tuning workout) a big rock virtuosity that was perfect for the 70s. Jagger would say after Taylor’s departure that he had really enjoyed writing with the guitarist because he didn’t come from as limited a background as Keith and his more lead-based style allowed for departures from the typical Stones raunchiness. Sister Morphine featured slide guitar maestro Ry Cooder, who has long been rumored to have been the one who turned Keith on to open-G tuning and was also not the first person to be turned off by the druggie vibe that was becoming more a part of what the band (at least some of them) represented. A review I read of this record from a long time ago mentioned that there were enough overt drug references in the lyrics that one could get high simply by sniffing the record jacket. The nastiness of the lyrics combined with the very up front chugging of the band made this a very obvious and in-your-face record, much more so than any of the others of the “5 group.” The band would bury much of this on the next album and in some ways, that made all of the danger and debauchery even more bawdy and sinister.

A word about open tunings, a guitar technique Keith uses quite a bit. There are a few things to remember about using different tunings that players should keep in mind. 1) Keith was a pretty good rock and roll guitar player and had certainly come up with some genre-defining riffs before he started changing tunings, so don’t assume everything post ’68 is played in something other than standard tuning. Plenty of songs that some people think are in open-G aren’t. 2) Don’t assume that the tuning a song might have been recorded in is how it was played live (Jumping Jack Flash, You Can’t Always Get What You Want). Certain things, like that open-G, suspended chord sound one hears in the riff to Brown Sugar, are fairly obvious, but also keep in mind, that 3) it’s possible to play these songs without changing the tuning. I’ve watched Chris Spedding play Brown Sugar in standard tuning and Mick Taylor never played in open tuning as far as I know. Chris told me a story about how he played in front of Keith once and Keith mentioned that he liked the DRONE sound that playing with an open tuning gives to a song like Brown Sugar. That’s really what you miss if you play it in standard tuning — there is none of that sympathetic ringing that can give you a really big, sometimes slightly dissonant sound. Obviously that sound won’t work on everything and as a guitar player you have to use your judgment on what is best for you in various musical situations. From personal experience I can tell you I don’t favor two or more guitars in a band tuned to an open tuning. That gets really weird, especially live. I think a big part of the Stones sound during this period was that Mick Taylor remained in standard and played complimentary parts to Keith’s riffing. Even when they were doubling lines in a song like You Gotta Move, the sound is full without being disorganized because Keith plays his lines on an open-C tuned acoustic and Mick Taylor doubles on a standard-tuned electric. This is just my opinion and really only applies to roots style music. Bands like Soundgarden certainly employed various open tunings with more than one guitarist tuned out of concert tuning to great effect.

EXILE ON MAIN STREET

While some might disagree (certainly Mick Jagger always has), this record represented the pinnacle of the Rolling Stones creative vision and execution. While the band would enjoy hits, tremendously profitable tours and notoriety for the following forty years, they never topped Exile and once again, while the group and some assorted special guests were absolutely crucial to the way the record turned out, this is Keith’s album. It has everything that has been the hallmark of his style throughout his career: subtlety, the guitar as a vehicle for the song, slashing riffs, ingenious production, compact leads and a tremendous ability to recreate musical styles in a way that makes the songs sound absolutely authentic. It’s not just his guitar that’s at work here either. In some ways Keith is the equal to Page or McCartney when it came to using the studio almost as if it were another instrument and the production quality of Exile, controversial for it’s buried wall of sound mix, is exactly the same as his guitar style. He wears his influences on his sleeve and if you listen to those old records then it’s obvious he and the band got this album exactly right. He also deserves a whole lot credit for the vocals (lead and back up). In some cases they completely make the song. I don’t know how long the following song will be available (it seems to come and go from Youtube) but notice how the whole band wakes up on this version of Dead Flowers after Mick and Keith sing the first chorus. Many people have remarked on this quality of the band, especially live: when Keith wants to rock, there is no stopping the the band. His vocals are also a feature on “Exile” songs like Rocks Off, Casino Boogie, Soul Survivor, Torn and Frayed, Sweet Black Angel, Tumbling Dice and Sweet Virginia. While many rock and rollers don’t know this, gospel music is a big influence on the Stones’ sound. Keith is a HUGE fan and while many people would not see how church music could work with dirty rock and roll songs about nasty habits listen to Sweet Virginia, Tumbling Dice or Torn and Frayed again. What has kept Keith in the music business for over fifty years is the fact that he was always more than a guitar player into one style of music. Also, take it from someone who was there, Mick and Keith sharing a mic was one of the most ubiquitous and iconic photo images from the early/mid 70s.

Much has been made of the recording conditions in France for some of the basic tracks. Andy Johns, who was the engineer for the sessions gives a nice rundown on how it all worked HERE. The environment was hot and steamy, guitars went in and out of tune (you can hear this on the intro to All Down the Line), but in some ways it didn’t matter because the band was dialing in their cosmic blues infused slop rock where problems like wiggy tuning only added to the ambiance. Because the band (like Zeppelin and more after them) had been forced to flee Britain as a result of high taxes, there was an extreme sense of dislocation among members of the band and their entourage. This more than likely added to some of the jittery, nervous energy that can be found on parts of the record.

If there is one song that encapsulates the Keith Richards’ style during this period, Tumbling Dice is it. The “hit” that Exile on Main Street produced is an awesome open-G tuned, capo on the 4th fret (key of B) exploration of lead/rhythm ambiance. Except for a brief solo before the final verse the song is a perfect example of what Keith calls “guitar weaving,” two guitars playing sympathetic parts with enough restraint that a listener will have a hard time detecting which guitarist is doing what. What’s interesting is Mick Jagger is playing rhythm guitar on the recorded track and Mick Taylor is playing bass. The Exile sessions revolved around Keith’s “schedule,” or lack thereof, and whoever was around when he felt like playing/recording ended up on the track. Keith’s vocal track on the record, Happy, is another example of a song in the same Tumbling Dice tuning and an altered line-up, with producer Jimmy Miller filling in for Charlie Watts on drums. Hip Shake, as shown above, is another great example of Taylor and Richards weaving their guitar parts together. Ventilator Blues is the only song Mick Taylor received a songwriting credit for as it is his swampy guitar riff that drives the whole song. Bobby Keyes was actually the brains behind the rhythm of the song as Charlie Watts recalled later. Other highlights include the very emotional, gospel inspired Let it Loose with the guitars through a Leslie speaker and a gospel choir, recalling Al Green or Otis Redding perhaps. Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down is given a loud, jamming performance featuring Mick Taylor’s slide and Mick Jagger’s harp. Rip This Joint is the fastest song the band has ever done and sounds like Little Richard on steroids. All of the instruments, including gospel choir arrangements were layered in to give the songs on the album a complete sound. No instruments or players really stick out as even a lot of the vocals are buried. While some, including Mick Jagger write this off to heavy drug use, I think this is the way Keith hears this music. His first solo album, released some 25 years later sounded similar. The rhythm section, guitars, saxes, harmonica, piano, vocals, percussion all kind of swirl together creating a sound tsunami that carries the listener away. This makes for a very dense and murky audio experience but I think it sounds very close to Phil Spector, Memphis or Chess Records. When the album mixes are BIG ROCK, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Dirty Work, the blues-inspired songs sound generic, flat and innocuous to me. The manner in which Exile was recorded and mixed is so important to not only how Keith wrote and played music, but also to the sonic concept of authenticity. The second part of the recording process took place in Los Angeles and various thing were cleaned up and added or overdubbed. But the basement feel and sound permeates the record and closes the book on the Stones’ glory days.

Plugging a Les Paul or a Telecaster into a Fender Twin or an Ampeg SVT with a little bit of delay or reverb and a nice healthy dose of volume and you have pretty much what you need for the Keith Richards Exile on Main Street sound. (The Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitar that he was playing on the ’69 tour was stolen in France during the making of the album). He was never much of an effects guy although there is a phaser used on Rocks Off and Keith would continue to employ slow phase on ballad songs (Comin’ Down Again) throughout the decade. The 1972 Americas tour was the debut of the prodigious use of Fender Telecasters, some of which were tuned to the open G (GDGBD) with the low E string removed. All Down the Line, Soul Survivor, Rip This Joint, Happy and the amazing Tumbling Dice are all very obvious open-G songs, most, if not all of them played with a Telecaster probably. This contrasted nicely with Mick Taylor’s Les Paul sound, especially when Mick’s slide guitar came into the equation, like on the following clip. There are quite a few great clips from the ’72 tour and they all ROCK!

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Following the release of Exile, the ’72 tour of the Americas and the ’73 tour of Europe were grand affairs. Not only did the denim-clad rowdies turn out in droves, but celebrities and the jet-set crowd were in attendance thanks to Mick Jagger’s marriage to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias and his hobnobbing at all of the hottest spots the early 70s had to offer. Of course, these habits didn’t sit well with his guitar playing partner whose habits put him with a completely different class of people, described by others in and around the band as “the dregs of the earth.” This division, which had begun in France between those who took a lot of drugs (Richards, Taylor, Keyes, producer Jimmy Miller) and those who were much more restrained (Jagger, Watts and Wyman) became more pronounced. This led to sub-par material and acrimony between Keith and Mick Jagger. Mick was bored with rock and roll and was already making his views on this known as Exile was being released. His lifestyle and ambitions did not include being stoned to the point of incapacitation. Post-1972 he would be a lot more opinionated and forceful in his musical ideas for the group, whether that would him at odds with Keith or not. This happens and usually the result is the end of the band. That was certainly true with The Beatles. The Rolling Stones would carry on, but it would be different. While they would enjoy success and failures for another 40+ years they wouldn’t be the same important BAND anymore. They would gradually become an institution and much of that is simply a byproduct of longevity and the fact that there was a time, especially between 1968-1972 when there was no one playing and recording better music.

THE 70s & BEYOND

Even though nothing after Exile would be as much of a complete statement, there were some bright spots in the 70s and early 80s. I was a huge fan of the band growing up and heard all of the following as they were released so I’ll give a brief review of each.

Goat’s Head Soup — A very boring album. The band sounds tired even though Mick Taylor plays some ripping guitar in spots. He more than likely co-authored Winter, which is a really good song, way better than Angie in my opinion. A big rift between Mick Taylor and Keith also starts to emerge during this time and will culminate with Taylor’s departure after the next album. Keith is not down with the big soloing thing that has taken over rock circles (remember this is 1973…the biggest band on the planet is doing half hour versions of Dazed and Confused). But Taylor is completely down with being a LEAD player and is capable of bringing that to the music. On Exile Keith still had it together enough to bring in good stuff and force the guitar weaving style he enjoys so much. But starting with this album, the material isn’t as good or is just flat out derivative. They get it back on the next album a little bit, but Mick Taylor will begin to lose interest and feel constrained by the limitations of Keith’s vision of the band.

It’s Only Rock and Roll — Very underrated in my opinion. The title track is great, Dance Little Sister is awesome and has a great Taylor doing Keith solo on it. Keith channels his rhythm skills into a great reggae feel on Luxury, which I think is the best reggae-influenced thing the band ever did. The jazzy Latin-esque Time Waits for No One features a great groove, great lyrics and a very progressive style guitar solo from Mick Taylor. Perhaps his best moments as a Stone. Fingerprint File is flat-out amazing! Mick is doing an Isaac Hayes impersonation, but it doesn’t have the feel of bored parody…yet. He would definitely get there later in the decade. He plays the phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the wah-wah guitar and Mick Taylor plays bass and it’s a great performance from all three. My favorite on a very good album. If You Can’t Rock Me, Short and Curlies, Til The Next Time and If You Really Want to Be My Friend are all solid songs and are played with great 70s feel and enthusiasm. This is the first record by Mick and Keith as The Glimmer Twins and Ron Wood, who was in the band shortly after the release, had a lot to do with the title track. This would be the last appearance of Mick Taylor until some of the songs worked on during his tenure are brought back for Tattoo You. Ron Wood will join the band for the 1975 tour of the USA.

Black and Blue — Even though Fool to Cry and Hot Stuff were popular, this album sucks and many people said the same thing at the time. I’m not of the opinion that the Stones did 70s dance music very well or that they ever should’ve tried. Miss You was a great tune and a smash hit, but this album isn’t and by his own admission Keith was so strung out at this point he was pretty much useless.

Love You Live — An abomination when compared with Ya Yas. The whole band sounds bored and remember what I said about Mick’s parody of Isaac Hayes? It’s in full effect on this record.

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Some Girls — The last GREAT Stones album. Keith is clean, Ron Wood brings a whole lot of new energy and punk rock/new wave and disco have helped give the band a new lease on life. This is Mick Jagger’s album and not only did he write some great songs and lyrics, he also plays so much guitar that several songs have a patented Lynyrd Skynyrd 3-guitar sound. (The two bands had played together in England in 1976…coincidence?). The disco-influenced Miss You was a huge hit and the rockers like Lies, When the Whip Comes Down, Respectable and Shattered are fast, furious, smart and nasty. Just what you would expect from the Rolling Stones. Faraway Eyes is funny and has a nice chorus and pedal steel from Woody. Just My Imagination I could’ve done without. The real musical gems of the record are Beast of Burden and Before They Make Me Run. Both of these songs are primarily Keith’s and were written during the period he was facing a possible lengthy prison term for a heroin bust. His riffing is smart and original on this record and he and Woody work together very well. Wood’s tenure in the Stones has certainly had some very low points, but up through ’83 he played his ass off. While he never had Mick Taylor’s chops and big sound, Woody certainly had a great touch and a few tricks up his sleeve. He really makes Some Girls come alive and this was a great soundtrack for the late 70s.You didn’t have to be a “rock guy” to like it.

Emotional_Rescue — I remember hearing this record a lot at the time, but I can’t remember why now.

Tattoo You — The last solid album (still a step down from Some Girls), culled from recordings in the vaults going back to Mick Taylor’s time in the band. The record has enough rockers, Start Me Up, Little T & A, Slave, paired with some really good ballads, including Worried About You and Waiting On a Friend to offer a really good balance of songs and they managed to make it all sound current and right for a live setting. As I said earlier, I saw the Stones on this tour and they really delivered well — long sets with a lot of surprise numbers — and the new stuff sounded really good. It was a total party!

The Rest
Tattoo You was pretty much the end though because everything released after ’81 sounded a bit too formulaic for me. I checked out Dirty Work and Undercover and saw them live a couple more times, but for me the late 60s and early 70s were the peak and there was and is a whole lot of other music to listen to. But Mick, Mick, Ron and KEITH gave me a whole lot of great rock and roll and GUITAR BRILLIANCE over the years and for that I am very thankful. I learned so much about music and rock and roll from listening to and playing the Rolling Stones music and any player can find oodles of goodies contained within any one of a number of tunes that will definitely be of use the next time a chance to ROCK OUT comes along.

One final thing… I really enjoyed the Chuck Berry Hail Hail movie (on Youtube in its entirety). Great cast of characters (Chuck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, The Everly Brothers, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Bobby Keyes and a whole lot of Keith!). Oh and Little Richard! Any movie with Little Richard is going to be AWESOME because he is one crazy dude!

LIFE by Keith Richards

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Wish I could give this a rave review, but unfortunately, I can’t. I didn’t have high hopes for Keith’s autobiography because I am very familiar with the publishing formula that goes into the production of these memoirs. As a genre, or whatever, these books generally suck and are geared for people who don’t know much about the subject or just have to own everything that pertains to said subject. I know I’m jaded — I was reading interviews with Keith in CREEM magazine back in 1975!! Up until the late 80s I consumed every guitar mag interview he ever did. I’ve forgotten more than most people will ever know and much of what Life details, especially the drug use, was covered by others a long time ago. So if you, kind reader, don’t have that perspective then you’ll probably enjoy this…maybe. My copy was given to me and the person who gave me the book and two others I who know read it did a whole lot of skimming. The early chapters on Keith’s childhood and family are interesting and there were a few spots where he really plumbed his own depths, which resulted in a transcendence or at least an awareness of the meaning of (his) life. But the book is too long and unfocused and the editing/ghostwriting is horrible. It reads like Keith’s solo records sound and I’m not one of those people who think his solo records are that good. Sorry. What made the Keith and the Stones great was the team effort that honed and tightened everything for maximum impact. That’s how this book should’ve read and that would have been a significant improvement. The other problem is there is just not enough about the music and that is what Keith is, a musician. He isn’t a pirate, an outlaw or nonfiction writer. Why, at this point in his life he would want so much of his story to be about his involvement with substances I can’t imagine unless that was the marketing strategy to recoup a seven figure advance on information that has long been in the public domain anyway.

Been Caught Stealing!

Posted in Equipment, This and That with tags , , , , on September 11, 2011 by theguitarcave

gibson’s bust and international guitaring

A very surprising bit of news came up on the radar while The Cave was closed due to vacation and weather. It seems Federal Agents raided the Gibson Guitar company in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee because of alleged violations of the Lacey Act. As Geraldo Rivera would say, SHOCKING MAAN! (did he really ever say that?) Basically this act is supposed to enforce national (and by extension international) policies that protect endangered flora and fauna, such as Brazilian Rosewood or Tortoise Shell, from being used in musical instruments or anything else. The Lacey Act was passed in 1900 to regulate use of bird feathers in hats (eagle feathers are supposedly such a big no-no that you don’t EVEN wanna go there) and was updated in 2008 to include wood and other plant-based materials. You can read about the case here, here, and here, if you don’t already know about it. The most interesting and balanced summary I’ve found of the story and relevant issues is this PODCAST with John Thomas, a lawyer, author, AND guitar player. During the course of the podcast he discusses Gibson and their troubles, The Lacey Act and the international CITES laws.

Thomas points to some questionable things going on in the purchase of the materials Gibson imported. Whether it was actually Gibson, an in-between subsidiary or one of their overseas suppliers (the one guy they use [Roger Thunam] was in the news before) has yet to be determined. The way Thomas lays it out makes it sound like there could be a problem for Gibson especially if something is found on the now-confiscated electronic records. Thomas surmises that the government will be looking at whether the people involved in the international sphere that supplies Gibson with materials honestly don’t communicate well (it happens…even in 10-employee offices), or there was a deliberate attempt to mislead and misdirect. While the company and their CEO, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, have denied any wrongdoing, they will have to explain why certain things were mislabeled and recorded wrong on this last shipment of fingerboard materials. One thing I keep seeing in all of the reports on this story is the difference between not knowing how these laws work and messing up the paperwork (a bit of a stretch given the fact that Gibson has been in business since 1890) and deliberately lying and/or trying to get over, is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony…whether you are a big guitar company or Joe or Jane Schmo trying to travel with, or import a guitar. Gibson had been busted on similar violations in 2009, so at the very least, they should’ve known they were on the radar. Also, this isn’t the company’s only concern. According to Glassdoor, an online site that allows workers to rate the company they work for, Gibson is one of the lamest employers in the United States. I know this is just the employees saying this but wow! The company has a paltry 1.8% rating and CEO Juszkiewicz has a meager 14% support rating. Even without the current headaches with the Feds, Gibson obviously has some major issues they need to deal with and that might involve getting rid of Juszkiewicz, who is described unfavorably in many reviews. Hopefully the company can do some soul-searching and re-emerge to be the GREAT COMPANY behind the ICONIC BRAND we all know and love.

Back in the day I worked for a very nice and cool and awesome textile designer and she had me do a bunch of research on selling to a country I’m not going to name. What I (we) learned is that while globalization was theoretically supposed to make international trade easier, that is rarely the case because there are as many different regulations as there are foreign markets. Guitar manufacturers and dealers already know this, at least they are supposed to, but now there are broader implications that apply to anyone who owns an instrument that is made out of protected materials. THIS is a very interesting read, especially if you are a guitar collector, buyer, seller, or traveler going through Customs, especially in Western countries, many of whom have their own laws that are different or stricter than what you might find at home (wherever that may be).

From what I understand by reading and listening to the podcast these are the important facts to consider. You now have to list all of the plant and animal material contained in the instrument — woods, bone, pearl, ivory, etc etc. Doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or protected or not, they want to know. As Thomas describes on the Podcast, US Fish and Wildlife now takes an IRS mentality with regards to imports because once you declare, you better be telling the truth. This is what I was saying earlier: messing up the declaration forms because you’re clueless is a misdemeanor, but if it is established you have deliberately lied you can be charged with a felony, and that ain’t no joke. If you are traveling with your instrument you have a personal exemption and you don’t have to get the paperwork… unless your instrument was built with Appendix 1 materials (Brazilian Rosewood, Ivory, Tortoise Shell etc) then there is no exemption. Realize that until the early 1990s many guitars were built with Brazilian Rosewood and even if it is just the fretboard, it is a material you should be listing. You also have to take the responsibility to find out what all of the Appendix 1 materials are. The safest bet, as Thomas points out, is to have a new guitar that was built with no controversial materials and carry that with you on tour or vacation or wherever you’re going. If you ship it you can not get a personal exemption. Another very important thing to realize is that these are the laws for the United States only and laws vary in other countries. This is spelled out in more detail in the Fretboard Journal article. I believe George Gruhn, the vintage guitar guru quoted below and owner of Gruhn Guitars, no longer ships internationally. (The emphasis is the quotes below is mine).

Vintage-guitar guru George Gruhn amplifies Davis-Wallen’s concerns. “Look, this thing is a nightmare,” he says. “It’s cumbersome, illogical and nearly unintelligible. It’s hard enough to figure out what permits to obtain in the U.S., but it’s almost impossible to figure out the necessary permits to get a guitar in and out of another country. CITES only establishes a ‘floor’ of restrictions. The member countries can establish any other rules as long as they’re stricter than CITES. Imagine a touring musician who plans to visit several countries with a guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. It would be almost impossible to comply with CITES and do the tour.”

Armed with Gruhn’s insights, I contacted the CITES secretariat in Geneva for practical advice and spoke to a fellow who preferred to be identified only as “spokesperson.”“Travelers,” he told me, “should be most concerned when traveling in or out of the U.S., E.U., Australia or Japan because those countries have the strictest enforcement efforts.” “And,” he added, “They have domestic laws that are stricter than CITES. You’ve got to pay very close attention to the legal requirements”

I put that plaque at the top of the post because I thought it was a cool picture and the quote, which comes from the Publius Terentius Afe, a Roman playwright better known as Terence can certainly be true. That said, I don’t have any personal experience with this and don’t know anyone who has had an instrument take away. From what I’ve seen online, many other people either had no idea that there was a reason for concern, or are trying to carry on and hope no one notices they have an instrument with controversial materials. Others online have politicized the issue or are trying to create political conspiracies where there don’t seem to be any and still others (like Gruhn) hope that the laws can be streamlined to the point where all of the environmental and workers rights can be protected without hassling dealers and musicians who are guilty of nothing more than have an instrument that is 30 years old. There seems to be a parallel to the TSA in the United States. While there have been many tales of overzealous groping, hassling, and infringement into the personal space of air travelers all in the name of SECURITY, I don’t know anyone personally who has experienced anything over-the-top. Once, when I was flying out of Milwaukee a TSA person was running the wand over me and it kept beeping even though I had removed all metal objects. She threw up her hands and took two steps back with a look of fear in her eyes that suggested she thought I was Khalid-Sheikh-Mohammed. A couple of burly guys came over and I dug in my pocket and pulled out a pack of Wrigley’s gum. It turns out the foil was making the scanner beep. I said, “Wow, I always carry guy and it hasn’t set off any other machines”. They rolled their eyes and moved back to their stations at the baggage machine. Another time I was flying out of NYC taking freshly-baked bagels to some friends on the west coast. The bagels caused quite a stir at the baggage scanner for five minutes, but then all was well. I think the lesson here is that some fairly innocuous items can sometimes lead to interest and let’s face it, you really give up any semblance of privacy or control if you are going to fly anywhere. I have brought stuff back from trips out of the country with no trouble from Customs Officials, but then again I wasn’t trying to import live snakes, drugs or anything else they would have a problem with. But the fact is it only takes ONE TIME for it to be a problem, if the “problem” is a favored or expensive guitar, and that’s why I probably wouldn’t risk trying to fly on the sly, if you know what I mean. The laws were created with the best of intentions maybe, but the enforcement is in the hands of many different people in many situations all over world and it seems that for now, musicians should probably consider their options carefully.

You Got That Right — 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2011 by theguitarcave

Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the premier bands of the glorious guitar decade of the 1970s. Their high-powered, 3-guitar sound, great live shows and string of FM radio hits made them a rock arena favorite until the tragic plane crash of 1977 that took the lives of band singer/leader Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines and their long-time friend and tour manager, Dean Kirkpatrick. The other band members were scarred both physically and mentally for a long time afterwards and it effectively ended one of the most interesting 70s rock groups at a time when they looked to be on the brink of a promising new direction. Though they “reformed” in 1987 and continue to perform and record today, Gary Rossington is the only surviving member still playing with the band. Loud rock/Classic Rock doesn’t get much airplay in The Cave anymore, but Skynyrd was a formative influence and very important in my guitar development and I still break ’em out when I’m in the mood. Because I was never able to see the original band I’ve totally dug all of the media — books, movies, YouTube performances that have come out in the last 10-15 years. All of these materials cast a new light on the Skynyrd story and have allowed people like me to see actual performances from the glory days and get more of a total picture of the musicians as people and see them outside of the hell-raising image that dominated for so many years.

Back in the 1970s, I was in high school and Skynyrd was a very popular band — with songs on the radio and stuff. While it was said later, especially in reference to the long delay in getting the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s popularity was a “regional” thing, I can assure you that at the time, it was not. Not only did they have the reputation of being one of the hottest live acts of the day, they also had many songs on what was then the new “FM” radio format. Further down in this post there is a video of them playing at a Bill Graham-produced Day on the Green festival with Peter Frampton, who was about the hottest thing going in 1976-77. His Frampton Comes Alive album was voted the Number #1 record of 1976, yet this “regional” band was opening for him the following year. (On their first major tour they opened dates for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour. Pete Townsend thought they were “quite good”). Bill Graham, who was certainly a major figure in 60s and 70s concert promotion thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was “one of the great ones”. Wolfgang’s Vault, which I have already profiled, has really nice versions of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama from that show and not only are the videos instructive for how great the band was, but they show a whole lot pretty young ladies in the front who are completely rocking out and are well acquainted with both songs. There were certainly more than a few lovely young ladies in my high school class who also enjoyed rocking out! and back in the 70s that didn’t carry with it all (or some) of the negative connotations that it does today. It was the thing to do — go to concerts and ROCK OUT! YEA!

Lynryd Skynyrd:An Oral History

Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, by Lee Ballinger, is a very splendid read not only because it captures that time when the band was in their prime and very popular with The Kids but also because it contains many stories, quotes, and anecdotes directly from the band, family members, or people who were involved with the band. Some of the most interesting quotes come from Al Kooper, legendary player, producer, and ROCK guy (he plays the organ on Like A Rolling Stone for starters) and the man who got Lynyrd Skynyrd signed, and was their producer and session player for their first three albums. He is the Yankee Slicker from Skynyrd’s Working for MCA song, which they performed at their initial showcase in front of MCA execs and basically sealed the deal, according to Kooper. This book is great because it provides a bunch of these little factual nuggets. Kooper’s “taking it back to basic rock and roll” quote is enlightening because that is what everyone said about punk rock which began roughly about the same time (The New York Dolls) Skynyrd released their first album. Also, Ronnie VanZant himself said that the lyrics to songs like Sweet Home Alabama were deliberately written to provoke a (controversial) reaction, which was another element that would become a staple in punk rock lyrics and stage performances. While many don’t equate Lynyrd Skynyrd with punk rock, I’m not the only person who thinks that they were the American version of the Sex Pistols…with better music. So what did Al have to say?

At the time that they came around in the early seventies, there was a plethora of really advanced white progressive music that had taken over the charts and the American mind. Like Genesis, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and bands like that. I was sitting and watching this and going, “You know, if some band came along that just played basic rock and roll, they would clean up now”… Then I heard Skynyrd in Atlanta and I said, “Well they’re doing exactly what I hear in my head. This is like the basic band that could win it all back.” (pp.32-33)

…By the third time I heard it, I said, “This is so good. Every kid in America wants to hear this. This is why I want to sign this band. Some little kid in the middle of the country wants to put this on in his bedroom and run head first into the wall. I understand the meaning of head-banging music now.” (p. 35)

…Of all the bands I ever worked with they were the best arranged band. Most bands don’t have it together with arrangements. Their arrangements were terrific. I even learned from them as an arranger…What they did with the guitar parts was truly amazing. They had the pulse of the street. They absolutely had it.” (p.44)

— Al Kooper Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History By Lee Ballinger

Lynryd Skynyrd Guitar World Poll

While the whole Skynyrd catalog is a treasure trove of guitar mania, Freebird is certainly the song probably they are associated with and in it’s own right is a top guitar-solo classic. Right up there with Stairway to Heaven, Crossroads, Eruption, Crazy Train, and All Along the Watchtower. I have a framed page of Freebird as the Number 3 guitar solo of all time as voted by readers/contributors to Guitar World Magazine on my wall…well just because. My 2nd year of high school, the first guy I saw picking an acoustic guitar well played most of the first Skynyrd Pronounced album! I still remember the day; a beautiful spring afternoon, the two of us sitting on a bench with his girlfriend while he played Tuesday’s Gone, Poison Whiskey, Mississippi Kid and the first part of Freebird. I had been fooling around with the guitar for a few years but I was amazed that anyone I knew could play stuff like that so well. He showed me a few things and then another friend a year or two later showed me parts to Rush’s Working Man and Fly By Night and I got some stuff by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC down by myself and I was well on my way to getting the whole concept of rock guitar under my fingers.

If it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of this remember that in 1976-77 there was no internet, no tabs, no You tube, no instruction videos or tapes, 1 guitar magazine, and until you were 16 and had a driver’s license it was very hard to go see bands, unless you lived in the city, which I didn’t. There were music books but they were mostly written for piano and very rarely translated well to guitar. So watching somebody play up close like that was a revelation, and as I’ve said in other posts with regard to Gypsy Jazz culture, all of those masterful players STILL learn that way — by Watching and Doing. It’s the best form of instruction and years later any player will look back on those early experiences with the same misty affection as first love. Because Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the first bands whose songs I could play and the first one I began to see the connections involved in playing chords, leads and riffs all together, they will always be important to me.

Skynyrd was the epitome of a GUITAR band — they had three lead guitarists — and watching Freebird: The Movie and other stuff that has come out since then totally proves the band’s ability to pull off the 3-guitar attack and how well-integrated and balanced they worked live; three different guys, three different sounds, three different styles never getting in the way of the others while playing complimentary parts, or rhythms. Everything I’ve seen definitely underscores Al Kooper’s quote above about how intelligent they were about composing and performing their parts. While they had the reputation, one that Ronnie even admitted in the press, of sometimes being really, really drunk for live performances, I’ve yet to see one where they were as sloppy as some other bands from that period (Rolling Stones, Led Zep). Maybe they managed to always keep it together when the cameras were rolling or they were really good at covering up. It’s obvious and well-documented that these guys practiced their butts off and were all kept in line by Ronnie, who was James Brown on steroids when it came to enforcing band discipline; he didn’t fine players if they messed up, he got physical. He was able to do this because he, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, and original drummer Bob Burns all grew up on the rough side of Jacksonville Florida and began playing together when they were in their early teens. RVZ, who was older, was an big brother/father figure to a few of the others who didn’t have fathers in their lives and was the man with the plan with regards to rock and roll stardom. Everyone in the band gave him credit for making them famous and having the vision to turn what was once a “Louie Louie” high school dance band into an internationally-known rock ensemble. Plus he was a rock and roll badass and a complicated guy; a “redneck” who wrote anti-hard drug and anti-handgun songs, a man who always walked that very fine line between the idealistic good vibes of the 1960s and the aggressive harder edge style of the meanest blues and honky-tonk music, and a guy who aspired to everyone having a good time but was jailed many times for drinking, fighting and other acts of mayhem. Listening to interviews from 1976, it’s obvious that this Double Trouble side of Ronnie and the reputation he’d earned because of it was something he had tired of and he was looking to move into a more mature direction. With the addition of the Honkettes (back-up singers Cassie Gaines, Jo Jo Billingsly, Leslie Hawkins), Steve Gaines, and the birth of his daughter, many people on the concert trail who had done business with the band noticed a huge difference in everyone’s attitude and behavior in 1976-77 and RVZ was once again, the guy who was leading them into this new direction.

Gary Rossington’s guitar sound is probably the one people most associate with the band; the Les Paul sustained vibrato voice that he got from influences like Paul Kossoff of Free (one of their favorite bands) decorate many of the songs and he used his hands to get all kinds of little feel things going. If you watch the above That Smell video, there is a sustained note he gets in his second solo that draws a smile of appreciation from RVZ. Allen Collins was very fleet-fingered and energetic (Freebird, I Ain’t the One) and held Eric Clapton as his numberLS CD cover for One More From the Road 1 influence. He usually played a Gibson Firebird, and later, a Gibson Explorer, but also played a Strat occasionally. Not only was his lead playing always tasteful, he had a really great rhythmic feel, especially with that chunky-funky Strat sound. The third guitar player was, up until mid-1975, Ed King, and from mid-76 until late-77, Steve Gaines. Both of these fellows were tremendous, tasteful players who were usually the “Stratocaster guys”. Steve Gaines might’ve become one of the biggest players ever had he survived the plane crash in 1977 because he could play anything and was just super good and a really great writer and singer. Ed King, though not recognized in the Freebird Movie, (and I don’t know why he wasn’t) was a very important contributor and to watch him play is to watch someone who doesn’t use “box” positions when soloing and his leads don’t sound like anything else. He did get a lot of solos on many songs and some of them almost sound like horn parts more than guitar solos, but that might just be me thinking that. All of these guys were capable of partnering up with Ronnie to write killer songs and sometimes, like on their big hit Sweet Home Alabama, or later, That Smell, it was combination of people creating the song almost spontaneously. Leon Wilkeson was also always a very underrated, one-of-a-kind bass player, and any of the videos in this post or anything off the original band discs demonstrate his very fluid and imaginative style.

Lynyrd Skynyrd mirror

My friend Jimmy R. gave me this mirror…he said someone gave it to him, but I think he was secretly trolling head shops back in the day. A few years ago I was trolling in a local Music and Sounds shop and I found a used video that turned out to be a bootleg performance of Skynyrd from 1975. It’s great — filmed at Winterland during what would become known as The Torture Tour — Ed King is still in the band and Billy Powell missed the performance because he had put his fist through a window or door. At the time I was a regular at the now defunct Ed King web forums and I asked if he or anyone else knew about the show and all I found out was what I’ve already related about Billy and the fact that it was just a month or so before Ed King left. [This whole concert is now lovingly restored and at Wolfgang’s Vault!] But two people on the forum offered to trade me for copies of the bootleg and I got the complete Van Halen show at the US Festival in 1983 from one guy, and that was cool. The other person who offered a trade was Sharon Lawrence. She knew Lynyrd Skynyrd, photographed them and has written about them and others from the rock era, most notably, a book on Jimi Hendrix, who she also knew. I sent her a copy of the tape in exchange for a picture of Ronnie Van Zant cutting his birthday cake the year he turned 27. She also sent me a nice concert shot of Allen Collins. I promised they would never turn up on the internet, so I can’t show them to you. The birthday pic is from this same “session” but is a lot better quality and is one of my prized possessions. I don’t think anyone but Sharon has a copy of that photo and it is really awesome that I do. I also think it’s great Skynyrd used the Theme from The Magnificent Seven as intro music for the tour seen in the following video.

I found an interview with Sharon that I think is interesting. I don’t know where it originated but since she knew the band personally she provides a perspective similar to Al Kooper. The questions are in orange, her answers in green. (Go the link for the whole interview)

The Skynyrd members all knew each other for years, grew up together. How would you describe the relationships within the band? We’ve all heard about the inner fighting that went on from time to time, but I’ve always looked at it like the kind of fighting that brothers do. Would that describe their relationship, in your opinion?

I would describe the relationship this way: Ronnie was the leader, in capital letters. They all looked up to him, and his opinion meant a great deal. They were like their own little family in the early years, giving up relaxing, seeing, being with their own families to try and gain respect and success…

Knowing Jimi Hendrix as well as you did, what do you think he would have thought of Skynyrd’s music?

A fresh sound. An integrity all their own. Strong playing and writing.

There is a great story I read somewhere that you told, probably in an interview, about Allen Collins and some guitar strings of Jimi’s that you had kept and had given to Allen. Would you mind telling the story again?

The band was at my house in the Hollywood hills in the fall of 1973. They had no money yet. They were ready to leave the house to go to the Whisky-A-Go-Go where they were playing for several nights. Allen broke a string and it subtly became clear to me that they were afraid they didn’t have any string money and weren’t sure where to go. I remembered that I had some of Jimi’s, so I found them, asked Allen if one of those would work. Nothing more was said. They did the gig….seven years later I was at Allen and Kathy’s home and he showed me one of his Skynyrd scrapbooks. On a special page he had placed Jimi’s guitar string in its faded English package. A very touching moment…and one that Hendrix would have appreciated.

This is a pretty broad question as people have many sides to them, but what kind of man was Ronnie Van Zant? How would you describe your relationship with him?

We were great friends who had mutual respect for each other. One of the finest people I’ve ever met.

We’ve all read a little bit about the song writing process within the band. How would you describe it and is it true that Ronnie never wrote anything down? I personally find that “rumor” a little hard to believe, even with the gift that he had.

Of course, he wrote things down but he also said, “unless I can remember the words as I’m thinking them they may not be worth writing down.” Ronnie’s writing was deeply important to him. He had nice handwriting and printing and he was meticulous in correcting grammar and punctuation.

How did you feel about LS finally making it to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame? Did you attend the ceremony?

They should have been inducted earlier*…I was invited but preferred to watch on television, not in a huge ballroom….greatly disappointed that one of Skynyrd’s heroes — like Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard etc — were not asked to “induct” the band. “Kid Rock” would never have been Ronnie’s cup of tea.

* emphasis mine

It’s pretty amazing to find out all of these years later that Ronnie VanZant cared about penmanship and punctuation. That really doesn’t jibe with his “image” but that is the thing with image isn’t it? Usually the image has very little to do with the person behind the image. By the end of his career even Ronnie admitted that the band had let their image and behavior get away from them a bit, but that was the 70s and they certainly were not the only band who over-indulged. But Ronnie was smart enough to see that the image lifestyle was a dead-end and was in the process of making serious changes when he was killed. (Same was true of Stevie Ray Vaughan). While I agree with Sharon’s last sentiment on Kid Rock – I think the band deserved someone of higher stature as an inductor (inductor?) – it’s also important to remember how much has changed since 1977. It’s possible that Ronnie would’ve come round to being ok with Kid Rock. I think some of the other people in the band think he’s ok. In my post on Jim Croce I said that some of what he did could’ve happened only in the 1970s and the same is true of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd — every decade has it’s particulars that come together to make a certain sound and way of doing things possible and musicians are obviously very influenced by, and products of their times. So are their audiences. Lynryd Skynyrd helped influence musicians in later decades — Hank Williams IIIRaging Slab, Nashville Pussy, Honky and many others including Kid Rock. But THE ROCK ain’t like it used to be and that is to be expected 30+ years later; the times have changed, the music has changed, the business has changed, and the environment the artists and audiences reside is also different. While it may be fun topic for speculation, it’s impossible to say how RVZ and the rest of band would’ve fared had the plane crash not happened. Because of that “tragedy” and Classic Rock Radio, the band took on a different life post-1977 and like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan their presence was defined more by radio playlists and legend. Ronnie and the original band achieved a kind of rock and roll sainthood — they were killed in the prime of their career. They didn’t hang around so long that people got tired of them and they didn’t become a pale imitation of what they once were. Even though Skynyrd reformed in 1987 and continues to this day, it’s more of a tribute band/different band. I don’t mean to sell the current Skynyrd short because some great players have been in the line-up over the years, including Ed King, Leon Wilkeson, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle, Rick Medlocke (who played with the band in the very early days and then went on to front Blackfoot, a band I liked a lot), and the late Hughie Thomasson, who was founder, guitar great with the Outlaws back in the day. There is a lot to like about all of these musicians and all of the great music they have brought to the people over the last almost fifty years. But Lynyrd Skynyrd has not existed since 1977 just like Led Zeppelin was over when John Bonham died. Some people just can’t be replaced without the whole thing being completely different.

There is an overwhelming amount of great material in the original band’s catalog that you have never heard unless you are a total fan, and there is certainly many a tasty lick and trick that a guitar player can pick out from listening to, or watching the videos. I still enjoy picking on Skynyrd songs from time to time and some it is quite challenging as anyone who has really tried to cop the licks knows. It can also be a whole lot of fun. I think it is quite fitting that the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Sex Pistols. Two very popular and influential outlaw bands finally getting some respect. I wish, as do many other people, that Ronnie, Steve, Allen, Leon and Cassie had lived to see the fruits of their labors, and to Skynyrd it was all about working to get the rewards and recognition. It’s possible, given their backgrounds (they actually had a lot in common), that Ronnie VanZant and Johnny Rotten could’ve shared a drink, some stories and few laughs at the ceremony… And that’s the kind of world we should live in.

Note: Al Kooper’s recollections and Dave Marsh’s quote are from Lee Ballinger’s excellent Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History. Lee is also the editor of Rockrap, a really cool online newsletter that you can sign up for free HERE.

Mick Ronson

Posted in Players with tags , , , on March 14, 2011 by theguitarcave

Mick Ronson in Guitar World magazine 1990

Many years ago I had the opportunity to write for Guitar World Magazine. It was a whole lot of fun and over the course of a few years I was able to sit down and talk with some great guitar players, some of whom were legends and others who were young up-and-comers. I’ll be reliving some of these interviews in this blog from time to time and I’m going to start with my favorite, the late, great Mick Ronson. Most people know him as the guitar player for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years, but he was much more than that. When I sat down with him for a couple of hours in late 1989 he was on tour with his long-time buddy Ian Hunter, promoting the Yui Orta album. He was such a super-nice guy it was unbelievable. I was a huge fan of the albums he’d done with David Bowie prior to their big break-out, Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and he was genuinely pleased that I was asking about stuff he did on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World as well as Ziggy’s successor, Alladin Sane, an album I played out even more than Ziggy Stardust. Aside from being an awesome guitar player, he was heavily involved in the production of not only the Bowie albums, but also, Lou Reed’s Transformer, string arrangements for Pure Prairie League, and this, lifted from Wikipedia, which he and I didn’t even discuss (I don’t really dig John Mellencamp but theUh-huh album was okay, I guess).

“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song, Jack & Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the fuck does put baby rattles on the record mean? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.” (John Mellencamp, Classic Rock magazine, January 2008, p.61)

That was Mick’s attitude and effectiveness at production and playing. He used his imagination to come with some of the coolest stuff and it resulted in big records, not only for his own band, but others as well. He wasn’t afraid to do or say something outlandish that would leave people scratching their heads…until they actually heard it.

As a journeyman guitarist, he also played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour in 1974, Mott the Hoople, Van Morrison and, he recorded three of his own solo albums. He wasn’t a chops monster, especially considering we talked during the height of the hair metal years, but he could play a great solo if the song demanded it and lots of songs he is on are layered in a way that gives them a very dramatic and symphonic sound. He embraced the solo as a motif or story within a story theory and that certainly helped with his writing and production roles. Sometimes guitar players just wanna play too much.

He also, during the course of our conversations, told me of his great love of punk rock because of the energy and the willingness to try new things. He embraced many styles and was a man at home in whatever style he happened to be playing at the time. As it was time to say goodbye I mentioned that I was recording with my EV punk band that day and he started asking me questions! How cool is that? Mick Ronson asking “what’s the studio like? How many tracks are you using? etc, etc. We spent another 10-15 minutes talking about the session and I have never gone into a session, before or since, as pumped as I was that day. His one nugget of advice that I have never forgotten was, “don’t be afraid to do something outrageous or spontaneous to get something going. Everything doesn’t have to be planned out.”

It was really sad to hear of his passing a few years later at the young age of 46, but it is beautiful to see that the influence he had on many people has not faded away and I feel lucky to have been in his presence, if only for a couple of hours. The following three examples show the profound range of abilities he had as a guitar player in dramatically different settings.

Moonage Daydream live with Bowie

The beautiful Sweet Dreams

Mick talks Guitar!!