Guitar 102

Reader turns writer with his take on this most popular of instruments


Good day, class. I want to thank professor Peck for the great job he did in "Rock of Ages," (BW, March 22, Ryan Peck) exploring the physical evolution of the instrument. Pilots like to say, "It's not the crate, but the person inside that makes the thing fly." Today I would like to talk a little about the people who have made the guitar as dominant an instrument of popular music as it has been for the last 50 years.

The guitar came from Spain, a country where many cultures, languages and ethnic groups were mingling and learning from each other; benefiting from the diversity and tolerance (such as it existed).

Just after the beginning of the 20th century, a dashing young Spanish rogue took up the instrument that Antonio de Torres had so greatly improved (such as by constructing guitars out of different woods, and making guitars bigger). By transcribing some of the most difficult violin pieces to his chosen instrument and performing them--along with some of his country's traditional folk music--he became the rage of the continent, though not without considerable controversy. His name was Andres Segovia and he continued to dazzle audiences into the 1980s.

Volume was a goal of many of the experiments of the luthier's craft, but even in this short history that is elsewhere focused on the artists, we must not overlook National Steel guitar. With its metal resonance box and distinctive sound, it is the forerunner of the Hawaiian steel and bluegrass dobro of today, each of which is a unique instrument in its own right.

Each generation finds the world anew, reinventing the universe, sure that theirs is a unique experience. Professor Peck tells us that Les Paul was the giant who married music to the lightning, that he and Charlie Christian took this new technology and made magic that echoes to this day. My own awareness of the guitar starts with a band called the Ventures featuring Dick Dale, a guy called Duane Eddy and a twanging, mutated country swing that is now rockabilly.

As a young teen I listened to the radio in my middle-class,, suburban home. I couldn't stay up and watch TV with the adults, but I could listen to the radio as late as I could stay awake. I started to hear this band recycling the heritage of Robert Johnson and making the passions and rhythms of black culture accessible to a white kid. Elvis didn't move me, but after seeing them on Ed Sullivan, the Beatles changed my life.

After that, it was like someone just stomped down on my accelerator and hasn't let off since. I was asked what instrument I would like to learn: piano or guitar? Of course, I chose guitar. My dad worked for a company that sold instruments and did support work for live concerts which, for me, translated into nice guitars and an ear full of cool stories about the people who played them. I wanted to be John or Paul and it didn't matter which. Then Led Zepplin broke up and my life shifted into second gear.

By my sophomore year in high school, my friends and I were listening to Eric Clapton and Cream as loud as my little Sony stereo would go. Then my girlfriend gave me a Jimi Hendrix record and life hit third gear. Every guitar player in New York, Los Angeles and London said "shit," under his breath and went back to work to try to understand this completely different way to play the instrument. Later in his all-too-short life, Jimi talked about playing around the London club scene, often without anything to his name but his guitar and a candy bar. It's funny how these stylistic epiphanies come from different combinations of discipline, diverse environments, new technology, dedication and desperation.

Much later in life, most folks my age were numbing themselves with cocaine, dressing like idiots and participating in the tribal ritual known as disco. Along came an L.A. band (with a kid from Amsterdam who would rather practice his instrument than play with the local groupies) and a Seattle band (with a kid from Denmark). Those bands were the only patches of light in a world darkened by corporate suits who believed that disco had finally killed rock n roll and ended the dominance of guitar music. All I can say is that when I heard Eddie Van Halen tear into "Eruption" for the first time, my life slid into fourth.

I think I finally hit fifth gear the year I got to see Michael Hedges with his harp guitar at the intermediate theater of the Paramont, in Portland and Pat Metheny at the Erb Memorial at the University of Oregon.

Lest I seem like a complete sexist with regard to the artists mentioned, I must say that one of the best players I ever had the privilege of hearing was Nancy Wilson of the band Heart. Absolutely incredible. More who require mention include Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. As the 21st century starts to pick up speed, it is blissful to hear people like Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton continue to challenge themselves and us, taking their craft in new directions. I listen to the magic of Eric Johnson, Robert Cray, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Joe Satriani, Vernon Reid and many others and each remakes the guitar and gives it a unique voice. I do not doubt that there will be an end to the days of the guitar as the instrument of choice, but I suspect it will be long after I am gone. I do believe the guitar will outlast television, rap, hip-hop and blue and red states.

Class dismissed.

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