Category Archives: Articles

Guitar Honeymoon Through The South

Though my lovely wife Minette and I got married all the way back in May, we’ve both been pretty swamped with work ever since, and the idea of a decent honeymoon has been on the back-burner.  Well, that all ended this week, as we filled up our tank and decided to take a scenic drive through the south!  We didn’t do all that much pre-planning, figuring that we would just set up a few hotels along the way, and do whatever struck our fancy on any given day… but knowing that we were going to be spending a little time in both Asheville NC and Nashville TN, I made sure to have a few fine guitar stores on my mental list of places to visit, and they did not disappoint.  WARNING : if you’re not interested in some pretty subjective ideas about sound and a lot of out-and-out minutia concerning some positively lovely acoustic guitars, you’ve probably already read too much… things are about to get long and geeky! I’ll also take this moment to point out that for every minute I spent looking at guitars, Minette probably spent five in thrift stores and boutiques shopping for unique and vintage articles of clothing… so everybody came away happy!

About twenty minutes outside of Asheville, nestled inconspicuously along a residential country road sits Dream Guitars, a unique appointment-only showroom and internet store owned and operated by Paul Heumiller.  Paul started the company a while back with none other than world-renowned fingerstylist Martin Simpson, and both men know more than a little bit about fine acoustic guitars.  There are few places in the world where so many unique hand-built and small shop guitars are available to play, and I tried my best to take it all in… though it wasn’t easy!  In 90 minutes I played just a handful of instruments, each one just as beautiful as the last, and each with its own particular set of aesthetic and tonal strengths… and though I’ll admit it definitely feels a little haughty to pick apart any of these guitars, as a longtime fan of the instrument, I had no choice but to follow my ears, and these are some of my thoughts. Continue reading

Interview : David Surette

davidsurette3Earlier this year, Work & Worry received a CD from David Surette, a fantastic instrumentalist and songwriter who resides up in Maine. Surette is my kind of picker : equal parts British folk revival, country blues, ragtime and traditional… well, that’s not totally true, his playing at times actually leans a little bit more to the British school than most American fingerpickers, which I guess is what I really love about it!

The performances on Sun Dog, all done in a single evening on a single microphone, are absolutely impeccable. All eight tracks feature clean, confident picking and a finely honed sense of composition, structure and ornamentation. It’s the kind of accomplished, out of nowhere record that is not only a joy to listen to, but makes a guitarist want to up his or her game… from the John Renbourn-esque “A Lot of Sir John” and “Cold Rain” to the feel-good raggin’ blues of “Frog’s Legs” and “Ukelele Stomp”,  Sun Dog is easily one of the best guitar recordings I’ve heard in a long time.

Surette’s liner notes on the CD do a fine job of describing the inception of these songs, and he also denotes the tunings… so I wanted to talk to Surette more about some of his perspectives on guitars, playing, and some of his influences.

W&W : Calling David Surette.. David, are you there?

Hey man, how’s it going?

W&W : Very well, how are you?

Good, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

W&W : Let’s talk about where you are and where you’ve been. You seem to have extremely strong ties to the music scene up in Maine… have you always lived in that part of the world? Where were you when your interest in guitar first developed, and what did you concentrate on when you were first starting out?

Well, I grew up in northern New Hampshire in the mountains, North Conway, which is right on the border with Maine. So I’ve always been a NH/ME kind of guy. I moved down to this area when I was going to college at UNH, from ’81-’85, and ended up sticking around. There’s a good local music scene here, and it’s close to a lot of other great spots, like Boston and Portland.

I started to play guitar when I was 14, and I’m 47 now.  I started out on electric and acoustic, mostly ’60s-’70s rock. I loved blues-rock, too, and rootsy stuff like The Dead, The Band, The Allmans, so I got into the blues and folk stuff that way, like checking out this guy Robert Johnson that the Stones were covering. I’m probably like a lot of other folks in that regard. I got into fingerpicking in college. Continue reading

John Renbourn Tackles Satie’s “Sarabande”

Renbourn_70sJohn Renbourn is a wonder. His recording career began in England during the mid-sixties, just as the late Davey Graham was blazing new trails with the acoustic guitar.  John followed Davey’s lead, performing on his early Transatlantic albums with a sense of abandon, cleverly weaving together musical styles and traditions from around the globe. Over time, Renbourn’s playing became more measured but also increasingly detailed, sometimes blurring the line where folk music ends and classical music begins.  While his discography features a wide variety of modes and collaborations, his solo albums from the late seventies, The Hermit and The Black Balloon in particular, feature expansive long-form guitar instrumentals that are among his most ambitious and best works.  The latest album, Palermo Snow (Shanachie Records, 2010) belongs to that lineage… I was excited to discover it included an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Sarabande,”¹ as I’ve been absorbed in Satie’s music recently and, more importantly, imagined that interpreting it would be an interesting change of pace for Renbourn.

Satie’s piano compositions are generally regarded as precursors to ambient music, which he referred to as musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.” Their quality is atmospheric, repetitive, slightly dissonant.  Satie is identified with the avant-garde for his later associations with Dada, though his early compositions are often referred to as “impressionist.”  The series of three “Sarabandes,” introduced in 1887, just a year prior to his best known work, the “Gymnopédies,” indeed have a drifting, romantic quality.  Here is the late French pianist’s Jacques Février’s rendition of Satie’s “Sarabande No.1”²:

A “sarabande” is a dance in triple meter.  From what I’ve gathered, it was developed in Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century and later banned in Spain for its sexual undertones.  The dance was revived and commonly used as movement within a suite during the Baroque period, when the German music theorist, Johann Matthesson, declared that it “expresses no passion other than ambition.”³ It’s easy to imagine how the peculiar reputation and history of this dance would appeal to Satie, whose sense of humor is well documented.  One even wonders if the circularity of his “Sarabandes” was intended to be satirical. Interestingly, John Renbourn included an electric guitar rendition of a Bach “Sarabande” on his fourth album, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Despite the heavy vibrato effect, it sounds more formal than Satie’s “Sarabandes,” and I suspect provides a better sense of a typical, Baroque version of the dance:

Adapting ambient music to the guitar provides one with an opportunity to obsess over each individual note or chord; to allow the overtones that occur during sustain, as well as fret and room noise, to become the “detail” of the piece.  The timbre of steel string guitar seems particularly well-suited to the task, especially compared with classical guitar.  Solo fingerstyle guitar music, by contrast, is a show of dexterity, where bass and melody lines interact in a complex, sometimes dizzying manner. Renbourn is regarded as a master of fingerstyle form, and would seem to reside in a different ballpark from the ambient musician.  I know from my own attempts to feather ambient pieces into a fingerstyle repertoire that the adjustment in mindset is not easy to manage in one sitting.  Not to suggest that John Renbourn is uninterested in tonality, it seems reasonable to point out that the opportunities for him to really fuss over it have been somewhat scarce in his music.  I can’t think of many examples from his recorded works that resemble Satie’s music, save perhaps the duet rendition of the Charles Mingus’ “Theme from The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” with Stefan Grossman, which has impressionistic qualities.

Renbourn’s take on Satie’s “Sarabande” is similar in tempo to the Février example.  However, one gets the sensation, especially early on in the recording, that he feels slightly impatient and is struggling to lock in with the odd cadences of the piece:

In fact, it’s the sense of struggle that I find most appealing about this performance.  The voicings he selected for the arrangement also have a mundane quality that I think befits the piece.  If there’s one flaw, it would be the heavy handed use of artificial reverb on the recording, which I think obscures rather than flatters some of the details of John’s performance.  Nonetheless, I find it encouraging that this revered guitar player, who has accomplished so much with the instrument, was willing to venture into potentially uncomfortable musical territory to expand his boundaries, if even only slightly.  While this article focused only on one track, Palermo Snow is a certainly multi-faceted album worthy of celebration by guitar music fans.

¹ Renbourn’s arrangement is of Satie’s “Sarabande No. 1”
² from Piano Music of Erik Satie (Remastered, 2011)
³ from Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739)

Interview : Sam Moss

SM on Building 1I first became aware of Sam Moss’ playing via Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem Vol. 4.  Sam fit right into that album’s Takoma-leaning tracklist, and much of Sam’s music that I’ve heard since has had a pronounced American Primitive approach…  his double-thumb, spare melodies and pretty pattern picking not only invoke the music of John Fahey and Peter Lang, but also modern-day interpreters of the genre like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose.  I recently caught up with Sam to talk about his new release, Eight Constructions.

W&W : Talk about how you got started in music, some of your early influences.

Most of my early influences came from the music my family listened to. My early memories involve Marvin Gaye, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mozart and Benny Goodman. My parents are big music appreciators and my grandfather loved big bands. The joy he got from listening to Goodman, Count Basie or Artie Shaw was one of the main reasons that I wanted to play music. He was an artist and he used to have a cymbal in his studio so that he could keep time while blasting his records! I initially wanted to play the clarinet, but I ended up with a violin in my hands.

W&W : When did you first start playing acoustic guitar?

When I was something like thirteen. I favored electric for a long time, until I got into jazz a few years later. I started exploring the possibilities of solo acoustic playing, fingerstyle, etc, a few years ago.

W&W : Please describe your primary guitar, how you got it, how long you’ve had it, etc.

It’s a Tacoma DR12, made sometime around 2000, before the company was bought by Fender. I picked it up used a few years ago at a Guitar Center. Almost all the Tacoma’s made around that era have a finish flaw on the back and sides that causes little air bubbles to spread all over. Mine has it really bad and the finish is chipped all around the sides and is continually getting worse. Tacoma makes a pretty ugly guitar to begin with and the finish issue really puts it over the top. But it’s a great sounding dreadnought and the price was right… it has character. Continue reading

Interview : Maneli Jamal

maneli-jamal_picManeli Jamal is a prodigious young fingerstylist, currently residing in Toronto, Canada. He works in the contemporary, highly physical two-hand style (lots of fretboard tapping with the picking hand) popular with a lot of young players these days, but there are several things that set Jamal apart from the multitudes of Andy McKee hopefuls who play the virtual YouTube circuit.

To say that Jamal’s technique is advanced would be a huge understatement. There aren’t many players in this style that have Jamal’s balance of power and sensitivity, nor his breadth of ideas. His rhythmic concepts can be alternately short and dense, or explored carefully through several movements, as in the four part suite from which The Ziur Movement album takes its name. Jamal has absorbed a number of musical styles, and he is able to seamlessly incorporate jazz, flamenco, classical and Persian ideas into his original compositions. The resulting pieces are very impressive, both technically and musically, and his CD is one of my favorites in the contemporary style.

I recently conducted this email interview with Jamal.

W&W : Let’s talk about the evolution of your fretting hand. You played in punk and metal bands when you were younger… would you say that that’s where you built up your strength and dexterity? Talk about your beginnings in guitar, and some of the early inroads you made toward your current (high) level of technique. Which players put you on the path to your current hybrid style?

When I started to play guitar I had already played violin for a few years learning from my father, a master Persian violinist. That definitely made learning the technical side of the guitar easier at first, especially the coordination between the hands. The great thing about punk and metal playing is that it’s fast and fun as hell to play for anyone starting the guitar.

Because I was self taught I used to be the kind of player that didn’t worry too much about accuracy but rather speed and what sounds cool, which was what punk music to me was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t teach myself the discipline of accuracy and slow practice until years later. The guitarists of Thrice and Iron Maiden really influenced me in the punk / metal genre. I felt like I had reached a plateau after 3 years of playing that genre in my right hand picking. I thought the guitar pick was the best and most efficient way of playing the guitar… little did I know. I got into the likes of Al Dimeola and that opened up a whole new world for me. Continue reading

Interview : William Tyler

Late last year, we reviewed William Tyler’s excellent Tompkins Square debut Behold The Spirit. I recently caught up with William to talk about the making of the record, how he got into guitar, and his upcoming tour with Michael Chapman.

W&W : Talk a little about how you got started in guitar… how long have you been playing, what got you started, and your early influences.

Well I had the benefit/burden of growing up in Nashville, both around a lot of older musicians and a musical family. My father is a country songwriter and he was drawn to Nashville in the mid seventies, back when country singers bragged about smoking pot and reading books, as opposed to now when it’s all about trucks and patriotism.

I started playing guitar when I was a teenager, in spurts at first because I was more interested in drums and piano. I was also somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to rock music; I didn’t start buying rock records until I was fourteen or fifteen. Early stuff that influenced me was REM and Peter Buck, especially all the cross picking he did, the country style stuff in Rockpile and Dave Edmunds, and then stuff like the Sex Pistols and Ramones. I think Physical Graffiti was the first record I heard where I wanted to pick out an open tuning. Continue reading

Interview : Chris Weisman “Nonmusical Patterns”

A little while back, I received a very interesting package from my friend Patrick Borezo, an artist, musician and show promoter from Western Massachusetts.  It contained a small, beautiful paperback book called Nonmusical Patterns and their Musical Uses, written by Chris Weisman, a guitarist who has recorded extensively for Greg Davis’ Autumn Records, and is also a member of Happy Birthday (Sub Pop Records).  Patrick and his wife Amy printed and assembled the books, and are releasing it on their own Radical Readout Press.

It’s an interesting idea, to be sure… a collection of non-conventional scale patterns, chosen on their visual rather than their musical merits. I conducted the following email interview with Chris, to find out more about the project.

W&W : What inspired you to write the book?

In 2003, I started noticing more visual stuff happening on the fretboard, mostly when I was playing changes, playing over standards. Me and my buddy Bryan Bergeron-Killough (also a guitarist) used to have these long sessions every night when we both lived in Portland, Maine. I started getting interested in “scales” that would work visually (like the pattern is complete and strictly in the visual realm of dots on a grid, you don’t need to know anything about music at all to see them) but also be musically somewhat conservative in terms of pitch collections; the pitches in Nonmusical Patterns are the same as in conventional scales (or close) but due to this visual compass that’s also being respected, there are leaps all over the place. And the 2 octaves that fit roughly in a guitar position are different, usually when you play a scale it’s the same notes in every octave (and the scales don’t really look like anything). All this stuff is in the introduction. I started the book in the spring of ’05 and finished it 2 years later. Continue reading