Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.
Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk. Continue reading →
Earlier this year, Anova Music released Remember, the solo instrumental debut by Israeli acoustic artist Yair Yona. The CD is an affectionate tribute to various American and British folk guitar styles, with Yona picking on 6 and 12-string guitars, a National-style resonator, and various other acoustic instruments.
Yair is fantastic… that album is one of my favorite guitar records of the year. Production-wise, it’s very ambitious, and quite smart, and in terms of both composition and technique, there are two or three tracks that I think are as good as anything ever done on the guitar. Obviously his album wouldn’t exist without his influences… but it rises above being merely derivative into something beautiful and, occasionally, even sublime.
As a nod to Yona’s drone and indie rock influences, there are also splashes of synth and assorted ambient effects on some of Remember’s tracks, though these are mostly relegated to background atmosphere… for the most part, Yona keeps his guitar playing as the focus of his compositions.
W&W : How old are you, and how long have you been playing the guitar?
Yair : I’m 28, been playing [music] for 13 years. Most of that time I played bass, until the winter of 2003, when I grabbed an acoustic guitar and started a whole new journey.
W&W : Take us through the evolution of your playing… when did you start working with acoustic instruments? Was it something you moved toward after the discovery of your European and American folk and guitar influences? Did you learn your fingerstyle techniques from emulating recordings, did you use TAB, etc?
Yair : Well, I was playing bass for couple of years, and was really into psychedelic rock and prog. In 2002, I moved to London and a couple of months afterward, I heard the first Bert Jansch album, which totally changed my life and made me realize that I’m much more into that now. His technique was so breathtaking, I almost lost the will to play. But at some point, I managed to learn one simple tune of his, which gave me the strength to move on and learn more tunes and practice. At first, I had to use TABs, as my hearing was rusty and I couldn’t figure out how the guy combined the two elements of bass string playing along with a melody and rhythm. The guy is a genius. No one plays like him, and I wish he’d be my neighbor. I’ll trade glasses of sugar and milk for 15 years, for one guitar lesson from him..
W&W : Which Bert song was the first that you learned to play? When I first started playing fingerstyle, I taught myself “Runnin, Runnin From Home” from the album, but ended up with a completely convoluted fingering that made it way more difficult to play than it had to be! A friend later found a TAB online and set me straight!
Yair : We share the exact same story! I figured “Running…” was the more “easy” song on the album, so I started with it. I had no idea about alternate bass, so I made up some terrible chord positions to try and understand how to play that. Only later I found a TAB for it and realized how it should be played. When I managed to play “Angie” for the first time, it was the happiest day of my life! (More on the day I first heard Bert’s album can be found here) One of my favorite tunes of his is maybe his easiest – “Bright New Year”. But the all time favorite song for me is “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning”…
W&W : Please describe the instruments you used on Remember.
Yair : Well, in terms of my guitars, there were only three. The 6-string is an EN guitar, which a friend of mine built me as a practice for the guitar workshop lessons that he took. The EN was built based on a Martin 000 model. The 12-string was a Fender, which I sold to buy a brilliant Larrivée. The Weissenborn was actually a simple Vineyard guitar, and right after I finished the recordings, I bought a Goldtone. Still have the Vineyard, such a wonderful guitar, especially for its price. The Royal resonator is a cheap resonator I bought to see how I’m doing with this type of guitar.
W&W : You replaced your 12-string with a Larrivée 12? What body style, model number?
Yair : The Larrivée is a new LR-03-12.
W&W : Does Israel have its own instrument manufacturers, any popular regional guitar makers? Are the popular US brands like Martin, Gibson, Taylor etc available / widely used?
Yair : There are no REALLY famous guitar builders, maybe there are manufacturers who build really few pieces a year. The American firms have some representation, but usually in the acoustic guitar rooms, you’ll find a few Martins and Taylors, usually way overpriced, and the variety of models doesn’t exist. You won’t be able to find a good 12-string second hand. It’s not a popular instrument in general, and it’s much less in a country of 6.5 million people.
W&W : Talk about your right hand… thumb pick? Fake nails? Acrylics? All natural?
Yair : Thumb pick, plastic Dunlop one. Other fingers are my natural nails.
W&W : What are the tunings you use on Remember?
Yair : Most of the tunings are open D (DADF#AD), where “Broken Rockin Chair” is in G minor (DGDGBbD), “Floodgate” is an open C (CGCGCE), and the most complicated one is on “Skinny Fists”, which is DGDF#G#C#. It’s a tuning I learned from Glenn Jones, who’s by far my favorite guitar player in this style.
Yair Yona – “Brave Walls”
W&W : Please describe the recording of Remember… did you record it yourself or were you assisted? Studio?
Yair : I was fortunate enough to become a label manager of Israeli alternative label Anova Music and we have our own studio, so I was recorded by a great engineer called Ronen Roth. We recorded the guitar tracks on a 2 inch tape, using U-87 and 67 [microphones].
W&W : Do you have plans to do any touring in 2010?
Yair : There’s a great will, just trying to figure out how to handle the road with 3 guitars, and how to avoid work for two weeks without having to be worried that something happened to my company!
W&W : What other projects are you currently involved in that you would like to talk about?
Yair : Well, I’m writing new material and I’m working on a new band that I’ll play bass in, of some experimental, noise and psych music. I want to have my own Faust. Or Califone, whatever comes first.
W&W : What albums are you listening to most at the moment?
Yair : At this very second, I’m listening to the brilliant Pockets by Karate. I’m checking my LastFm page to see what else I’ve listened to today (because I’m listening to a lot of music, with a variety of styles) – I listened to Mudhoney a lot because they are coming to Israel in couple of days, which makes me very VERY happy. The Churchills, psych rock from Israel 1969, The Veils new album and Arthur by The Kinks. The new Califone is brilliant, and the record of the month or maybe the year is the new Black Heart Procession. YEAH!!!
W&W : Could you talk a little about your blog and your mixtapes?
Yair : Sure. I run an alternative music blog called “Small Town Romance”. Now it’s only in Hebrew, but in a month and a half, I plan to have an English version of the blog, with a translation for each post. The idea behind it is to expose people to good music that sometimes is left behind, and slips under the radar. Once a week I post a mixtape of good music, an hour of great sounds of stuff I’ve listened that week. I love being an ambassador of music and exposing people to records that may change their lives. It’s somewhat naïve, I know, but when someone comes to you and says “The record you recommended me just made my week!” – it’s the best thing ever. That’s why I went to work in a record store a couple of years ago. I remember someone told me that me selling her No Other by Gene Clark got her out of a serious depression she was in. Who could ask for more?
Upon listening to the album and digging deeper into his back catalog, it’s clear that Reynolds has many interests, and that being associated with a a single style isn’t one of them. Thus, there is a little of everything on How Day Earnt Its Night… and though the recording quality is warm and clear, and Reynolds is a more than competent picker, there is a certain lack of direction that keeps many of these tracks from being home runs.
The songs generally fall into two categories : shorter, British Isles-flavored vignettes and extended Takoma-inspired explorations. Opener “Skylark (Scorner of the Ground)” takes the former approach, as Reynolds easily picks through some pleasant, stately figures. Though nothing revolutionary, the songs in this style are some of the best on the album, even if tracks like “Risen” and “England” rely more on the moods that they evoke than on any concrete melodic ideas. Reynolds builds most of these British-style songs around a simple alternating-bass with hammer-on riffs in the high strings, generally falling back on picking patterns and ignoring the harmonic possibilities in the chords’ middle voices. “Kirstie”, as lovely as it is, repeats the formula one last time, feeling a little like a song waiting for a singer.
Ben Reynolds – “Kirstie” .
Most of the remaining tracks move in a decidedly more American (Primitive) direction, and the results are, sadly, a little underwhelming. “Death Sings” is bargain-basement Takoma, borrowing liberally from the vocabulary of John Fahey but adding nothing new to the conversation. “The Virgin Knows” is an over-long bottleneck dirge, piling on almost nine minutes of hammer-ons and meandering slide riffs, but never really going anywhere. Reynolds tries to channel Lightnin’ Hopkins on “All Gone Wrong Blues”, but the tune’s recycled blues runs and ever-present harmonica make for a pretty tedious listen.
The wild card on this collection is definitely the title track. “How Day Earnt Its Night” is the album’s centerpiece, sitting somewhat conspicuously between two of the aforementioned British-style tunes. “How Day…” opens with haunting three finger triplet-rolls on the high string, filling in over the course of the next few minutes with stark harmonics and staccato melodic fragments. The results are really pretty enchanting, reminding me of the hammer-dulcimer compositions of one of Reynolds’ soon-to-be-tourmates, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tamburo. Reynolds drops in some downtuned bass-note melodies, coloring the piece harmonically and adding more tension, before the still-blazing triplets are unceremoniously cut off around the eight-minute mark. The breakneck pace slows, and Reynolds noodles somewhat aimlessly for the remainder of the song… a disappointing anticlimax to what began as a very engaging and promising piece.
Ben Reynolds – “How Day Earnt Its Night” (excerpt) .
I’ve got a few discs from Reynolds’ back catalog on their way, and am looking forward to seeing him live this autumn. While How The Day Earnt Its Night lacks originality, it does present Reynolds as a restless and intriguing picker, with both solid technique and an internalized knowledge of a few beloved acoustic guitar styles… and because Reynolds stands to grow exponentially as both a player and a composer, I plan to follow his progress closely.
When I first encountered last year’s Wayfaring Strangers – Guitar Soli compilation by the excellent Numero Group reissue label, I’ll admit that a lot of it blew right past me. The disc is a collection of music by some lesser-known guitarists who had cropped up in the era between the establishment of the watershed Takoma Records and Windham Hill labels, the recordings dating from the end of the 60’s to the dawn of the 80’s. The tracks, generally speaking, tow the line between highly physical Fahey/Kottke pattern-picking and the more heady, “New Age” atmospherics of the Windham Hill sound, without really charging headlong into either style.
Today, many pickers from Detroit’s Nick Schillace and Philly’s Jack Rose, to Israel’s Yair Yona are finding their audience by keeping the Takoma sound alive and well, boom-chicking their hearts out with the same spartan spirit and intensity as John Fahey in his heyday. In parallel, world-wide interest in atmospheric and impressionistic acoustic and electro-acoustic music has never been stronger, and a healthy lineage of avant-garde-leaning musicians from David Grubbs to Chris Brokaw to James Blackshaw to David Daniell have torn down and rebuilt “New Age” (now “Ambient”) guitar music for a new generation.
The players featured on Guitar Soli, in their day, were operating in a similar, albeit more isolated environment. Without today’s mass communication tools, like the luxury of instantaneous access to virtually any and all recorded music via the web, it would seem natural for these players to drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other, riding the respective tides of enthusiasm for more traditional or more contemporary musical ideas… but we’re talking about guitar players here. Great guitar players do what they want, when they want, regardless of the tastes and trends of their time… and that’s a beautiful thing. The world of music is not black and white, and much of the thrill of discovery, for musician and fan alike, comes from mining the rich territory in between established norms. This “in between” guitar music takes a little extra time, a little bit of attentive listening before it really starts to shine, and then it’s well worth the effort… so it is with many of the players on Guitar Soli, and so it is with Scott Witte.
Scott is a Milwaukee-born guitarist, currently residing in Washington state. Scott remains a relatively unknown quantity in the world of fingerstyle guitar. He’s bound to gain some purchase with “Sailor’s Dream”, his standout track on the aforementioned Numero Group compilation, an animated little tune which owes no small debt to the playing of Leo Kottke. Witte’s debut album, also titled Sailor’s Dream and originally released in 1980, is still pending reissue, but fans of six and twelve-string acoustic guitar music would do well to seek out Sound Shadows, his 2007 collection of originals. Recorded between 2002 and 2007, Scott’s sophomore album sees the guitarist composing and performing with astute passion and creativity, picking up where “Sailor’s Dream” left off, but with an appreciable evolution of technique, harmony and song structure.
The album starts off with “Song of the Crow”, and an eye-roll inducing sample of, you guessed it, a loud crow “KAW!” My first instinct : “How much effort would it take for me to manually edit that out of the MP3 version, so I never have to hear it again?” All is forgiven, though, when Scott launches into the song itself, which is a finger-picking tour-de-force, and a great introduction to the elements of his style. A forlorn, minor-key meditation snowballs into a gorgeous set of guitar patterns, effortlessly moving back and forth between conventional and odd time signatures. It’s quite a trip, and sets the bar very high for the rest of the record.
Scott Witte – “Song of the Crow” .
“Time Enough” features some percussive fret-board whacking which segways into a 70’s-rock inspired strumming section. “Bounce” should appeal to fans of uplifting, major key picking motifs. “Sweet Reminisce” and “Land of the Setting Sun” are slow, minor-key dirges, and “Land…” contains some interesting techniques that you don’t hear very often, such as fretting the high string on the side of the neck to create high-pitched hammer-on effects, a la Davy Graham. The interwoven strumming, mournful basslines and unexpected chord changes also put me in mind of Peter Finger’s classic “Wishbone Ash”.
“One Last Time” is all joy and effervescence, the buoyant chord clusters being played in an unusual 7/8 pattern. It’s a real showcase for Mr. Witte’s clean right hand technique, but it also illustrates how he transcends the American Primitive style by thinking about the voice of the entire chord, rather than droning two or three notes and throwing down a simple repeating melody over the top.
Scott Witte – “One Last Time” .
At this point in an album, and with so much ground covered, one might start to worry about the well of ideas beginning to run dry… but Scott is just hitting his stride. Sound Shadows reaches it’s creative apex with “Inward Journey”, a composition that cycles through many movements, each more striking than the last. Much like James Blackshaw, one of the better-known modern-day purveyors of the long-form acoustic guitar song, Scott deftly picks his way through some gorgeous groups of chords, alternately accentuating notes in every register. That Mr. Witte is a virtuoso shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone at this point, bouncing back and forth between finger-rolls, time signatures and melodic snippets with the greatest of ease.
Genre-blurring acoustic guitarist Scott Witte
The album begins to wind down with “Walking On Air”, which revisits the sad, dirge-y mood of some of the earlier tunes. A short poem, “One Day Came a Crow”, reminds us of the loose concept of the album before closer “Prayer For Peace”, a very pretty pattern-picking invention in 5/8.
Though the few quirky “New Age” devices/trappings (the crow theme, the spoken word, etc.) at times threaten to cheese-up the proceedings (I know, right? Such a literate review and the best I could come up with was “cheese-up”), they prove minor distractions, relatively benign in the greater scheme of things. Sound Shadows is a serious, and seriously accomplished guitar album. The recording quality is very good indeed, the 12-string numbers featuring nice, thick close-micing, while the 6-string compositions benefit from the added sparkle of a little electric pickup mixed in. It is no small accomplishment that this group of songs, recorded intermittently over a five year period, are so of-a-piece… this collection could be sequenced any number of ways and would be no worse for the wear, a testament to Scott’s ability to keep things consistently varied and exciting. Though Scott Witte has been off the radar for some 28 years, with Sound Shadows he proves that he is not only in step with the current acoustic guitar scene, he also has the potential to be one of its leading lights.