My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (April 1988)
April of 1988 was a big month for me, as it was when I decided to attend Hampshire College in the fall; that was a life-altering decision in many ways, not least of which being that it is where I met my wife! Guitar wise I was continuing my lessons with my GIT trained teacher and learning how to play the blues on my Epiphone Sheraton II, my Peavey T-15 and my Fender Avalon Acoustic. I absorbed music wherever I could, listening to jazz and rock radio in the Philadelphia area, watching MTV, and the Nashville Network on television and reading about music all the time.
The April, 1988 Guitar Player issue really stood out for me as an eye opener. It was where I first learned about slide genius Sonny Landreth (at the time a sideman for John Hiatt, but just beginning his solo career) and fingerstyle jazz titan Tuck Andress (whose first album with his wife Patti Cathcart was released that year) and the cover story with Joe Walsh really stuck with me, along with his “12 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time” featurette.
I remember being totally amazed by the articles on Landreth (who described his style which involves fretting the guitar behind the slide) and Andress (who famously can simultaneously play independent bass, rhythm and lead lines on his Gibson L5); in fact, I cut out the full page picture of Tuck Andress and added it to my bedroom wall gallery of the greats (along with Clapton, Knopfler, BB King, Carlos Santana and Chuck Berry). To this day, I STILL cannot begin to understand how these musicians manage to do what they do!
The Sonny Landreth article was written by Dan Forte, and does a great job of explaining how the Louisiana slide genius developed his style, and his role playing lead guitar for John Hiatt (a role that had been filled on record by Ry Cooder). Landreth was 37 years old in 1988, so he was far from a novice, but the Hiatt gig and this article really brought him to national prominence. The Spotify playlist below has a live set from around this time, and you can also appreciate his playing on this contemporary video:
It’s not always too easy to see in the video, but the behind the slide playing of Sonny Landreth is truly amazing. Now, I’ve been playing for more than three decades and I can’t really even play regular slide guitar, but even so, Landreth blows my mind. The article has a separate pictorial feature showing how Landreth plays certain lines, but for this blog post I’ll share a couple of excerpts from the interview where he describes the genesis of his style. It’s truly a case of “necessity being the mother of invention”, and shows how a gigging musician (with only one guitar) had to come up with clever ideas to be able to play the music he wanted to play.
“Basically, I played slide the conventional way for a while, and then in early ’71 I was in a blues band with David Ranson. I was really frustrated because to play minor chords I had to retune the whole guitar to a minor—like in E tuning, lower the G# to a G, which is a really nifty sound. I still love it and still use it, but at that point I was playing slide on some tunes and regular guitar on others, so to make the transition, I wasn’t used to it. Then I found that instead of having to retune, you could stay in open E and just play the three low strings open (E,B,E) and the three high strings with the bottleneck at the 3rd fret (B,D,G) which all together is an Em7 chord. To get the IV chord minor, I’d place the bottleneck at the 8th fret (E,G,C), which implies an Am7 chord.
So I’d been in E tuning, and I’d look and think ‘If I could just get this note’ [the third string, one fret behind the slide, with the bottleneck at the 12th fret]. So I just ended up pressing it, and presto! I freaked out. It was just out of frustration. I could see the note-there it is- but didn’t know how to get to it. Then it was like ‘Wow, I never thought of that.’…Then I started thinking, ‘Well, there’s a lot more notes back there’. Hunt and destroy! I started finding the notes I could play and eventually worked into playing two at a time, chord melodies, minor keys, major 7ths, chord clusters.”
One thing that always strikes me when re-reading these articles is how important formal musical training was for so many of the musicians, and Sonny Landreth was no exception. Interestingly, Landreth’s musical schooling was not on guitar:
“Trumpet was my academic instrument. I studied it from 5th grade to my two years of college at University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette, and by the time I was in college I was also taking piano. I was really fortunate; I had good teachers. Studying trumpet influenced me a lot in the way I play guitar, because I think more like a wind instrument. I phrase like I’m taking a breath. Melody and phrasing have always been the things I’m into. Combining sliding and fretting adds another dimension, in terms of phrasing–and melody too. When you start fretting behind the bar, that’s just another dimension. Once I went into that, I never came back. It opened up the door. Harmonically, it opened up so much.
The jazz horn players I grew up listening to emulated the human voice, and that’s always appealed to me as a guitar player. There’s a vocal quality to their playing–like Louis Armstrong. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 13, and I could never read as well on guitar as I could on trumpet. But the theory I’d had really did help a lot, in terms of the positions and how it all related. I still consider myself a fairly primitive musician; I’m not like these studio players who can just go and read anything. It’s a funny thing: on trumpet I could read, but I never could improvise; on guitar I could improvise, but I couldn’t read very well. I never had the chops as comfortably on trumpet as I did on guitar. I could never just play from the heart, but I felt an immediate thing on guitar.”
Amazing stuff, and if this guy at age 37 considered himself to be a “fairly primitive musician” then at nearly 48 I haven’t even figured out how to bang the rocks together!
Tuck Andress was 35 years old in 1988, with years of professional experience but he was another genius who seemed to emerge fully formed from the pages of Guitar Player to blow my mind. Andress played in a duo with his wife, jazz vocalist Patti Cathcart; their duo was reminiscent of Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, but with a more modern style. I immediately bought the Tuck and Patti album (it’s in the playlist below) and was fortunate enough to see them play a concert about a year later (it’s one of my most indelible musical memories). There’s a concert video from around this time on YouTube which I’ve embedded below; I’ve set it to start before a solo number (because the camera does a great job showing Tuck’s hands), but do yourself a favor and watch the whole show–it’s so impressive!
The article was titled “A Private Lesson with the Amazing Tuck Andress–Radical Fingerstyle Jazz”, and was written in the first person. It covers 14 pages (including several transcriptions), and it is hard for me to explain, but when I first read it, I basically didn’t understand anything he was talking about! I mean, he’s describing how he plays independent basslines with up and downstrokes of his thumb while playing chord stabs in the middle strings and melodies on the high ones, and I could barely play barre chords at the time! Now, decades later, I’m a pretty competent guitarist, but I STILL find this article baffling. There’s no way that my brain works like Tuck’s, and I’m ok with that.
That said, one thing that I can take away from this article is the value of practice and of perseverance. He frequently describes his experiences in ways that make clear that he was never far from the instrument (emphasis mine):
I reached the turning point when I realized that I had often been going for ideas at the expense of feel, trying to jam without enough foundation. So I began to shift my practice away from specific techniques and spontaneous jamming to very carefully worked out patterns designed to give me flexibility while maintaining carefully enforced feel. I began to practice single phrases, such as the one from “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” for hundreds of hours perfecting the feel. Now when I approach a tune that has multiple parts, I start by practicing each element until it feels great. Then I work on each possible pair of parts, until the feel is equally great, no matter how long it takes, and regardless of the weird combinations of techniques required to produce the proper feel. Next, I work on all combinations of three, and depending on the tune, four parts.
Once I attain the correct feel, I work on developing as much freedom as possible. Improvising is particularly dangerous with solo funk grooves, because as soon as you change one element, the whole thing falls apart–just like when an inexperienced player has to start over after losing his place. My solution to this problem is to identify the type of improvisation I want, and then devise exercises to promote flexibility. Most of these involve alternate versions of the same tune, with one part varied. The rationale for this method is that if you work out enough variations, even if each requires starting from scratch, you’ll gradually become freer.
Once I achieve feel and some freedom with a new part, I often discover that what sounds great at home is hideous in public. For instance, at one time my best solution to a particularly troublesome section of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” involved an intricate two-handed fingertapped texture, with the four parts (bass, backbeat, sustained keyboard part, and percolator-style muted single-note line) shifting between the two hands as often as every sixteenth-note and my hands crossing over each other several times in the space of two bars. Combine the complexity of the part with my high action and almost total lack of right-hand fretting experience, and what I got was a piece that depended on everything going right, with no surprises–in other words, certain doom. After blowing it on the gig for several nights, I went back to the drawing board. It took about six such trips to get a solution that actually worked.
Where do I start with this? I mean, it’s next level stuff, for sure. But while I can’t imagine executing Tuck’s musical vision, it’s inspiring to see him describe multiple public failures (“blowing it on the gig”) and his persistence to try to get it right. I think we can all relate to parts we’ve practiced that didn’t work in front of an audience, and seeing the dedication with which Tuck Andress approached mastering his music is amazingly inspirational to me. As you may know, Andress is the uncle of Annie Clark, who is the amazing musician known as St. Vincent. I can only imagine that he was a great inspiration to her, as well.
Update: Tuck Andress wrote back to me on Twitter about this post–he said that he and Patti remembered the gig in the video above, but hadn’t seen it before. How neat is that? By the way, go to the 12:00 mark of the video to catch them doing “Ain’t Nobody”. Tuck told me (I love saying that!) that the “rap” section is embarrassing, but it’s pretty amazing to see him do it, and the audience seemed to dig it.
Joe Walsh was a 41 year old legend when this article was published. Just his work with the James Gang, or his solo records, or his work with the Eagles on Hotel California and The Long Run would have cemented his status. But of course he was also a great friend of other guitarists–it was Walsh who gave Jimmy Page his sunburst Les Paul, and Pete Townshend the Gretsch he used on Who’s Next. Looking back on this three decades later, however, I realize that this article (which was in part promoting his new solo record Got Any Gum?) was not a valedictory piece, but one trying to show that Walsh was a mid-career musician who still had new creativity to share.
Jas Obrecht interviewed Joe Walsh for this cover story, and did his usual excellent job. That said, one thing that does not really come out in the article was Walsh’s substance abuse issues. It wasn’t until five years after this magazine came out that Joe Walsh achieved sobriety (which he has fortunately maintained ever since). I recently read Stephen Davis’ Gold Dust Woman, a biography of Stevie Nicks, and learned that Walsh and Nicks had a long-term relationship in the mid-80’s that ended right around the time of this article, in part due to Walsh’s drinking. None of that is a part of the article, and maybe it shouldn’t have been. But it does make me wonder what else was left unsaid in this interview (and how much that seems judgmental might have been said differently in a different headspace). Here are some highlights, followed by Walsh’s description of what he considered to be the 12 greatest guitar solos of all time.
Your soloing is very song-oriented. You always seem to be playing for the song rather than showing off your chops.
Thank you. That’s just the way I am. At this point, I am really a musician, besides being a guitar player. I hear a lot of things in a keyboard format. I hear a lot of tones and textures and such. I know I’m known mostly for my guitar work, but in terms of being a musician, there are other vehicles that I am quite capable of playing, and sometimes that ain’t guitar. The song tells me what to play.
Do you have advice for people who find themselves overplaying?
Yeah. In my experience, when you’re playing in a big hall–a 10,000 seater or something–at some point the flashiness, playing incredibly fast, and being technically capable starts to be a blur. For example, Albert King can blow Eddie Van Halen off the stage with his amp on standby, even though technically Eddie Van Halen is probably the most overwhelming guitar player alive. You know, Eddie Van Halen can pretty much play circles around anybody existing. But Albert King can blow him away with two notes. I have nothing but respect for Eddie; I can’t even comprehend what he does. But why would anybody want to play like that? After two or three solos it’s a blur. Heavy metal is one format, and the important thing there is to really kick ass. It takes time, but after a while, you should just settle down and get your intellect out of the way and just let the guitar play itself.
What are your favorite Joe Walsh solos?
I would think the overall guitar work in “Rocky Mountain Way”, especially the talk box….Peter Frampton asked me how to use it and he went and got rich with it and never even thanked me….I’m very proud of the guitar work in “Hotel California”. I pretty much had to deal with the planning and organization of that. Don Felder brought in the descending chord structure, so I can’t say that I had anything to do with writing “Hotel California”. I was commissioned as a specialist to arrange the order of the solos–who played what where, who went up high. It was tough figuring out how much momentum we needed compared to what we were going to end up with at the end of the song. When the solos start, it’s just here we go, and it goes all the way to the end of the song. Felder is tremendously underrated.
What can you advise struggling musicians?
Get out and play in front of other people. Otherwise, you can end up being a legend in your parents’ basement. You could be great rehearsing, but when you get in front of people, you freeze up. You have to find out how to do it and how to fix your own stuff when it breaks.
Was there more of a cameraderie among guitarists back in the ’60s than there is today?
Yeah, a little bit more. The way I got to know most of the guitar players was at gigs. We would all be playing, and I would see people regularly because there were three- and four-act shows. But anymore with the economy and all, you don’t see people unless you’re on the road. Everyone is so darn busy. Back in the ’60’s the bulk of the jamming was backstage. While someone else was on, we’d get together and jam and warm up. It seems that now people don’t get together….One of my bitches with LA is that people don’t get together and sing old Beatles songs and work out harmonies and stuff. Everyone has made it and they’re very busy or spoiled-rotten session men.
It’s not like the old days, and I miss that a lot. But I do see Townshend and Clapton from time to time, and it’s always a pleasure….There’s nothing like a good, old, couple-of-guitar-players jam to blow out the cobwebs.
What’s the best band lineup you’ve ever worked with?
The Eagles. That was a fine, fine band. We were a damn good band for awhile. I’m proud of having been a part of that and Hotel California. Besides the royalties and everything, jus the fact that that was a special album for a lot of people on the planet. I feel that I was part of a true band, and that we made a very valid musical statement for the generation that we represent. That makes me feel very good.
Finally, as is often the case, reading the “Spotlight” feature on up and coming guitarists and bassists reveals someone I know now when they were just starting out. I’ve seen Larry Mitchell endorse a bunch of gear over the years, and have enjoyed his music solo and with others without remembering seeing this profile from 1988: