My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (February 1989)
The February, 1989 issue of Guitar Player was chock full of interesting content. If I remember correctly, I spent a lot of time reading the articles by Frank Gambale, Sonny Sharrock and Mick Goodrick to try to learn about improvisation, but re-reading the issue shows that this was where I learned about Genesis guitarist Daryl Stuermer (“Great–great sandwich“), Buck Owens, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, and those articles have lots of good tidbits as well. In February of 1989 I was in my second semester at Hampshire College, my heavy metal band of pretend Germans had fallen apart (the lead guitarist and drummer graduated in January), but I was listening to lots of great music and trying to improve my blues playing.
I love improvisational music, and especially at the age of 19 I was listening to lots of jazz, and not just guitar: I was heavily into Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Monk and other jazzers, particularly bebop. Additionally, I loved the exciting improvised guitar solos of favorite players like Eric Clapton, Al DiMeola, John Scofield, and Buddy Guy to name a few. So I know that I would have pored over the articles about improvisation to pick up whatever tips I could. Unfortunately I think my grasp of musicianship (and relative newness to the instrument) probably didn’t make me a good match for the content in this issue. But rereading the pieces now, the articles from Sonny Sharrock (free jazz guitarist), Mick Goodrick (jazz instructor) and Frank Gambale (fusion guitarist and teacher of MY teacher Jim McCarthy) all had some valuable tips.
Frank’s article dealt with modes “Modal Magic: Mastering the Inner Game of Scales”. Modes are something that have been explained to me over and over, and I still don’t really get them. But re-reading Gambale’s article, and looking at the examples, I think I might be on the verge of a breakthrough, and plan to practice this lesson a lot in the next month.
Sonny Sharrock’s candor jumped out at me from the start when he identified the “three basic types of improvisers”:
…the foremost being “the creator” who has an insatiable need to tell his story. For him, improvisation is only a tool. He plays each solo as if it were his last. He will not be compromised, nor will he be stopped.
Next is “the juggler”, for whom the skill of improvisation is just as important as is the need to tell his story. The juggler gathers around him all the things he has heard, and one by one tosses them into the air. With his skillful hands, he cleverly keeps them aloft. He seldom drops an idea, because he knows them so well.
Finally, there is “the tinker”, whose improvisations are based on formulas and the instrument itself. His scientific manipulation of sound is laboratory created and laboratory bound forever.
Making up a sub-category, if you will, is “the fool”. He claims he is bored with music, so he has decided to make noise. Fool+Noise=Bullshit.
Heavy, right? I think that my improvisations are firmly in “tinker” category, but I desperately hope that someday I will be fluent enough to be a “juggler”. What about you?
Boston based jazz teacher Mick Goodrick had lots of good tips, but the following two seemed most relevant to me:
Silence is golden. As players, we are all guilty–at least sometimes–of playing too much. Sometimes it seems that the worse we think it sounds, the more notes we play in order to make up for it. We need to remind ourselves, again and again, that quite often “less is more”. We need to think “Don’t play ten notes where one will do.” We need to ponder the meaning of the expression, “Notes are clever ways of getting from one silence to another.”
Remember: Almost any chord supports at least a six-note scale. Since there are only 12 notes, your chances of hitting a right note by luck are 50-50. And when you do hit a wrong note (assuming you can discern a wrong note), all you have to do to correct it is to move it up or down a half step.
Good stuff! One of my biggest weaknesses is trying to play too many notes, and I’ve spent the past couple years consciously trying to build in more space, but in the heat of things with my band, it’s hard to do! And the bit about fixing “wrong notes” feels like the kind of thing all beginners should be told to make them feel safe.
Daryl Stuermer is a super talented guitarist and bassist who played as part of the touring version of Genesis for years, he also played on Phil Collins’ solo records, and with Jean-Luc Ponty, Joan Armatrading, and others. I first learned his name in the “Billy Don’t Lose My Number” video, but ever since this article crossed my path in 1989, I’ve felt like knowing who Stuermer is separates the true cognoscenti from everyone else. Unfortunately not all of his catalog is available on Spotify, so for this month’s playlist I included an album of instrumental versions of Genesis songs. His chops are amazing, but his facility with melody is what really leaps out to me. Unfortunately the article doesn’t have too many quotes worth sharing 30 years later (it is largely promoting a record not available on Spotify) but if you haven’t heard of this Milwaukee guitar slinger, do yourself a favor and check him out. His signature Godin guitars are pretty cool as well!
The interview with Buck Owens was done by Dan Forte, and it’s really great. I sort of knew of Buck in 1989 from occasionally watching Hee Haw reruns when I was a kid. This article put him in context to me as a founder of the “Bakersfield Sound”, and Buck was at the time experiencing a resurgence thanks to his duet with Dwight Yoakam on “The Streets of Bakersfield”. Check out the concert recording of his 1989 band in this month’s playlist below–what a great country show!
Some good quotes from the article follow. I came away really interested in Buck Owens, and he has become one of my all-time favorites.
You’re considered one of the forefathers of country-rock. Were you aware of the country-rock movement…bands like the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers?
Oh yeah. I used to know a couple of those guys, and of course I was familiar with the Byrds. If they were here today, I think they’d be at the top of country radio. …It seemed to me like the country music community–I’m talking about a lot of the pickers and singers–wanted to avoid those people. This is just my opinion, but I think they felt like these people might be too talented, and it scared them. So the best way to not have to measure up, or reach out or do anything better is to say, “That ain’t country”…Obviously I recorded enough Chuck Berry songs for people to know what a Chuck Berry fan I am. And if “Johnny B Goode” ain’t a country-rock song, what is? Listen to the lyrics! So what if Chuck Berry happened to be black?
Did Fender make your red-white-and-blue Tele?
Yeah. Even Ovation and Gibson made me red-white-and-blue guitars, and I’ve got Fender red-white-and-blue acoustics. That was just my way of making a statement for America. Everyone was marching and burning the flag at that time, and I had been overseas, man, and there wasn’t any freedom over there.
Those red-white-and-blue acoustic guitars that Harmony made–I leased the rights to them for that, and Sears distributed them. Wasn’t a bad little guitar, either. I got $2.50 for each guitar sold, and they were selling them for $99. Didn’t sound like too good of a deal to me, but the first check they sent me was for $15,000! They sold 6,000 of them in the first month.
Owens got very emotional talking about his close friend and bandmate Don Rich, who died in a motorcycle crash in 1974. “Everywhere I go, people ask about him,” he said. “I’ll never hear the end of it, but I don’t think I ever do want to hear the end of it. Of course, people don’t have to remind me about Don Rich. If it’s possible to be like a son, a brother, and a compadre, that’s what he was. ‘Somebody to ride the river with’, as the old saying goes. Don was only 32 when he died, man. I’m a teetotaler when it comes to drinking, but sometimes I think about him, and it just makes me want to get good and drunk or something. I haven’t quite learned how to deal with that, but I play Don’s guitar as kind of a tribute to him.” Wow. Everyone should have a friendship like that!
The interview with Rick Nielsen was tied to Cheap Trick’s hit album Lap of Luxury, which to my ears sounds terribly dated in an 80’s kind of way. I’ve never really liked that band, though their ability to combine melodies with hooks can’t be denied. You can check out the article below, but the highlight for me was this bit:
While Rick Nielsen may be economical about the number of notes he plays, when it comes to collecting guitars, economy is just about the last thing on his mind. “I currently have about 30 guitars on the road with me,” he says. “Among them are my Hamer five-neck, a ’58 and a ’59 Les Paul, two original Gibson Explorers, two Travis Beans, some Flying V’s, Charvels and other miscellaneous Hamers. The five-neck has a fretless neck, a 12-string, a whammy bar setup, and two 6-strings. It’s great for the live shows, but it’s kind of a pain to use because it’s so heavy and awkward. It was originally supposed to be a six-neck that I could spin around to get from neck to neck. However that didn’t work out so well in reality, and then ZZ Top came out with their spinning guitars, so that idea is history.”
I saw that five-neck Hamer at a guitar exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts about 15 years ago, and it was something else! And can you imagine the kind of insurance policy he must have needed to take all of those guitars on tour with him?
The final bit for this month was a sad note–an obituary notice of Cliff Gallup, the rockabilly genius whose records with Gene Vincent greatly influenced Jeff Beck, Albert Lee and Jimmy Page to name a few. The reclusive guitar genius left the music biz at the height of his powers and lived a quiet life on the eastern shore of Virginia until his untimely death at 58.
My late father loved “oldies” and whenever a song like “Be-Bop-A-Lula” came on the radio he would tell the craziest story about Gene Vincent. Vincent had injured his leg as a merchant marine during the Second World War, and then hurt himself again in the car crash that killed young rockabilly star Eddie Cochran. Well, cut to 1964, and my father was a clerk at a US Air Force hospital on a base near London. One day, a “scruffy, dirty looking guy” came into the hospital and started raising his voice and arguing with one of the civilian women workers. My father went over to break it up, and the guy started saying that he was a veteran, and demanding that the hospital amputate his leg. My father told him to get the hell out, and when the visitor pulled the “do you know who I am?” line, my father said, “I don’t care if you are Elvis and Fats Domino combined, get out of here!”
Apparently Vincent lived in constant pain from the leg injury, and was known for trying to get his leg amputated. He died at the very young age of 36 in 1971, so all-in-all very tragic. But that’s my brush with fame: I am one degree from my father, who evicted Gene Vincent from his hospital, which means I am two degrees from Gene and three degrees from Cliff Gallup!
That’s it for this month. I’ll be back to discuss the March issue, with a cover story on Danny Gatton “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist” in a few weeks. Until then, keep on picking!