Al Di Meola, Bert Jansch, Bob Dylan, Brandi Carlyle, Cory Wong, Ichika Nito, John Mayer, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Mike Dawes, Paco de Lucia, Plini, Polyphia, Rolling Stones, Scott LePage, Tim Henson, Tommy Emmanuel
When I say I play guitar, what I mean is that I can form a pretty wide selection of open chords and a fair number of barre chords; I can change between chords with reasonable ease; and I can play a few simple tunes well enough to be fairly recogniseable, at least to me. I play purely for my own pleasure, and I have no intention of playing when anyone else can hear me, so you will have to take all of that on trust.
For reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has noticed the most recent posts on this blog, I have barely touched a guitar for several months. When I did pick the guitar up again the other day I found myself fumbling chords, but before this hiatus I was moderately competent playing things like “Fast Car”, “Blackbird”, “Alone Again Or”, “The End of the Line”, “Beware of the Beautiful Stranger”, “Diamonds and Rust” and such like. I clearly need to get back into practice even if it is just to manage a decent stab at these basics.
I got my first guitar, a rather battered old nylon-strung classical, back in the late 60s. It was good enough to learn the songs of Leonard Cohen (and I still find myself defaulting to his sometimes idiosyncratic picking pattern when I play today), but was perhaps less good for anything more rock and roll. As a guitar player I tended towards folk idioms: basic chords, simple picking patterns. These were things I could manage, not brilliantly but well enough to please me. Yet when I listened to guitarists (and I am making a crucial distinction here between someone playing a guitar like I did, and a guitarist who could wrest wonders from the instrument), I found myself drawn to people like John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia or Al Di Meola, whose mastery of the instrument I knew right from the start I would never come within a million miles of replicating.
Anyway, I played guitar fairly consistently from the late-60s through to the early-80s. I never became proficient, but I could knock out a Dylan track well enough and there were even one or two Joni Mitchell tunes I could essay (though I never tried to reproduce her often eccentric tunings, and I simplified some of the more baroque chords). But by the early-80s I was playing guitar less and less, and sometime around the middle of that decade the instrument simply disappeared.
Around ten years ago, Maureen and I started spending our holidays in a cottage in North Wales, and there was an acoustic guitar in the lounge. After a while I picked it up. Of course I did, it was like the gun on the wall in a Chekov play, you can’t just leave a guitar like that untouched. And I was surprised by how many chords I could remember, C and G and Dm, A7 and Em and F#m. So that became a regular part of our holidays: on my tablet I would find the chords for a song I knew and then strum away in the evening.
As we came up towards my 65th birthday, Maureen decided she was going to buy me a guitar of my own. And she did, a cheap steel-strung acoustic with a surprisingly nice tone. I took it up quite seriously, scouring the web for online guitar lessons, even learning some basic music theory. I learned what every guitarist needs to know, the names of the strings (E, A, D, G, B, E), and the notes along the high and low E strings, though try as I might I can never fix in my mind the rest of the fretboard. And I played things that interested me. I managed a reasonable version of “Can’t Find My Way Home”, and I started to learn the Bert Jansch version of “Anji”, and the Rolling Stones version of “Angie”. Since then I’ve added an electric guitar (guitar players are collectors, didn’t you know that? You can’t have just one guitar, there is something unnatural about that.)
Yet, much as I enjoy watching the guitar work of people as varied as John Mayer or Brandi Carlyle, the people I found myself most drawn to were the ones who were as far from what I could do as John McLaughlin had been in the 70s. I know John Mayer is infinitely better than anything I could manage, but you watch him and you know what he’s doing and there’s a part of me thinking that yes, in time I could imagine myself doing something like that. But the guitarists I keep going back to are the ones that mystify. The ones who, if I were serious about becoming a good guitarist, would make me give up on the spot.
The first of these I discovered was the English guitarist, Mike Dawes. I’ve seen quite a lot of his YouTube videos now, but this is the one that first caught my attention. It’s a version of Van Halen’s “Jump”, but watch: he’s playing on a battered old acoustic guitar, but he is playing rhythm, melody and percussion all at the same time. It’s just breathtaking.
Or then there’s this video, aptly entitled “Playing the Impossible on Guitar”, which helps to explain why people like Rick Beato have labelled him perhaps the world’s greatest acoustic guitarist.
Dawes led me, through this glorious collaboration on the Gotye song, “Somebody That I Used to Know”, to Tommy Emmanuel. I recognised the name, but I’m blowed if I can say where or how I heard it. Emmanuel’s spirited version of “Classical Gas”, which I remember in the Mason Williams original, is just one example of how good his guitar playing is.
Even so, Emmanuel and even Dawes are fairly conventional guitarists compared to my next discovery. I kept coming across references to a band called Polyphia (as with the acapella group Pentatonix, it’s amazing how many reaction videos you can watch in which people enthuse about the musicianship without recognising, or often even being able to pronounce, the musical reference hidden in plain sight in their name). I have seen their music described in many different ways, such as Trap or Math Rock, neither of which I have previously encountered, though the first video of theirs I saw, “Playing God”, contains clear echoes of both Spanish music and free-form jazz.
From those who know about such things I gather that the bassist, Clay Gober, and the drummer, Clay Aeschliman, are exceptionally good at what they do. But though I am bowled over by the effect, I am not familiar enough with technique to be able to comment on their virtuosity. But the guitarists, Tim Henson and Scott LePage, that I can appreciate, and it boggles the mind. Both play unusual guitars: in “Playing God” they use solid-body acoustic guitars with nylon strings, a very peculiar set-up; in other videos I’ve seen both of them play seven-string guitars, and on at least one occasion I will swear that Henson played an eight-string guitar. No, I’ve no idea how you do such a thing. But it is not just the equipment that is stunning, but what they do with it. There are passages in “Playing God” where Henson seems to be playing chords and harmonics at exactly the same time. That should be impossible: playing a chord involves holding a string down against a fret, playing harmonics involves touching the string lightly above the fret and then lifting the finger away. In other words, two diametrically opposite actions are taking place at the same time. Yeah, you do want to give up guitar, don’t you.
LePage is at least as good a guitarist as Henson, he’s got to be to keep up with him, but it’s Henson who gets all the attention. Perhaps because he has his own YouTube channel and keeps producing solo stuff (like “Quintuplet Meditation”, another outing for that signature Ibanez nylon-strung guitar, in which typically he plays along to a pre-recorded track), or collaborations with contemporaries who are also performing wonders with the guitar.
Here, for instance, he is with Plini (who is good but not always to my taste) and Cory Wong (who I’ve not otherwise encountered).
And if you keep going down this particular rabbithole you will find that this is an amazing time for extraordinary guitarists, like the Japanese guitarist, Ichika Nito, who also, curiously, plays a signature Ibanez guitar.
And I watch these people. I keep coming back to them like an addict. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Playing God” or “Jump”. Yet I don’t think there is any connection between what they do and what I am attempting to do when I pick up one of my guitars. I am not trying to emulate them, I have no desire to do what they do. It is just something to admire, something that leaves you amazed, it is not something to aspire towards. It is not just that my fingers will not move that way, but I really do not want to play like that. It is far better to watch and wonder. If I were to attempt to replicate what they do, even in a fumbling manner, it would spoil the mystery. They are not playing the guitar, they are doing something completely different. There is no connection between what they do and what I might wish to do even if I were capable. It just makes you appreciate the magic of the instrument in your hand.