I didn't really know him too well but I certainly knew his music. It hit my ears at perhaps the most emotionally influential time in anyone's life, the teen years. He was part of a world I was just getting to know as I was beginning to expand my musical boundaries beyond my much smaller world of rock and punk. This was the world of the solo acoustic musician; the guitarist, the singer, the storyteller, the troubadour, the intimate rock star. I remember one specific performance, must have been 1988, at Oak Center General Store, near Lake City, MN, a frequent road trip destination for me and my high school buds. It was a place where we would go to briefly step out of the box we were living in. He was 'only' the opening act but he is what I remember from that night; the lasting impact through the years. He blew our minds. Here was this young dude blasting out these smart, roots oriented, yet contemporary sounding songs, singing with such soul, commanding the stage with such presence, and, he was funny...soooo funny. I learned a lot that night. Can't say it was the singular experience that launched me into the acoustic stratosphere, but, it was certainly a very important one in a long lineage of musical influence and inspiration. Perhaps that is why his death has touched me so deeply. As I attempt to ride the shock waves of the local music community and prepare to trudge through the deep snow that is Minnesota, I am thinking of him. I didn't know him on a personal level, not really, but when you are connected to someone through their music almost exclusively, in some ways, it is an even deeper connection. Nope, I didn't really know him too well, but I certainly know his music. RIP Cam. Another rock star is gone.
Practitioners of American finger-style guitar very often use alternate tunings, that is, tune the guitar strings to pitches other than what is known as standard tuning (EADGBE). Alternate tunings can be realized by changing one string or all six. In fact, in current times, alternate tunings could arguably be considered the standard for contemporary finger-style guitarists, but, that is a much larger topic for a much larger discussion.
I have been reading up on Vahdah Olcott - Bickford, The Grand Lady of the Guitar, who was active and one of America's premier virtuoso guitarists in the early 20th century. She belonged to a progressive classic guitar movement which was interested in pushing the boundaries of solo guitar music, always looking for and composing "modern" and more "progressive" material, working to move beyond the standard material of the time: Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi, etc. This movement predates and was influential in the development of what we now call American finger-style guitar. Vahdah was well respected, ferociously independent, somewhat eccentric, and had "sex appeal". This was all considered a dangerous combination in the day but she very much symbolized the new emerging "modern" woman. By all accounts, she rocked, and was very well respected as a player, composer, and pedagogue.
So, in this light, I want to share with you an excerpt from her method book, published in 1921, where she disparages the use of alternate tunings on the guitar. It is quite amusing today given how the use of alternate tunings, and American finger-style guitar for that matter, has evolved. I love this stuff.
As quoted from The Olcott-Bickford Guitar Method, published by Oliver Ditson Company, 1921. My comments are in parenthesis.
"Many publications of no musical value are on the market with the guitar so tuned as to cause the open strings to form a G, A, C or E major chord, which, while it simplifies the fingering of the left hand, greatly limits the instrument. The best known (guitar solos published which utilize an alternate tuning), and at the same time, perhaps the most atrocious, musically, are "The Spanish Fandango" in the G tuning (DGDGBD) and "Sebastopol" in the E Major tuning (EBEG#BE)." (These pieces are often considered the main forerunners of what we now call American finger-style guitar). "Musically they are in the same class as "Granny Does Your Doggy Bite?" or "Chopsticks" the universally known piano "classics," their only claim to distinction being that they can be mastered and performed with the same facility, in an equally short period of time as the above mentioned gems of piano literature. The standard of knowledge as to the possibilities of the piano being so well known, such performances are left for babies and the unmusical, and thus cast no reflection on the piano, while in the case of the guitar, it's possibilities are so little known by the masses, that the performance of such musical atrocities under the guise of "guitar solos," serves to belittle the instrument itself in the eyes, not only of musicians, but of those who have even heard enough music to know what music is."
I played a fantastic gig with New Roots Duo the other night. It was one of those nights that musicians live for. Dan and I were totally locked; in tune with every move, every note, every nuance of the music. You can’t predict nights like these, they just happen. We would begin a piece in it’s usual, tightly arranged form, start to improvise, and then it took on a life of it’s own. Without looking, without any signals whatsoever, without even thinking, we moved the music to any direction we wanted. The notes and texture were malleable based only on our collective intuition. At times we would move to dangerous places, seemingly lost, but somehow always land in the right spot. Call it musical telepathy, call it musical mysticism, call it musical transcendence, call it what you will. Whatever it is, I’ll take more. I need more. These are the moments a musician lives for.
So I have completed my new cd project; the writing, the arranging, the recording. It’s done. I have done my job. And now, I wait. The tunes have been passed on to the mixing and mastering man (preparing the master CD for the duplication house) and the artwork has been passed to the designer man (preparing the package for the duplication house). And now, I wait. Recording is not an easy process for me, never has been, but waiting, with things out of my control, is worse. I say, “I need this done and ready for delivery by xx/xx/xx.” They say, “Sure, no problem, eaaaasy. It’ll be done, probably sooner.” xx/xx/xx is fast approaching and not a word. And now, I wait. What do I do now? Start my blog (finally), chew on my nails (left hand only), swear, wander around the house, chart out my NEXT cd project, holiday shopping, eat comfort food, doubt everything, love everything, clean the house, hang out at my daughter’s school, exchange text messages with my wife, practice, listen to music. I call my audio engineer, send e-mail to my designer. Not a word. xx/xx/xx is fast approaching and I cannot control time, in fact, at the moment, I cannot control anything. And so, I wait.
"A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no
unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no
unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." - William Strunk
"...and music should contain no unnecessary notes." - Me, and that guy in Amadeus