Friday, April 30, 2010

Why 'The Spirit of Radio' is My Favorite Song

Can you answer the question, "What is your favorite song"? I can. Yep, I have whittled it down to one and I have known it since I was 12 years old. This is my desert island song; my funeral song. I am talking about The Spirit of Radio by Rush. It played a very big role in what remains one of the most decisive musical experiences of my life; it was the opener of the Power Windows tour '85. If I close my eyes, and lean back, I can still feel the sheer impact of the lights going up and the bombastic opening riffs coming down. I must have heard this tune some 5000 times throughout my lifetime. 5000. Seriously, how can someone listen to a tune 5000 times and not get sick of it?

Yes indeed, how and why? I will attempt, to the best of my conscious abilities, answer those questions below. Most of the deeper intangibles escape the surface, but, the things I can describe, I will.

First, this tune always makes me happy. Always.

Second, this tune f'ing rocks. I mean, it seriously rocks. It is a prime example of virtuosic rock. It is one big fat timeless sprawling epic masterpiece of a tune exhibiting sophisticated jazz man chops yet is completely accessible to the masses. You can sing it, you can dance to it, you can air guitar to it, you can play your air drums to it, you can just listen, you can analyze it, and it always satisfies in every dimension.

Third, it is smart writing. The lyrics alone read with the smooth grace and perfect rhythm of a Longfellow poem.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antenna bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free

Fourth, the impeccable musicianship. The sum of the parts are certainly the strongest force, but, when broken down individually, they hold up on their own; almost like three, or four, solos playing in tandem. Remember, there are only 3 guys in this band. I love power trios and the amount of sound they project is astounding. Also, the bass tone is killer.

Fifth, the tune is very dynamic and takes the listener on a musical journey. Like a great novel, it is so easy to lose yourself in the experience. When you wake up you wonder, "What the hell just happened?" "Where was I?" "Whatever, man, that was awesome!"

Sixth, it is innovative and has withstood the test of time. It juxtaposes some seriously heavy rock guitar riffs with a perfectly pretty pop melody, and then, a reggae breakdown. What is THAT all about?

Lastly, and certainly not least, this tune always makes me happy. Always.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Back to the Basics

It was the great Benjamin Verdery who said (paraphrasing), "Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics of playing the guitar." I have been ruminating over this comment ever since I heard it last year during a master class at St. Thomas University. Recently, it has been sounding a particularly resonant chord within. Of course, at the time, Ben was referring to technical aspects of playing the guitar, i.e. slurs, scales, arpeggios exercises, you know, guitar heads, the basic technical work that we all go through to become proficient players. Even when you think you have things under control, mastered maybe, there is always something to be learned and refined by revisiting the fundamentals. This is applicable to technical as well as metaphysical aspects of the playing the guitar. For this article, I am focusing on the metaphysical. Technique will be addressed at a later time.

These past couple of weeks I have been reverting back to the basics of my playing by burying myself deep into some of the roots music that forms the relatively short, yet rich, history of American finger-style guitar. I think it is important to do this, to become aware of the history of what you do, to further deepen your relationship with the music you play and ultimately produce. I guess it is, essentially, looking back to move forward.

Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Joseph Spence, are the artists that have been speaking to me as of late. Blake's (ragtime) hey day was in the late 20s to early 30s. Fuller (blues/ragtime) was active in the late 20s to the 40s. And Spence (gospel/Bahamian songs) was 'discovered' in the late 50s and remained an active player until he died in 1984. I always find myself circling back to these players when I need to ground myself musically, when I feel things are spinning way out beyond the stratosphere and everything sounds like trash. It happens.These dudes are another form of gravity.

Blake, Fuller, and Spence exhibit three common qualities that all players should hear, listen to, and absorb (of course there are more but these are the ones that are most striking at the moment). You don't need to play their pieces, or explore their respective genres of music, or even like them for that matter, but there are some true bedrock, foundational principles that endure and will help anyone further their abilities. All three are open to interpretation in the strict sense, but when you listen, you'll know what I mean:

1. A profound sense of rhythm (groove)
2. A profound sense of emotional expressiveness (soul)
3. A profound sense of freedom (sense of humor and spontaneity)

All of these qualities are adaptable to any kind of music that you play. It is so easy to get bogged down by the 'what' and the 'how' and forget the 'way'. These three giants (and many others of their time and beyond) were connected in such a 'way' that is infectious. People smiled when they heard them, hell, people danced! Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Guitarists Are A Passionate People

Good morning! It is approximately 5:00AM as I write my latest blog entry. I have been on 'Spring Break' this week, so, alas, my productivity has been somewhat sluggish and nullified by family fun, and, I have fallen behind on everything. In quest of this week's topic, I have been reviewing some of my guitar history books and stumbled upon the hilarious image below. It is a lithograph created by Charles de Marescot, a French guitarist who was active in the mid-19th century; a time widely considered as the first 'golden age' of classical guitar. The image is entitled, Discussion between the Carullists and the Molinists; that would be Ferdinando Carulli and Francesco Molino, two well known players and pedagogues of the era. What the gentlemen in this illustration are  fighting about, no one really knows. There are no historical records of any great rivalry between the two artists, so, Matanya Ophee has surmised that perhaps they were fighting over some aspect of each player's methodology. Mr. Ophee compared their respective teaching methods and boiled it down to one main difference between the player's technique: the use of the left hand thumb. His article can be found here. I hope that is what caused this riot. THAT would be hilarious.

Anyway, it just reminded me how passionate guitarists can be about their own craft and the players they love. I don't know of any all out guitar busting rumbles in recent history, but I have encountered some very opinionated musicians who, if crossed just the right way, just might take you down with their axe. So, I wonder, what could cause such a riot in this day and age? There are many, many, "schools" and "schools of thought" so to speak within the world of finger-style guitar and, as beautiful as this world is, conflicts regarding that which is 'good' and 'bad' do exist. Guitarists are a passionate people. What legendary players and their respective followers would stir such a violent passion today? Hedges vs. Kottke? Chet vs. Merle? Ackerman vs. DeGrassi? Bensusan vs. McLaughlin? Ross vs. Emmanuel? The possibilities are endless.

I jest, but I do think it is important to have, and stay true to, your own core principles as a player. Such clarity is essential. I have a pretty clear idea of my own but would never challenge another's approach or belief system. If you do come after me though, get ready for a fight, but please, let's leave the guitars in their cases!