Friday, May 3, 2013

I'm a Guitarist! Who Are You? An Ode...

Did you know that over 80% of self-identified musicians are guitarists?  Don’t believe me?  Good!  I just made that statistic up.

But, I don’t think we’d be wrong to say that my people, the guitarists, are the vast majority.  In fact, as anyone who’s ever tried to start a band in St. Louis can tell you, the percentage of musicians lugging a loaded six-string around this city is probably much higher than 80.  You’ve heard that joke, I’m sure—the one that goes, “What do you call a working guitarist?  A bassist!”  The music scene is so inundated with my kind, people actually have to play something different if they want to be in a band.  Hell, the first band I started here, LBJ and the Cosmos featured a guitarist, (Bob McMahon) on drums and a guitarist (Billy Croghan) on bass.

The guitar is ubiquitous for a reason; it’s DOPE!  It’s the every-instrument; therefore he who carries it is the everyman (which explains the appeal of your Jack Johnson type).  Its versatility is matched only by keyboard instruments, but the guitar is infinitely more portable and easier to set up.  Its five-octave range is perfect for accompanying a vocalist.  In fact, it’s one of the few instruments that you can play at a gig without any other accompaniment and not look like a jackass (because no one’s ever heard of One-Man One-Tuba sets). 

And yes, I guess you could do that with other stringed instruments.  But who wants to sit around a bar listening to a uke or a mandolin played by it’s lonesome?  Classical stringed instruments are out…your guitar leaves no need for complicated positioning of bows, though, as Jimmy Page proved, you can use one if you really want. 

Woodwind and brass instruments?  You like horns, girl?  I mean, that’s cool if that’s your thing.  I love Kenny G. too.  The guitar has one up on you, though.  Chords.  Yeah, try that with your trumpet.  And, you don’t have to blow into it, freeing you up to…I don’t know, sing a song or something.  And with the right effects, you can make it sound like literally ANYTHING including every horn ever conceived by man! 

Did I mention you can sing while you play it?

Oh, and I guess I left out percussionists.  I love you guys.  I like to dance.  I’ve even seen some good singing drummers.  But I’m afraid I have to give it to the six-string.  My acoustic can double as percussion.  Can your drum set play notes and chords?  Moving on.

Okay.  Have I effectively alienated every non-guitarist yet?  Have we established that all other instruments are William Hung compared to the mighty guitar?  So why doesn’t the guitar get the respect it deserves as the best of all instruments?

Well part of it is probably that the guitar is so popular. Every Joe Blow plays the guitar and they play it publicly, myself included, but only people who are kick-ass at the Sousaphone come outside and play that shit.  Personally, I like the democratic nature of the guitar, so I’m not tripping, but it creates a mindset that diminishes the brand.  The guitar is synonymous with pop-art.  It’s in 4 of every 5 songs on Top 40 radio.  It’s sort of the mass market fiction of the instrument world, whereas other instruments have the air of high art.

So, ubiquity can be a double-edged sword; everyone plays it because it’s awesome, but it’s so popular that it seems, well, pop.   As a result, people sleep on the guitar.

Now this is complete speculation, but I think this principle was displayed aptly when I tried to get a grant from the school district I work for to buy some guitars.  For those of you who don’t know, I moonlight as an eighth grade teacher and, a few months back, I decided to write a grant so that I could start an afterschool guitar club.  I asked for enough money to buy 7 inexpensive guitars so that I could run the club two days a week with 10-12 kids in each group assuming some had their own guitars. 

I didn’t get the grant.  They said it didn’t impact enough kids.  But, that line doesn’t quite add up.  Our librarian got a grant to buy 4 tablets and one of our science teachers got a grant to plant a garden or something.  How many kids are using those?  I’m willing to bet the few guitars that colleagues graciously donated that if I had been asking for violins or oboes or fucking pan flutes, I would have gotten the money to buy them.

But my little guitar club illustrates another point; it shows just how awesome the guitar is.  Because, despite the fact that the kids had to share guitars, that most of the time they were waiting to play instead of actually getting to play, most of the kids that signed up still came.  They still wanted to learn it.  They still thought it was cool. 

And that’s the thing.  The guitar gets to be trite pop and cool trailblazer at the same time.  It’s not like the clavichord, corny and old fashioned in every context.  It’s exactly what you make of it.  The very reason that there’s so many ways that people have come up with to play guitar shows the creativity musicians employ to avoid being labeled as conventional while playing this entirely conventional instrument.

So how can you gain respect and notoriety as a guitarist?  Well, if I knew the answer to that question, I would have done so by now.  But I’ll take a crack at it, and, since you’ve taken the time to read this far, I figure you’ll indulge me.

Moses playing my explorer at Plush.
Get On Stage- Alot

Ladies and gentlemen, Shawn Moses.  Moses is the guitarist in several acts, among them my new band, LBJ Quartet.  In his spare time, he likes to make friends by bogarting people's shows.  If Shawn Moses asks you if he can play with you while attending one of your shows, he means no harm.  He will likely make your set sound better.  He has a great ear, is a skilled technical guitarist, and is very tasteful with when to turn 'em loose and when to reign 'em in.  Perhaps most importantly, Shawn is doing what he should do if he wants to make a name for himself as a guitarist- showcasing his talent as often as possible in as diverse settings as possible.

I admire his pluck.  I played a lot of shows when I first started booking gigs around town, but I never played other people's shows.  The fact that he's so disarming that so many people agree to let him on stage never ceases to amaze me.  And I admire his skill.  Moses is a much better guitarist than I was when I started, and in a lot of ways, a much better guitarist than I am now.  And he's only going to get better, because he has the right approach.  You want to get really good and you want people to know it?  Set a goal to book 10 gigs a month, for a year.  That's what I did.

Get Out of the Box
Listen.  I love you.  I’m a fan.  But, you gotta stop covering “Wagon Wheel.”  It’s a fine song; we all like it.  But, you’re gonna have to let it go.  In fact, go on and google that list of 20 easy acoustic guitar songs, and put them all on your “never play” list.

If you’re gonna do covers, you need to get creative.  You need to play something people won’t expect.  Don’t play something that’s too obscure.  You might as well play originals in that case.  Instead, play something people would know and enjoy, but not necessarily expect in that format.  I like to work up songs written for keys on my acoustic.  I play The Zombies’ “Tell Her No,” or The Frey’s “Cable Car” and people really get into once they recognize it.  It creates a novel experience, which is ultimately the goal.  Hip-Hop songs are good to have in your back pocket.  One of the most memorable acoustic covers I’ve seen recently was Mark Eulalia’s Ying-Yang Twins cover at the last Open Mic @ Plush.

The immortal Robert Johnson.

Get Out of this Century
While your hunting for interesting covers, look into music that comes from the early part of the 20th century.  The recordings are rough, the instruments are often poorly tuned, the rhythms are sometimes inconsistent and the lyrics indiscernible.  But you can hear it if you listen.  It’s the roots.  Learning these old blues, rag, folk, and gospel progression prepares you to play nearly everything that’s out there today.  Learning this stuff will make you a better songwriter and a better improvisational artist.  But these old tunes have more to teach than just structure.  You can learn a lot about playing with passion and abandon while keeping tight to a prescribed formula.  It’s amazing how those old guys and gals stuck so rigidly to the forms, yet were so free within them.  And the great thing about it is, these old tunes are so part and parcel to American culture that even though most of them are very obscure, they seem familiar.  You can play them and get the same head turning effect you get when you play a song people recognize but weren’t expecting.  Get you some Robert Johnson, I dare you not to dig it. (

Get Out of the Normal
I’ve been listening to Raul Midon lately.  The title track on the album my mother-in-law bought me for my birthday, “State of Mind”, is probably my favorite.  You should probably take a break from reading this and check it out really quickly. (  If that didn’t impress you, you might be beyond my powers to redeem.  Where he came up with the idea to that tap/strum/pop amalgamation of savage talent is entirely above my comprehension.  But you don’t have to be Raul for that.  There are people here getting just as weird.  Two local acts come to mind. 

Hard Way Son just sprung upon my consciousness this past Sunday.  Composed of three guys, one playing bongos and two playing acoustic guitar, each guitarist adding percussion, one with a foot on a kick drum, the other the high hat, these guys hit you with everything good about the new folk revivalism represented by bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers.  In a particular song of theirs, the lead guitarist airs out some killer, free-form, Middle-Eastern sounding licks, while the rhythm guitarist, right hand moving at light speed, taps out a progression with his left that’s as much percussive as melodic.  Impressive.  Avant garde.  Most importantly, just good music.

Potions started playing shoes not long ago.  It is the brainchild of mad man Britt Lockhart.  Loud and fast jazz/rock, indecipherable croons and shouts barely audible under the sheer volume of the band, sounds like its coming from way more than just two guys.  But it’s just Britt and his drummer.  And most of the time Britt’s not even strumming.  He’s tapping and dragging, somehow making his guitar sound like it’s bass and lead at the same time.  Just incredible.  And so very weird.

Get Out 
Who am I kidding, man?  The first idea was the best.  Wanna be marketable?  Just play something else. 

All kidding aside though, as much as I love guitar, it’s always a good time to be a multi-instrumentalist.  I think of one of my favorite new guys on the scene right now, Daniel Dwyer, whose EP you must buy-er (guffaw guffaw).  This kid, at 17 mind you, will play keys, mandolin, and trumpet all in the same damn song.  He’s also going to sing somewhere in there, and if need be, go crank out a drum beat and maybe throw down a scratch track on y’all to boot.  He’s going to do all of this and not pick up a guitar.  So for all you non-guitarists out there, though there aren’t many, there is hope—because the next best thing to playing guitar is playing everything else. 

But for all of us who decide to stay on the road more traveled, at the risk of being ordinary, mediocre, and overlooked, I say we have a unique opportunity.  The fact that all us Joe Blows are banging around on this thing, making similar noises, running the risk of being consumed in one lackluster unison, offers us a chance to rise to the occasion.  Because in this crowded environment, the true artist finds ways to stretch the boundaries, so that his noise is heard above the rest—ways to be different even while playing the most played instrument of all.  I guess, what I’m saying is, if there were only one guitarist in this town, he wouldn’t be very good.  It’s the critical mass that brings about so much creativity.

So in the end, I guess this ode is to all the other guitarists out there, and indeed everyone playing whatever axe.  Thank you for making me look bad, making me work harder, and inspiring me.  Thanks for making me a better musician.

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