Thursday, June 19, 2008

Being Bold and an Important Note

The four greatest career guitarists to have lived, composed, and played in my lifetime are (in alphabetical order, because the idea of ranking them in any manor makes me cringe): Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Mark Knopfler, and Pete Townsend. Okay, now that I’ve made such a bold statement, I suppose I really must defend it, huh? (Oh the treacheries of making bold statements!) After all, I’m sure many of you read that sentence and thought, “What bias. First of all, those are all rock guitarists. What does she know?” Others thought, “Hey, hey, hey, what about [fill in the blank]?” Still others are wondering, “Why all male? Why all English/American?” All right, I’ll admit that I probably need to add a hundred qualifiers to my (ridiculously) bold statement. However, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to stick to my guns.

Here’s my first defense: I know absolutely nothing about music. I can’t read notes. I’ve never played any musical instrument (except the recorder, briefly, but those lessons at age fourteen were interrupted by our move to England). I don’t know what is and isn’t complicated. Some of you would say this means I have no ability to judge. I’m not going to argue that you may be right in that. However, I’d say that maybe it gives me an advantage, because I’m going on nothing but gut instinct and emotional response. And isn’t that what music is all about?

My second defense is that, although I may not know much about music, I have certainly listened to my fair share of it all my life. There isn’t a child of my father who didn’t lie in bed at night “conducting” to the baroque and classical music that wafted upstairs from the living room stereo. Along with that were such things as Simon and Garfunkel and Eric Clapton’s Layla, to which my father’s students and colleagues were introducing him at parties at our house. Meanwhile, one of the greatest treats was to have my mother put on her waltzes and waltz us around the living room or to have the adults clear the floor at parties (later in the evening, after many bottles had been emptied and Simon and Garfunkel was done) to put on the Scottish bagpipe music and dance the Highland Fling. Soon to follow my parents’ influence (not on that stereo, but on the kids’ record player upstairs) was music off the albums my older sisters purchased. They taught me to love Donovon, Cat Stevens, Three Dog Night (was I the only first-grader in history to have a huge crush on Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night? Maybe that makes up for my four-year-old crush on Mr. Greenjeans), Steppenwolf, The Beatles, Jethro Tull, and (yes) The Who, among many others.

My third defense is that the reason I single out these four guitarists is their distinctive, unmistakable sounds. I guess that’s what impresses me so much about them. Play clips of most guitarists for a music dolt like me, and I can tell you that I either do or don’t like them. I can tell you such things as whether or not they sound better “plugged” or “unplugged.” I can tell you what’s melodic and what isn’t. However, most of the time, my untrained ear can’t possibly identify them, even if they happen to be people I listen to all the time.

These four are different. First of all, I guess I need to add that I do happen to have one major bias. I want anyone I claim to be a great guitarist to be someone who knows what it means to be able to carry a melody. I’m really not much of a fan of those who like to imitate the noise of a young puppy chewing on guitar strings. I don’t mind if my “greatest” guitarists occasionally slip in something that sounds like this, when it’s appropriate to do so, but I want them to be aware of the fact that the human brain, most of the time, appreciates things that follow somewhat soothing patterns. Excite it a little with edginess and surprise and puzzles, from time to time, yes, but don’t do that all the time, unless some sort of psychotic illness is the desired result.

So, these guys all know a little something about melody and how to shake it up to the appropriate degree without overkill. Their biggest plus, however, is that I can recognize them. Play me a riff I’ve never heard from any one of these four, and I’m 95% sure I could identify them. Nobody can really rock like Pete Townsend, right? Eric Clapton, no matter what he’s playing, just doesn’t ever seem to be able to divorce himself from the blues, even when they’re wearing fake glasses, nose, and mustache. I don’t care if Jerry Garcia was taking over Pete Townsend’s chords with Baba O’Riley (which I once caught him doing live), or the less rocking chords of David Grisman, or his own compositions for The Grateful Dead, the way he handled that guitar to produce those sounds he did is more distinctive than the way Renoir put paintbrush to canvas. And then there’s Mark Knopfler. How does he manage to make the guitar whine in such an extraordinarily pleasant way? Children could learn a thing or two from him if they really want to get their way when resorting to whining.

All this is not to say I don’t have other favorite guitarists. And it certainly is not to say I may not be completely wrong. But there you have it. I’ve said it. Now, argue with me if you will (or feel free to agree, if you’d rather).

Important Note: I'm still planning the blogger meet up in Philly for anyone who's interested. Saturday August 9th is fast approaching, and I'd like to get a head count, so I can plan something that makes sense. Please let me know if you plan to join us for what I hope will become an annual event.

16 comments:

Make Tea Not War said...

I am so pleased I am not the only person in the world who had the childhood experience of adults at parties clearing the floor and dancing the Highland Fling. I can remember one particular friend of my parents doing Sword dancing too.

We also used to have family sing songs with my father playing the guitar and us all joining in with mostly Irish and Scottish folk songs (step we gaily on we go, heel for heel and toe for toe) and of course, the occassional song in support of IRA

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm too much of a coward to support or contradict people's definitive statements about music, but I totally agree with you on Chuck Negron. In fact, wasn't I the one that introduced him to you? linser

Emily Barton said...

Ms. Make Tea, well, I'm sure there are lots of people in Scotland who do that sort of thing, but very strange to be doing it in other countries, no? Are you sure your parents aren't long lost friends of my parents?

Linser, yes, you DID introduce me to Chuck Negron (although others might have different accounts concerning that). More importantly, though: are you coming to the big blogger meet up in Philly? Even though you don't blog, I'm sure we'd all (2 of us) welcome you.

mandarine said...

I love the image of the puppy chewing on guitar strings. especially if said guitar is plugged, the amp volume set to 'rip eardrums' and the guitar neck is propped against the combo amplifier.

I will not be there in Philadelphia (you might have guessed), but (FYI) will probably come to New England next spring for my brother's wedding.

stefanie said...

Oh, I dunno, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame is a pretty awesome guitarist. So is Roger Waters for that matter. I agree with you one Eric Clapton. He is a a guitar god.

Won't be able to make it to Philly, but I will be there in spirit :)

Dorothy W. said...

I'm sorry I'm not going to be at the blogger meet-up! That weekend and the following week we have other plans -- I'll hate, hate, hate missing it, though, and will be sure to attend the next one ...

musingsfromthesofa said...

I am one of those people who can barely distinguish between bands, let alone guitar players! But I think I would have to put in a word for the inimitable Jimmy Page.

I'm in for the blogger meet up! And even better, it's the weekend of a summer Friday for me, so please can I travel up on Friday?

Courtney said...

I unfortunately can't do Philly because of my sister-in-law's wedding in upstate new york. I already have the bridesmaid dress or perhaps i could get out of it? Probably not...

Girlfriend, get thee to amazon.com and order Sonny Landreth. Order Levee Town, order From the Reach. And what about John Hiatt?
I agree with you about all except Townsend - I would add in Landreth instead, I think. Lots of characters in my novel have the names of great guitar players...a bit of fun I'm having...

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, let me know the dates you'll be here, and I will plan a trip up to the office in New England around your visit (if it will work out for you to have a little time to spend with me).

Stef, yep, Gilmore and Waters are good, too. And, as I sit here while Bob blasts Santana downstairs, I'm beginning to realize Carlos Santana is pretty distinctive as well.

Dorr, and we'll hate, hate, hate not having you (and Hobs) here.

MFS, yes, Jimmy Page is another great, and of course, you may come on Friday. I'm already busy putting together a book stack in my mind for you!

Court, $#@! your sister-in-law (just kidding). We'll miss you. And I'll check out Landreth. You're right: John Hiatt is another one. Just so many good ones, no?

All right, I guess I just need to admit it's pretty stupid to name the four best guitarists (and even to admit that my thoughts may have been based on what I had chosen to listen to the evening this post began composing itself in my head). Then again, when did I ever claim not to be stupid?

Emily Barton said...

Dewey, for some inexplicable reason, your comment didn't/won't publish. However, Brian May is another good choice.

Nigel Patel said...

So with you on Pete Townshend. In fact he's not allowed to die before I do. (No pressure Pete)
I'd add Graham Coxon and Bob Mould just because it takes special playing to sould better with your eyes closed.
(Btw I've seen a lot of the greater Philly area last summer but most of it looked like the shipping docks of varrious Wal*marts.)

Anonymous said...

I think I might be able to make it even though I'm still an imposter (but we may have a blog for our prison program soon) -just have to check with Dan. linser

stefanie said...

Carlos Santana! How could I forget. The man is a genius. I think you are going to have to up your number from four to ten ;)

musingsfromthesofa said...

A book stack? I am so there, and I may even bring MH and his new bike with me.

Pete said...

Ok so he's probably not quite as good but I like The Edge. Then in terms of Classical guitar there are John Williams and Julian Bream.

Emily Barton said...

Nigel, oh, so glad someone agrees with me about Townsend. Must mean I need to get acquainted with Graham Coxon and Bob Mould. Yes, Philly does have some pretty unattractive areas, which is why the first time I ever visited it, I thought it was the most Godawful city I'd ever seen. But then, most cities have areas like that, and I've come to really like Philly.

Linser, fingers crossed.

Stef, or maybe 20!

Pete, oh yes, the Edge is another to add to the list, and now you've given me some more to check out.