The blues is first and foremost a vocal tradition, but the guitar has played a prominent role in defining the genre’s sound. Recent instrumental releases from Tinsley Ellis and Ronnie Earl put the instrument front and center.
Get It! by Tinsley Ellis
Tinsley Ellis is known for high-octane blues rock, so long-time fans may be a little surprised by the more restrained vibe of Get It! Not that this is a bad thing; by holding back on the pyrotechnics and focusing on a more melodically-informed approach, Ellis harkens back to a time when instrumental tracks occasionally broke into the radio mainstream. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that Get It! is an album tribute to Ellis’s 6-string heroes. It’s implied by tracks like “Front Street Freeze,” in which trebly bends summon the Iceman himself (Albert Collins); “Freddy’s Midnight Dream,” a King-approved slow blues; and the double stop shuffle of “Berry Tossin’” (as in Chuck). Rather than loosely conceptualized jam tracks, Ellis manages to deliver ten distinct tunes – no small feat given that the primal 3-chord structure of the blues isn’t necessarily the easiest format for creating musical variation. Get It! is a fun album that demonstrates how Ellis has managed to not just learn from those who came before, but channels them in making his own musical statement.
Just for Today by Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters
Ronnie Earl is the rare bluesman who has managed to forge a career primarily as an instrumentalist, and his output over the years has reflected a great deal of stylistic diversity, blending in elements of jazz, R&B, and even world music. Earl is a more cerebral and introspective player, reflected in his preference for slow blues — which honestly is the weakest link of his latest live album. Just for Today would benefit from the omission of a couple slow burners and the addition of a few more high-energy romps — see “The Big Train” and “Robert Nighthawk Stomp” for examples of how the man can tear through a roadhouse beat. That said, few can deliver like Ronnie Earl on a down-tempo number, as evidenced by the soulful tribute of “Blues for Hubert Sumlin” and a Latin-flavored interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Just for Today may not be quite as satisfying as some of the guitarist’s studio albums, but it’s certainly instructive on how to squeeze every ounce of soul from a Fender Stratocaster.
Picks are a simple, comparatively cheap, and surprisingly effective way to tweak one’s guitar tone, whether acoustic or electric. In Part 1, I compared several budget picks that meet my basic criteria — thick, triangular, and tortoise-inspired. In this post, I put a pair of “boutique” picks through their paces. Are they worth the additional cash?
Back in March I dedicated an edition of “My Favorite Tones” to acoustic music; I also posted an Americana-adapted version on No Depression. Time for the electric follow-up.
Luther Perkins on “Folsom Prison Blues,” from With His Hot and Blue Guitar by Johnny Cash
There are few guitar sounds more iconic yet understated than Luther Perkins’ contribution to the rhythmic bedrock of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. Perkins was not a flashy lead picker; he largely stuck to a template of muted right-hand rhythm and repeated melodic hooks during vocal breaks. Nonetheless, his playing helped define the Cash sound through the fifties and sixties (before his tragic death in a 1968 fire). Luther played the boogie with a Fender Esquire or Jazzmaster, most likely strung with flatwounds, through various Fender tube combos.
A prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant was awarded to a violin bow maker from Boston last year. It’s common knowledge that good violins are expensive, but some may be surprised to learn just how much professional violinists spend on their bow alone — anywhere from many hundreds to thousands of dollars. It stands to reason though; the bow is what draws sound from strings and wood, a crucial link in the connection between artist and instrument — not far off from the role played by the much humbler guitar pick. Funny then that many professional guitarists, by stark contrast to violinists, opt to draw sound from their strings with a $0.25 piece of plastic.
Over the past year or so I’ve been on something of a pick quest, exploring the range of both budget and boutique alternatives on the market. Picks are a simple, comparatively cheap, and surprisingly effective way to tweak one’s guitar tone, whether acoustic or electric.
Clockwise from upper left: Clayton Ultem, Dunlop Ultex, D’Andrea Pro Plec, Red Bear Tuff Tone, Wegen TF
Much to look forward to on the six-string musical horizon! I recently received this update from Jim Campilongo headquarters:
“I’m really pleased to announce that the Campilongo Trio with Chris Morrissey and Josh Dion are going to record a new full length album called ‘Dream Dictionary.’ This record will capture what Josh, Chris and I have been up to, which has been really wonderful — if I do say so myself. ‘Dream Dictionary’ will be released sometime this Summer/Fall on i-tunes, CD and vinyl.”
Also this from my good friend and all-around folk hero Jana Pochop:
“I just scheduled some studio time for October at Rubicon with Daniel Barrett. That means there’s gonna be a new EP! Finally!”
And finally this from Kurt Rosenwinkel’s label, Word of Mouth Music:
“In the past few years Kurt has been doing more and more solo shows…Of course it is an open secret that Kurt Rosenwinkel is presently working on a new solo album that we will be releasing on our Wommusic label in early 2014.”
Now the waiting begins…
April 20 was Record Store Day, dedicated to the preservation of a vanishing institution. Like many consumers, I buy much of my music digitally these days, mostly as a space-saving concession. That said, I still have a strong affinity for physical media; there’s something about the cover art, liner notes, and sense of tangible connection to the art that can’t be replaced by an audio file. I also enjoy rifling through the inventory of record shops, especially cavernous used outlets like CDepot in College Park. It’s often possible to find albums that have been passed over by the digital transition, like these two finds. Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’ is a 1968 instrumental album by two leading session musicians of the era — James Burton (lead guitarist of Ricky Nelson and Elvis fame) and Ralph Mooney (pedal steel sidekick to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, among others). It’s an interesting if unexpected album. Rather than dazzling with instrumental wizardry, the duo opt for a more restrained and tuneful approach, displaying the taste and melodic deference that earned them spots on so many hit tracks. Three for the Road is a typically solid 1997 outing by leading Canadian jazz musicians Rob McConnell (trombone), Ed Bickert (guitar), and Don Thompson (bass). Regular blog readers probably know by now that I’m a huge Bickert fan. Much of the guitarist’s output is either out of print or unavailable in the States, so stumbling on this CD was a pleasant surprise — a surprise that’s increasingly hard to come by as brick-and-mortar record shops fall off the map.
It was the blues, laden as it is with guitars and angst, that initially drew me to roots music. 2013 has seen a bumper crop of solid blues recordings, including these three highlights.
“Out of My Mind” by Cassie Taylor
The contemporary blues scene is crowded with young talent. All too often, these young men and women are prematurely catapulted into the limelight as the next big thing; with no time to really develop their own voice, their talents wind up hard to distinguish from every other act in the genre sporting three chords and a feeling. Fortunately, vocalist/bassist/songwriter Cassie Taylor has spent time being mentored by one of the most original blues performers on the scene today — her father Otis Taylor. Like Otis, Cassie isn’t content to be pigeon-holed by a particular genre. The tunes on Out of My Mind run the creative gamut from the Stax-era soul of “Out of My Mind,” to the hard rock Yardbirds groove of “No No,” to the acoustic guitar and horn funk of “Forgiveness” (the track that probably betrays the strongest imprint of her father). More modern traces of neo-soul and even hip-hop are evident throughout. Taylor’s rock-steady bass and soulful voice are accompanied by a top-notch band that includes Larry Thompson on drums and Steve Mignano on guitar; the latter offers enough electric pyrotechnics to keep discriminating six-stringers engaged. A solid album from an artist poised to stand out from the rest.
Washington DC is a city of professional transients, drawing folks from a wide range of regional and cultural backgrounds; it can’t always be easy for an artist to find the common denominator in a crowded Saturday-night bar. Nonetheless, the Lizzy Ross Band did just that this past weekend at Hill Country Barbecue, electrifying the basement venue through three energetic sets of country, blues, soul, and jazz-inflected Americana. The centerpiece of the act is of course Ms. Ross, a Chapel Hill native whose vocal chords, songwriting, and onstage persona are a force to be reckoned with.
Following an Americana-centric 2012, I’m making a more concerted effort this year to feature jazz guitarists on the blog. Luckily, 2013 seems to be starting off as a good year for jazz guitar.
Standards, Old and New by Mimi Fox
The shadow of Joe Pass looms large over jazz guitarists, particularly those who play the instrument in a solo context. Bay area virtuoso Mimi Fox studied for a time with Pass, so it’s no surprise that her latest album of solo instrumentals reflects the master’s influence. That’s not to say the effort is derivative; far from it. Fox is a distinctive and original musician, reflected not only in her technique but her choice of tunes. On Standards, Old and New she covers classic territory with tracks like “Cry Me a River” and “Four on Six.” The former is re-harmonized so thoroughly that it sounds like a whole new song, while the latter manages to capture the momentum and spontaneity of Wes Montgomery at his finest (no small feat in a solo setting). Fox more unconventionally bookends the album with two standards from the folk music real book. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” are re-imagined as jazz instrumentals, doing the original tunes justice while at the same time opening the melodies to improvisational exploration. A thoughtful album well worth the price of admission.
My inaugural “Favorite Tones” post was rock-centric. For the next round, I thought it appropriate to back off the volume and put the spotlight on some of my favorite recorded acoustic sounds.
Tony Rice on “Manzanita (1st Variation),” from Unit of Measure by the Tony Rice Unit
It’s hard to pick one Tony Rice recording that exemplifies the warm but punchy, even-throughout-the-neck tone of his signature instrument — a reconstructed herringbone D-28 once owned by Clarence White. No other guitar backed over by a car ever sounded so good. This album was released not long after Tony stopped singing because of damaged vocal chords. Naturally, the focus is on his guitar playing, a consistently mesmerizing Americana blend of bluegrass, country, and jazz.