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.
Willie Nelson on “She is Gone,” from Spirit
Willie Nelson is a criminally underrated guitar player despite the fact that Trigger, his weathered nylon string Martin N-20, has been featured on hundreds of great tunes across dozens of albums. Of course, Willie is too much of a class act to engage in protracted noodling; his melodic guitar solos always serve the song. His leads feature prominently throughout the 13 tracks on Spirit, including several southwest-flavored instrumental breaks. The band, consisting of just piano, fiddle, and two guitars is a perfect acoustic setting for Trigger’s understated tone.
Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy on “My Captain,” from Folk Singer
Muddy Waters’ Chicago blues always betrayed traces of his upraising in the Delta, and nowhere is this more evident than on Folk Singer, a slow-burning acoustic set from 1964 that (among others) features Muddy on slide guitar and vocals, a very young Buddy Guy on lead guitar, and Willie Dixon on bass. The album was allegedly recorded to capitalize on the 60s folk craze, but manages to transcend the cliches and traditionalist excess of the fad, yielding a classic. The liner notes show the two guitar players wielding budget acoustic axes consistent with the era, including a sweet archtop (perhaps a Vega?) in the hands of Buddy. A true “desert island” album.
Rawlings is unusual among contemporary Americana musicians for his choice of an archtop — a prewar Epiphone Olympic — as his main ax. The dry, cutting sound of the small-bodied guitar is a perfect vehicle for the discordant leads on “Revelator.” Rawlings’ style mixes equal parts folk, bluegrass, blues, and even classic rock. His lines weave masterfully between Welch’s melancholy verses throughout Revelator, probably her most challenging, yet rewarding album.
Joe Pass on “All the Things You Are,” from Virtuoso
Virtuoso provided the template for solo jazz guitar, helping raise it to a legitimate art form. Pass’s reading of “All the Things You Are” illustrates why the album turned heads and made him a global sensation. The Kern/Hammerstein standard is a challenging tune to navigate, even with the benefit of a band providing harmonic foundation. Nonetheless, even when picking single note lines, Pass manages to imply the changes such that the band is not missed. The guitar was likely a laminate Gibson ES-175 (a usually electrified instrument not necessarily known for its acoustic presence), lending the album its distinctly dry and unadorned sound.
You can read a slightly different version of this post — focused on Americana music — at my No Depression page.