Guitarists You Know By Ear

How many guitarists do you know by ear? You know, those players that you recognize after hearing three or four notes, even if you’ve never heard the song before. Most serious music fans have at least a couple and, I think, that if you play an instrument you are more likely to recognize the sound of others who play the same instrument. There are probably 1 or 2 trumpet players, sax players or piano players that I can recognize by ear.  As a guitar player, there are probably 5 or 6 guitarists who I can recognize within a measure and a bunch more within 30 seconds or so. The 5 or 6 have some combination of identifiable tone, phrasing, touch or note selection.

In many ways these guitar sounds are as identifiable as a voice. When you think about, it is pretty remarkable that there are as many recognizable players as there are. With the human voice, we all are born with a pretty unique one.  The things that can be brought to bear to create a unique guitar sound are much more external – pick-ups, effects, amplifiers, the instruments themselves, particularly with acoustic guitars.  But, you could hand the same Les Paul or Stratocaster plugged into the same Fender amp to Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Carlos Santana, Mark Knopfler and George Benson and have them all play the same phrase. Then if you turned your back and closed your eyes I would bet that you would be able to identify which player was which.

Developing your own voice as a guitarist is a noble goal that many players pursue fervently. Listening to the things that make other players recognizable is a major component to developing that individual voice. While it is understandable that some of the ‘guitar heroes’ are the once that populate our lists, there are a lot of players whose names aren’t generally known, but who are recognizable just the same.  Their styles and sound works so well as an accompaniment to other singers and players that they become the player of choice.  They end up on many people’s recordings in an accompanying role and become a recognizable force.  There are many ways to make one’s mark as a guitarist.

For the record, my top immediately identifiable guitarists, in no particular order, are Mark Knopfler, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Doc Watson and Wes Montgomery.  Who are yours?



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Mark Knopfler – Accompany Yourself!

Name as many acts as you can where the lead singer, main songwriter and lead guitarist are the same person.  The list is pretty short.  For my money, and there’s not too much of it,  Mark Knopfler has to be right at the top of the list.  Beginning with the opening licks on ‘Sultans of Swing’ he has displayed a instantly recognizable guitar sound and style as well as an ability to weave intricate and detailed stories in his songs.

One of his most underrated abilities is the deft accompanist touch he brings to both his own and to other people’s songs.  A master of the deceptively simple three or four note phrase, he accentuates the harmony and the emotion of a song subtly and with passion. With hammer-ons and pull-offs based on chord forms and subtle extensions he adds fills and lines that are lyrical.  While he can burn through speedy passages with his finger picking style in solo mode, his expressiveness and  restrained sensibility playing behind the singer is what seals the deal for me.

Listen to songs like “Brothers in Arms”, “Sailing to Philadelphia”, “All the Roadrunning” and “Punish the Monkey”, to name just a few. Knopfler has built a career in the tradition of the English balladeer, telling stories, composing songs that build in musical intensity as the lyric does the same.  He is a folk singer with the heart of rocker. There are a lot of lessons for the serious accompanist there, lessons on finding your own voice while still serving the song.

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“I’m Already Playing Too Many Notes!”

A few weeks ago I watched a video from Christie’s, the famous auction house.  It seems that Richard Gere was auctioning off a number of his guitars with the proceeds to be donated to charity.  I didn’t realize that he was a guitar player, but he is.  He also has a remarkable collection of  instruments, all of which he bought to play and use, not for their inherent collectors value.  Here’s the link. It is worth a few minutes of your time.

Along with a representative of Christie’s and G.E. Smith, an extraordinary guitarist many of us know from his days leading the Saturday Night Live band, Gere was showing some of the instruments that were to be auctioned – a remarkable assembly of great guitars.  G.E. Smith would play some licks on a number of them and offer his own comments.  After playing a couple of bars on a old Martin 000-41 with his fingers he made what I thought was a profound statement.  He said, ”I like to play with my fingers even on electric because it slows me down.  Sometimes I feel like I’m not able to play fast enough but then I’ll listen to the recording.  I’m already playing too many notes!”  This is at around 18:45 of the video.

Now, I’m not a particularly speedy player anyway, but it does seem to me that, as an accompanist, you should try quite hard not to play too many more notes than a singer would be able to sing.  As always, the accompanist supports and enhances.  As David Letterman used to say about Stupid Pet Tricks, “it’s a demonstration, not a competition.”

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David Rawlings

David Rawlings is a multi-instrumentalist, primarily guitar, who uses his substantial abilities in an accompanist role.  Rawlings writes and records often with Gillian Welch.  The music these two craft sounds as if it came from another era and another place.  It is new old music that echoes the ballads and plaints of American mountain and folk music and even the old English folk music that begat much of the American genre from early days.  However, a closer listen reveals elements of a raft other styles and influences from blues to R&B, jazz and rock.  Rawlings and Welch have both studied music in a formal setting and the breadth of their knowledge is applied subtlely.

Welch’s newest release from June 2011, “The Harrow and the Harvest”, is a fine example of the soulfulness and emotion that can come from well written songs, sparse playing and carefully considered accompaniment.  The instrumentation is primarily Welch’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Rawling’s accompaniment on acoustic archtop.  The woody, ‘midrangey’, sound of his old Epiphone is distinctive.  Rawlings uses arpeggios and voice leading behind Welch’s singing and strumming.  He uses melodic single note lines during solos.  Both of these are vital to the overall effect of the songs.  The arpeggios accentuate the song’s harmony while the lead lines extend the melody and the emotion.  It’s difficult to imagine any of the 10 songs on this album having the same depth and impact with any of the parts missing, or with any more added for that matter.  This is a great recording for any accompanist looking for examples of the importance of restraint in the duo format.

In addition to his work with Gillian Welch, Rawlings has recorded with his own group The David Rawlings Machine and has contributed to albums by Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Ani DiFranco and others.  His work in all of these settings exhibits the same qualities of musicianship and control.

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Editing Your Playing

A lot of guitar players who are good (or at least, adequate) accompanists have spent a lot of time practicing and developing their chops.  I’ll bet that you are pretty comfortable playing 8th note triplets or 16th notes at a fairly brisk tempo.  The drawback to developing that level of comfort playing up tempo passages is that it becomes easy to lose sight of how many notes you’re playing.  An eighth note run over a measure and a half falls so comfortably under your fingers that it seems like nothing fancy.  However, in a moderate tempo song with a leisurely paced melody that eighth note lick can seem awfully busy and may compete with rather than complement the vocal.

It’s a good idea to practice moderate tempo material as well as up tempo tunes.  If you have some songs or recorded material or a friend that you play along with, here’s something to try.  Take a moderate tempo (90 – 120 beats per minute) piece that you know fairly well.  Play fills and licks in all of the places you normally would but consciously use only one note per measure.  It doesn’t have to take the whole measure, but only use one note per.  When you are only playing one note you have to choose it much more carefully than you would without that restriction.  The other choices you make in this exercise are when to play it and how long to hold it.  The note could be played on the second beat and held through the measure or played on the upbeat between beats 2 and 3 and held for 1 beat. There are a lot of possibilities with that single note. Your creativity can be really challenged.

After you have practiced that for a while do the same thing with two notes per measure.  Do you play equally spaced notes or at the end of the first measure and the beginning of the next?  Continue on with three and then four notes per measure and then try combinations.  None of this should challenge your technical skills but it will provide a good workout for your creative and emotive abilities and increase your awareness of how much you are playing.  Down the road, when you choose to insert the speedy little triplet run it will really stand out in contrast.

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Finding New Music and New Artists

How do you find new music and new artists?  The ubiquity of the internet and the rise of sites dedicated to posting music have certainly democratized the process of getting music distributed and greatly expanded the amount available.  At the same time, the methods that historically were the vehicle by which new artists and music were introduced have been altered dramatically as well.  Radio playlists have shrunk and station formats have grown increasingly narrow and formulaic.  Record stores (for want of a better term) with a variety of music and knowledgeable staff are few and far between.

The search for new music has become quite personal.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a daunting task to seek out things that appeal to you.  One avenue that has remained constant is referrals from friends and other folks that you meet.  The simple statement, “Have you heard….” is still a primary introduction to new artists.  And there are services like Pandora and internet radio stations that offer variety and novelty.

My favorite mechanism, though, I call iTunes store surfing.  I will search on iTunes for a recording by an artist that I like.  Usually at the bottom of the page is a section of other recordings that people also purchased.  Most often I am familiar with only about a fourth of the recordings and half of the artists.  A simple click gets me to the place where I can listen to 1:30 length samples of the songs on that recording, access the rest of that artist’s catalog and find another set of recordings that people also bought.  I can spend fifteen minutes or two hours hearing music and artists that are new to me and I usually end up with one or two more ‘albums’ downloaded.

How do other folks go about finding new (to you) music and artists?

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Do Guitarists Need Music Theory?

This argument has raged since the invention of popular music and has reached fever pitch in the rock era.  Do guitarists need to know music theory?  One side says that theory interferes with feel and emotion.  The other side says that you need to understand what’s going on before you can really be creative.  I don’t know how the percentages on each side shake out.  I do know, though, that the best predictor of a person’s position on this question is whether or not they admit to knowing any theory.

While there are arguments to be made for and against knowing more music theory, the person who truly knows none is not a musician.  At least they are not one who gets any gigs.  Let me explain.  Even a relatively new guitar player knows that if he strums a C chord, he can strum a G chord next and it will sound alright, if fairly common.  He may not know the terms ‘Tonic’ and ‘Dominant’ (at least not in a musical context) but he knows that if he starts a song with C he can use G and F and maybe A minor.  He knows that after he plays those other chords for a while he should come back to C at the end.  He knows this because he’s heard other people play it, he’s played it himself…a lot.  After awhile he thinks of it as a rule or, at least, a convention.  Then he plays or hears someone play C, D minor and G7 and he says, ‘hey, that sounds okay, too,’ and he adds another convention to his vocabulary.  One day, he gets really adventurous and plays C and G# and  F#.  He’s not sure what he thinks about how that sounds, but he suspects that it’s ‘jazz.’

My point is that music theory is really a set of terms for rules and conventions in music.  The terms allow people to communicate their musical ideas quickly.  Just because you don’t know the terms doesn’t mean you don’t know the rules, and how to break them.  If a person truly knew no theory, every time they stepped up to play a twelve bar blues that would have to ask what the chords are and when do they change.

Just because a musician doesn’t know the terms doesn’t mean that they don’t know the rules and conventions.  Just because someone does know the terms doesn’t mean they can’t play with feel and emotion.  Call it what you want, we all operate on the same set of rules, using or breaking them as our creative impulse dictates.

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Larry Campbell

Larry Campbell is a multi-instrumentalist and producer with an impressive list of credits.  With a career as a supporting musician that dates back to 1980 he has recorded and performed with musicians including Shawn Colvin, Roseanne Cash, Levon Helm, Jorma Kaukonen, John Sebastian, Cindy Lauper, Rory Block, Leon Redbone and a raft of others.  He was a member of Bob Dylan’s band from 1997 to 2004.  He was a major contributor to Dylan’s  2001 recording “Love and Theft”, which made a strong foray into western swing territory.  I had a chance to see Dylan on tour after the release of “Love and Theft.”  The band was a tight, rockin’ unit that left Dylan no choice but to be at the top of his game.

In 2002 Campbell added guitars, fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel and background vocals to the album “Sleepless” by Peter Wolf, former lead singer of the J. Geils Band.  “Sleepless” was Wolf’s sixth solo release.  This is a textured and layered roots rock ‘n roll record, modern and vintage sounding at once.

‘Growin’ Pain’, the opening track, starts with a slinky minor chord riff on electric guitar joined by a restrained yet insistent rhythm figure from Campbell on mandolin.  The bulk of the song is carried by an acoustic guitar playing three note chords in a syncopated rhythm with single line or double stopped fills and accents playing off the mandolin doing the same.

‘Nothing but the Wheel” features back up vocals by Mick Jagger and guitar from Keith Richards.  Not surprisingly, it has a vintage Stones feel to it circa “Let It Bleed” or “Some Girls” but it is a distinctly American song as the lyrics evoke a middle country scene.

From the Stax sound of ‘A Lot of Good Ones Gone” and ‘Never Like This Before’ (co-written with Wolf by Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones) to the Drifters feel of ‘Oh Marianne’ Wolf pays tribute to the roots of the music.  Throughout, the guitar playing holds the central position in defining and expanding the sounds.  The playing is never over done, just enough to make it clear that now, as then, it is the guitar that makes it rock ‘n roll.

Also listen for Campbell’s work with Levon Helm on 2007’s ‘Dirt Farmer’  and 2009’s ‘Electric Dirt’.  Campbell produced both of these and adds his instrumental talents to both as well.  Through the entirety of his work there is much to be gained from Larry Campbell’s approach to serving the music.

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Bo Ramsey

Bo Ramsey is a guitar player and producer.  Working predominately in the Americana genre he has produced albums for artists like Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown and Iris Dement.  He also appears as a guitarist on these and other artists’ recordings as well as a number of his own recordings.  He has a distinctive style and tone that I describe as haunting, adding a moody, pensive sound to a mix.

I would like to highlight the recording “Ghost Repeater” by Jeffrey Foucault as an prime example of the accompaniment style of Bo Ramsey.  Ramsey produced this 2006 recording as well as contributed his guitar playing.  If you’re not familiar with Jeffrey Foucault he is a singer/songwriter originally from Wisconsin who released his first recording in 2001, “Miles From The Lightning.”  “Ghost Repeater” is Foucault’s third solo release and his first with a ‘band’ on many of the tracks – drums, bass, organ, accordion and guitar in various combinations.

Foucault has become one of my favorite singer/songwriters.  He writes deceptively basic sounding melodies as a vehicle for lyrics that are both descriptive with succinct detail and personal with understated emotion.  His voice has a weathered feel, adding a sense of the truth and wisdom that comes from experience.  The opening lines to the title track of Ghost Repeater are rich and chewy, complete yet demanding further consideration:

‘All of the drunks dressed up like Santa Claus
Ring Salvation Army bells.
The town square is quiet, the juke joints are empty
Everyone’s buying what no one can sell.’

The other 10 songs on the recording are as strong lyrically and range in style from blues to ballads, from country to country rock.  Ghost Repeater is an excursion through much of the territory encompassing the Americana genre.

All of these songs are strong enough to stand alone with one guitar and one voice, as can be evidenced in many YouTube clips of Foucault performing them solo.  Bo Ramsey’s production, however, adds to each song, making it more fully realized.  The accompaniment varies from tune to tune but is never more than needed to enhance the feel and the story.  On several, Ramsey’s guitar playing is an excellent example of the accompanist’s craft.

Until I figure out just what I can do both legally and technically to add audio examples to the blog I will just refer you to iTunes to listen to the 1:30 samples of these songs.  If they aren’t enough to spur you to purchase the recording, they will at least demonstrate the points about the accompaniment in these songs.

Americans in Corduroys’ – This deceptively somber song is actually a love song.  Over a finger picked acoustic rhythm that underlies the vocal, Ramsey employs a volume pedal and arpeggios to add an ethereal, haunting texture.  At times the notes seem to appear out of nowhere and just hang in the air for awhile.  Short passages of staccato attack emphasize the fingerpicked rhythm and the judicious use of echo enhances the feel.   The percussion is almost entirely provided on cymbals, moving from high hats to lightly struck rides.  It is subtle and mysterious in its own way.

A great example lyric:
‘At home the leaves are turning red and gold, the trees are burning
Ruined apples fall too heavy and too sweet
But right here the birds are callin’, the early stars are fallin’
For Americans in corduroys kissin’ in the middle of the street.’

One for Sorrow’ –  This moderate tempo country-rock song has Ramsey and steel guitarist Eric Heywood working together above the familiar ‘boom-chucka’ rhythm of the acoustic guitar and drums.  Sometimes they are trading phrases, at other times playing complimentary parts almost in counterpoint.  Not only is this one of my favorite songs on the recording lyrically, the vocal harmony added by Kris Delmhorst on the chorus is noteworthy.

Great lyric:
‘Your mama’ll give us china and your daddy’ll give us hell
And when we make our getaway they’re gonna ring those wedding bells.’

Train to Jackson’ –  This is an moderate tempo ballad in the traditional, story-telling sense.  It is in the key of B minor and, as such, it is a dark song.  The blues flavored guitar lines accentuate the feel.  There are a lot of words in this song and it would be easy to overplay and step on the lyric.  Instead, Ramsey finds the spaces where his parts not only fit, but compliment the song.

Mesa, Arizona’ –  A desert song and,  although uptempo, a lonely song as well.  Appropriately, Ramsey leaves a lot of space in his guitar parts.  Like the song, there are holes all over, but they are only partially filled by memory and longing.

Notable lyric:
‘And the snow comes down from the desert sky
Tellin’ everybody something and it’s usually goodbye’

The other tracks on this album provide just as many examples of the accompanist’s craft and an enjoyable hour’s worth of well crafted songs.

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What’s happenin’ here?

This is a music blog, this is a guitar blog, this is an album review blog, but mainly this is a blog about guitar accompaniment.  I am a guitar player who enjoys the extra energy and emotion that well conceived and executed guitar playing can bring to a song.

An average song can be elevated and a well crafted song can soar with the right accompaniment.  That accompaniment can come via many instruments – piano, woodwind, trumpet or more – but in many forms of today’s music  it is a function of the lead guitar.  Not necessarily the screaming solo guitar but the right little fill, chord inversion or even single note at the right time can turn the mundane to the magical.

There are many practitioners of this underappreciated art, some well known like Mark Knopfler or John Mayer who accompany their own songs.  Many others work in relative anonymity as studio musicians or in back-up bands for well know artists.  The intention of this blog is to bring artists and recordings forward and help all of those with an interest in and appreciation of the art of guitar accompaniment expand our knowledge and hopefully augment our libraries.

Most of my entries will focus on recordings that I find to have noteworthy examples of guitar accompaniment.  These might be recordings from the catalog of well known artists, recordings by less familiar artists that deserve wider popularity or new music from new artists.  Please participate in the discussion.  Add comments, suggest other musical examples.  There are lots of talented artists out there that should be heard and appreciated by as many people as possible.

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