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Working Backwards

Updated: Feb 25, 2020


There's an almost infinite world of music out there waiting to be discovered. And with the advent of streaming/downloading technologies a large chunk of it is readily accessible to anyone with a computer, phone or tablet and an internet connection. Finding new music is easier than ever. So, where to start? How do you navigate through this endless sea of sound? I've always tended to work backwards. Like some authors, I'll start at the end and work my way back until I arrive at the origins of the sound I'm exploring. If you're a guitar player, this will invariably lead you back to Charlie Christian (or Robert Johnson, depending on who you talk to).

To understand the present you must understand the past. Who and what came before? Who inspired your heroes to arrive at the point they're at now? Everyone is a product of their influences. John Scofield made one of the biggest impacts on me as a guitar player. But how did he arrive at his distinctly identifiable sound? Who impacted him?

I was probably in my early twenties when I first heard Sco. Although he had been on the scene for 3 decades, it was a breath of fresh air for me. His melding of rock, funk and jazz styles was precisely what I needed to hear at the time. I was questioning my identity as a musician. I loved so many different styles of music, I didn't know where I fit in. Scofield showed me that you can have your cake and eat it too. Then I bought an album called 'I Can See Your House From Here', with Scofield and Pat Metheny. I had heard about Pat from my teacher Joey Goldstein (who was his student in the 70's at Berklee), but hadn't listened to much of his music. I think I was turned off by the synthesizer stuff (a prejudice I still have today, unfortunately). Once I got over my keyboard-bias, I started to really dig his playing. And his writing is fantastic. Pat led me to John Abercrombie; then I discovered Bill Frissell. Which led me to digging a bit deeper into history.

Where would any so-called 'modern' guitarist be without Jim Hall? Metheny put out an album with Hall that I absolutely love. This seemingly odd pairing produced a great record which not only showcased the modernism of Jim Hall, but also the deep roots of Pat Metheny. I think Hall is the link between the old-school and the new-school. Hall was influenced by players like Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel. Barney Kessel was not only a brilliant guitar player (as was Wes), but he was an important link between the earlier 'swing' style guitar playing and the more modern be-bop style. And who was Kessel influenced by? Charlie Christian.

This lineage could also go a different way - Scofield was inflluenced by rock musicians like Clapton and Hendrix. Although Hendrix seemed to appear out of nowhere from another planet, he was heavily influenced by the blues, as was Clapton. These guys listened to and assimilated the styles of Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin and Albert King. And further down the line we discover pioneering bluesmen like Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson.

When I first listened to Lenny Breau I was shocked that I'd never heard his playing before. It was a totally new style to me. But I began researching and found out he developed his style by copying Chet Atkins. Who in turn was influenced by Merle Travis, of the famous 'Travis style' picking technique. But in fact Merle formed this picking style by emulating older black blues musicians like Kennedy Jones and Arnold Shultz.

So from a select few guitar players I've managed to discover scores of others. Art is not created in a vacuum - everyone is influenced by someone else. It's how you use those influences to develop your own style that's important. If you find yourself enjoying a particular player's style and sound, dig a bit deeper. You'll unearth all kinds of hidden gems and new music to digest. This blog is not meant to be a definitive musical lineage - it's just one aspect of my personal journey through the history of the guitar. I'm still digging.

#guitar #influences #history #blues #jazz

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