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American Primitive: Glenn Jones

The veteran guitarist and banjo picker reveals his secrets for achieving gorgeous simplicity via the wealth of sounds, colors, and remembrances on his sixth solo album, Fleeting.

To create his sixth solo album, Glenn Jones used a homemade banjo and his Guild DV72, often employing his own tunings and partial capos. Here he's shown playing a Guild D50.Photo by Jesse Sheppard

Insatiable curiosity has always been Glenn Jones’ strong suit, which goes a long way toward explaining how he manages to squeeze such vivid imagery and emotion out of a steel-string acoustic guitar. Whether he’s channeling ecstatic visions of his youth—dappled with hazy vestiges of Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch, Tim Buckley, and Can—or paying direct tribute to his friend and mentor, John Fahey, Jones can make a guitar sing with an almost otherworldly expressiveness that only comes from years of practice, dedication, and experimentation.

It all started in northern New Jersey back in late 1967, when a teenage Jones ponied up his hard-earned cash to buy Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love, which had been written up rather uncannily by the local record store as “a guided tour of Hieronymus Bosch,” no less. Jones had to have it, and soon he had to have his first guitar—a Harmony acoustic his dad gave him. He began teaching himself the songbooks of Dylan, the Doors, Cream, and anything else he could get his hands on.

By the time he discovered the American Primitive fingerpicked style of Fahey, whose exotic tunings and buzzing drones conjured the bluesy indigos of Charley Patton, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt, Jones was hooked. “It was like the first time I heard [Captain Beefheart’s] Trout Mask Replica,” he recalls today. “I didn’t understand that record at all. I had to play it over and over again in the headphones just to figure out what was happening. Fahey’s music was like that, but not with the complexity of Beefheart’s arrangements. It was how he expressed something that felt so beautiful and profound, as one person playing one instrument, with no lyrics. He could tell stories with that instrument.

Standard tuning is almost like starting with a white canvas—you can do anything and go anywhere. But with open tunings, it’s like
starting with color.

“Of course, the problem with John is that he’s so powerful, and such a big influence, that having absorbed all that, it’s even harder to escape,” Jones reveals. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s or so that I finally began to feel like I was writing pieces that were more mine than his. I could point to them and say, ‘I’ve never heard John do anything quite like this. This is just me.’ And that became more pronounced as time went on.”

Fleeting is Jones’ sixth solo album, and perhaps his most intimate and soulful. Technically, it’s a clinic in deft picking, the use of partial capos, and alternate tunings—some of them invented for specific songs, perhaps never to be used again. Conceptually, it proceeds from themes that Jones explored on 2013’s My Garden State, which he tracked while looking after his dying mother in his New Jersey hometown. Fleeting is dedicated to her, but the mood isn’t elegiac—it’s often celebratory, at times even sunny, but with moments of whimsy, melancholy, quiet reflection, jarring dissonance, and even intrusions of nature. Last spring, Jones joined producer Laura Baird at a cottage next to Rancocas Creek in Mount Holly, New Jersey, to track seven of the album’s 10 songs on his Guild DV72. On the other three, he plays a handmade 5-string banjo. You can actually hear birds singing in the background on the hypnotic “In Durance Vile,” and again toward the end of the haunting, Gypsy-ish blues “Gone Before.” [See sidebar, “Capturing the Perfect Take.”]

“It’s kind of a liability that the older you get, the more past you have behind you,” Jones says with just a hint of wry humor. “I tend to think about that a lot, and that’s where the album title comes from.

The cover of Jones’ sixth solo album reflects both its American Primitive roots and the influence of the studio’s woodland charm.

It has to do with the fact that the past behind us gets bigger and more stretched out, so that things in life seem fleeting—including our own lives.”

It’s been a richly packed journey for Jones so far. As a founding member of the avant-rock band Cul de Sac, he played throughout the ’90s on some of the same stages as the Pixies, Morphine, and other iconoclasts from Boston’s vibrant music scene. Cul de Sac also released a string of well-received albums. One of these was 1997’s The Epiphany of Glenn Jones—a gut-wrenching but ultimately rewarding collaboration with John Fahey (who also dreamed up the album’s title). A few years later, Cul de Sac hunkered down with Damo Suzuki, fabled frontman of the ’70s German krautrock outfit Can, for a no-holds-barred tour that yielded the brilliant live collection Abhayamudra in 2004.

Since then, Jones has jammed, performed, toured, and recorded with everyone from Yo La Tengo to a series of fellow guitarists that includes Peter Walker, Michael Chapman, and the late Jack Rose. He’s also made a name for himself as an archivist and producer, having helmed several posthumous releases of Robbie Basho’s music, as well as the acclaimed five-CD box-set of John Fahey’s earliest recordings, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years 1958–1965, for the Dust-to-Digital label.

Even with six solo albums under his belt, Jones is still striving to get better. “I can hear a lot of changes between my first solo record and this one,” he says. “I tend to cringe when I listen to my older stuff, but I think everybody does that, you know? Keith Richards says he can’t stand to listen to old Rolling Stones records, and those are pretty good records! But I can hear improvements I’ve made. My time is better, my playing is a little more relaxed, and I can hear myself doing things with my fingers that are maybe cleaner and better articulated. But I also feel like I’m going beyond the technique to get to something more personal.”

Jones still lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spoke to Premier Guitar by phone from his home.

Jones on Fleeting’s “studio”: “There’s tons of books and whaling stuff hanging on the walls, and bits of sculpture and tile—it’s a really nice old house. The sound in the room was really good and it was a very relaxed environment.”
Photo by Laura Baird

Your music has such a sense of place. Can you talk about the house where this album was recorded?
Well, I learned with some of the records I made with Cul de Sac, and also on my second solo record, that where and when I record really has a strong influence on how relaxed and ready to play I am. I’m not super comfortable in a studio environment. I’ve often felt the clock ticking, and even in the friendliest studios there’s just something a little bit antiseptic about them, you know? This is the second album that I’ve done with Laura [Baird], and she found both places where we recorded. She knows I’m looking for a place where we can be away from the headaches and just focus on making something that might last a little bit longer than we do [laughs].

So she located this house through a friend of a friend, and the guy that owned it was gonna be away for a week. It’s almost literally on the creek that runs off the Delaware River, and I was sleeping on the back porch—I mean, when I sat up, the river was right outside the window. If you see the picture on the back of the record, that was taken in the living room where we recorded. There’s tons of books and whaling stuff hanging on the walls, and bits of sculpture and tile—it’s a really nice old house. The sound in the room was really good and it was a very relaxed environment.

I make my records as much for me as for anybody else, and when I listen to them, I like the feeling of remembering where I was, and the time of year, and all that stuff. It becomes more of a personal experience. Typically you don’t remember a studio so much. You may remember things about it, but not with the same sense of character. Being in a real place, where people live their lives and where things happen, that works better for me.

You also seem to be making a tradition out of listing the tunings that you use for your songs, which is great for the brave guitarists among us.
John Fahey put the tunings on a lot of his records, so that’s how I got into it. At this point, I don’t think I’ve played in standard tuning for 35 years or more, because I discovered that open tunings became an aid to writing. Standard tuning is almost like starting with a white canvas—you can do anything and go anywhere. But with open tunings, it’s like starting with color ... black or brown or green, whatever color you like. I don’t hear colors or anything like that, but I feel like with an open tuning, you have a color or character right from the get-go that suggests your approach, whether it’s going to be slow or fast or have a lot of space in it, or how the scale is going to move.

What I like about the Guilds is that they have a real sharp, punchy attack, but then a real fast decay, so I never feel like the
sound turns to mud.

You also use a partial capo on every song.
Yeah. This is the first record I’ve made like that, including the three banjo pieces, which use two-string capos. Again, it’s just an aid to writing. For “Gone Before,” the tuning and the capo actually suggested the song. That one is way up on the 9th fret with the capo [tuned G-D-G-F-G#-C], so there’s almost nothing that I can do on the bass strings. Everything is on the three open strings below the capo. I don’t know if I could even come up with another piece in that same tuning. And a lot of the notes are really close together, so it was almost inevitable that there would be a certain dissonance, just in the different chord shapes that are available in those top three strings. But there’s something I liked about it. Maybe it’s the friction of it?

What’s your history with the Guild DV72 you used to record the album?
I’ve had a number of Guilds over the years. I’d been using a Guild D-50 as my main Guild for a while, but the more I played the DV72, the more I liked it. I played somebody else’s at a show in Connecticut, and it was one of the best-sounding Guilds I’d ever heard. I didn’t know if it was just one guitar out of a hundred, or if it’s the way the guitar was made. But one came up for sale maybe a year after. I went and checked it out, and it was every bit as good.

All the DV guitars I’ve played have a really nice, warm, robust sound. Not to take anything away from any well-made guitar, but I feel like the Martins are almost so resonant that they’re in some ways too resonant, at least for fingerstyle playing. I feel like the sound builds up in the guitar and stays there too long. What I like about the Guilds is that they have a real sharp, punchy attack, but then a real fast decay, so I never feel like the sound turns to mud. It seems to stay clear all the time, and all the strings are nicely articulated. You don’t feel like you’re losing midrange or low end. Plus, they’re affordable [laughs].

You play banjo in a very textural way, especially on “Cleo Asleep,” where you use a mute.
Well, the banjo I have is either from a kit or it’s homemade—I’m really not sure. It’s a flat head with an open back, so it’s not bluegrass-style, and it has a heavy tone ring on it. It weighs a ton, but it’s got this nice, silvery sound that’s not overly metallic. I play it with my bare thumb.

Glenn Jones’ Gear

Guild DV72
5-string banjo (homemade)

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EJ17, acoustic guitar (.013–.056)
D’Addario EJ61, banjo (.010–.023)
Happy Wife banjo mute
Fred Kelly Slick Picks (medium)

If I play it with the thumbpick, it does get a little too bluegrassy-sounding for my taste. I love ’50s bluegrass, but I like to play a little bit softer on the 5th string and on the low bass string.

When I was writing “Cleo Asleep,” I was using the mute just to keep the volume down so it didn’t annoy my wife when she was trying to sleep. But the more I played it, the more I liked the song with the mute, and then when I played it for Cleo’s parents [Jones’ friends, Myriam Gendron and Benoit Chaput] for the first time—I write about this in the liner notes—I said, “Well, we don't want to wake her up,” even though she was in Montreal. This was in Boston, and when I came off the stage, her parents were in tears. That’s really what I like to see [laughs]. So I decided to do two versions on the album, “Awake” and “Asleep.”

How did you develop your picking technique on the guitar? You wear a pick on your thumb, but your fingers are roaming free. Is that how you’ve always played?
It is, until I did my first tour with Jack Rose. If you know Jack’s playing, he was a ferocious guitar player. He really played hard, with steel picks on his fingers and a heavy plastic pick on his thumb. I think our first tour together was in 2003 or 2004, and we were on the road for about a month in the U.K. and Europe, almost every night. We had one piece that we did together at the end of Jack’s set, and, just to keep up with him volume-wise, I had to play really hard. Within a couple of days I’d basically worn my fingernails down to the nub. So I had to come up with a plan B.

Around the same time, I saw a documentary about this flamenco guitarist, and it begins with him at this nail salon in Brazil, getting his nails done. So I read up on it a little bit, and I went down and tried it out. It’s basically an acrylic gel that’s applied to your fingernails, and as it dries, it turns into a hard surface. The first time I did it, I was like, “I wish I’d discovered this 30 years ago.” Your fingernails don’t wear out, they feel natural, and you can even play with the backs of your fingernails in some banjo strums—I think it’s called rasgueado in flamenco. So I’m doing that every three weeks, and it’s made all the difference in the world.

You’ve often mentioned how influential Jack Rose was for you.
The first time I heard him play, I suddenly realized that there were these younger players coming up who were eating and breathing and sleeping with the same records that I had for all these years. And it was Jack’s total commitment to that so-called American Primitive style that inspired me. It was like saying Yo La Tengo reminds you of why you loved rock ’n’ roll as a teenager. Hearing Jack play got me excited again in the way that hearing Fahey’s records, or hearing Fahey in concert, or Basho in the early days, got me excited.

YouTube It

This three-song performance from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts provides a tight focus on Glenn Jones’ banjo and guitar technique. In the opening song, “Tinka Marie,” Jones anchors his picking hand with his pinky and moves through the tune’s chords and hammer-ons at a relaxed, even pace. In “The Great Pacific Northwest,” he uses partial capos and his nails to create his signature droning chords, and in the final entry, “Of Its Own Kind,” his rolling, alternating picking recalls both John Fahey and Mississippi John Hurt.

Jack was on fire with it. There was a train running by, and he just jumped in. He didn’t really think about where it was going. It’s inspiring to be around people with that level of commitment—and I mean, what a terrible loss, you know? I was asked once how much I thought John Fahey had influenced all these young guitar players like Steve Gunn and Daniel Bachman, and I thought they’d probably say that Jack Rose was their conduit. All those guys were young enough to have seen him a bunch of times, and, as it turned out, that’s exactly what they did say. Jack had been their doorway to the guitarists of a previous generation.

From your perspective, what does the American Primitive style signify today?
That’s a great question, and it’s making me try to articulate something I’ve been vaguely aware of, but haven’t really put into words. When the whole American Primitive thing was dreamed up, it really only applied to John Fahey and maybe three other players. It described Robbie Basho, and Peter Lang and Leo Kottke, maybe, but there weren’t a lot of people playing what could be called American Primitive.

When I think about what characterizes the style, it’s fingerpicking, and then maybe the influence of longer form Indian music, but then much more. Fahey was drawing from country blues and classical music, and Basho was trying to channel Persian and Indian music. When you listen to them, you don’t hear Persian or Indian, but I think the music can go much deeper and it can explore longer forms. I believe that exploratory quality is an aspect of the music, too.

Then you have Leo Kottke, and there’s very little Indian music or blues there, but he has the driving bass. Richard Bishop is a great player, but I think he’s more influenced by the Ventures than John Fahey—very melodic stuff, but drawing in world music as well. So I don’t know. The term is applied to more and more people, but I feel like it has less and less meaning. And now I’m at the point to where I can say, I don’t know what American Primitive is—but I know it when I hear it!

Despite the rotary phone to his right, Jones’ album was recorded with basic-but-modern technology: a Behringer C-3 condenser microphone and Steinberg Cubase running on producer Laura Baird’s laptop. Photo by Jesse Sheppard

Capturing the Perfect Take

Imperfections are often what lend acoustic guitar music its indelible character and appeal, especially in the hands of the right player. Keith Richards’ occasionally buzzing frets on the Rolling Stones’ “Prodigal Son” or the elastic, rolling tempo of Bert Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” (and Jimmy Page’s raga-esque version on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side”) are just two of many examples in the rock and folk canon. Of course, that’s not to say that nailing a take can’t be just as important—even if you have to hit it 24 times to get it right.

That’s what happened to Glenn Jones when he sat down to record “Flower Turned Inside-Out,” which ended up as the opening track on Fleeting. “A lot of my songs come about by finding a little germ of something that works, and then worrying that to death,” Jones quips. “I play it over and over until something suggests itself, or I make an interesting mistake. I had the opening part of ‘Flower Turned Inside-Out,’ but where it goes into that odd turnaround after a few bars, where the alternating bass shifts slightly, that was a mistake. I was watching TV while I was playing, and I just stopped in my tracks. That led to a C section and a D section. But I didn’t even realize it had gotten so hard to play until I actually tried to record it.”

After take 23 and numerous playbacks on headphones, Jones was ready to throw in the towel, but producer Laura Baird urged him to try one more time. “I knew he could play it,” she says, “and besides, we’d gone too far for him to give up! When he finally nailed that take, I was thinking to myself, ‘That was magical,’ and I told him so. Usually I’m pretty laid back.”

Throughout the recording of the album, Baird used only one microphone—a Behringer C-3 condenser—to track the guitar to Steinberg Cubase on her laptop. To get a balanced sound without too much low end, she positioned the mic a few inches above where the neck meets the body. For the banjo, the mic was near the middle of the banjo head, catching the sound of Jones’ fingers on the strings.

I feel like I’m going beyond the technique to get to something
more personal.

“I was going for the best dry recording possible,” she says. “I didn’t want to use any EQ because Matt Azevedo has much better equipment to mix and master with, so I wanted to give him just the raw material. That’s why microphone placement was so important. With my headphones on, I would experiment to find where it sounded good with a nice clear tone. That microphone just works well on guitars for some reason. I recorded my sister and me with it a couple of years back for an album called Until You Find Your Green, and it’s on Glenn’s last record, My Garden State, too.”

Although Azevedo added reverb and the sound of a waterfall to the banjo piece “Spokane River Falls,” he keeps a light but attentive touch on most of the mix for Fleeting, staying true to the mood of the original sessions. The standout on the album is probably “Portrait of Basho as a Young Dragon,” which Jones had originally intended for the Robbie Basho tribute We Are All One, In the Sun, curated by Arborea guitarist Buck Curran. The song is remarkable for its long intervals of ambient space, filled by a single plucked dissonant chord that Jones allows to ring out and decay, and which Azevedo chases with faint but swirling hints of what sounds like tape echo and chorus.

“Initially I thought it would work as a 12-string piece,” Jones says, “because that was kind of Robbie’s soul instrument, but it’s really a bear to play, so I recorded it on the 6-string. What I love about that song is it has a number of things in it I’ve never done before. The long spaces where some of the dissonant things happen—those sound fabulous on the 12-string, and I thought maybe I should keep the alternating bass going because that’s a lot of space for the 6-string to cover. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to keep the space there. So, on that piece, I feel like I pushed the boundaries a little bit beyond where I’ve gone before. The response has been really strong when I’ve done it live, and I’m encouraged by that.”