When diving deep with your influences, trace their sound back to the source, and remember that you don’t need great instruments to make great music.
It’s pretty common for we musicians to glom onto a handful of musical heroes in forming our own artistic personalities. We play their recordings day and night, try to develop creative YouTube queries that will lead us to more archival and bootlegged performances, and we preach ad nauseam to our friends, significant others, and bandmates about why this guy, gal, or band is simply the best.
This phenomenon is a natural one, and there probably isn’t a player among us who hasn’t at one point found themselves adding imitation to their obsession, going well beyond licks and riffs into things like mannerisms, fashion choices, and even accents—and I’m not talking about the musical ones. This column is about shaking off that tunnel vision in a way that will inspire your playing while still honoring your influences. Stretch those arms out and put your thinking caps on. It’s time to do some digging!
One of my early acoustic heroes was Bob Dylan, and he said something once that really stuck with me. I don’t remember the exact quote, but to paraphrase: If you want to get to where you’re intended to go, musically, you can’t stop with listening to your heroes. You have to listen to their heroes. Your mission is to find biographies, articles, and quotes wherein your artist directly cites their influences. When a musical great speaks, it’s important to listen!
One of my personal favorite anecdotes in this vein is from the late John Renbourn, one of the most accomplished fingerstyle players that England ever produced. He said, “I started out trying to sound like Big Bill Broonzy, and I’m still trying!” Endearingly self-deprecating, but also fundamentally revealing. Renbourn’s early work, like that of his equally influential Pentangle partner Bert Jansch, had a heavy and impassioned blues influence. Even so, almost nobody immediately goes to the blues when they think of these players, thanks to their decades of innovative guitar work spanning multiple styles. Without the blues, though, there would be no Bert nor John.
“If you want to get to where you’re intended to go, musically, you can’t stop with listening to your heroes. You have to listen to their heroes.”
That’s the “crux of the biscuit” (Frank Zappa reference intended, whose indispensable influences included Johnny “Guitar” Watson and 20th-century classical composer Edgard Varèse). The cornerstones of your favorite artist’s playing might not exactly be the cornerstones of yours, but as players, we should still make a pilgrimage back to the well. After all, those formative influences are the building blocks of the tone and feel that you enjoy in your favorite guitarists’ work. One could play Renbourn or Jansch tunes all day long and not be exactly equipped to tackle the amazing catalog of Big Bill Broonzy (nor that of Jansch’s favorite, Brownie McGhee), but there’s a lot of value in trying.
This process can also uncover a lot of important music history that’s been obscured over the years. About a month ago, I was auditioning a new acoustic arrival in our shop. I dropped the low E to D and began running Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Blackwaterside.” A customer’s jaw fell open when I told him that no, Jimmy Page didn’t write it. Page lifted the arrangement whole-cloth, changed the name to “Black Mountain Side,” and gave Bert no official credits or compensation.
This wasn’t a bitter conversation. It was all about enlightenment, casting a little shine on the source. The customer came back to thank me a few days later for the business card that I sent him home with, which had a who’s who of British folk-guitar luminaries scribed on the back, with all names that had escaped him in 30 years of fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing!
An important caveat: When we’re talking about musical forensics as related to giants of acoustic guitar, don’t worry about what instrument an artist may or may not have been playing at any given time! In conversation at Acoustic Music Works here in Pittsburgh, there are a few iconic guitars that come up with some regularity, like Robert Johnson’s Gibson L-1 and Nick Drake’s Guild M-20. AMW store owner Steve Miklas is wont to say, “It’s not the wand, it’s the wizard!” That couldn’t be more spot on. Do exceptional instruments exist? Absolutely! Will buying an Elvis Costello signature “Century of Progress” Gibson acoustic somehow help you write songs like its namesake? You already know the answer to that.
Like Bob, Bert, John, and countless others before them, we ourselves are always going to go back to the well. We’ll be equipped with a thirst for knowledge, and we’ll be carrying whatever guitar we’re playing right now. The past and the present, creating the music of the future! Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
You could WIN the brand new Tone King Royalist MKIII combo in this exclusive giveaway! Enter before October 12, 2023 for your chance to win.
See the Tone King Royalist MKIII in action!
Tone King Royalist MKIIIGuitars used: Shabat Lion STP (Lollar P90) & Les Paul R8 (Lollar Pickups) & Fender NoCaster
The Royalist was the first Tone King amplifier to offer the best elements of British tone and was one of our most beloved amplifiers.
The new Royalist MKIII is a 40-watt, two-channel, all-tube amplifier that expands on that legacy by faithfully reproducing the iconic British tones of that era. Ranging from the sweet, singing JTM45 to the iconic “Plexi” sound, all the way to the raging “Super Lead”.
The Royalist MKIII authentically captures the vintage nature of these iconic amplifiers, delivering tones that span from clean to edge-of-breakup, to the bright-crunchy leads found on countless classic rock records that helped shape music history.
Josh Scott drops in to chat about all things JHS, going back to his early days doing debunking deep-dives into vintage gear. “I love the mythbusting element of this stuff,” he says. “I love telling people … this is not witchcraft…. The tech of a Big Muff is from the ’50s.”
Thanks to Sweetwater for sponsoring this episode! Head to sweetwater.com for your musical gear needs.
He continues: “I know that we need to feel magic. I like it too.… But I love that element of proving simplicity of all this stuff and making it digestible to younger players and taking the chaos out of decisions. So, for me, that’s where the collecting started happening. Everything I’d ever heard anyone say about a pedal, I immediately needed to find the pedal and see if it was true.”And while the trio have plenty of inside-baseball stuff to cover, from how they’ve approached their YouTube content to how they tackle endorsement cold calls to branding—“products are not that important in the long term. Brand is more important than products.” But Josh is here to talk about his relaunch of the Ross brand and his YouTube documentary about the brand. The story, he says, is “more important than the pedals even. I just love the stories and stuff."
The pedal circuits were the easiest part of the whole thing. It’s awesome to have worked so hard and to see the impact that just a good story has. We got inundated with messages … saying, ‘Man, I cried about pedals.’”“I just really love the history element,” he says later, “so much that it feels like this really natural piece of being able to tell those stories and then move the story forward … One of my favorite things to do is taking some classic thing and replicating it perfectly. Like, I love the science of that.”