Listen to Your Heroes’ Heroes
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?