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?
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When a guitar collector dies, a collection gets passed on and begins a new life. Here’s one collection’s story.
I’ve been in the guitar business in the same city for many decades. One of the advantages of that is I get to see a lot of great instruments we sold years ago come back again. One of the disadvantages is that many times those instruments are returning because an old customer has died or become too frail to play them. All of us who deal in used and vintage guitars love to see great gear, especially when it’s been well cared for. But when I not only recognize the guitars but also remember the owner, the opportunity to sell their instruments a second time is bittersweet.
When dealing with a collection of instruments from an estate, it’s often obvious that the family members who have inherited our old customer’s gear didn’t really understand the “guitar-life” of their deceased relative. If they don’t play and if the collection includes more than a few instruments, the benefactors of the inherited gear often consider the collection kind of a bother. An 80-year-old Gibson or Martin, for instance, often doesn’t look like much, especially if it’s seen a fair amount of wear. The comments are telling and often include some variation of “I just never understood why they needed so many guitars!” However, when relatives find out what the collection they’ve been stuck with is worth, that attitude often changes.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, we had a regular customer named Jimmie who was one of our favorite Saturday guys. It was clear he visited other Bay Area guitar shops as well. He wasn’t attracted to instruments in mint condition, partly because he didn’t want to pay the higher prices, but mostly because, as he put it, “I like to see some wear; then I don’t worry if I add a little more of it.” Jimmie wasn’t a great musician and never gigged, but he knew his way around a guitar neck and never resorted to “Blackbird” or “Stairway to Heaven” when trying out guitars. We hadn’t seen Jimmie in at least 20 years—retirement and failing health had taken their toll—but I recognized some of his instruments when a middle-aged guy and his teenage daughter brought in several guitars for appraisal. Our old customer was their Uncle Jimmie. The nephew, who looked like a former GQ model, made it obvious the family considered their uncle little more than a loveable loser with no family and no nice cars or furnishings. All he’d left them was just guitars in tattered cases and box after box of records and CDs.
“My uncle loved to chase after guitars,” GQ nephew said wryly.
“And he played the ones he caught,” I added, pointing out the recent refret on Jimmie’s beloved 1930s Gibson L-00.
Jimmie purchased most of his instruments well before the 21st century run-up in prices and before well-worn guitars became so popular that guitar makers began offering distressed finishes. He bought his ’50s Telecaster, for instance, when only country pickers played Teles, and he’d picked up a pre-war Martin 000 back when everybody wanted dreadnoughts. Jimmie had scribbled the purchase date and price of almost all his guitars on a now-faded, well-folded sheet of paper, which his nephew shoved in my direction.
“I thought this might help,” he commented.
After looking at the guitars briefly, I made a copy of Jimmie’s inventory and wrote a rough estimate of each instrument’s current value in the righthand column.
“Your uncle made some wise purchases,” I pointed out. Indeed, several of Jimmie’s guitars were now worth 10 times what he’d paid for them. Others, such as his Martin archtop and a few later acquisitions, had appreciated more modestly.
GQ nephew’s eyes bulged when he looked at my estimates. He added up the numbers on the right side of the page very quickly and processed the fact that poor old Uncle Jimmie had left his family an accumulation of instruments worth well into six figures. His daughter looked over her dad’s shoulder but was less impressed, instead asking if she could have the Gibson L-00. “Uncle Jimmie called that little Gibson his couch guitar,” she said wistfully. “He loved the sunburst and always had it handy. Hearing him play it was what got me hooked on playing guitar. That’s what he played when he gave me my first lessons.”
When her father suggested she might want one of Jimmie’s better guitars—meaning one that was worth more—she seemed unimpressed with the offer. Like her uncle, she didn’t measure guitars in dollars.
I’d like to think her Uncle Jimmie was smiling, although from where I have no idea. And it wasn’t because his status in the extended family had taken a quantum leap with the surprise value of his musical gear, his smart investments coming up in the future whenever his name was mentioned. Instead, what probably tickled Jimmie was that his grand-niece was obviously going to have a guitar-life of her own, and his favorite guitar was going to be played.
Luthier Maegen Wells recalls the moment she fell in love with the archtop and how it changed her world.
The archtop guitar is one of the greatest loves of my life, and over time it’s become clear that our tale is perhaps an unlikely one. I showed up late to the archtop party, and it took a while to realize our pairing was atypical. I had no idea that I had fallen head-over-heels in love with everything about what’s commonly perceived as a “jazz guitar.” No clue whatsoever. And, to be honest, I kind of miss those days. But one can only hear the question, “Why do you want to build jazz guitars if you don’t play jazz?” so many times before starting to wonder what the hell everyone’s talking about.
Contrary to popular belief, archtop guitars have the potential to be some of the most versatile on the planet. Yet a huge corner of the music world insists on keeping them in a straitjacket. What’s up with that? Even as a little-girl player, I always felt archtops were the most beautiful guitars of them all. So beautiful that they were untouchable. I didn’t need someone to tell me I didn’t play the “right kind of music” to feel unworthy of them. But the word on the street was that archtops were meant for a very particular and sophisticated style of music.
This is not the guitar for you. I believed it. I could feel it. I am not worthy. Instead, I picked up an OM and headed down a very different musical path in life. Tying down the restraints not only on the archtop, but myself. Does this sound familiar?
This is not what music and guitars should do to us. So, who put this straitjacket on? Did I put it on myself? Did I put the archtop guitar in one? Are there others?! Help! How did this happen? I spent the next 11 years walking around in a singer/songwriter straitjacket. It wasn’t until I showed up at the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair that I was able to bust out of that thing with some chisels and gouges. It was there that I got my first glimpse at the archtop party.
The first private moment I had with my completed archtop, I was stunned to silence. My soul shifted, and there a song was found hiding—my very first instrumental fingerstyle piece.
My intentions were to be a flattop builder, but I was changed forever when my archtop construction began. Enthralled by the versatility of skills the process demanded, the woodworker in me was ignited. The experience of building a variety of guitars was why I wanted to take the Galloup Masters Program. With that came the experience of playing a variety of guitars that I normally would not play,which was equally educational and life changing—something that has now become essential to my musical inspiration.
The first private moment I had with my completed archtop, I was stunned to silence. My soul shifted, and there a song was found hiding—my very first instrumental fingerstyle piece. I was so hypnotized by the voice of this guitar that it launched me in a completely different musical direction. I did not sing another note for almost 7 years; this instrument’s voice was the only one I wanted to hear. It was everything I’ve ever wanted: acoustic, electric, sensitive, powerful, delicate, strong. Our love was effortless, and it found music living inside of me that I had no idea existed. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
I share this dusty story with you today because I know I’m not alone. There are others out there who have allowed the restraints to come between them and these remarkable instruments. Because at some point along the way, they were told they’re not supposed to do that with an archtop. I hear this all of the time. Whatever happened to just picking up a guitar, closing your eyes, and letting it pull something out of you? I’m not at all denying the fact that certain instruments excel with certain genres and styles of playing, but we can’t let that prevent us from exploring the things we’re curious about.You could be missing out on one of the great loves of your life.
I almost missed out on the archtop party, but thankfully I came in through the woodshop window. And I have good news: The others at this party are on a similar mission to free the archtop from its straitjacket. Not to mention, the music at this party is off the hook. Is there jazz? YES! But that’s not all—we have fingerstyle, honky-tonk, funk, blues, rock, weird space music, and everything else you’re not supposed to do on an archtop. With today’s premier archtop builders such as Danny Koentopp, Tim Frick, Wyatt Wilkie, LHT, Otto D’Ambrosio, or Retrograde, just to name a few, there is undoubtedly something for everyone to be inspired by.
This is your official invitation to the archtop party. Leave your straitjacket at the door and join us, ’cause an archtop party don’t stop.