Life—and playing guitar—is really about the art of storytelling.
I became infatuated with Roy Buchanan’s incendiary playing when I was a relative youngster, after finding a copy of Guitar Player with Roy on the cover. He looked more like one of dad’s disheveled friends than a star, which intrigued me enough to pick up Roy Buchanan and Second Album—the first time I heard the war between angels and demons channeled through wood and steel.
A few years later, my friend Stuart Stack and I hopped in my dad’s battered ’67 Comet to see Roy play the Pinecrest in Shelton, Connecticut. The opening band was unmemorable, but then came the wait. One hour. Two hours. And no Roy.
Suddenly, the sold-out crowd began parting behind us, and I turned to see Roy coming through the human sea, with a Fender case dangling from his left hand. As he passed, saying hi and excuse me, the aroma of distillery accompanied him. Stu and I looked at each other. This was not going to be good.
We were right. It was amazing! Roy took the stage and quickly summoned every demon and angel at his call, sending overtone squeals to the sky, supercharging his chords on standards like “Green Onions” with one of the crunchiest “clean” Tele tones I’ve ever heard, and dancing up and down the fretboard like the Nicholas Brothers. (Look them up on YouTube. It’ll be worthwhile.) He even delivered “The Messiah Will Come Again,” with its heartbreaking melody, stoic monologue, and explosive finale. We became fans for life.
A few years after that, when Roy had signed with Alligator Records and cut a firestorm called When a Guitar Plays the Blues, I interviewed him after another casually brilliant—and sober—performance at a club called Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the gig, Roy and I adjourned to the motor lodge where he was staying in Harvard Square. Roy wanted to do the interview in the lobby, where, luckily, the coffee table, two chairs, and hot pot of java that were its only appointments were available.
He was a delightful person: soft-spoken, articulate, his eyes bright with humor and life. And about half-way through, for obvious reasons, I asked him if he believed the guitar had the power to channel the spiritual world.
“Well,” he replied, “the ghost of Jim Hendrix appeared to me and saved my life.” I was instantly all in. Roy went on to explain that after a gig he’d played in D.C. one night, when he was so wasted by booze and other vices that he felt near death, some college students—seeing he was in a bad way—invited him back to their place. Once there, they offered a cure: LSD.
It was the first time he dropped acid, he said, and in addition to the colors and weird audio transformations, he started to see a kind of mist, and Jimi appeared. He warned Roy, reflecting on his own death, that if Roy kept on this path he would die, and that the time to quit and get sober was now—or he’d no longer be able to serve a higher calling with his guitar. Roy promised Jimi, who he’d never met before, that he’d find a street called straight.
I asked Roy if he believed Jimi really appeared, or if it was just the acid. Roy said he wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought it was real … or at least real enough.
I’ve told you that story because, well, that’s what I’ve done my entire life—told stories. One of the great joys of interviewing musicians and gear makers is finding interesting stories and passing them along, but only after you’ve relished them yourself for a while. And if you love chasing musical adventures like I do, then you also create a few stories of your own along the way.
Every page of PG—even regular features like Gear Radar and Tools for the Task—is a story. What’s new, what’s good, what’s useful? We want to tell you what we’ve found. And some of our best storytelling is in our reviews, which are really accounts of musical explorations, where our writers share the memories, references, and sonic triggers they experience and, when the gear is good, the very tangible joy they feel in playing.
We can all relate to that, because there might be nothing better than picking up a guitar and letting the stories—or the angels and demons—inside it talk. In that sense, we’re all deep storytellers … and if the ghost of Jimi Hendrix happens to appear, well, that’s a bonus!
Thoughts on the questionable origins of our supposed roots-music addiction.
Last week a PG fan emailed me: “Hey mang. Your last two editorials have been boring and seemed fake. Get back to pissing people off with political shit.” It was signed, “Sincerely, Some Dude.”
I don’t know if Dude reads my column in the magazine or online, so I’m not sure if he was referring to this, this, or this. It doesn’t really matter, though—snoozy or not, that stuff was from my lame-o heart. But I get where Dude’s coming from. Truth is, I’ve toyed with writing about today’s topic for the last few months because it feels like half the emails I get are about some “rootsy” musical act or another. Every time I’ve started writing on the subject, I end up feeling mean, though. Like Rodney Dangerfield, despite my occasional fits of snark, I’m a lover, not a fighter.
But surely I can’t be alone wondering these things as I click around YouTube and various social-media holes, kicking myself for not investing in beard oil or “vintage” felt hats that look they’ve been meticulously run over by the Ice Road Truckers. You know what I’m talking about—dudes in cuffed denim jackets and at least a medium-sized beard, singing in some generic Southern gentleman brogue from atop a bale of hay. Or maybe a quaint, no-nonsense belle whose name we’re supposed to believe is Something-Something Rose, crooning a “heartfelt strummer” that sounds like it was conceived in a corporate lab owned by the makers of some magnificently mindful new sleep-aid.
If everyone’s suddenly so enamored with Neil Young, why don’t they have any of his musical adventurousness or lyrical rage?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine with denim jackets. For the first time in my life, I’ve even been sporting a beard for a couple months now. And, full disclosure, at the last NAMM prior to Covid, I noticed how cool luthier James Trussart looked in one of those vintage felt hats and, in what I can only conclude was a post-NAMM daze, I bought one off eBay. The second I put it on, I realized that, while Trussart totally pulled it off, I looked like a fucking idiot. I put it away forever.
Whenever something starts to feel bandwagon-y, it gives me the hardcore willies. Are we really supposed to believe that, sometime in the last five years, half the guys in the States just collectively decided to look like Depression-era farmhands? Nah. What happened was, the general music-listening populace finally got fed up with cheesy-ass, fake country tunes bullshitting about pickup trucks, lost dogs, and tubing down the river in the hot summer sun. Even some big country artists were like, “How much longer can I do this shit?”
More accurately, the music-industry suits divined from profitability charts that the last stupid trend was winding down and that it was time to pump a crapload of money into something else. But Almighty Data said that “earthy” vibe was still alluring, so they encouraged everyone to try to come across like a good ol’ boy or girl—only with more depth and retro-charming style. Something more “real.” But is it real? It’s very hard for me to listen to or look at most of it and not think of Bo Burnham’s song “White Woman’s Instagram.”
Here’s the recipe so many “Americana” acts seem to be following, as handed down by their favorite soulless “influencer”: Seize upon something “aesthetically pleasing”—but in the most banal, vanilla sense—then clean it up even more, strip it of anything that some OCD asshole might deem a blemish, place it in a sterile, clinically ordered environment, and make it all about all the surface-level stuff so that its potential for mass consumption isn’t ruined by icky natural anomalies.
If everyone’s suddenly so enamored with Neil Young, why don’t they have any of his musical adventurousness or lyrical rage? Why aren’t there any screeching, careening passages where shit’s barely in tune? How come the weird-ass natural vocal quirks everyone’s born with are replaced with a boardroom-tested tracheal patina? Neil embraces the chaos. Neil celebrates the fact that, half the time, he sounds like an unhinged Wiccan ready to beat the shit out of you with a a thrice-washed Ziploc full of gnarly granola. Neil’s real.Can we get some more of that, please?
You've tried a zillion pedals, guitars, and amps … it's time you tried flats. Just don't make the same mistake I did!
A few years back I somehow got it into my head that I should try flatwound strings. I don't remember if it was because of something I read on a forum, or because a pal/mentor here at PG suggested giving them a try. There are all sorts of theories about so-and-so playing them on old rock 'n' roll records, classic country albums, and surf-rock gems. But I wasn't chasing the sound of any particular genre or player. I'd been playing for a long while, and simply thought I might as well see what flats are all about. So I picked up a set from one of guitardom's most ubiquitous brands, slapped 'em on my Jazzmaster, and … couldn't get the sumbitches off fast enough. My guitar sounded so dead I wouldn't have been surprised to look down and see grime and gunk weighing them down like power lines after a Midwestern ice storm. Considering the brand's stellar reputation, I thought it pretty rational to conclude flatwounds simply aren't my thing.
But as I've hinted at elsewhere, recently I've been experimenting with how to get the most … I don't know—Gretsch-i-ness?—out of my semi-hollow Broadkaster. To put a finer point on it, I've been trying to get a woodier, more Scotty Moore-eque sound out of it. Something akin to the thumping resonance on the intro riff to Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel." (Yeah, I know Moore didn't play a Gretsch, and his guitar was a full hollowbody. But something along those lines has been my mental reference point.)
Somewhere along my subsequent guitar-dork path—post-disappointing-flatwound experience of yore—I'd read in multiple places that you shouldn't judge the flatwound experience without trying a set from the brands aficionados swear by: Pyramid and Thomastik-Infeld. Compared to what most of us are used to spending on strings, both are kind of crazy expensive. But I figured one time wouldn't hurt, especially if it got me closer to Scotty's "Cruel" tones. Plus, over and over again, other players crowed about how Thomastiks and Pyramids last quite a bit longer than other strings, which would make the switch less painful on the pocketbook if I wanted to continue using them.
Thankfully, the less-paranoid part of my brain won out, because within seconds of plugging in my ears were grinning.
So I took a chance and ordered a set of Thomastik Jazz Swing sets. I'm not going to lie, though—I had a fairly serious case of buyer's remorse after clicking the BUY NOW button. If it turned out like my first flatwound fling, I might as well just flush 30 bucks straight down the crapper. I thought about returning them once they arrived in the mail a couple of days later. And even as I wound the upscale-looking red ends through my Gretsch's Gotohs, I had a sinking feeling. "Sure, I listen to some swing and jazz, but I'm not a jazz cat! What the hell am I doing?"
Thankfully, the less-paranoid part of my brain won out, because within seconds of plugging in, my ears were grinning. That woodiness was there, along with a purer, stronger fundamental tone—but also with lovely detail and life. "Dead" was not a descriptor anywhere in my head, nor on my lips. I could evoke fretless-like lines if I wanted … but fuzz freak-outs had a new, seething-under-the-surface ferocity, too.
Will I end up putting Thomastiks on more of my guitars? It's too early to tell, but I can tell you I am sooooo glad I took a chance on these. It's opened a whole new world of sounds for my own music—none of which is slavishly traditional or old-fashioned or even in a single genre "box." My friends, this is a sonic color you really ought to try if you haven't. Just make sure you don't dismiss it without trying the pricier stuff—in fact, you probably ought to just skip right to it. Happy tone hunting!