Lou Reed Sings “Egg Cream”

Lou Reed Set The Twilight ReelingListen to this track by New York icon and guitar-distortion enthusiast Lou Reed. It’s “Egg Cream”, an anthem to local cuisine as taken from Reed’s 1996 record Set The Twilight Reeling. The song opened the record, setting the scene in more ways than one.

Lou Reed is known for writing songs about drugs, sexual ambiguity, alienation, disease, the failure of political systems, and other aspects of the darker side of humanity and culture. He continues in that tradition with this record on a number of songs. But, here on this song, Reed breaks from the heavier topics that would characterize his work from this period.

First, he focuses on that which brings him simple pleasures; the chocolate egg cream, which is a quintessential New York beverage. And second, it’s all about the guitar on this song, sounding kind of like you’re hearing it being played from the inside, full of distorted glory. Reed plays it himself, of course. Maybe the subject matter does seem a bit lightweight for him.

But, I think it serves a purpose outside of itself.  Read more

Interview With Guitarist Matt Stevens

Listen to this track by British instrumental guitarist, composer, and the Fierce and the Dead member Matt Stevens.  It’s “Eleven” as taken from his most recent solo record Ghosts, which you can buy on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis’. It is his follow-up to 2008’s Echo, which you can also purchase on the same terms.

Where one might expect delicate melody lines and aural wallpaper arrangement in instrumental guitar composition, or flashy soloing, Stevens makes chords and rhythm prominent. Melodic value is important here. But, Stevens’ music is about texture, subtlety, and atmosphere for the creation of mood.  Sometimes, it’s about sheer attack on the fretboard, not in a showy way, but in a way that attracts the attention of the listener to appreciate its depth.

And as for genres, take your pick. Is Stevens’ music roots music, experimental jazz, post- rock?  Well, yes. But, at the same time, not really.

I spoke to Matt via email and talked to him about his unique approach to the guitar, about making records and promoting them on the Internet, and about life outside of a band as opposed to in it. Read more

Goodbye, Les Paul

Here’s a clip of the Thomas Edison of modern recording, Les Paul with his former wife and musical partner Mary Ford.  It’s the duo’s take on “World is Waiting For A Sunrise”, recorded in 1949.  Les Paul passed on today, aged 94.

When you think of guitar gods, you possibly don’t think of this unassuming guy with short, Brylcreamed hair in a suit, and hailing from Wisconsin.  But, Les Paul certainly was a guitar god, although perhaps less Zeus or Apollo and more like Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods.  For in addition to being as superlative guitarist, songwriter, and arranger, Les Paul was also a tinkerer, a recording innovator, a game-changing inventor.

And where to start with this guy?  In no particular order, he invented the solid body guitar – the Les Paul, no less – which was marketed by Gibson guitars.  The design of that guitar remains virtually unchanged today, and has been used by musicians from country picker Chet Atkins, to jazz guitar icon Al Di Meola, to top-hatted Gun (or is it Rose?) Slash, and beyond.

He also invented the multitrack recording process, which is completely taken for granted today, but was a major, major, innovation by the end of the 1940s.  Before then, songs were recorded in one room, and around a single microphone.  The listener got what came out of that set-up.

But, with the help of Bing Crosby, and the Ampex Corporation (the company would later market the recorders commercially by the mid-1950s) Les Paul devised a way where he could record himself playing multiple guitar parts, record his wife Mary Ford singing in a choir of Mary Fords, and get 16 top ten hits (including this one) before the middle of the 1950s.  And at the same time, modern recording would never be the same again.

And speaking of Bing Crosby, who owed his career to microphone technology since he was a crooner and not a shouter, Les Paul also popularized a technique where singers could cozy up to mic, and get a warm and more intimate sound – close miking.  This involved the singer being mere inches from the mic, instead of a few feet.   It was this technique which allowed Mary Ford to get her warm and bright delivery, and once again completely taken as a given today.

So, it’s easy to conclude that Les Paul is a titan, maybe one of the greatest figures of the 20th Century recorded sound.  And so, you might think that well into his 70s, he might have eased off a little in terms of being a professional musician. But, he didn’t.  Well into his 90s, Les Paul played guitar for local crowds on a regular basis at the Iridium theatre in New York City on Monday nights, even if he stopped touring the world.  And by all accounts, he was a down-to-earth, sweet guy, despite his towering achievements.

Goodbye, Les.  It’s hard to know how to say thanks.

Enjoy the clip, good people!

Andy Summers and Robert Fripp Play ‘I Advance Masked’

Here’s a clip of cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow guitarists Andy Summers (the Police) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) with the title track off of their 1982 collaboration, the instrumental I Advance Masked. This would be the first of two albums the two musicians would make together, following up in 1984 with Bewitched.  And, just as an aside, it’s Andy Summers’ birthday today!

It may seem to many that these two players were hoeing different rows of the pop music pumpkin patch. By 1981-82 when this track was recorded at Fripp’s Dorset England home studio,  Summers was a part of the biggest band in the world with several hit singles behind him and many in front.  Fripp was a part of rock’s intelligentsia, having founded progressive rock’s first tier band King Crimson while also serving as something of a technical wunderkind to other artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Peter Gabriel.

Yet, the two men shared something of a passion for exploration in the field of instrumental music, and the nature of avante-garde  improvisation.  Yet, they were not interested in what had gone before as far as guitar albums went.  They wanted to present the guitar as a textural instrument, an instrument that can allow for an atmosphere,  rather than just to lay down a bunch of flashy rock  solos.  As a result, the record wasn’t what a lot of rock fans expected, of course.  Yet, it sets out what it’s designed to do, which is to set up each piece as something of a mood, and the suggestion of a landscape or locale, with ambient sounds being as important to the whole as the melody lines are.

After recording I Advance Masked, and its follow-up, Summers and Fripp would stick to their instrumental paths, even if their respective bands would be sidetracked.  Both the Police  and King Crimson would dissolve by the mid-80s, in Fripp’s case because he was the primary mover of his band, with the King Crimson name being more about his own vision for an approach to music, rather than a stable group.  Outside of the Police, Summers would make a career out of instrumental albums, bringing in rock, jazz, and ambient sounds, which he plays with here.  And Fripp would continue collaborations with other artists such as David Sylvian, Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree, The Orb,  and with musicians in temporary groups like the League of Gentlemen and  the League of Crafty Guitarists.

When I bought the album, I was surprised by how few reference points I had for it.   I wasn’t sure about it.  But, then a lot of the subtleties began to come through for me.  There are a lot of jarring moments on this album.  They were experimenting, after all. But, there are also moments of absolute, crystalline beauty which makes me wish they’d made a few more albums together.

For more information about Andy Summers, check out Andysummers.com.

And for information about Robert Fripp, check out this interview with him that among other things discusses his meticulous (to say the least!) approach to collaboration.


Goodbye, Davey Graham

Here’s a clip of one who once sat atop the mountain of guitar divinity, Davey Graham, here with a medley of the folk-standard “She Moved Through the Bizaar” (aka “She Moved Through the Fair”) and Graham’s own “Blues Raga”.    Davey Graham recently succumbed to cancer, aged 68.

This medley had a tremendous influence on another piece of music, “White Summer”, which featured regularly in live sets by the latter day line-up of the Yardbirds, as led by one Jimmy Page, who you may have heard of.  He later formed a group called Led Zeppelin, which turned out pretty well for him.  And the Graham influence continued on pieces like “Black Mountain Side” and “Bron Yr-Aur”.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page regularly namechecked Davey Graham as an influence on his playing, and in his approach to melding together styles into a unique sound that added folk ("Gallow's Pole") and world-music textures ("Kashmir"), into the rock milieu. It’s hard to imagine how Led Zeppelin would have sounded without the textures of the Graham-inspired folk-acoustic and world-music sound offsetting the Chicago blues and British blues-rock sounds for which they are most famous. And it’s not just Zeppelin who benefited. Many musicians who grew up hearing Graham arguably never would have considered adding what is now known as world music into their compositions without him.

Music and how it influences musicians is a mysterious force.  And each musician of worth tends to pass at least something of themselves onto someone else, who in turn does the same.  But in these terms, Davey Graham was a significant conduit of this particular phenomenon, although many music fans don’t know him by name.

Although he had a low-key career, his influence on the British folk boom at the end of the 1960s created a stylistic ripple effect that has lasted up to today, thanks to legendary club date appearances and his 1962 instrumental hit “Anji” (inspiring a famous cover by Paul Simon).  His influence on early folk-rock, and even the British R&B scene is interminable, touching on artists as diverse as Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Paul Simon, and of course Jimmy Page as mentioned above.

Ironically, many of the styles Graham introduced into the folk and rock worlds hailed from the very countries that made stringed instruments like the guitar popular in the first place – India, and the Middle East being two of the most prominent, with cultural influences into southern Europe, most notably Spain where the guitar was invented in the form we now recognize it.

Davey Graham knew no limits when it came to styles on the guitar. But he was not only a virtuoso, he was a cultural ambassador to  musicians around the world.

R.I.P, Davey.

For more information about this legendary instrumentalist, and more music,  check out The Davey Graham MySpace page.

And to leave your comments and condolences, stop by http://www.daveygraham.moonfruit.com/


Jazz guitar giant Wes Montgomery Performs John Coltrane’s “Impressions”

Here’s a clip of pick-dissing, thumb-picking jazz guitar savant Wes Montgomery with one of my favourite numbers of his, a take on John Coltrane’s “Impressions”. The most famous version of Montgomery’s can be found on the live album Willow Weep for Me featuring his work from the seminal Smokin’ At the Half Note sessions, also featuring Paul Chambers on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano, and James Cobb on drums – the same rhythm section Miles Davis employed on his landmark album Kind of Blue.

Wes Montgomery 1965
Montgomery learned guitar late in life for a jazz musician – at the seasoned age of twenty. Although he played professionally with Lionel Hampton at the end of the 1940s, he was a part-time musician by the 50s, holding down day jobs and practicing late at night. He avoided picks because it was easier to play quietly using his thumb, so as not to disturb his family during his late-night practice sessions. By the early 60s, he’d signed with legendary jazz label Verve, and his real success began, recording instrumental versions of pop songs, but also playing straight ahead hard bop with a level of skill equal to any jazz player you can think of.

In this clip, Montgomery is on tour later in the year with an entirely different group of musicians (Harold Mabern on piano, Arthur Harper on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, all pictured in the clip).  Nineteen Sixty-Five was a busy year for Montgomery, putting out several albums and touring them abroad as well as on domestic club dates.

By the time touring commenced, he had something to prove to jazz critics, who’d all thought he’d gone soft by putting out more instrumental pop-oriented material. But, the tour blew any doubts out of the water, as did his live albums recorded during that period.  Montgomery was at the height of his powers here, with his unique thumb-picking style that denied all logic, but was undeniable in terms of execution.

He had less than three years to live by the time this footage was recorded, dying too soon and very suddenly in 1968 as the result of a heart attack at the age of 43.  But, he made the most out of his last years by being one of the most influential jazz guitarists ever to have drawn breath, up there with his heroes Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, both of whom also revolutionized jazz guitar. Montgomery continues to influence guitarists today, with his approach to tone and phrasing being a part of the unwritten textbook of jazz improvisation.

For more about Wes Montgomery, check out actor Anthony Montgomery’s site, Wes’ grandson. You may recognize him as Ensign Travis Merriweather from the television series Star Trek:Enterprise, among other roles.

And of course, get a greater sample of the man’s music by visiting this Wes Montgomery MySpace Page.


George Harrison Sings ‘Blow Away’ from 1979

Here’s a clip of movie producer, racing enthusiast, gardener, songwriter, and guitarist George Harrison with his poptastic 1979 song ‘Blow Away’. Oh, he was in the Beatles too.

The cover of George Harrisons self-titled album in 1979
The cover of George Harrison's self-titled album in 1979

George was an exceptional songwriter, not in the least because he had the tough job of attempting to put across material while in the same band as Lennon and McCartney. And of course he managed to match their ‘A’ material quite well with ‘Taxman’, ‘If I Needed Someone’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, and others. Although Harrison’s solo material is notoriously patchy, arguably no different than that of all of the other Beatles, the high points during his career as a solo artist often matched his Beatles output.

For instance, I’ve always loved ‘Blow Away’, a sparkling gem from Harrison’s low-key 1979 self-titled album, George Harrison. All Things Must Pass may be his towering magnum opus as a solo artist – and rightly so. But, this tune is as good as anything on ATMP. I think this is in part to do with his approach to finding his own sound, while still resting in what he’d learned while honing his songwriting craft in competition with John and Paul. Part of what helped him to do that was his way of integrating a signature guitar sound into the best of his work. And he certainly uses his mournful, melancholic slide guitar to full effect here on this tune.

Sometime in the 1970s, Harrison seemed to change his approach to the guitar, leaving his Carl Perkins-like jangle and twang behind, and taking to the slide. It’s arguable perhaps that he wasn’t interested in meeting his friend Eric Clapton on the top of guitar-Mount Olympus by trying to play like him. In this, the slide might have worked out as a way through for him, given Clapton’s disuse of it. But that’s just me speculating. Harrison was never that kind of guitarist anyway. He was a proponent of the ‘simple is best’ school, and George Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles in terms of guitar are often missed by those who aren’t paying attention. The point is, on this track George seems to make a mournful guitar part sound exactly right in one of the most optimistic songs in his catalogue, a happy tune with just a hint of melancholy. Despite a change in style, George still made a point of proving that simple was still best.

The thing I like about this song, besides the guitar, is that it seems to be drawn from a place of comfort. There’s no ‘uptightness’ in this song, which can’t be said of a lot of his material a couple of years before. This is a guy who remains to be unselfconscious about writing a straight-ahead Beatle-George pop song during a time when pop music was in the middle of an overhaul with the upcoming 1980s looming. There’s something in it which kind of suggests an autumn day after a fantastic summer. What with this tune being one of the last of the Beatles solo singles to be released before the end of the ‘will they or won’t they’ era of hoped-for Beatles reunions, perhaps that’s just what it is.

Check out the George Harrison official website for more information about Harrison’s legacy as guitarist and songwriter.


100 greatest guitar songs list from Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone have published their list of the 100 greatest guitar songs, which you can peruse for yourself here.

Electric guitarLists are funny things. People love ’em and hate ’em all at once. But, whether you think they’re a good thing or not, at least they get people talking, don’t they? Most likely, you’ll find the usual baby-boom era-centric selections on here, which may not be a surprise. After all, this is Rolling Stone. But, it could be argued that the vocabulary of rock guitar playing was established in the rock n roll and 60s pop eras. Having said that, a few tunes like B.B King’s “How Blue Can You Get” and Paul Butterfield’s “Look Over Yonders Wall” which features the largely unsung guitar-hero Mike Bloomfield‘s scorching slide playing, represents some of the lesser known tracks that makes the era such a rich vein of guitar innovation. I would have put something by Peter Green on there. But, you can’t have everything, I guess.

Still, it would have been nice to see the Smiths crack the top ten, instead of number 90 with “How Soon is Now” (I would have chosen “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, of course). Having said that, it’s nice that The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” scored pretty high at number 20. And I guess the Nirvana entry at number 10 (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”) was also meant to address the criticism that all of the other entries are firmly “classic rock” in their alignment. But I would have liked to have seen a few more from the new wave era too, an era which is perhaps not known for flashy guitar playing. But, have you heard Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze on their song “Another Nail in My Heart“? It’s not a flashy solo, but it’s interesting, making you wonder how he’s going to bridge the verse into the chorus, and then manages to do it brilliantly. And the solo is fairly oddly placed near the beginning of the song, instead of the usual place for the solo in the middle. This adds a bit of a pleasant surprise to the ear, and makes the song a more interesting listen. This is what a great guitar solo is supposed to do – make the song stronger.

It also would have been nice to see a bit of a less electrified list – a few more acoustic guitar entries might have made for a more balanced list – Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, Davy Graham, Kelly Joe Phelps – all would have made the list if I ran the zoo. But, so would Bruce Cockburn, who is regularly left off lists like this one. I think this may have to do with the fact that the list is aimed at the American rock fan, who is generally not interested in music out of which a lot of rock music is derived, or those songs by guitarists not well-known in the States. Fair enough. Rolling Stone have to sell magazines, right?

But, what is a good sign is that a lot of über-flashy players and songs are left off in favour of a few with a more minimalist approach. So, Steve Cropper makes it with “Soul Man” (although I would have listed Booker T. and the Mgs’ “Green Onions” over that one for Cropper’s playing – but I’m quibbling). And Link Wray makes it for “Rumble”. Nice. Maybe Rolling Stone deserves the credit for some of the inclusions to the list that go beyond the regular expectations of their readership. Heck – I’m just glad that Satriani and Malmsteen aren’t on there, bless ’em.

What do you think, good people? What’s not on the list that should be? What should have scored higher? What should have been left off of the list?

Guitar image courtesy of mikelao26.

Goodbye, Jeff Healey

Jeff HealeyBlues guitarist and jazz enthusiast Jeff Healey passed away yesterday of cancer. He was 41.

Read the full story here.

Besides some songs he had on Canadian radio at the end of the 80s, the thing I remember best him from was the 1989 movie Roadhouse in which he played, and wasn’t it a stretch, a blind blues-rock musician.

Here’s a performance of the title song from that movie, first made famous by the Doors: “Roadhouse Blues“.

Healey would expand his palette in more recent years as a jazz DJ, playing rare tracks from his own collection of music, many cuts taken from the original 78s.

‘Bye, Jeff.

Image courtesy of ckaiserca.

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers.

It’s Andy Summers’ birthday today.

Click the image to see the Police play in front of a group of journalists just before the band embarked on their 2007 reunion tour.  The song is a medley of two Police album tracks from the band’s third album Zenyatta Mondatta, two storming tunes that not many people realise are so good; “Voices Inside My Head/When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”. Note the scorching solo from Summers, betraying his love of jazz playing.

the Police 2007

Most know Andy Summers’ work in the Police. But, he was active well before his job with Sting and Stewart Copeland. He started as a contemporary of Eric Clapton, active in the London R&B scene with the Zoot Money Big Roll Band. Among other bands he’s played with are Dantalian’s Chariot, Eric Burdon & the New Animals, and a brief stint with The Soft Machine, with whom he toured but didn’t record.

For a more in depth look at this fascinating musician, read Andy’s autobiography, One Train Later, which covers his years with these bands, along with his most famous role as guitarist in the Police.

Happy birthday Andy!