Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, January 29, 2004


Intense individualism is not strictly an American or even a Western thing (“Western” as in Western Civ, not John Wayne). I don’t know whether it’s a Rule, but in reading about masters of classical Indian music, I’ve been struck by how many of them made fundamental alterations to their instruments, sometimes to the extent of inventing a new instrument. Over and over again, a master classical musician will add one string or several to his instrument, or fundamentally change the bridge, or design a longer flute, or add keys, so that not only is their Style individualistic, but so are the very Sounds they make, and the way they make them.

At first blush, parallel examples in American music are few. Clarence White, the great country-rock guitarist of the Byrds, designed a device to bend the B-string of the guitar in a way that gives it the capability of imitating pedal steel guitar sounds. A folk-style guitar and banjo player told me that Pete Seeger designed a 5-string banjo with an extra long neck; my acquaintance showed off his Pete Seeger-style extra-long neck 5-string banjo and said, a little embarrassed, “Everybody went out and got one.” The contemporary alt-country-rock guitarist Junior Brown designed something he calls the guit-steel, a double-neck guitar with a standard guitar neck and a country-style steel-guitar neck.

Then again, if you count the amp and the special effects as part of the instrument -- and I think you should -- probably a lot of rock guitarists and keyboardists and some bassists have designed fundamental alterations to the electric equipment through which the sounds pass and are altered. Starting with Les Paul. And! I just remembered: A high school electric-bassist friend asked a science wiz pal of his to build him a distortion box that when activated would turn the entire instrument into a wonderfully garish white noise bomb generator. It was great; my friend used it only when the music called for a white noise bomb. I’m sure there are tons of examples like that, people designing their own electric effects.

Tonight driving home from work, on the local college alt-rock-alt-country-rap-reggae station, a virtuoso guitarist was ripping a long blues solo over standard 12-bar changes played straight and fine and medium-slow by a bassist and drummer. Hmm, who’s this? Nothing really new here in tone or melodic approach, but blazing speed and tasteful blues licks, and, oh! a few country licks, almost like a pedal steel guitar. Something of a Hendrix-y ‘60s tone, not as meaty as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound. Impressive chops, definitely worth a listen. Then after several choruses of guitar, a low-voiced southern white singer comes in with banal boasts about what this “country boy can do” with his “guit-steel.” It’s Junior Brown, which I should have been able to tell from the country pedal-steel-sounding licks, played on his very own unique guit-steel.

It’s weird. He can play anything he wants on the guitar, but it seems that all he wants to play is a pastiche of other people’s blues-rock and country licks. The rhythm section is tight as a good bar band but less inspired than most (though seeing the band live would probably improve my experience of them). The pastiche was unique, but he appeared to get no pleasure from his boasting, and I kept on hoping for something more. My apologies if you’re a Junior Brown fan. I can see why someone would like it -- it’s solid and he blazes and his hybrid instrument is very cool.
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