Monday, December 11, 2006

Concepts in Flux

Due to interest in my recent podcast and questions from my students, I’ve had to think and talk a lot lately about my approach to the guitar. As with all things, it’s in a state of flux. Change is afoot in this chaos-ruled universe.

Over the past 5-6 years all of my guitar playing has been improvised in non-standard, "open" tunings. About 30% of my guitar playing has been done with some sort of bottleneck slide. Ironically (or hypocritically) enough, I teach using “standard” tuning! This struck me powerfully the other night – as if music for me exists in two separate worlds: the world of personal, artistic expression and the world of non-performance, non-art pedagogy. It should be one world = one music. Right? RIGHT??

Plus, the world of standard tuning (i.e. western music pedagogy) sorta sucks.

Standard tuning on a guitar is one of the most convoluted, un-intuitive and confounding systems in organized music. It’s the kind of thing that HAD to have been invented by a few aristocratic, European whites as a way of preventing the indigenous peoples they had just conquered from playing their precious, studied “classical” music. Standard tuning on a guitar is such that you HAVE to study the thing for a LONG time before you can actually have fun and/or make music. As Bob Brozman says, “…standard tuning should be called CRAZY tuning.”

“Standard" tuning is actually not the most commonly used tuning throughout the world. Most common are “open” tunings, where the unfretted (open) strings ring out as a chord or drone. If by simply strumming one finger across the strings without having to do anything else to get a pleasing sound, then you’re making music. From there it’s pretty simple (and intuitive) to find a few other notes to create melody, etc and make your statement (from the heart, not the head!)

The guitar didn’t become an instrument of the people, or even a popular instrument, until it spread throughout the world through COLONIZATION. In these colonized areas of the world the guitar was tuned “open” and became an instrument of the masses. Some of the early cultures of open tuned guitar popped up in Africa, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and even the continental United States on the slave plantations (in an extention of African idioms). Another characteristic feature of this culture of open tuned guitar is the use of a device (usually glass or metal) to slide individual or multiple notes in pitch on the guitar. This is where things get really interesting since at this point one enters the world of microtonality. Microtonality is where the heart and soul of human musical expression exists. Of course the irony now is that white, European descendents (like me) are benefiting greatly from these innovations in the post-colonial (apologies to Michel Foucault) world.

This brings us back to where I was talking about my current approach to the guitar. I’m finding that my personal music is becoming more and more microtonal. Now I’m playing about 90% slide guitar in open tunings, most all of it all improvised. I’ve even gone so far as to begin playing “lap style” with the action jacked up so high it’s impossible to fret the notes and the only pitches (outside of open strings) to be obtained HAVE to be played with a slide. This is a very humbling way to play the guitar. It is forcing me out of my clichés and “automatic actions”. It’s making me much more melody conscious and it’s making me much more aware of shaping the attack and release of pitches, with subtle inflections of tone and nuance.

This is the stuff that is VERY exciting to me right now!

So here's the only guitar lesson anybody really needs: fool with the tuners until it sounds good to you, wiggle your fingers, enjoy, share.


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