The Right Music- Road Dog- Spring ’04
The idea of the “rightness” of any art form would drive my old philosophy teachers crazy, given the subjectivity of making such judgments. Nonetheless, we all seem to recognize, or the skin on the back of our necks does, at least, when someone gets it right. The last two Road Dogs have been about trying to list some folks who do it for me and my readers, and to describe a little bit about why. Why did Ralph Stanley strike such a chord (no pun intended, since it was acapella anyway) with simple and well-circulated tune like “Oh,Death?” I’m content to let the goosebumps define what is right for me- my body seems to know before my mind does when a musician has hit on a way of playing, sounding, and interacting with his instruments that move me to the core. That’s my loose definition, and I’m sticking with it.
Let’s try some categories first-
Arranging rightness. I see José Feliciano (with Light My Fire) as a perfect example of this category. He looked at a warhorse of existing rock material and found a voice in it that was so unique as to be akin to having created stellar new music. Miles Davis and Gil Evans with Sketches of Spain would be others who synthesized existing materials into something musically new and exciting.
Performing rightness, Lots of examples here, but a classic would be Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. He rose to the occasion, so that even the too often-performed Star Spangled Banner became truly goosebump-worthy. (You could throw that performance into the arranging category as well). Any good performer with a good stage, good sound, and good instruments can tap into this wellspring on a good night.
There’s compositional rightness. Someone who has mastered the musical forms of his times, like Bach or Mozart, or someone who has created new ones that seem to expand our notions of what a composition can be, yet fit perfectly at the same time. I would place folks like Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, David Grisman, or Michael Hedges in this category. They create a sense of musical architecture, of inevitability, of command of both sides of the musical brain, intellectual and intuitive.
To me, the most important catgory for us guitarists to consider is the notion of instrumental rightness. Skilled visual artists regard clay, oil paints, iron, welding torches, or textured brushes with these operative questions: What are these materials good for, how do I master them, and what can I make with and from them? How might I use them to communicate, and what sorts of communications will they allow or amplify?
You might decide not to try to create delicate small-scale art with a welding torch and sheet iron, or use small watercolor brushes to communicate on a mass outdoor scale. On the other hand, you might find that you could make a stunning visual statement on a grand scale with the metal sculpture tools, and an equally stunning piece of art that would best be appreciated from a couple of feet away with the watercolors and brushes. So it is with music composition, arrangement, AND performance.
Look at the tools that we have been given- Guitars in about 5 or 6 sizes, with either 6 or 12 steel strings on them (for the most part). We have fingers and nails, we have flatpicks, fingerpicks and/or thumbpicks, we have a choice of dozens of ways of tuning these instruments, then we have outboard tools to bring to bear on them. This gives us a large variety of ways to tune and to play these strings
Creative guitarists should certainly regard their fingers, their picks, their tunings, slides, guitar mutes, the 12-string, the Ebow, their tools of amplification, etc., in the same manner that the questing visual artists looked at their tools above. What can we communicate with these tools, and how can we do it? What ways can we find to compose, to arrange, and to make music in this creative partnership between the physical skills that we have on guitar, the intellectual skills that we have mastered about the nature and properties of music, and our own emotional and spiritual natures and needs?
Those who find good answers to these questions make our Chicken Skin lists, because the listener intuitively recognizes the rightness of such discoveries. Listen to Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, to Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries, to Leo Kottke’s first recording, Six and Twelve-String Guitar, to Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky or to Tony Rice’s incendiary solos on The David Grisman Quintet, and you’ll know that these folks found some new answers to those questions, and thus were able to drive their music towards that sonic wonderland where instruments and voices with which we are very familiar instruments and voices become exciting, innovative, and RIGHT. They invented something, and our ears, spirits, and the backs of our necks somehow recognized the quality of it at once.
These folks have managed to master the current forms AND also to discover new ones- ways of using the instrument that “work.” The rightness of certain ways of interacting with the guitar seems almost self-evident once you hear it- William Ackerman discovered one, so did Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, so did Robert Johnson, so did whoever discovered the slide in G tuning. That’s our challenge as listeners- to keep finding music like that. For players, that is an ultimate goal, our Holy Grail- spending time with our guitars exploring all of the undiscovered and under-explored territory, bringing our hearts, minds, techniques, hands and tools to the creative process in hopes of creating more of this musical rightness.