Listening To Learn

All musicians, or aspiring musicians, learn about music as much by listening as by playing. As a member of a band or ensemble we have to listen to other musicians as we play with them, both to find the groove and to understand how our part fits with the larger whole.

But there’s another bit of listening all guitarists wishing to improve should do; and that is listening to the recordings of the great guitar artists. By listening to the masters, we gain insights into the capabilities of our instruments. Moreover, by listening to great guitarists, we gain inspiration. The masters not only fuel our desire to work harder, they also provide us a source of musical ideas that might not have occurred to us otherwise.

Most any aspiring guitar player today has heard of, and listened to, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But it’s rare for someone to explore more than the tip of his or her particular iceberg, that is, the handful of easily recognized star players of a certain genre. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, trapped by our own styles and preferences. Jazz players may listen to plenty of Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, but they barely pay attention to Ritchie Blackmore. Blues guitar players know every tune of B.B. King’s down cold, but they have rarely payed attention to Eddie Van Halen. And few modern guitar players are even aware of the contribution of niche players like Sol Ho’opi’i Ka’ai’ai.

The purpose of this article (and of the others to follow) is, hopefully, to serve as a reminder that there is a vast amount of guitar knowledge to be gleaned from listening to other great guitarists and to suggest various artists and specific recordings that all guitarists should consider owning not only because it’s great music to have in one’s CD or MP3 collection, but also because of the wealth of guitar technique and insight captured on the recordings.

Like all such collections, personal taste will obviously play a part. Hopefully no one I select here will be total undeserving of attention, but there will always be room for discussion as to the appropriateness of one choice over another. In the end, though, all such discussion is healthy if done in a way respectful of other people’s opinions. The real offering here is a challenge: Open up your horizons and explore the world of guitar music through listening to the great guitar artists.

To kick off our series, I want to give a “Top Ten” list instead of looking at a specific artist or genre in depth. But it’s not going to be your typical “top 10” type offering. We all know who would be on that list, even if we might argue about the order: Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Andres Segovia, Stevie Ray Vaughn and fill in the last slots with other perennial favorites from jazz, blues, rock and classical greats.

This “Top Ten” is the “Top Ten Great Guitarists Who Never Make Top Ten Lists But Should!

10. Al DiMeola

If you are a fan of the clean technique and blazing speed of guys like Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, then you should know of Al DiMeola. A tour-de-force in the jazz fusion world in the mid ’70’s, DiMeola was the standard for blazing speed and flawless technique. His early efforts with the group Return To Forever (which included Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke) demonstrate his huge talent and incomparable mastery of fusion jazz. He left the band in 1976 to launch a solo career. His commercial and artistic success continued into the ’80s when he joined up with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía. In the ’90s DiMeola stunned the jazz world by turning his back on fusion jazz, and recording acoustic pieces based on various cultural music styles. Fans of DiMeola will undoubtedly have a particular disk as their favorite, but it’s hard to go wrong with Land of the Midnight Sun, released by Columbia records in 1976 and readily available on CD.

9. Derek Bailey

Anyone who’s parents every complained that all they did was “make noise” with their guitar should run out and buy a Derek Bailey CD to demonstrate what real noise making sounds like. Bailey is a very different kind of musician. His recordings are dissonant, atonal, non-melodic, and at first listen seem to lack any real direction. He has sat on the leading edge of avant-garde jazz for decades and has seen possibilities in the guitar few others have ever thought of. Perhaps the best CD from the “godfather of free improvisation” is the disc Improvisation, a 1997 re-release of an obscure 1970’s recording by Italian label Cramps. Derek Bailey is an acquired taste, and maybe his recordings aren’t your idea of music at all. But the thing to take away from the Derek Bailey experience is, if nothing else, the extreme range of tones and timbre a guitar is capable of producing.

8. Jimmy Nolen

Admit it, you’ve always loved James Brown’s rhythm section. Well, the heart of that undeniably great band’s rhythm was guitarist Jimmy Nolen. Johnny Otis said “Jimmy Nolen was the founder of funk guitar, yet the very people who are influenced by him are not aware of it.” Nolen, who died at the early age of 49 in 1983 from heart failure, had a number of early gigs with Johnny Otis, including playing on Willie and the Hand Jive, however it is as the heart of James Brown’s band that Jimmy will be remembered. Nolen’s distinctive sixteenth-note strumming techniques, his choppy styling, and chord voicing defined funk, and became integrated into nearly all modern R&B, funk and even disco guitarists style. If you can find a copy of Otis’ Rock and Roll Hit Parade, Vol. 1 from 1957, buy it at any price and never let go. Otherwise, look for any of James Brown’s recordings from between 1967 and 1983. You’ll notice that Nolen is not listed on the albums, a terrible injustice to one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time.

7. Robert White

Just as Jimmy Nolen was never recognized by James Brown, Motown records never paid recognition to their great studio musicians. Motown records could be instantly identified by the style of the studio musicians, but no one knew who they were, and they were never given credit on the albums they played on. Robert White was one of Motown Record’s famed “Funk Brothers.” Berry Gordy is said to have prevented them from touring as a band because he wanted to make sure he kept his best contract musicians all to himself. White played the intro to My Girl for the Temptations. The best disc for listening to this guitar master, besides the complete Motown box set, is the soundtrack for the movie “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” the documentary film that tells the story of this group of the remarkable musicians that made up the “Funk Brothers.” While you’re at it, pick up the movie. It’s a story that deserves the telling, and the hearing and you’ll certainly agree that Robert White has contributed much to today’s guitar music.

6. Christopher Parkening

We’ve all heard of Andres Segovia, but unless you’re a classical guitarist, that’s probably where your knowledge of classical guitarists ends. Segovia’s mastery of his instrument was complete, and he could recognize the same talent in others. About Parkening, Sergovia stated that “Christopher Parkening is a great artist – he is one of the most brilliant guitarists in the world.” That alone should be reason enough to add a Parkening CD to your collection! He’s considered the best living classical guitarist in the world by many, and his devoted fans will argue vociferously that he could well be the greatest of all time. He also makes sure that his talent is shared with the world. If you happen to be near Bozeman, Montana in the summer, stop by the Montana State University Music School and sign up to take a master class with the man himself. Here, you can’t go wrong with any disc you choose, but Parkening Plays Bach from EMI is a personal favorite.

5. Paco Pena

We’ve all heard Flamenco guitarists, but few of them are household names. One that should be is Paco Pena. Pena’s biography is an amazing story of talent and dedication overcoming poverty. Pena was playing professionally by the age of ten. In his early twenties, he played at a “guitar-in” in London with Jimi Hendrix. Pena is a traditional Flamenco guitarist (as opposed to a modern Flamenco artist), and is recognized world wide for his virtuosity. If you can find a copy of the out of print, vinyl only, Paco Pena Live in London, you should definitely acquire it. For those of us with more modest means, however, the Decca label CD Fabulous Flamenco! is an excellent introduction to his music.

4. Phil Keaggy

It’s rumored that either Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, when once was asked what it was like to be the greatest guitarist in the world, answered, “I don’t know, ask Phil Keaggy.” There’s no real proof to support either version of the story, though it does seem to be the case that Hendrix called Keaggy the best “up and coming guitarist today” on the Dick Cavett show. Keaggy really came to the national seen with his early ’70s rock trio, Glass Harp. An opening act for Chicago, Yes, Iron Butterfly, Hendrix and Traffic, Glass Harp was headed for rock-n-roll stardom. But it wasn’t to be. Keaggy’s parents were killed in a car accident and Keaggy left the rock scene a born-again Christian. Musically, Keaggy has remained innovative and vibrant, but few people outside of the Christian music circles are aware of his talent. Luckily, in recent years, Glass Harp has begun playing together again, and the superb rock imrov technique that made Keaggy an initial star can be seen showcased with musicians of equal talent once again. While Glass Harp’s self-titled 1970 debut album is a personal favorite of mine, being the first piece of vinyl I ever owned, the 3-disc set Stark Raving Jams is a delight that shouldn’t be missed. Taken from multiple shows, it’s a compilation album, so it lacks continuity, but it more than makes up for that with the sheer volume of magnificent performances. If you aren’t a fan of the extended improv jam sessions, no matter how tight, check out the live acoustic performance captured on the CD Philly Live! Phil Keaggy In Concert An Evening Of Acoustic Guitar.

3. Sol Ho’opi’i

Playing his own special C# tuning of a lap steel guitar, Solomon Ho’opi’i Ka’ai’ai was unquestionably the master of Hawaiian steel guitar from his first recording session in 1927 until he gave up his musical career to become an evangelist in 1938. Sol Ho’opi’i is to steel guitar what Les Paul is to electrics; he is simply the guy that did everything first. While much of Ho’opi’i’s music is still only to be found on old ’78s, the two CD set Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, Vol. 1 & 2 shouldn’t be missed. The recordings have all the defects of any recordings from those days, and you can tell that some songs are remixed from non-masters. But it doesn’t matter, no matter how grainy the recording, Ho’opi’i’s brilliant jazz and blues styling come through.

2. Leo Kottke

People don’t normally associate the Twin Cities in Minnesota with innovative musical talent (all you Prince fans can argue about that statement all you want, it’s still true!) But that’s where Leo Kottke’s unique acoustic sound was honed. Record labels kept trying to make Kottke into a “singer-songwriter,” a mold he knew he could never fit into. For one thing, he really didn’t write that good of a lyric. But more importantly, his singing voice, in his own words, is “geese farts on a foggy day.” He rarely plays live, though he does seem to manage to get to St. Cloud State University (his alma matter) in central Minnesota on a regular basis. A master craftsman on a 12-string, Kottke has a unique sound that is all his own. Kottke’s discography is a sketchy collection, his own experimentation combined with various attempts at vocals and backing bands seems to keep coming back to haunt Kottke’s recordings. His best work is without a doubt is his solo instrumental material. Mudlark, his first album with Capitol records from 1971 is most likely his very best individual work. The 2004 release, Try and Stop Me, is a more mature guitarist, but Kottke takes far fewer musical risks than on his earlier efforts.

1. Steve Cropper

Yes, the guy from the Blues Brothers movies. Yes, I’m serious. Steve Cropper’s career took an early jump start working with Otis Redding, he’s credited with helping write (Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay and Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa (Sad Song). His work with Booker-T and The MG’s is some of the tightest soul guitar work ever. Sam and Dave, Wilson Picket, and hosts of Memphis recording acts found their sound with Steve Cropper directing the studio recording, playing himself, coming up with pithy filler riffs, and doing the mix down and postproduction work. Cropper is best known for his minimalism. A guitar genius by any stretch of the imagination, he is an absolute genius in not to drawing attention to his playing while at the same time making it the center piece of the music. Listen to Booker-T and the MG’s Green Onions or the Blues Brothers cover of Sweet Home, Chicago and what makes them stand out is the amazing guitar work, but what you hear are the bass, organ, and horns. Cropper’s amazing ability to know when just enough is enough is unmatched. If you ever find the 1981 vinyl Playing My Thang! buy it and then let me buy it from you! You can hear Cropper at his very best with the CD re-release of the 1971 album With a Little Help From My Friends and you can always pick up a Booker-T and the MG’s “best of” collection as well.

So that’s our list for this column. It’s certainly not complete, and there’s more to come. In the meantime, hopefully, you can find at least one artist here that you’ve never heard of and explore their music or find a riff that inspires you and figure out how it’s played. Maybe you’ll hear a groove you’ve never heard before and bring it to your band or try to recreate it with your home gear to jam along. And maybe you can let me know what you agree with and disagree with in my list. Maybe there’s a better disc than ones I mentioned, or maybe you really, really think that one particular artist shouldn’t have been left off this list. That’s good too – talking about our music is almost as much fun as making it!

In the near future we’ll take an in-depth look at specific artists, with the intent of introducing you to the many great musicians out there who’s work can not only be great company, but which can provide the inspiration needed to take one more step on the path of guitar mastery. If you’ve suggestions for artists to cover in future columns, please feel free to write to me at [email protected]