Tuesday, March 15, 2005


A lot of music sites out there are concerned with lists - and people seem to respond to them. I'll admit to being intrigued about people's opinions and as a result I tend to read a lot of the lists, but I have never been too comfortable ascribing any sort of hierarchy to lists I generate. I mean, of the greatest people ever, who's better: Whitey Ford or Neils Bohr? How do you even begin to make such a comparison.

Even within music, I have a hard time. Is Steve Morse better than Charlie Christian because he can play more notes? Shouldn't Charlie Christian's inventiveness and influence count - not to mention the fact that he was a black man in a mixed jazz band in the 30's playing electric guitar? I honestly don't know.

At the same time, I think it is important for me to give an accounting of my influences if for no other reason than to maybe frame in context some of the music that I perform with The Yeti Trio. So here's my list of influences, done in a timeline fashion with no weight given to who is "better". Also note that I am only listing those artist who contributed directly to my playing style. There are TONS of musicians out there (guitarists and otherwise) that I do not list here; not because I do not respect or admire their work, but simply because their style was too dissimilar to the playing to which I aspired at the time I discovered their work.

Biggest influences on my guitar playing: ages 15-20
Duane Allman / Dickey Betts
I have to be honest here, right? I don't often talk critically about the music of the Allman Brothers Band, as I think that to do so would seem slightly disingenuous, or even downright biased. The fact of the matter is they were, between 1970 and 1971, the most important rock band on the planet. (How's that for hyperbole!) Usually, when you read someone describing the history of the ABB, it is about this time that the word "tragedy" is invoked. I'm going to steer clear of that. To me, the most unfortunate thing is the reputation and connotations that are unfairly associated with their music. I blame Rolling Stone.

In as much as they influenced my playing... let's just say that I found their music to be "accessible" - for more reasons than usual.

Eric Clapton
I still have a great big soft spot in my heart for 461 Ocean Blvd. and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The thing to understand about Clapton is that, even from an early age, I got the fact that the reason he is admired so much has almost nothing to do with his chops - the technical nature of his playing. To be honest, there really isn't all that much to an Eric Clapton solo, when you sit down and analyze it. Instead, what is to be learned from Clapton is the application of phrasing and space. If you play something recognizable and repeat it - the cumulative effect can be pretty powerful. However, overuse can be pretty boring.

Jimi Hendrix
So every poll ever has Hendrix at the top of their "best guitarists" list - and I bought into it big time when I was a kid. I still remember very clearly thinking that I had really accomplished something when I learned the intro to "Little Wing".

B. B. King
The first memory I have of being floored by a guitar solo was from listening to the "Sweet Little Angel / It's My Own Fault / How Blue Can You Get" medley from the Live at the Regal album. The thing I discovered about how to construct solos from B. B. King was that there was more than one way to go about it. If you look at the way that Duane Allman or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix played their solos, they predominantly used the G and top E strings for their bends and runs, where B. B. King favored the B string. The advantage of doing this is that you have the E string under your bends to add 5ths and 6ths with relative ease - no easy task when you make your bends on the top E string. Also - this method is better suited to people with bigger fingers, as it allows you to add your note mobility over more of the fretboard rather than sticking to one position over 3 or 4 frets.

Roy Buchanan
I just love the dichotomy of this guy. His singing makes Bob Dylan sound like Al Green, but man could he play guitar. His album That's What I am Here For was the one I used to play for my friends in high school to prove I knew more about music than they did - because NOBODY in Wauchula, Florida had ever heard of this guy, and invariably they were blown away.

...ages 20-25
Jeff Beck
Specifically Blow By Blow, Wired, and There and Back. These albums were my first real steps into a larger musical world, as they introduced me to modular melody and solo construction. Up until then, all my improvisations had been over 5 note scales, and while I had studied some diatonic theory and knew how to read music - I didn't have the examples of how to apply it to improvisation. The great thing about Jeff Beck was that, while the tunes were relatively complex, the melodies and his improvisations were very accessible. This meant that I could begin by learning the cool stuff (the solos) and work backwards into a more complete understanding of the composition - gaining more knowledge as I went. To this day, when someone asks me about how to get better at guitar, my first response is "Do you have Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow?"

Steve Morse
The Dixie Dregs were another of the bands on Capricorn Records (the ABBs record label) that I had always heard growing up, but it wasn't until I started to understand a bit more about music that I began to appreciate exactly what was going on. In terms of having the ability to play any piece of music with an enormous range of tambres, I don't think any guitarist does it better than Steve Morse, and after listening to Freefall, What If? and Night of the Living Dregs a few times, Steve Morse quickly replaced Jimi Hendrix as the "gold standard" to which I aspired. One of the things I was proudest of at the time was the fact that the bar band I played for in college did a cover of "Take it Off The Top", and we were the only band in Tallahassee that did any Dixie Dregs stuff.

John McLaughlin
When I was in high school and I started getting serious about music, my dad and I would have conversations all the time about which musicians I thought were great and he would inevitably point me in some direction for more stuff. I remember talking with him about Jeff Beck once and he suggested that I listen to some Mahavishnu Orchestra. Well, I went down to the local record store in Sebring, Florida and perused their very limited jazz collection and indeed found a cassette by the Mahavishnu Orchestra called Adventures in Radioland. I remember thinking that the guitarist was indeed pretty good, but the compositions were all angular and weird - and they didn't really hold my attention that well.

When I got to college and my dad and I talked more frequently (since we both lived in Tallahassee), he told me that I'd not picked the Mahavishnu Orchestra's best stuff and that I should go find The Inner Mounting Flame. Well I found it at a used record store on vinyl, but didn't have a turntable. Eventually, I found someone who did (that's a story in and of itself - if you get the chance, ask me about Kassy and Godspell sometime) and I dubbed my LP onto cassette.

That did it - after that, the cassette never left my walkman. I spent literally 8 months listening to nothing else. I learned that album backwards and forwards. It became an obsession. John McLaughlin's solo on "Meeting of the Spirits" is still one of the finest pieces of improvisation I have ever heard. As a side benefit, I got to go back to Wauchula and play it for all the musician friends I had made in high school who were into 80s hair metal bands, and watch their jaws drop.

Mike Stern
The guy that worked at the used record store in Tallahassee was also a guitarist and we became pretty good friends. He introduced me to the music of Mike Stern and I developed a real affinity to the album Upside Downside. One of these days, I am going to get a group of musicians together to do a left coast fusion thing and we're going to do "Little Shoes". I think that song is just beautiful, and I think that Mike Stern's improvisations are inspired.

Mark Knopfler
I'd obviously heard all kinds of Dire Straits growing up - it was hard not to. But I remember seeing something on MTV or something where they were playing a video of "Sultans of Swing". I remember watching Mark Knopfler's right hand (his picking hand) and thinking "I've never seen anyone else that plays pickless in the same way that I do!" so I started paying closer attention to what he was doing. What a great surprise that turned out to be! These Dire Straits songs I'd heard forever turned out to be little masterpieces, and a lot of the ideas I'd formed about phrasing had to be completely thrown out thanks to Mark Knopfler.

...ages 25-30
Frank Zappa
My initial introduction to Frank Zappa's work was Absolutely Free, and at first I developed an affinity to the early Mothers of Invention material. The attitude and the humor elements really spoke to me at the time (still do actually). Then I heard "Inca Roads" from One Size Fits All and I became aware of just what a talented guitarist Zappa was. He didn't really play normal notes in the normal way, but at the same time, he didn't really play "out" either - like, say, Vernon Reid. He just had a knack for playing the same notes I already knew, but with different emphasis, different rhythmic constructs, and different interval configurations. Just like everything else FZ touched - it was a real eye-opener in terms of what is possible in music.

Ralph Towner
If there is one name on this list that will make the average person say "who?" it is probably Ralph Towner - which is one of the supreme musical injustices of our time. I can write volumes about how great I think Ralph Towner is. If you've never heard him - just go find anything by him, either solo, with ECM artists, or with Oregon. It's all amazing. There are a handful of recordings that, even after years of study, I cannot find a starting point for learning to perform the piece myself. The song "Nimbus" from his 1973 Solstice album is one of them. If anyone knows how he has his 12 string tuned for this piece, I will pay money for that information.

Django Reinhardt
Django's story is one of the best in music history, and his talent was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Before I started The Yeti Trio, I had told my friends that I either wanted to put together a scary free-form fusion band or a Gypsy-style string band a la the Hot Club of France.

...ages 30-present
Jimmy Herring
When I am asked who I think is the best of all the guitarists making music today, I tell them Jimmy Herring. The main reason I do this is to peak their interest and make them go find some ARU or Jazz is Dead or Frogwings stuff. Jimmy is amazing - and nobody, and I mean NOBODY, has ever been as good as he is and as nice as he is simultaneously.

John Scofield
There's a concept in music that I like to call "the correct wrong note". Simply stated, it is the ability to drop in a single note or phrase at the exact right time which falls outside of the stated key but makes the music much more interesting. From a compositional perspective, think Paul Hindemith (thanks for that one, Brooks). No improviser is better at this than John Scofield. It is a difficult thing to master, as it takes an innate sense of compositional theory, even when improvising, to pull it off. It is something I have tried to get my brain around ever since I heard "Wabash" from Scofield's Loud Jazz album way back in the early 90s.

Charlie Hunter

I was at Criminal Records in Little Five Points a few years ago when I heard this really funky jazz quartet playing - guitar, bass, sax, and drums. I asked the guy at the counter what it was and he told me it was the Charlie Hunter Trio. Well, I bought the CD on the spot and listened to it a great deal, but could never figure out who the bass player was. I had guessed (incorrectly) that is was Les Claypool since he was credited on the CD as the producer. Then I saw that the Charlie Hunter Trio was playing at a local club, so I went to see him. When I saw that he was playing the guitar and bass parts simultaneously on a custom made 8 string guitar, I was stunned. I've seen some of the best players in the world live but this was the first time I had left a performance thinking "it's over, I can't top that. I quit!" Well, if you have seen the Yeti Trio live you know that I do a small amount of the bass / guitar thing on my MIDI rig (though I don't claim to be anywhere near as proficient as Charlie Hunter at it). Now you know who to thank for that.

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad)
If there is one recording that I keep going back to, year after year, and discovering more and more about music, it has to be Trout Mask Replica (take THAT jaguaro.org). I can play Mahavishnu, Chick Corea, even King Crimson by ear but I've never been able to fully pick apart even one track on this album. It's my Finnegan's Wake. It's my grand unified theory. It's my "Fermat's Enigma". It's my white whale. I've made a promise to myself that I'd learn to play these things and transcribe them all for the ages (since no transcriptions currently exist - no good ones anyway).

Oh, by the way, Bill Harkleroad, aside from tackling the immense task of arranging those classic 28 songs for Trout Mask Replica, is also a darn good songwriter and improviser. Go and get We Saw A Bozo Under The Sea and check it out.


Blogger Blue Morris said...

Thanks for your interesting blog. Re: "the correct wrong note": I really like this idea and I hope you don't mind if I use it some time. I promise I will attribute it to a Yeti.

However, I find the more I dig into music theory the more I find everything is connected. What at first does not appear to belong, does belong. But to find the connection, one has to dig deep. Dig deep enough and you may find any note can work at any time, so long as the preceding and following notes provide a context for the "wrong" note.

But to the improvising musician, what we hear in our head is what goes. We haven't time to analyse. If it's the wrong note that sounds perfect, it's the right note to play.

I have lots of writing similar to this on my site. Check it out and give me a link on yours if you like it:


3:47 PM  

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