Author: Alvira, Marco

One For All the Ages

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I held that old classical guitar in my arms as a little kid hugs a large stuffed animal. I was fourteen and learning guitar. It was well past my bedtime, but I kept practicing. Soon, however, sleep would overcome me and I would doze off with the guitar still in my hands. I would wake up in the morning after each of these episodes, to find the guitar leaning against the wall in a corner, my covers pulled to my chin, my glasses safely on the dresser, and the lights turned out. It’s amazing how mom’s watch over us even in our sleep.

Over the yeas, I have been asked many times to teach guitar. I tried it once, but soon was frustrated by the little cretin who disrespected his instrument so much that he never practiced—or at least not up to the standards that I expected. Being a middle school teacher, I see a lot of kids begin guitar. Soon they are tossed aside to the heap of Eddie Van Halen wannabies. There are the exceptions of course. I remember my daughter’s fiancé when he was still a 15 year old aspiring rock guitarist working in the local music store. Just last week he performed an amazing senior recital for his jazz studies major. For the most part however, kids learn a couple of flashy licks that go diddley-diddley-diddley, the introduction to Stairway to Heaven, a Black Sabbath tune or two and that’s it…kaput!

Of course, my statements are sweeping, broad generalities based on the observations of an increasingly grumpy ol’ codger. A quick glance at this year’s students would do go a long to proving me a liar. My classroom has three kids coming and going with their mandolin cases in tow; a couple of guitar players; and a tall popular volleyball star who also happens to be learning a few fiddle tunes on her violin. One of the mandolin/guitar players, in particular, always amuses me. I’ll sprinkle my lectures throughout the week with references to arcane seventies guitar heroes and rock bands in an effort to stump the kid, but he catches them all. This kid would have fit in with my crowd back in the day and our inane discussions.

“Who’s the greatest rock guitarist, man?”
“Dude, easy…Hendrix.”
“He doesn’t count, man. Pick someone else.”
“O.K. Jimmy Page.”
“Aw man, his tone bites. Ritchie Blackmore can smoke him.”

Those discussions were like the Escher drawing with the staircases that seem to infinitely wind around the room, always going up no matter what angle you look at them. The discussion would loop through Beck, Santana, Clapton etc. I remember telling my buddies about this one guitar player on an album that my grandfather gave me. The cover was brown and had a mule peering through a horse shoe. I told the guys that this dude could smoke…he’d be great if he played electric guitar. (I still have that album, by the way…Muleskinner. That Clarence White guy was pretty good after all!)

Anyway, this same kid sucked me into one of those loops the other day, but he had me arguing with my self. He asked, “Who’s the greatest of all the flatpicking legends?” He had recently listened to a recording of Clarence White that I had loaned him. I had to ponder that, and asked him to clarify, I mean did he mean, like who is the best? “No, who was the one that started it all…you know, the Hendrix.”

I really had to ponder and do a lot of thinking aloud. Well, Maybelle Carter was the first, that I know of in country music, to play a melody line that was actually an integral part of the song. A superstar picker, no. The godmother of it all, perhaps so. Earl Scruggs, though most famous for his banjo rolls, could also pick some lead. He had a style--common for his time, but unique by today’s standards-- in which he used a thumb pick to claw out the melody and his fingers for rhythm. It was actually a step forward from the Carter style. Another banjo player that was equally adept on the guitar as on the banjo was Don Reno. Though he was hired to play banjo for Bill Monroe in the late forties, he as often played guitar. He provides perhaps the earliest known examples of fiddle tunes actually flat picked on an acoustic (lest we forget, the late great Jimmy Bryant). Reno recorded a bunch of fiddle tunes in the seventies that he had been picking for many years. He played the same notes as a fiddle and with blinding speed. His picking was a little on the dirty side, but remarkable nonetheless. But was he the Hendrix? Naw…he couldn’t be. As good as he was, most people ignored his guitar picking at the time.

At this point, I expected the poor students to slowly be backing away, hoping to innocuously disappear as my eyes glazed over, deep in guitar lore. Yet, he held fast.

“Come on, he challenged, none of these guys seems to rival even Alvin Lee (guitarist for Ten Years After –I told you this kid was good) in their respective genres.”

Hmmm…time to move on to the heavy weights. Well, I told him, one would have to seriously look at the great Doc Watson. He was truly the first to play fiddle tunes on acoustic…and make everyone sit up straight and take notice. Mind numbing speed and precision…super clean. Great timing, rhythm, cross picking, syncopation… his playing a wonder to behold. He has influenced generations of flat pickers for decades. His music catches the spirit of fiddle playing, and then advances it to a whole other level.

The kids replied that I was actually getting somewhere now.

The next great one, I thought, would be Clarence White--the fellow whose playing had inspired the discussion in the first place. Clarence was quite a bit younger than Doc, but began to rise to prominence in bluegrass just three or so years after Doc’s rise to stardom. Clarence had all of Doc’s tools but produced a different sound…one that was more contemporary. Many of the giants of bluegrass fed at Clarence’s trough. By the look in the kid’s eyes, I could see that he felt satisfied that I had somehow corroborated an opinion that he had already formed about Clarence. At this point, he seemed ready leave…but I couldn’t let him go like that.

You know, there are a couple of pickers who thousands of guitarists emulate…two guys who look to Clarence White as their inspiration…yet who inspire a devotion of all their own, and who have, in their own right, changed that sound of bluegrass flat picking.

“You mean Norman Blake and Tony Rice,” he interrupted.

Yup…the two great masters themselves. If not Hendrix, then they are Page and Clapton. Everybody I hear today seems to shoot from either one of those two branches. Tony added jazz and rock to his picking, making it completely accessible to guitar enthusiasts of all genres. Norman Blake harkens back to an older style of music. He opens the past to the modern world…and his right and left hand work together to produce rhythms and run that are novel and completely breathtaking…the guitar player’s guitar player.

The lunch bell rang about that point. I think the kid left with more questions than answers. I suspect, however, that his query won’t stop there. One thing is certain…the kid has good hands, determination, and a good dose of curiosity…that’s a flat picker if I’ve ever seen one.

Posted:  12/5/2010

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