THE DOZENS: FRINGE GUITAR by Ted Gioia



           Guitar Magic, artwork by Don Pulver


Not everybody gets to be Hendrix or Clapton. But for every guitar hero who struts the big stage there are countless might-have-been stars working on the fringes of the music world. And as dedicated music fans know, the most exciting recordings are frequently found off the beaten track.

Below I highlight twelve guitarists whose careers exist on the fringes of the music industry. The range of styles covered here is wide. My selections move from world music to jazz, understated acoustic to sizzling electric, avant garde to traditional approaches. The only common denominators unifying this diverse list are musical excellence and an approach to the guitar that is outside the mainstream of the entertainment world.

None of figures listed below are superstars, although some have enjoyed brushes with fame, and many have devoted cult followings. They are not household names—unless you live in a very hip household. But they all bring something distinctive and original to their music, and each is deserving of your attention and a place in your CD rack or iPod.


Buckethead: Machete

Track

Machete

Artist

Buckethead (guitar, bass)

CD

Colma (CyberOctave 45380)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Buckethead (guitar, bass), Bill Laswell (bass),

Brain (drums and loops), DJ Disc (unidentified contribution)

.

Recorded: Oakland, no date given (CD released in 1998)

Albumcoverbucketheadcolma

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Buckethead

When I was about nine years old, I followed the exploits of The Destroyer, a masked wrestler who appeared regularly on Southern California television. (New Yorkers will tell you that, in L.A., this counts as high culture.) Too bad we didn't have Buckethead back then. He would have pushed ratings through the roof and had everyone rushing out to phone Richmond 9-5171. This guitarist, who invariably plays with a bucket on his head—question: does Kentucky Fried Chicken pay him endorsement money?—combines ethereal improvisation with a stage persona straight out of TV wrestling. Even the name of the track ("Machete") and the CD (Colma—a city famous for its cemeteries) adds to the over-the-edge sensibility.

Yet here is the strangest part of the story. This artist's guitar playing has no gimmickry about it. The music has a stark, open quality and—unlike the bizarre figure on stage—makes its point through understatement, especially in the opening minutes of "Machete." But don't underestimate this walking advertisement for fried chicken: when the occasion warrants, his digits can fly (lick-finger-pickin' good), and the track closes with some seriously wailing guitar. Even so, there is a cerebral and noncommercial soulfulness at work here. Heck, I'd listen to him even if he ditched the bucket, and downsized to a box or bag.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Joseph Spence: I'm Going to Live That Life

Track

I'm Going To Live That Life

Artist

Joseph Spence (guitar, vocals)

CD

The Complete Folkways Recordings: 1958 (Smithsonian Folkways 40066)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Joseph Spence (guitar, vocals).

Traditional, arranged by Joseph Spence

.

Recorded: Fresh Creek Settlement, Andros, Bahamas, July 23, 1958

Albumcoverjosephspencefolkways58

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Joseph Spence had been playing the guitar for more than 30 years when researcher Samuel Charters stumbled upon him. "When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music," Charters has written, "you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it." Charters' encounter with Joseph Spence was one of those rare moments. This artist is a true one-of-a-kind. Spence played with an unconventional tuning and a willy-nilly technique of his own invention. His recordings sound deceptively simple, but guitarists struggle to get the feeling just right when trying to imitate his style. Spence keeps melody, harmony and rhythm moving along with a boisterous energy, and his "singing"—more an exhortation than a conventional vocal—adds to the celebratory tone. This is the record to start with if you want to know how music sounds when all the commercial angles and marketing decisions are removed, and song is reduced (or "elevated" might be the better word) to a pure and perfect expression of the human spirit.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Dick Dale and His Del-Tones: Misirlou

Track

Misirlou

Group

Dick Dale and His Del-Tones

CD

King Of The Surf Guitar: The Best of Dick Dale and His Del-Tones (Rhino)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Dick Dale (guitar),

and his Del-Tones

.

Composed by Michalis Patrino. Arranged by Dick Dale

.

Recorded: May 1962

Albumcoverdickdalekingofsg

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

You thought that Miles and Trane were the only people experimenting with modes in the early 1960s? Think again. Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, was playing some crazy scales on his Stratocaster back in the day, with a little help from his friend: the Fender reverb unit. The "wet sound" from this high-tech (for 1962) baby defined a new style of play. In Dale's words, he "just started cranking on that mother." The modal sensibility came from the history of "Misirlou," which started life as a Greek popular song. But under Dale's prodigious digits, the result was a wild and unhinged instrumental that shot to the top of the Los Angeles charts, and has retained a cult following to this day. Most people believe surf music started with the Beach Boys, but there is still a hardcore group that insists that real surf music is guitar-driven and doesn't need any stinkin' vocals. For this fringe of true believers—and you are invited to join their ranks—Dick Dale is the King.

This song had an interesting afterlife. It was featured in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The Black Eyed Peas used it as the basis for their song "Pump It." And "Misirlou" was celebrated at the Athens Olympics as a masterwork of Greek music, and played at the closing ceremony. But the event organizers invited Anna Vissi, not Dick Dale, to perform it. What wusses! As punishment, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos decree 30 years of lousy waves on the shores of the Aegean Sea.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Shuggie Otis: The Time Machine

Track

The Time Machine

Artist

Shuggie Otis (guitar)

CD

The Johnny Otis Show (Epic / Legacy 53628)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Shuggie Otis (guitar),

Jim “Supe” Bradshaw (harmonica)

.

Composed by Shuggie Otis

.

Recorded: Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey, 1970

Albumcoverthejohnnyotisshow

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

He turned down a chance to join the Rolling Stones, and now lives happily amidst the apple orchards of Sebastopol, California. Who can figure out Shuggie Otis? He was one of the great prodigies of the guitar, and started making waves almost from the moment of his professional debut at age 12—sometimes wearing a false mustache and dark glasses to convince club owners that he was old enough to gig. This track, recorded when Shuggie was 17, shows what a monster he was on the guitar before he was old enough to vote. But he could also play keyboard, bass, drums, sing or write a hit tune (the Brothers Johnson took his "Strawberry Letter 23" to the top of the R&B charts) if the occasion warranted. This song is aptly named: given a feature number during a Monterey Jazz Festival program headed by his father (R&B great Johnny Otis), the young Shuggie dishes out some old school slide guitar that is drenched with soulfulness. You feel you are listening to a master, but it's just a teenage boy. You can pinpoint many successes in Shuggie Otis's career, yet I can't help feeling that this ridiculously talented artist only gave us a small glimpse of what he might have been.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Gabby Pahinui: Hi'ilawe

Track

Hi'ilawe

Artist

Gabby Pahinui (guitar, vocals)

CD

Pure Gabby (Hula Records HS-567)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Gabby Pahinui (guitar, vocals),

Sonny Nicholas (bass)

.

Composed by Sam Li`a Kalainaina

.

Recorded: Recorded in 1961, but not released until 1978

Albumcovergabbypahinuipuregabby

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Tracking down real roots music in Hawaii, amidst all the hotel lounge acts and tourist fare, is about as easy as finding a good surf spot in Bolivia. But if you persist, it can be done. I know, because I came back from the islands with a suntan and a stack of Gabby Pahinui records. Pahinui's pioneering 1946-47 recordings marked that decisive moment when slack key guitar playing emerged from its fringe existence as private entertainment in Hawaii and captivated the general public. But though Pahinui is to Hawaiian music what Diz and Bird were to bop, there were only modest financial rewards for this artist, who spent much of his career doing pick-and-shovel work on road crews.

This recording was made in 1961, but no labels were interested in it at the time, and the tapes sat on a shelf for almost two decades. Here Pahinui performs one of his trademark songs, "Hi'ilawe," in an understated, acoustic rendition that perfectly captures the artistry and personality of this seminal figure. His singing achieves a paradoxical combination of fragility and power, and his music manages (that greatest rarity in Hawaiian music) to transcend entertainment, instead communicating a sense of ritual invocation. In Polynesian cultures, people speak of mana, that supernatural aura of influence and authority that only rare individuals possess—call it Hawaiian mojo, if you will. Gabby Pahinui not only had it, he defines it.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Fred Frith: No Birds

Track

No Birds

Artist

Fred Frith (guitar)

CD

Guitar Solos (ESD 80442)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Fred Frith (guitar).

Composed by Fred Frith

.

Recorded: London, 1974

Albumcoverfredfrithguitarsolos

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Guitarists have always brandished their instruments like weapons. But when Fred Frith arrived on the scene it was like AK-47s had just hit the street. He could do some nasty stuff with his axe, and in his hands the guitar seemed capable of evoking the noise of industrial machinery, the metal-clashing clamor of colliding cars, the mind-numbing brrrrr of dying household appliances, and the relentless buzz of a dental drill looking for an exposed nerve among your back molars.

Frith's classic "No Birds"—the longest track from his essential Guitar Solos release—displays how brilliant this artist could be at his finest moments. He crafts eerie, quasi-orchestral sounds from his guitar, a modified 1936 Gibson K-11. Midway through the track he plays two modified guitars simultaneously—they were laid out on a table, neck to neck, with their bodies pointing in opposite directions—and the results take us far outside the realm of conventional chordophone music. Decades have passed since this record was made, but it still stands as a signpost at the outer limits of solo instrumental performance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Corrales: Morena De Mi Amor

Track

Morena De Mi Amor

Artist

Frank Corrales (guitar)

CD

Cantina Classics (Talking Taco / Iago 213)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Frank Corrales (guitar), Ben Tavera King (guitar).

Traditional, arranged by Frank Corrales

.

Recorded: San Antonio, no date given (CD released in 1999)

Albumcoverfrankcorralescantinaclassics

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Guitarist Frank Corrales, who passed away in 2007 after a long battle with diabetes, first made his mark in Tex-Mex music by apprenticing with the masters: the great accordionist Flaco Jiminez and Flaco's father, the conjunto pioneer Santiago Jimenez, Sr. But when he tried to step out as a leader on his own CDs, Corrales met with resistance. Many distributors refused to carry his Border Spice release, claiming that there was no market for this type of crossover. Yet in time Corrales found a larger audience, and his Cantina Classics, from which this track hails, continues to be a favorite. Heck, some of his music is even showing up as ringtones these days (the ultimate sign of having arrived as a performer in the new millennium). His music has verve and personality, and also a certain staged over-the-top quality that only adds to its appeal. If you haven't experienced the joys of Tex-Mex guitar, here is the place to start.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Steve Vai: For the Love of God

Track

For the Love of God

Artist

Steve Vai (guitar, keyboards)

CD

Passion and Warfare (Epic 68030)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Steve Vai (guitar, keyboards),

Stu Hamm (bass) , Tris Imboden (drums)

.

Composed by Steve Vai

.

Recorded: No info given (CD released in 1990)

Albumcoverstevevaipassionandwarfare

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

What a life story. Little Steve Vai starts out playing the much-maligned accordion, then advances to a high-profile role as tuba player in his high school band. But soon his love of the guitar comes to the fore, and he develops an almost legendary ability to transcribe the music from records onto staff paper. He comes to the attention of a great man with imposing facial hair, when he transcribes the daunting Black Page, and sends it to his idol along with a tape of his playing. Vai serves as an acolyte in the cult of Zappa, but soon develops a cult following of his own. And the boy—now grown to manhood—can play the bejesus out of the guitar.

But don't wait for the made-for-TV movie. Track down the CDs, especially Passion and Warfare, described by Vai as "Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc." This track, recorded in the midst of a 10-day fast, is the ultimate guitar power ballad. There is so much electricity throbbing through those six strings that my lights flicker every time I play this song. The band hints at a tango-ish rhythm, and Vai is channeling something otherworldly through his improvised lines.

And just think what Vai might have done if he had stuck with accordion . . .

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Garoto: Nosso Choro

Track

Nosso Choro

Artist

Garoto (guitar)

CD

Garoto: Historical Guitar Recordings: 1950-1954 (Chantrelle 006)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Garoto (guitar).

Composed by Garoto

.

Recorded: S�o Paulo, 1950

Albumcovergarotohistoricalguitarrecordings

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Garoto's death in 1955, a few days before his 40th birthday, robbed the music world of one of the most provocative guitarists of the 20th century. Even now, his name is typically unknown even to passionate fans of so-called "World Music," although his pioneering efforts set the stage for the rise of bossa nova a few years after his passing. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that Luiz Bonfá and Laurindo Almeida were among his protégés and that the master of bossa nova guitar João Gilberto has been active in preserving and spreading Garoto's music.

This solo track captures the distinctive virtues of Garoto's guitar work. A song such as this might fool you into thinking that it is some timeless folkloric piece . . . except that the sophistication of the harmonic movement is far too modern for any traditional work. Not until Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to fame would Brazilian commercial music have such a master of impressionistic chord changes. One suspects that this artist, born Anibal Augusto Sardinha in 1915, soaked up the sounds of American jazz when he toured the U.S. with Carmen Miranda in 1939-40. No, the rhythm is not bossa nova, but "Nosso Choro" captures the wistfulness of that later style of music. Above all, Garoto impresses with his tone control and relaxed mastery of the guitar.

Note: I also recommend Paolo Bellinati's impeccable recreations of Garoto's music. Those who find themselves put off by less-than-high-fidelity audio quality may want to start with Bellinati before moving to the original Garoto recordings.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lenny Breau: Georgia on My Mind

Track

Georgia on My Mind

Artist

Lenny Breau (guitar)

CD

Live at Donte's (String Jazz 1008)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Lenny Breau (guitar), Dick Berk (drums),

Ray Neopolitan (bass)

.

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael & Stuart Gorrell

.

Recorded: Donte's, Los Angeles, May 1969

Albumcoverlennybreaudontes

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

With his prepossessing looks, a winning personality, and a larger-than-life talent, Lenny Breau had all the ingredients for stardom. Moreover, he came of age just when guitar was starting to dominate popular entertainment, and Breau's commanding technique and expansive conception should have earned him a place at the top of the music world. He could play in a wide range of styles, and although the jazz world claimed him as its own, his performances drew on elements of everything from country to classical. This version of "George on My Mind" from a live date at Donte's shows how far Breau could push a familiar pop tune. From the opening bars, he is reconfiguring the harmonies, drawing on a sound palette more akin to Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock than your typical guitar stylings. His single-note lines push up against the limits of the changes; then, around the midpoint of his solo, he superimposes a fast waltz beat, and seems intent on forcing a "Bluesette" mood onto the Hoagy Carmichael tune. Finally, Breau shifts gears again, and as the piece draws to a close he develops a stunning counterpoint on the guitar that sounds like two musicians trading phrases. Long after his death in 1984, at age 43, this player still seems ahead of the times.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Robert Nighthawk: Black Angel Blues

Track

Black Angel Blues

Artist

Robert Nighthawk (guitar, vocals)

CD

Prowling with the Nighthawk (Document 32-20-6)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Robert Nighthawk (guitar, vocals),

Ernie Lane (piano), Willie Dixon (bass)

.

Composed by Hudson Whittaker (Tampa Red)

.

Recorded: Chicago, July 12, 1949

Albumcoverrobertnighthawkprowlin

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Robert Nighthawk lived his life on the fringe, moving from place to place, changing his name to suit his various situations. He was born Robert Lee McCollum, but none of his records was issued under that name. Instead his discography finds him called Rambling Bob or Robert Lee McCoy or finally—and most famously—Robert Nighthawk. Of course, fame is a relative thing. At the time of his death in 1967, not a single LP had been released under his name. But the musicians knew that Nighthawk was one of the greatest exponents of electric slide guitar. Nighthawk associated with Robert Johnson, and he had the rare distinction of performing at Muddy Waters's wedding, where the music got people so hot and bothered, the dance floor collapsed from the strain. Here on a classic track from 1949, Nighthawk shows off his very deep blues. This is slide guitar the way it was meant to sound. Under other circumstances, Nighthawk would have been a star, but even though his career was spent on the fringe of the commercial music world, his posthumous reputation places him among the legends.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue

Track

La Drogue

Artist

Ali Farka Touré (guitar, vocals)

CD

Red & Green (Nonesuch 79882 )

Buy Track

Musicians:

Ali Farka Touré (guitar, vocals),

Hammer Sankare (vocals, calabash)

.

Composed by Ali Farka Touré

.

Recorded: Bamako, Mali, no date given (music originally released in 1984; reissue released in 2004)

Albumcoveralifarkatoureredgreen

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Red by Ali Farka Touré This record was once so rare, it seemed more a rumor than a real disk. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw says he "felt as a gambler must feel when he hits the jackpot" after finding a copy of the Red LP in the discount bin of a Paris record store. When he played this track on the radio, fans responded with a desperate enthusiasm, frustrated by their inability to locate the obscure release. This is magical stuff indeed, the musical equivalent of pixie dust. Touré is the master of his personal, sprightly 6/8, a groove that seems to turn in on itself under his hands. His vamps are simple, but delivered with a holistic purity that will enchant you, almost as if you looked up in the sky and saw that the clouds had started forming perfect concentric circles. A few years ago, the Red and Green releases by Ali Farka Touré were finally made available on an easy-to-find reissue. So you have no excuse for missing out on this artist. Even if you only plan to buy a handful of "World Music" CDs for your collection, this one must make your short list.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Add your comments here

Check out more ‘Dozens’ here