Monday, July 11, 2011

Fingerpickin' Good

Sean Siegfried--"Sam's Brewery" (mp3)
Sean Siegfried--"Passionate Rag" (mp3)

You will think this is about playing guitar, but it's really more about listening to music. If there was mandatory training for guitarists, especially for those who expected to be in situations where they must accompany themselves with no one else to help, then fingerpicking should be at the top of that skill list.

Strumming, unless there is something unique about it, is boring. Oh, the singer can get away with it for a song or two. If he or she has interesting chord changes, like Joni Mitchell, or a dramatic, percussive attack, like the Edge or Billy Bragg, then strumming can be pretty interesting to listen to. But song after song after song that is simply strummed, regardless of how interesting the melodies might be, creates a flat, redundant presence. If you're listening to it, or at least if I am, you can't help but wonder, 'Couldn't you spend a little more time learning how to play the guitar?' or 'Don't some songs benefit from the different kinds of rhythms you can get by picking individual notes or pairs?' The answer to both questions should be yes.

And that's where fingerpicking comes in. While there are all kinds of patterns to fingerpicking, the basic technique involves alternating bass and treble strings. Put simply, it makes the guitar sound more like a piano.

The first song I learned to fingerpick was Paul Simon's "The Boxer." It's a fairly basic version of what I've just described, with a few little tricks like descending bass runs and some strumming on the chorus for sheer volume, but when I got it down, I knew that I had made a big leap in my guitar-playing abilities. Suddenly, any song that I had been strumming I could alter dramatically by putting it to (even a basic) fingerpicked pattern instead. From there,

But this isn't about me so much as it's about fingerpicking, the beauty of it, the joys of hearing it. As I've mentioned before on these pages, I first got a taste of it in the 1970's. The "gateway drug" of fingerpicked guitar for me was Jorma Kaukonen's Quah, a collection of stunning acoustic songs that built on his study of the Reverend Gary Davis and other solo blues players. From there, the journey went sideways, backwards, and forwards all at once--Leo Kottke back to John Fahey and over to Peter Lang, instructional stuff from Stephan Grossman, a splash of Leon Redbone, a journey out to the West Coast and Bob Hadley, a guy who I think was a street musician. How he got recorded and how I got his records, I don't really remember. Eventually, I travelled all the way over to Windham Hill, that record label with George Winston and all of that kind of light, airy, a little out there jazzy stuff. The guitar players were particularly ethereal and probably somewhat to blame for the "New Age" stuff that followed.

Fingerpicking itself, though, is guitar for guitar's sake. Somewhere along the way, the singing either became secondary or dropped out all together, and I realized that I was seeking out songs just to hear the picking. Largely, though, fingerpicking has either fallen more to the side, has been pushed to the fringe, is an esoteric pursuit. Too bad. There are so many life situations where there is no better soundtrack that a fingerstyle guitar piece.

The journey does continue. A few years ago, I came across The Art Of Fingerstyle Guitar, a collection of pieces by different performers, mostly British, I think. It may be that I play this CD more than any one that I own. It is a Sunday morning CD, a working-casually-in-the-office CD, a conversation with friends CD (where they get to talk, and I get to the CD!).

And, finally, a month or so ago, we received through our BOTG mailbox, an offering from a British guy named Sean Siegfried. They have their own brand of fingerpickers over there--Bert Jansch (a major Neil Young influence), Dave Evans, and others. When I played Mr. Siegfried's stuff, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, among the glut of somewhere-between-almost-and-not-quite-there musical submissions we receive, here was an accomplished musician whose playing skills seemed to exceed his years and whose songs drew from an old, deep river. I exchanged a few emails with him, and I was so uplifted to discover that fingerpicking is alive and well and in good hands. Literally.

Sean Siegfried's EP is available at his website here.

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