Monday, September 03, 2007

The Blue Guitar, and Other Adventures in Tuning



On the way down to Chicago in mid-July, where I was in the recording studio for a couple of nights, I stopped in at the local Goodwill retail store. Sometimes the powers that be hint really loudly about what you're supposed to do next in life. There was a Washburn Lyon acoustic guitar "kit" there, the kind sold as a beginning instrument at Target stores; it was in mint condition, complete with soft case, strap, the usual extras; plus an instructional DVD. The list price is around $129.00 at Target; they're not bad starter guitars, actually. Goodwill was asking $79.00 for it. I wandered around awhile, thought about it, went back and looked at it some more. Then the store manager came up to me and asked if I was interested. I said yes, but not at that price. So she knocked off another 20 bucks from their asking price, and I walked out of Goodwill with a brand new acoustic guitar for around $60.

This is the second acoustic guitar that has been presented to me this summer; the first time was a similar purchase at the same Goodwill store, of a cheap guitar with all the trimmings. That previous time, in June, it was a bright blue guitar, a smaller instrument, not much more than a toy really, for around $40. It's the lesser of the two instruments; the Washburn is really a better guitar overall. But the blue guitar is fun, and something I can take camping without caring what happens to it. When I was camping in northern Minnesota in August, in fact, I recorded some short sketches sitting in my tent. Sort of in the John Fahey or Leo Kottke tradition of quirky short tunes with odd titles: Sketches of Squirrel Highway, and Squirrel Highway Blues.

So, I now own two acoustic guitars, both purchased at ridiculously cheap prices at a thrift store. Like I said, sometimes the powers that be hint really loudly about what you're supposed to do next. I guess I'm supposed to teach myself acoustic guitar now; it being one of the few stringed instruments I've never learned to play. (I have a mountain dulcimer and a zither, among other things.) And it's not the first time Goodwill's been musically good to me; a few years ago, I got a set of pro-quality orchestral bells at a Goodwill for $45, if I recall.

Being the subversive musical experimentalist that I am, at root, I fully expect to resist any sort of normal or conventional guitar approaches during my learning curve. The first thing, of course, is I'll probably tune it in a "non-standard" tuning; likely in straight fourths. Maybe some weird John Rebourn-style open tuning, who knows. In fact, it is common in acoustic folk guitar circles to use "non-standard" and open tunings. Open tunings allow some chords to feature open strings, which add resonance and body to the chord.

I've never played guitar in my life; in fact, I've resisted it for years. At various times in my life, having been stepped all over by egotistical guitarist front-men in various bands, I developed a prejudice against rock guitar players. I've been proud to play in a couple of bands that were openly labelled "Guitar(ist)-Free Zones." So, while I may have occasionally been anti-guitar(ist) in the past, I guess I'm stuck now. I don't plan to be just another guitarist, or pursue any kind of copycat game. Why do something that everyone else has already done? Far better to go off in a new direction.

Acoustic guitar promises to be a useful addition to my tonal palette to have available for future recordings. I don't expect to practice enough to ever become more than an amateur and idiosyncratic guitarist. It's just good to expand the range of one's musical capabilities, whenever possible. Learning new instruments is always pleasurable.

I've always liked classical guitar and folk guitar more than any other kind. Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, John Williams, Michael Lorimer, have always been favorite performers. I'm a folkie from way back, and I'm classically trained, plus I studied lute-songs for awhile; I am a serious John Dowland fan. I'm familiar with a lot of the alternative tunings. Michael Lorimer once showed a seminar that I attended his Baroque guitar with interchangeable fretboards in various just intonations, including well-temperament and mean-tone temperament.

Meanwhile, though, to continue the story of the new guitar. When I got to studio in Chicago, not having even opened the box yet, I pulled it out at last and it sounded great but all the strings were detuned. They ship them that way to avoid problems with string tension damaging the neck during transport. It was beyond slack key guitar tuning, and into Slacker Key Guitar. It was oddly appealling, because the tuning was so aleatoric. My studio mates declared it perfect. So, I've made some recordings with it already, they're on my podcast. A little bit Derek Bailey, a little bit Cap'n Beefheart, and a little bit avant-garde. For example: Paint Fume Blues, Slacker Key Guitar No. 3, and Pelvis Has Left the Building.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

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