Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chock Full of Blues

Reproductions of album covers, many from the 1960s and ’70s, adorn a curving wall in the guitar- shaped lobby of C.F. Martin & Co. A few of the album covers are larger than life, and one, “Eric Clapton Unplugged,” shows Clapton playing a Martin during his MTV “Unplugged” concert, a show that helped bring Martin out of a severe slump.
The 1980s were rough years for makers of acoustic guitars. Electronics dominated popular music, with electronic keyboards a standard component of most bar bands, and if anyone played guitar, it was usually electric. Acoustics survived in pockets, such as the microcosms of Celtic music and bluegrass, but they struggled for survival in the mass media world. Martin experienced its worst annual sales in 40 years in 1982, from 20,000 guitars in 1974 to 3,000 in 1982.
That all changed when Clapton hit the stage “unplugged.” This was just another word for “acoustic,” the non-electrified music that found a new world of cool with that new name. MTV introduced its “Unplugged” series in 1992 with Clapton’s ground-breaking concert that placed the normally electrified blues-rock musician in an acoustic setting — nothing new in many musical styles but attention-grabbing for people like Clapton and Rod Stewart. An interviewer asked John Denver during the “Unplugged” heyday if he planned to play an “Unplugged” concert, and he laughed and said, “All my concerts are unplugged!”
Prominent in the concert was Clapton’s smaller-body Martin guitar, and almost overnight the company’s fortunes, and those of other acoustic guitar makers, were transformed, leading to Martin and Clapton collaborating on a series of signature model guitars and strings. When I toured the Martin factory in 2009 the sad times of the 1980s were long past, and I gained an appreciation of Martin’s heritage and commitment to guitars on that tour and later while reading “Martin Guitars: A History,” which I bought that day. So when I accompanied nephew Andy to Woodsy’s Music in Kent last year during his quest for a new guitar, a Martin was among the six-strings I played. I had not planned to buy a guitar that day, but a days-old mahogany Martin dreadnought enchanted me, and we both walked out carrying guitars in shiny cases.
I had been playing a Taylor jumbo 12-string for the previous few weeks, practicing, among other things, Irish tunes, Spanish and rock fingerpicking, and blues, spanning the spectrum of my musical interests, but that Martin had something to say about what it intended to play. Dion DiMucci, who had hits with the Belmonts including “Runaround Sue” but who has more recently been performing acoustic blues, said in “The Sounding Board,” Martin’s magazine, that a guitar comes with specific music, and that was certainly true of my mahogany dreadnought. It was chock full of the blues.
When I bought my Celtic mandolin in 1991, no question ever existed that it was created to play traditional music of the British Isles, and once when a friend played bluesy tunes on my mandolin I couldn’t get it back quickly enough because I felt it was being violated. But the tables were turned with the Martin. Practically nothing but the blues would issue from its sound hole, and it refused to play Celtic tunes. The closest it comes to Celtic music is old-time country music of the early 1900s, which is descended from British Isles balladry.
I found myself advancing through blues runs and chords, building on the basic foundation I learned in high school, and a day or two after discovering that my Martin was a blues dude I learned that the mahogany Martin was the favorite of acoustic blues players in the early 1900s, before blues went uptown and electric. This is one reason why a serious musician needs more than one instrument. (I know of several other reasons, but I won’t elaborate on them all now.) So when I sit down to play, I must choose between instruments and styles of music.
It’s a happy choice, one that I can avoid if I have enough time to make the instrumental rounds. I count many musicians over the decades as my musical influences, and among them are Eric Clapton and his lovely Martin guitar.

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