Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A great musical loss

I play guitar — acoustic, not electric — I love guitar, and some of my favorite recordings are heavy on acoustic guitar. I love a rich blend of strings, an acoustic playing rhythm while a second plays melody, maybe both playing a mix of melody, harmony and rhythm. But I find the guitar’s domination of popular music of the last few decades to be monotonous at times, so I was interested to find a similar indictment of this trend in the book “Guitar — An American Life” by Tim Brookes, published in 2005 by Grove Press, New York.
Brookes, a semi-professional guitarist, upon ordering a new guitar custom-built by a Vermont luthier, began an investigation of the guitar’s history, combining that history in “Guitar” with a detailed explanation of the construction of his guitar. Brookes explains the guitar’s origins and the musicians and historical events that led to its dominance. A good example: a Confederate sailing ship attacked a whaling ship in the Pacific during the Civil War, some of the wrecked crew members were Portuguese guitar players who ended up in Hawaii, their playing led to the development of Hawaiian slack-key playing, which enjoyed popularity in the early 1900s akin to rock, and that style of playing helped to fix the guitar as the dominant instrument in the United States, these days outselling all other instruments combined. In other words, a random Civil War attack led to the guitar’s dominance of American culture and music.

“The Hawaiian groups not only introduced the concept that we now call lead guitar — that is, the guitar as featured instrument, with its own voice and a prominent place in both songs and instrumentals — but also the combination of lead and rhythm guitars in the same ensemble,” Brookes writes. “The Hawaiian guitar became so popular it forced the most significant and far-reaching change in the history of the instrument, and arguably in the history of music: the invention of the electric guitar.”
Brookes loves guitar but takes an objective view of it, presenting background on music and musicians in an even-handed manner but repeatedly mourning the loss of other instruments and the resultant depletion of musical richness. For example: “American folk rock became a quintessential guitar medium, for better or worse. While British folk rock tended to include traditional instruments such as fiddle, accordion, tin whistle, Northumbrian pipes, and even a hurdy-gurdy, in the United States ‘folk rock’ meant Rock Lite, and one of its unfortunate effects was to grant the guitar a sweeping victory over more traditional folk instruments. ... By the early 1970s the diversity of American music was actually diminishing. The guitar had defeated all comers, and the world was poorer for it.”
Later he writes, “... other instruments, especially folk instruments, are withering, their playing becoming less common. The guitar is in danger of becoming the default instrument, the path of least resistance.” Not only did the guitar become the default instrument, thanks partly to the recording industry, but the advent of recording also helped to rob music of variety and richness, as Brookes describes when Memphis street musician David Edwards said he played what he knew would be recorded, not necessarily what he preferred to play:
“It’s a sad, familiar paradox: the record industry was narrowing the range of available music and dictating what Edwards played, yet to have his name on a record was to be special, to be part of a transcendent world removed in geography, economics, and glamour from playing on the street corner.” I read the same thing in the book “Dreaming Out Loud,” which details the efforts of a country newcomer to make his first album, the record company forcing him to record the bland, unremarkable pop schlock that passed for country music in the late 1990s, and the label’s coercion of radio stations to play a song by the new artist, however unremarkable, threatening to withhold promotional items if the stations didn’t play the song.
In other words, guitar leads to more guitar. But to be fair, the guitar is immeasurably versatile, its odd tuning allowing me to play chords and melodies in a way that is more difficult and less interesting on my mandolins. As I said, it’s not that I dislike the guitar. Rather, I prefer a blend of guitar and other string instruments, and I prefer acoustic to electric. Like Brookes, I mourn the loss of traditional instruments in popular music, and a mandolin and banjo and fiddle in the mix brighten my day more than is ever possible with the electric wall of sound that assaults me everywhere I go.

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