The guitar is inescapable. It’s tone frustratingly familiar. It’s cross cultural dominance of music accepted. Even its absence feels pregnant. Origins are argued, but it found form in Medieval Spain. Drifted across Europe over the ensuing centuries. Embedded itself. Evolved. The guitar, as we understand it today, was a 19th century American innovation. Popular and accessible enough to become an aural bond in a disparate cultural melting pot. As it threaded through the last century, it darted, weaved, embedded itself, developed cliches, dropped them, and then exploded into the world. Its cultural idioms and universal popularity exceed all others. Its tone part of the musics of North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, divergent cultures within Europe, Asia, Africa, India and beyond.
It took years to overcome my tainted image of the instrument as phallic extension, fostered by American and English rock music. My broad listening habits grew from a desire to escape it. Even today, despite owning thousands of records, I do not own one by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin. A lingering result of my regard for the instrument’s place in culture. These bands, like so many others, offer nothing to what I find exciting about listening.
I embrace the underdog. Even those within my own taste. My conceptualization of the guitar as such, was crucial to my return to it. It’s exhaustion, a focus for listening. If my frustration was the ubiquity of its tone, where was its voice? These are a few such cases. Voices who sidestep culture and influence. Who reinvent the instrument in a vision all their own.
1. Derek Bailey- Improvisation (1975)
Bailey is by far the most famous, and historically important of these entries. He is a titan of musical thought and instrumental attack. He completely rewrote the guitar, and in many ways, the entire structure of music. How it was played. How it sounded. How it was understood. I am particularly fond of solo performance. When a player strips away everything but their instrument and allow themselves to be vulnerable to the ear. Amongst Free-Jazz players, this practice has long stood as a benchmark of skill. Have you got what it takes to be out there alone? Bailey had it to such a degree, that his solo recordings often outshine his accompanied or ensemble. There’s nothing between him and your ear. The brain blisters. I consider this album to be an archetypal document of Bailey’s playing. Solo. Clusters of staccato notes and carefully controlled tone and resonance. It’s a flurry of playing and intellect that leaves the listener on the edge of their seat struggling to understand where they’ve been lead.
2. Remko Scha- Machine Guitars (1982)
I love this record. It took me around 15 years of hunting to find a copy. Categorizing Scha, opens a complex discourse. In the strictest sense, he is an artist and intellectual that makes music, rather than a musician. He creates algorithmic situations with guitars, which generate sound. In other words, what you hear is not Scha playing, but objects he orchestrates, interacting. This is the document of one such happening. What we hear are saber saws and a rotating wire brush “playing” guitars without human intervention. The result is mesmerizing. What is inexplicable is its feeling of sensitivity. The interplay of notes seems responsive, and delicately intricate. Every moment feels considered and thought out. Beyond its architecture, there is no thought, only machine executing a task. What is wonderful about artistic practice vs. the musical, is how quickly it pushes you outside itself and into the world beyond. This is an album that can completely rewrite the way you hear the world around you.
3. Hans Reichel- Bonobo (1976)
Reichel is fascinating. Not only did he alter the way the guitar sounded and was played, he altered the guitar itself. This record is amazing, otherworldly and unlike anything else out there. Realized largely without any overdubs through the playing of Reichel’s reconstructed guitar, where two necks are joined end to end by six continuous strings. I’m slightly without words. The sound of an epileptic guitar, played by someone tripping their face off. Completely consuming and wonderful.
4. Glenn Branca- Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) (1983)
Branca is partially responsibility for my willingness to reapproach the guitar. Despite my affection for his two records for 99, The Ascension and Lesson No.1, I’m more drawn to his Symphonies. Particularly this cassette (later issued on LP in the early 90’s). Branca has influenced the mainstream, more than any voice from the experimental music world. His tone and approach course through rock music. His works elegant and visionary, uncompromising and pure. Branca provokes a radicalism but composes with subtly and nuance. All of his works bear close resemblance, forcing the listener to become an acute listener, gleaning difference in the chaos. My affection here, is for a particular passage in a singular life’s work. A driving, metronomic world of dissonant detuned guitars.
5. Joe Jones- In Performance (1977)
This is not a guitar record in the strictest sense. Jones was a part of the musical arm of Fluxus. This recording, of Jones and a number of machines, playing instruments. The guitar being central to the ensemble. Possibly the conceptual seed for Remko Scha’s Machine Guitars. Here the variable is less reliant on controlled chance, but with Jones’ intervention with instrument and machine. It defies categorization. It’s an ensemble record, and a solo performance. Interesting and exciting, because each instrument receives equal treatment and attack. Through ignoring their demands, difference rises. It’s a percussion record without percussion instruments. Each instrument chosen for the extension of its resonance. It’s a fascinating and rewarding listen.
6. Loren Mazzacane (Connors)- Five Points (1993)
This 7″ was issued as part of Table of The Elements’ wonderful guitar series. All of which is worth exploring. For many years, it’s been record I return to and ponder. Which doubles as description for Connors. He doesn’t shatter convention or paradigm, or scream for attention. The guitar is unmistakably a guitar. Every tone familiar. His is radical through his ability to draw unique beauty out of its own terms. The delicacy and sensitivity of his playing is overwhelming. Despite the depth of his vast catalog, I’m left perched on the tip of the iceberg, the depth below me, unfathomable. He leaves me wondering and wanting more. Beautiful, minimal, staggering melodies. I can’t recommend it enough.