Sunday, March 4, 2007

Dionne Warwick, Carlos Santana, and Guitar Secrets

In jazz and classical music, technical virtuosity plays a different role than it does in rock or in blues. In jazz or classical music, there is no equivalent, for example, to Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Chuck Berry. But in rock & roll or blues, the measure of a guitar player is not in his technical skills but in the ability to be recognized within the first two or three notes.

Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis are all great guitarists. But all three play hollow-body arch-top electric guitars and rely exclusively on the muted tones of the pick up in the neck position. As good as they are, I don’t know that I could readily identify any of them if you played me a solo from a jazz standard (Farlow maybe).

But I would bet the farm (house, barn, tractor, cow, all of it) that I can identify George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Michael Bloomfield, Harvey Mandell, B.B. King or Chuck Berry in five seconds or less.

It may be that there is actually be some kind of anti-virtuosity involved. The sort of idiosyncratic attack that produces this sort of signature sound is probably the result of uncorrected mistakes, something a good classical guitar instructor would never let develop.

As a bandleader Carlos Santana has long been identified with Afro-Cuban rhythms that define his first two albums in particular. As a guitarist, his sound is identified by these enormous notes. He plays notes that are like these warm, thick, round, gold strands rich with sustain and a slight distortion. But while his tone is the result of his choice of guitar and amp and the settings on both, his real identity lies in the way he phrases his solos.

Some years ago I stumbled upon an interview in which he named his primary reference point for his phrasing. As soon as I read it I knew instantly that it was the missing piece; it makes perfect sense:

“I first started with B.B. King because that's the most natural thing for a guitar player to start with. Because you want to bend notes, you want to be able to express joy, attitude, anger and a cry. But for those people who want to really begin to sing, I suggest getting a lot of Dionne Warwick albums-the old ones-and instead of playing the chords as much, or trumpet things, try to match her vocal note-for-note. Because there was one time where she had that beautiful balance between black and white, you know? Not too black and not too white-right in the middle. The Burt Bacharach period; beautiful stuff. I listened to that, and I learned how to sing. Like that. Through her.” - Carlos Santana (interview with J.D. Considine, Guitarworld 1981)

Listen to any Carlos solo from any period. Then go listen to “I Say a Little Prayer For You” or “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”


Steve said...

I'm a friend of Laura here in PA, and she sent me a link to your blog. Very interesting to read about Carlos Santana learning his guitar style by listening to a great vocalist. I don't play electric guitar; my interest is more acoustic fingerstlye(Fahey and Kottke are my heroes). But I always appreciated those electric guitarists whose solos "sang" and were more expressive, such as Santana, Garcia, Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, to name a few. Someone once said its not the notes you play, it's the ones you leave out (or something like that). Then you have guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, whose solos sound like projectile vomiting all over the guitar.
Going to check out more of your blogs.

Stan Denski said...

I actually like Eddie Van Halen (but hope one day to hear him in another context) but I know what you mean. I also play mostly finger-style "American Primitive" guitar. Have Laura play you some of mine I've sent her on CD. I have no idea how to add mp3s to the blog!