Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Greatest Guitar Player, Ever.

"He is one of the true geniuses of the guitar. I suppose he is a musician's musician. His knowledge of the instrument and the music is so vast, and I think that's what knocks people out about him. But he's such a tasty player too. I think if Chopin had played guitar, he would have sounded like Lenny Breau." -Chet Atkins

"Lenny Breau played more great stuff at one time than anybody on the planet... with feeling and tone. He was the best that ever lived, bar none." - Danny Gatton

The guitar has, for various reasons, been the most popular instrument in the US for over a couple hundred years now. Unlike other stringed instruments like the violin or cello, it is fretted and easy to learn the fundamentals which will pretty quickly allow you to amuse yourself and not annoy those around you. Unlike the piano, it is portable and relatively easy to haul around with you. Unlike brass and reed instruments, you can play and sing along at the same time. The great acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke was asked just what it is about the guitar that makes it so unique and he explained that there is no other instrument on which the most casual player can suddenly stumble upon some odd combination of right and left hand technique that’s both interesting and never been done before. That’s a big part of the fascination as well.

I have a number of friends who teach guitar both here in Indianapolis and around the country and they have students who run the gamut from 12 year olds who want to sound like Eddie Van Halen to corporate attorneys who want to play jazz standards (or vice versa). I have spent hours on occasion in friendly arguments over which names belong on the list of the truly great guitar players. The early innovators in various styles like Segovia (who single handedly took the guitar from the gutter to the concert halls), Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian (and Carl Kress and George Barnes for that matter) who invented the single-note lead lines that have dominated guitar music forever. There is no one playing electric guitar in a rock context who doesn’t owe a debt to Jimi Hendrix. My own list would add names like Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, Joe Pass, Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Davy Graham, Ralph Towner, Robbie Basho, Michael Hedges, and, if I don’t just pick this as an arbitrary stopping point, the rest of this article will be comprised of nothing but names and commas.

While I certainly listen to as many guitarists as I can – just this morning I’ve listened to records by Attila Zoller, Peter Finger, Chris Proctor, John Fahey, and Gene Bertoncini while I’ve been working on this – I have never hesitated when I’ve been asked “Who’s the best guitar player you’ve ever heard?”

While often referred to as a Canadian guitarist, Lenny Breau was born August 5, 1941 in Auburn, Maine. His parents, Hal "Lone Pine" Breau and Betty Cody were country and western performers who were active together as a live and recording act from the mid 1940's to the late 1950's. In 1957 the family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada and formed a band to perform regularly on CKY Radio's live broadcast of the show “Caravan.” The majority of Lenny’s career was in the jazz clubs of Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Like the two other players who might well be the answer to this question if Lenny had never been born, Joe Pass and Michael Bloomfield, Lenny also struggled with heroin addiction for a long portion of his adult life. The last period of Lenny's life (1981-84) was spent primarily teaching and playing in Los Angeles where, on August 12, 1984, he was found dead in the swimming pool of his apartment complex. Although his death was originally thought to be an accidental drowning, the Los Angeles Coroner report determined that Lenny had been strangled. The case remains unsolved to this date.

Listening to Lenny Breau on the guitar is more like listening to Art Tatum on the piano than anything else I’ve ever heard. For me, there are three qualities that all the greatest musicians I’ve heard seem to share [look back to my David Bromberg post for the first appearence of this idea]. First, there is an intellectual element. The player understands music theory, harmony, chord substitutions, scales, modes, etc. These represent the grammar and vocabulary of the musical language. It is, for example, impossible to imagine someone writing a great novel with a working vocabulary of 100 words. Second, there is a physical dimension to playing an instrument. Most players understand some things that they cannot get their fingers to actually do. I know what an A Minor scale is, and I know what 16th notes are, but I simply cannot play that fast even though I’ve heard others play much faster. I lack the physical ability to realize those ideas. Third, and this is the tricky one, in addition to the body and the mind there is the heart. The element that will always separate the great players from the technically proficient ones is the ability to instantly access their emotional lives. That is, to pour something of themselves, their soul if you will, into the music. What I mean by this is that there are perhaps thousands or even tens of thousands of singers with a far greater range than Billie Holliday ever had, and not a single one can sing “Strange Fruit” and leave me so devastated.

Lenny Breau’s discography is pretty varied and, as with Art Tatum and Joe Pass, I find the non-group recordings the most rewarding. The style that Lenny developed involved using the guitar as a polyphonic instrument. This is what classical players do, where the bass, middle and treble strings represent different sections of the orchestra. Lenny was able to play a complex bass line, play complex chords on top of that, and add fluid single note solos on top of that, all done in real time with no special effects. There are two CDs I’ll specifically recommend as the best places to begin if you’d like to explore the music of Lenny Breau. Cabin Fever is a solo album on the Guitarchives label (owned by B.T.O. guitarist, Randy Bachman). Lenny’s friend, Glen McDonald, bailed a despondent Lenny out of jail and took him to a cabin deep in the Canadian forest. The cabin had no electricity or running water; McDonald brought a small reel-to-reel recorder and a gasoline-powered generator and left Lenny there with a borrowed Ramirez classical guitar. If you turn the lights down when you listen it can be like having Lenny in the room with you; as intimate a recording as any I’ve ever heard.

The other CD is a double-disc set, Live at Bourbon Street, which pairs Lenny with bassist Dave Young at a Toronto jazz club. This features Lenny performing with his custom 7-string electric Kirk Sand guitar. Unlike other 7-string players, Lenny adds an extra high string rather than extending the bass. These 17 tracks recorded on June 14th, 1983, are the most impressive guitar music I think I have ever encountered and, as with most great art, every time I return to this I come away with new observations.

Other players have picked up the torch of Lenny Breau’s phenomenal style. I’d heartily recommend the series of “Beatling” CDs by Steven King on which he plays solo acoustic arrangements of Beatles’ tunes with a skill that borders on the frightening. Bay-area Blue Note recording artist, Charlie Hunter, has taken the bass/treble approach to new places with a hybrid instrument that combines bass and guitar strings. Regardless of technical innovations and all sorts of contemporary flash however, "Lenny Breau" remains my answer to the question, “So, who’s the best guitar player ever?”


Queen of the Hills said...

I grew up visiting the same cabin where Lenny recorded 'Cabin Fever' with Glen McDonald. Listening to Lenny and then hearing Glen's voice again is very special and brings back many memories.
Nice to read your post. Thanks.

Stan Denski said...

Thank YOU for your comment; six degrees of separation and all, I feel closer to the source now.

Trace V. Ordiway said...

"The player understands music theory, harmony, chord substitutions, scales, modes, etc. These represent the grammar and vocabulary of the musical language. It is, for example, impossible to imagine someone writing a great novel with a working vocabulary of 100 words."

I dunno - Muddy Waters didn't know much more than 4 chords in 4 keys but he was a great player.

Stan Denski said...

I don't know how true that really is. And the blues is more about rhythm (which is why it's R and B not B and R) anyway.