This top-ten is meant to highlight acoustic guitar music, usually without vocals or vocals that are secondary to the music and not generally what the artist is known for. I had been thinking about John Fahey and Leo Kottke, Takoma records and what has been referred to as, ‘American Primitive’, guitar. It’s more a ‘starter for ten’ to an ongoing discussion than a display of any great knowledge on my part. Part of my fascination with this particular musical corner is how often it leads to Indian influences, sitars drones and titles with raga in them. Then you might get to John McLaughlin, Shakti and a specially made guitar with drone strings attached. And McLaughlin was a contemporary of Davy Graham when he was a session musician in and around London. Don’t worry, that’s as far off-piste as I am going. I only want to highlight the smallness of the musical world and how interconnected it can be at times – and what a bonus that it is.
John Fahey: Not everything Fahey ever did filled me with joy and his later career veered off in a direction that was hard to fathom at times – which also seemed to coincide with a life that increasingly did not go well. Even in his earlier days, his use of dissonance could, at times, be hard listening. That said there were plenty of gems such as, ‘Poor Boy – Long Way from Home’, a concise take on a traditional tune and a clear influence on the later work of Leo Kottke. It’s not wholly without vocal content as one Brian Owser lends his talents to proceedings. Whilst Fahey may or may not have been the father of this playing style, he certainly gathered around him a coterie of like-minded individuals, Kottke, Basho and Lang to name three. Fahey offered his own thought as to, ‘American Primitive Guitar’, which he says actually means self-taught.
Leo Kottke: Kottke is a funny guy and there is a YouTube clip wherein he recounts, without knowing it, meeting Bob Dylan. A bit like Dave Allen, I don’t know why it’s funny but it certainly makes me laugh. Whilst he famously likened his own singing to, ‘Geese farts on a muggy day’, he is, in fact, better than that and for my money, he vocalises effectively on his version of, ‘8 Miles High’. Clearly his talents are instrumental and, ‘6 & 12 String Guitar’, is one of my favourite albums as well as being commercially very successful. I’ve put in two clips here – one to highlight the beauty of his playing on ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, and the other to highlight the sheer dexterity and speed of his clean picking on, ‘Vaseline Machine Gun’, (but what and where is that venue!). Kottke did struggle to play for a while due to tendon problems but with some technical changes seems to have recovered. Great playing and as far as one can tell a great guy.
Robbie Basho: I was aware of Basho, possibly famous as much for the bizarre nature of his sadly early demise as his playing, but not really familiar with his work. Here he demonstrates an intriguing synthesis of East meeting West and vocals that seem to serve more as an additional instrument rather than any message giving. Not that he has a bad voice and in this context, it is highly effective in a performance that is delightfully hard to categorise but wonderfully evocative. Just close your eyes. In discussing this article with a friend he advised me that his favourite Basho is a piano piece so there is clearly a lot more to discover. He’s another artist with early connections with Fahey who can only be commended for the encouragement and support he gave to others. So here is Basho playing, ‘Rocky Mountain Raga’.
Peter Walker: Walker’s roots were in folk music but his key influences were raga and flamenco. He spent long periods of time in Spain studying that discipline and rather than the self-taught artists elsewhere in this list, he is described as a formally trained experimentalist. He passed through Greenwich Village for a time and was a friend of Karen Dalton, being with her when she died. He was also a musical director of sorts for Timothy Leary. Walker though was a great traveller and one of his formative experiences was seeing Ravi Shankar perform. After two early albums in 1966 & 68, he was semi-retired until around 2008 since when he has recorded quite regularly. His 2018, ‘Live at the Third Man’ was considered a great return to form. Here he is playing, ‘White Wind’, from the, ‘Rainy Day Raga’, album. If you have the stamina you could try going all the way and listening to, ‘Rainy Day Raga’, in full – clocking in at 47 minutes.
Peter Lang: On his 1985 album,’American Stock’, Lang offered these thoughts,
“The style dates back to revolutionary times, well over a century before the beginnings of Modern Classical Guitar. Its techniques were preserved by blues and mountain players of the early 1900s and my introduction to the style was through these traditions – this record is a log of those travels”
Lang’s first album was released on Takoma records however, he left the music business in the ’80s to pursue a career in animation and illustration, apparently because he found it difficult to make a living, After the making of, ’American Stock’, he did not record again for over 15 years and then in the eighties he had the kind of medical nightmare following a car accident that can only happen in the States – as of 2018 as far as I can gather he is back performing. Lang is not quite as out there as some in this list and his trademark seems to be a penchant for a large variety of tunings and a fundamental grounding in the blues. Here’s, ’Wide Oval Rip-off, from, ‘American Stock’.
Davy Graham: I think most people are aware of Graham’s story and what seems to have been a career that never went quite as far as it might – apparently his later years were spent as much in learning languages as focussing on music – hence the 2005 radio documentary, ‘Whatever Happened to Davy Graham’? There seems something arrogantly wrong about describing others as having lives or careers that were somehow incomplete – yet with several of these artists, there is the feeling, for a variety of reasons, of opportunities missed, often through no fault of their own.
On these two tracks you can hear where Graham is thinking of going on, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, (love that compère) and the place he gets to in, ‘Sunshine Raga’. He is one of the sub-group here whose music was heading East but rooted in the West; in fact, maybe he was an advert for world music, whilst popularising the DADGAD tuning and writing what is considered to be an acoustic test piece Anji (or Angie if you prefer). Graham was massively influential with his peers though not commercially so.
Stefan Grossman: Stefan Grossman perhaps became better known as a teacher and musical entrepreneur than a player, fine player though he is. He founded Kicking Mule Records and published instructional books and videos under the Vestapol brand for aspiring players – all of which eventually became consolidated under the umbrella of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. In his younger days, he associated for brief periods with a wide range of other musicians, Taj Mahal, Janis Joplin, Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian and was in the Fugs for three months. He made his name initially as a solo performer of guitar rags influenced and taught by the Reverend Gary Davis. He planned to go to India though never managed it and did not exhibit those influences in his playing as some others did. He was though a great friend to many an old blues player befriending them raising profiles and preserving their heritage and music. Here he is performing, ‘The Dallas Rag’.
Ralph Mc Tell: Ralph Mc Tell is included for two reasons – it seems to me that he represents a similar style of playing to Grossman but also I, along with perhaps many others, overlooked his talents as a fine guitar player because of his other achievements including children’s television. The clue is in the title and at some stage, Ralph May became Ralph McTell in deference to one of his hero’s, Blind Willie McTell. The country blues and players like Blind Blake and Robert Johnson have also influenced his playing. Apparently McTell has offered the thought that all his inspirations are, ‘Black, blind and dead’. Whilst in Paris McTell met Gary Peterson, a young American who, having studied with the Reverend Gary Davis, passed his knowledge on to his newfound friend and according to McTell taught him to play ragtime properly.
Rather surprisingly McTell topped the bill at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, nonetheless here he is playing, ‘Dry Bone Rag’ –
As an afterthought let’s be clear that whilst, ‘Streets of London’, is the victim of over-familiarity it is a fine song and became a classic because it deserved to.
Martin Simpson: Whilst it has been said that the devil has all the best tunes, on the album, ‘Closer Walk with Thee’, Martin Simpson proves otherwise. Its subtle instrumental arrangements of American gospel songs provide the evidence. If influences so far have been Eastern mysticism and the blues then this collection echoes the painting on the album cover, entitled, ‘Appalachian Idyll’. Simpson talks in the comprehensive album notes about the common borrowing back and forth between sacred and worldly realms as well as the exchange between black and white musicians that makes ‘ American music so absolutely unique and vital’.
Simpson is a vocalist and has made some wholly instrumental albums, though fewer than those with lyrics and he is a singer of note. This selection features other musicians – but standing tall is the relaxed beauty of his masterful arrangements and guitar playing. I pick this album and the music therein to highlight for no better reason than it is one of my all-time favourites. Here’s Simpson, reminding us who our friends are.
Bill Frisell: Frisell is perhaps better known as a jazz player and a prolific guitar polymath, playing in many styles and settings. He has made by my count 39 albums, featured on countless others and initially was something of an in-house player for ECM records. From 1980 on he has focussed more on folk, country music and Americana – always convincingly. Perhaps like Simpson, he is blessed with an unfussy economic and relaxing style and Frisell is certainly not a speed merchant, preferring to concentrate on tone and ambience.
Albums you may enjoy exploring are, ‘Good Dog, Happy Dog’, and, ‘Have a Little Faith’, featuring music by Charles Ives, Aaron Copeland, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan and Madonna. A living definition of the word eclectic, a quality that I couldn’t hope to do justice to in so short an article. Frisell has been less inclined to look West than some of those already mentioned but I am sure that someone like Fahey would appreciate the questing nature of an artist who if called upon could make an interesting and convincing addition to the legend of Blind Joe Death.
‘The Willies,’ is the album from which I offer the track below, ‘Sitting on Top of the World‘. There’s more than a mite of electricity involved on the album but I think its heart is in the right place and there are supporting musicians – but again the guitar is the star!
And here’s a mystery prize that just shows how musicians from very different backgrounds can come together
No John Renbourn?!?!?
There were always going to be some left out and its a good call, I’m not a huge fan of Renbourn or Jansch but the problem was I could easily have used 15 or 20 choices – but it is a feature limited to 10. Maybe there a part 2 brewing!
Two words: Jorma Kaukonen. Accepting the theme of your selection please consider his solo material and the acoustic Hot Tuna output. Whilst he does sing I don’t think that would be considered his primary talent. Even in his Airplane days he produced some great acoustic stuff such as ‘Third Week in the Chelsea’ and of course ‘Embryonic Journey’. His ability range from gentle acoustic to hard electric rock is matched by very few and even some of the more electric Hot Tuna output contains fine acoustic playing too – ‘Sea Child’ from ‘Burgers’ for example.
Nigel thats a great suggestion and I have always loved that early live album with the smashing glass. Definitely an under recognised artist as well
I’m definitely with Nigel on Jorma Kaukonen. I was lucky enough to see Airplane in California in the late 60s but I much preferred his acoustic playing on the country blues albums, so I saw him again at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2004 – awesome. I’d also make a shout out for Bruce Cockburn who has at least two acoustic instrumental albums out which are outstanding, the latest this year. Although the albums are incredible (no overdubs or such) you’d have to see him live to appreciate his extraordinary skill, yet he is known more as a singer.
Hi Fred – as above with the Kaukonen comments. Bruce Cockburn never occurred to me so there is something for me to check out – and thats what I hoped would happen, the chance for me to be made aware of some new music.
[…] recent, ‘10 best’, feature on guitar players had as one of its touching points the school of ‘American […]
No Tommy Emmanuel?
Hi Doug, Certainly a fine player and if there were a second helping he might be right in there. He clearly had an interesting childhood.
A few years back I saw a UK acoustic guitarist named Mike Dawes that really inspired me.
HI Eric – thanks for that. I checked him out on You Tube and he can certainly play. I just wondered how well he fits into the Americana mould – though it is a pretty loose and broad church. Have you heard anything by him that might be more genre specific?
[…] in quite the same way – such as Lang and Kottke were always likely to be more melodic. In an article on this site from August 2020, there is further discussion regarding this […]