Friday, January 16, 2009

A Dozen By Request – Some Fingerstyle Guitar

For various reasons, I didn't have the Thursday playlist going yesterday—I do expect this feature will return next week. In the meantime tho, dont despair—here's a similar feature for your cd contemplating pleasure.

Very recently good guitar student & good friend Michelle Lemon asked yours truly for a "top dozen" list of fingerstyle albums she might listen to as she’s beginning to really explore this playing style. As I was thinking about this list, I came to think others might find it interesting as well—hey, there’s nothing you can’t turn to a blog post if you set your mind to it—so I’m presenting them here as well.

Now one caveat: this list is culled from my own cd collection, which is a respectable collection of lots of types of music, but also has its gaps, even in the sorts of music I enjoy a lot. You simply can’t buy every cd you want, & given the choice between roughly 50 cds (or around 700 mp3 downloads) & a resonator guitar, I’ll take the latter (or its equivalent in other noisemakers) pretty much every time. So yes, I agree, it’s inexcusable to present a list of fingerstyle albums without one by Chet Atkins or Mance Lipscomb; & there are a myriad other essential players I'm neglecting, too. Just one example: Citizen K has gotten me thinking about Jorma Kaukonen for the first time in years, & his “Embryonic Journey” on the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow is a gorgeous fingerstyle piece. Kaukonen also did a lot of fine fingerstyle blues numbers in Hot Tuna; I’m relatively familiar with their self-titled 1970 live album, & it does have some fine renditions of old blues tunes. & it’s a shame to leave the great Doc Watson off the list, but I don’t have any Watson albums that are mostly fingerstyle; they’re mostly flat pick tunes, with the occasionaly fingerstyle or banjo tune sprinkled throughout.

I did exclude folks who primarily play on a resonator. That’s not because I don’t like the resonator as a fingerstyle instrument—right now, it’s my favorite ax for fingerstyle playing & I expect it will be for a good long while. But the resonator’s bark is a lot different from the sound of an acoustic, & I thought it was best to confine the selections to a more familiar sound—so no Taj Mahal or Bukka White or Son House. There are a few resonator (& slide) cuts on a couple of the albums, however (e.g., see Rory Block).

As you’ll
see, my tastes run toward what is often called “country blues." For those of you who don't know, this isn’t a form of “country music”; it’s the rural pre-electric blues. As aficionados of this style are aware, it’s built on a steady bass rhythm kept by the right hand thumb while the right hand fingers play a melody with lots of syncopation (the number of fingers used along with the thumb varies from just index, to index & middle, to index, middle & ring, depending on the player—for normal human beings not named Elizabeth Cotton or Doc Watson, a minimum of index & middle is highly recommended). But there are a couple of “country” pickers in the usual sense of the word: Sam McGee, who actually pioneered a style that got away from just index & thumb playing (presumably a carryover from old-time banjo styles) & the great Merle Travis, who was so influential as a fingerstyle player. Tho he played “country” music he was heavily influenced by a blues sound, especially with his use of heavy damping on the bass notes.

There’s one other guitarist in the list who’s doesn't play some variation on the “country blues” style. That’s the great (& I do mean “great”) Bahamian guitar player Joseph Spence. I’ve never heard anyone like Spence. His playing is exquisite;
his use of bass runs, & the counterpoint between his voice & his playing is unsurpassed in my experience. His singing is extremely quirky—he tends to forget the lyrics, & a lot of his singing is just vocalization “played against” his guitar.

more commentary—& it’s virtually impossible to select must-hear cuts with many of these, so here’s the alphabetized list:

  • Etta Baker: One Dime Blues – Rounder(An exquisite fingerstyle player who should be better known)
  • Blind Blake: Ragtime Guitar’s Foremost Fingerpicker – Yazoo (This one has been discontinued, but The Best of Blind Blake, also on the Yazoo label is similar; although the sound quality of these old sides isn't great, Blind Blake is essential listening)
  • Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues - Rounder (A contemporary blues guitarist & singer who carries on the Delta Blues tradition; some of her versions of old blues on this album are particularly striking: I love her take on "Joliet Bound," for instance)
  • Elizabeth Cotton: Freight Train & Other North Carolina Folk Songs & Tunes - Smithsonian/Folkways (A huge force in the folk music after she was "discovered" by the Seegers; inimitable, but absolutely essential)
  • Reverend Gary Davis: Harlem Street Singer – Prestige (His guitar playing & singing just have to be experienced; there's so much passion in both; extremely influential fingerstyle player)
  • Mississippi John Hurt: The Best of Mississippi John Hurt – Vanguard (This album consists of sides recorded toward the end of John Hurt's life; I marginally prefer his older, mellower style to his 1920s recordings, but everything he recorded is worth hearing. Perhaps my favorite among the fingerstyle players)
  • Blind Lemon Jefferson: Moanin’ All Over – Tradition (This one has been discontinued, but The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson on the Yazoo label looks better; it has a lot more sides; Blind Lemon Jefferson is sometimes called "the Father of the Blues," & is essential listening)
  • Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, vol 1 & 2 – Sony (OK, this is really two cds, which technically makes this a baker's dozen
  • Sam McGee: Grand Dad of the Country Pickers – Arhoolie (There's also banjo & banjo guitar on this album, & Clifton McGee plays back-up guitar)
  • Joseph Spence: Bahamian Guitarist – Arhoolie (as above; an odd thing about Spence: one of his strings was never in tune; I forget which now—this guy will blow your mind)
  • Merle Travis: Folk Songs of the Hills – Capitol ("Travis Picking" is named after Merle Travis, which clues you in to this guy's place among fingerstyle players)
  • Dave Van Ronk: Live at Sir George Williams University - Justin Time (Van Ronk of course came up in the 50s & 60s folk revival, & was a masterful fingerstyle picker & singer)
For anyone interested in this style of guitar playing, the Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar Page is a fantastic resorce—tab collections, articles & reviews (including reviews of instructional books & dvds), a guide to open tunings, & related links. There’s a link to this site on the front page here under the “Other Places of Interest” heading.

Finally, there's lots of fingerstyle guitar on YouTube: just start searching on any of the names listed in this post & you should find scads of videos. Here's one featuring the great Mississippi John Hurt:


  1. I arrived here via "Occupied Funk". My husband just recently bought a mandolin. Any tips?

    Peckinpah! Wow! I love "Straw Dogs" particularly, but "The Wild Bunch" is great too. I've got the Billy the Kid movie with Bob Dylan on video, but have yet to watch it (we own quite a view films and don't always get to every one.)

    Have you heard of "The Be Good Tanyas"? They do an amazing rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die".

    I'll be following your blog and would be pleased if you'd check me out and consider following as well. The current poem posted is light and fun, but much of my stuff is quite the contrary.



  2. Hi Kat:

    & glad you stopped by RFBanjo, & esp. glad you'll be following-- I also enjoy & follow "Occupied Funk," & yes, am definitely glad to find out about your blog & to follow it.

    I don't know the Be Good Tanyas, tho I really like "Waiting Around to Die," play it myself. If you like Peckinpah you really should set aside a couple of hours for "Billy the Kid." It's an amazing flick-- Dylan did a good job with the soundtrack, & the scene with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is very moving.

    Mandolin isn't my strong suit, though I do have an old bowlback Stella (or a "tater bug" as they're also called), & I also mess around on the mandocello. I guess one tip is that a good teacher never comes amiss, & that a little ways down the line it's good for any musician, but esp. one who plays a "folk" instrument (using "folk" very broadly) to play with others. One does need enough grounding first so the experience isn't frustrating.

    The biggest thing for a new instrumentalist: don't get discouraged: be realistic about your rate of progress (in terms of expectation), but also give yourself credit for the progress you are making. Hope that helps!

    Again, really enjoyed your blog, & will look forward to reading more
    J Hayes


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