Thursday, September 18, 2008

“The Wizard of the Strings”

It’s odd how some people & some phenomena just go invisible—for instance, the banjo & mandolin orchestras that were so popular 100 years ago have not only dwindled (in the U.S. at least) to a handful of revivalists, but have pretty much slipped entirely from the cultural memory.

Of course this happens with people, too. People may be quite innovative & talented in a given field, but then for some reason become largely forgotten in terms of the culture as a whole. One such fellow who fits this bill is “the Wizard of the Strings,” Roy Smeck.

Smeck was a musician who combined amazing virtuosic technique with wonderful panache & style. Eberle says she thinks his greatest strength is the sense of humor he brings to his playing, & the way he makes the instrument itself the performer. That seems like a real sound analysis to me—because once you get used to the breathtaking speed at which Smeck is capable of playing, you’re aware that there’s a lot more to
him than that. While playing very fast is virtuosic, just playing fast by itself isn’t necessarily great music. With Smeck, everything is compellingly musical. He has a great sense of swing, & an all-around musicality.

Smeck was born in Reading, PA in 1900, & lived to the ripe old age of 94. In fact, Smeck performed pretty much right up to the end of his life. Another thing I like about Roy is he endorsed the “people’s brand” of instruments—Harmony— & even used Harmony guitars & ukes in performance.

Now, I speak of myself musically as a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none;” Smeck on the other hand not only played more than one instrument, he played four of them at the very highest level: the ukulele, the tenor banjo, the guitar, & the Hawaiian or lap steel guitar. The techniques for all four of these instruments are quite different—Smeck flat-picked the guitar & the tenor banjo, used fingerpicks on the lap steel (which also is “fretted” with a steel, not one’s fingers), & used the old vaudeville thumb strum & finger rolls on the uke. Also, these four instruments are all tuned differently. His achievement in this regard is mind-boggling.

But Smeck took things further. He began his career in the vaudeville era, when a person who played these types of instruments was expected to be a singer as well—especially if he was performing as a solo act or a front man; & appa
rently, Smeck simply couldn’t sing. So in order to get bookings & have a successful career, Smeck devised all sorts of trickery in addition to his virtuosity. These included: playing instruments behind his head, playing a harmonica in his mouth (no harmonica holder! —by the way, don’t try this at home!) while playing the uke, playing with his teeth, beating out rhythm on various parts of the instrument & so forth.

Smeck was also an innovator in a couple of other important ways. He experimented with multi-track recording several years before Les P
aul, though Paul is more or less credited with being the innovator of this technology (no knock on Paul, who is—last I knew he was still playing in his 90’s! —a brilliant guitar player & less well-known than he should be overall). Smeck also was involved in early sound pictures—before The Jazz Singer (1927), Smeck made several short films where a record of his playing was “synched” with the onscreen action. You can see & hear the remarkable His Pastimes (1926) here on YouTube. Seriously, do not miss this 7:45 film that shows Smeck playing first the 8-string Hawaiian steel guitar, then the uke (anyone who thinks the uke is “easy” should concentrate on this segment), then uke & harmonica, & finally the tenor banjo. Through it all Smeck seems relaxed (you have to be relaxed to play that fast), & having a great time. This video has been on YouTube since ’06, so I’m hoping it’ll be around for a good long while to come.

If you want to check out Roy Smeck on cd, these days your best bet is “Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukulele and Guitar” on the Yazoo label. The cd was issued in ’92, but the performances on it were recorded between 1926 & 1949. Obviously, you're gonna get some pops & hisses with recordings of this vintage, but overall the sound is quite clean. To my mind there are no “bad” cuts on this album—two that really stand out are “Tiger Rag,” where Smeck plays the tenor banjo at just about supersonic speed
, & his hilarious steel guitar take on “Shuffle off to Buffalo” (the latter cut has a vocalist—not Smeck, of course—but the rest are instrumentals). This cd is pretty widely available at all the usual online suspects—& no doubt at your fine local record shop, assuming you live within less than a couple of hours of one.

It’s also worth mentioning that Smeck published instruction books for all the instruments he played, & also took on a number of students over the years. I have a copy of his “Ragtime Banjo For Tenor or Plectrum Banjo” (co-written with Mel Bay—so I guess you know who sells it). It’s a fairly difficult book (lots of chord melody, with single string passages thrown in)—I plug away at it (sometimes rather grimly) in those odd moments when I pull the tenor banjo out—but it contains some great tunes (standard notation only, no tab), several of them written by Smeck (the rest are arrangements of Joplin rags).

Anyway, however you do it, check out Roy Smeck
—you won’t be sorry!

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