May 02, 2009
Gear As Trojan Horse
In the last instalment of “Glen Loves To Bore People Talking About His Gear”, I intimated that the gear might actually be only a means to an end. It would seem obvious that the tools were the subject, but they were not the Object. The same concept applies to technique. Surely, sometimes style is Art and sometimes technique is Art, but generally I think these are also tools of the artist.
Apologies To People Who Actually Did Go To University
I am not a formally trained philosopher. Yet I see that literally, historically and necessarily, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy and fine art is a branch of aesthetics. I am not a formally educated artist. Yet in my own primitive philosophy, cadged from various sources, “fine art” is distinguished from “folk art”, “entertainment” and “decorative art”, as well as other “arts”, in that it is interpretive and that it is not practical. To the extent that efforts in any medium are interpretive they may be said to contain an element of fine art. To the extent that a work of fine art may have a practical application, it may not be appropriate to throw it out with the bathwater, but it should be eyed with due suspicion.
To be less abstract about it, some things are “decorative” or “naïve”. Though they still reflect some aesthetic awareness, preference or conditioning, they are not the same thing as a work designed specifically in the language of “art for art’s sake”, where an artist defines him or herself as an individual, whose purpose is to convey their unique aethetic; an individual sense of beauty, to be conveyed to the rest of the world. To be such an individual demands that one “speak” the language of their particular art form. It would also mean that the artist would have to master whatever level of whatever technique(s) necessary to achieve that work. For example, Yo Yo Ma probably had to master a great deal more technique than Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols had to master in order to achieve their very different sonic aims. Yet they each certainly had aesthetic purpose and many can testify that what they each conveyed by pursuing their vision by creating works in the face of an uncaring universe, was a unique sense of beauty that could not be communicated in literal words. Although it is an artist’s job to “create”, it is also an artist’s job to communicate. In order to do that, one must use the “words” that one’s audience will understand. That may mean words they are already familiar with, but it may mean using words that are unfamiliar, yet evocative. It also may mean challenging them with new words for new concepts.
What does this have to do with tools???
Despite the fact that I, like Mr. Jones, am a mere “pop” artist, I have always tried to pursue my aims in the fashion of a fine artist. I use the tools at my disposal, which, aside from the instruments and equipment I employ, include the libraries of art, literature, fashion, music, film and cultural events in my head, on my shelves and anywhere else I can find them. One of the tools of the artist is the collective memory. The artist can play upon that string for an emotional reaction and sometimes to direct the listener to a particular era, event or style. If an audience sees a four-piece musical combo with shaggy hair, Vox amplifiers and Rickenbacker guitars, they are pretty well clued in to the context in which the art should be viewed. If the artists deviate, it can be with intended or unintended, comical, tragic or very effective consequences. Often with rock bands as with other artists, the artists rely on their own best clichés (as Bill Nelson has said), or worse, someone else’s best clichés. Using sights and sounds that the audience will recognize should not be a license for artistic laziness, but it is in my opinion a perfectly acceptable use of powerful symbols that can serve as a stage for further developments.
Hence, The Cherry Bluestorms’ use of images and gear that touch a nerve. But, getting to the use of a more intimate tool (No, not THAT tool), and as you hoped, getting to The Point, I propose to discuss my use of alternate tunings.
You Didn’t See That One Coming, Did You?
Okay, I misled you. Though I am far from the first or thousandth person to use alternate tunings in folk, rock or folk-rock guitar stylings, I don’t really use them (directly) as a key to our collective musical past. However, they do color my sound as a songwriter, arranger and guitarist, perhaps more than the electronic effects I employ.
Why, Glen, Do You Use Alternate Tunings?
There are different types of alternate tunings and consequently, for me specifically, there is more than one answer to the question.
“Open Tunings” are a pretty common thing. They refer to tuning a guitar so that playing it “open”, i.e., without fingerings, produces a chord, usually a “consonant” one. Tuning a guitar to a major chord, such as E major, G major or A major is often used for blues-based slide guitar. Various alternate tunings are used for slide and non-slide “slack key” Hawaiian guitar. Another open tuning often used on acoustic guitar is known as DADGAD, after the notes the strings are tuned to. These tunings, in contrast to “standard” tuning of EADGBE, each have a characteristic sound. So that is one reason.
Another reason for an alternate tuning is to get around the inherent limitations of the instrument in standard tuning. Guitars, unlike pianos, are not linear instruments at all. They are also much easier to tune, de-tune and re-tune, so they are easy to exploit for experimentation.
In my own case, I re-tune guitars for the above reasons and also to get around my own inherent limitations, especially since sustaining an injury to my left (fingering) hand. Most of the tunings I use I developed for my own specific use, however I do not claim that others have not used them as well, only that I did not look to others for the tunings I use presently, with one exception. I have always been a big fan of Ron Wood’s slide playing, especially on Around The Plynth on the First Step album. I recently recognized the sound of the tuning he employed when I heard Firebug play one of their songs. I asked the guitarist about it and he graciously gave me the tuning: DADFAD. Although my early efforts to use DADGAD met with resounding failure, I no sooner tuned one of my acoustic guitars to DADFAD than I wrote most of a song I’m still working on, but quite like.
How Do These Tunings Affect Your Art?
I thought you’d never ask…
Actually, I was a “flatpicker” long before I had any injury to my hand. Like a handicapped classical player, who uses several fingers on the plucking hand to achieve arpeggios, melodies, countermelodic lines and techniques other than the chords and solos usually employed by rock players, I used my “flatpick”, or plectrum as a single finger darting around trying to make musical statements and textures. Many of the tunings I use are very helpful for that compared to standard tuning, at least in my present situation. So, they encourage the individualistic style that I had already developed to a point in standard tuning.
What Does That Have To Do With Gear…Or Tools…Or Art…????
I am merely trying to demonstrate that, while there are mechanical, electronic, acoustic and academic tools that all assist the artist to achieve something, it remains the artist’s job to set the colors on the canvas, to define the context and to communicate the artistic message within the aesthetic context. Too often in popular music, we are asked to endorse music and musicians that are at best a restatement of what has gone before, with little or no effort employed to come up with any new ideas or aesthetic identity. Much as I love my gear and playing around with alternate tunings, it is all in the sandbox until we make our castles out of sand…. Thanks, Jimi