I suppose the first step is to continue being a human, since the bottom few layers in Maslow's Hierarchy haven't changed since our malignant narcissist-in-chief took office. We still have to put on our own oxygen masks before we can grapple with the overt malice and ugliness of our political climate. However, it often feels like there's no overlap between our safe little haven of middle-class phosphor-bronze-and-rosewood coffeehouse banter and the two thousand migrant children separated from their parents in detention centers, Amazon rainforest fires, Trump fanning the flames of domestic terrorism, and the public health crisis of mass shootings. Beyond our pocket of plucky privilege (3x fast, GO!), voting is fundamental. All hands on deck. That's how we make course corrections.
There's a rich history of protest singers--Dylan, Marley, Guthrie, Seeger, Baez, and Billy Holiday. For instrumentalists, the task of confronting ugly political movements with music is more nebulous. Jazz bassist Charles Mingus did it with his big band piece "Fables of Faubus", a scathing caricature of the Arkansas governor who stood on the wrong side of history during the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Mingus actually wrote lyrics to the tune, but Columbia Records only initially allowed him to record an instrumental version. "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" by Penderecki is a justly nightmarish composition, but I doubt any negotiators of the Iran nuclear deal have even heard of Penderecki. That's why I'm often skeptical when instrumental guitarists publish tunes as musical, abstract donations to a cause. The intent is good, and I've done it, and it's also not enough.
That said, we all have that deeply-rooted human need to make and enjoy music. I think it's an error to only describe music-making as a luxury item, or evaluate it only based on how much $ it contributes to the economy. We all consume and enjoy music (okay, 99% of us, and that 1% has two thumbs and sits in the Oval Office. Seriously, google it. It's weird). A large number of us create music. Seems like a pretty clear-cut human value that's not going away anytime soon. So keep swigging those lattes and posting pictures of your pedalboards to instagram. Maybe during the set break, we can get together and brainstorm an epic soundtrack to play behind the voters walking to the polls in 2020. Who wouldn't want that?
Not all are. I'm pretty sure the 8-string djent maven who worked as a barista at my local coffeehouse didn't obsess. An oncologist who took lessons from me for several years had no need for nails to enjoy Kodachrome or Hallelujah (hi Jeff!). So why all the manicure talk?
First, we're really only discussing the fingerstyle guitar camp here (and I'm including classical and flamenco guitar)--any approach to the guitar that involves picking or strumming the strings with the right hand. (Okay, the one opposite the fretting hand. Sorry southpaws!).
We're also not discussing the fingers that push down the strings--those nails might be chronically bitten, worn from rock climbing, covered in black goth polish, anything as long as they're short and out of the way.
Nope, I'm talking the ones that look like wolverine claws at the supermarket checkout and usher any guitarist with a masculinity complex sheepishly through the beauty isle in disguise. An organic, finger-mounted pick if you like.
Classical guitarists are arguably the most obsessive bunch. My first semester in college, I met an upperclassman who, without even introducing himself, zeroed in on my fingernails and told me that "I didn't understand proper nail technique". The 'nose-oil trick' is well known to most classical players--it's as unsanitary as it sounds, and it works. Classical guitarists tend to favor their natural nails and will loudly protest any polish, glue, or acrylic that gets between their nails and the strings. They brandish small pieces of fine sandpaper to keep their claws glassy-smooth.
Steel-string fingerpickers and flamencos, meanwhile, will apply any number of noxious chemicals to harden their nails into cement (adamantium?). In high school, I tried two-part epoxy. The film-developer solutions in photography class turned them a sickly yellow. Senior year, my thumbnail broke off inside a bowling ball at our class party. I turned to plastic tips and diy acrylic kits, and finally super glue as a reinforcement.
The thing about guitar nails is that everyone's approach and physiology are different. If you pluck the string with one side of the finger and file a slope or 'ramp' into the nail, the string will slide smoothly along until it pops free from the top of the ramp. If you rotate your wrist slightly so the nails are parallel with the strings, the sound is thinner and brighter--and you didn't have to buy a new preamp or pedal to get there!
If you strum with the backs of the nails, they will inevitably wear down, no matter how much gelatin or calcium you eat. Time to either reach for that nourishing organic conditioner on your greasy, greasy nose or get down with some glue. So why do we guitarists do this to ourselves?
There's undeniably a magic, crystalline tone to be had with nails, especially playing a beautiful guitar unamplified in a beautiful reverberant hall. You can play with a great deal more acoustic volume than with bare fingertips, just as a heavy flatpick will clearly elicit more sound from a guitar than a fleshy thumb. However, we've been amplifying music for almost 150 years, and with the current generation of pickups, microphones, preamps, and hi-fi speakers, nails are another color palate to add to your fingerstyle art studio. What's your approach? Claws yea or nay?
What I really mean to say is that the people who show up to learn ukulele are almost always there to have a good time. Things are more complicated with the guitar-learners. Over the several years I've taught introductory guitar and ukulele classes for adults, often back-to-back, and I've noticed a few things.
The ukulele adoptees invariably have bought a colorful, delightful little instrument in a flashy soft case, or received one as a gift. They've already found a Youtube tutorial on the three chords to play the Lava Song. They have that gleeful vibe that expresses "I've joined a club of older adults quietly thumbing their noses at their uptight corporate jobs and saying yes to their joyful inner child".
The guitar learners, on the other hand, encapsulate a more varied set of emotions. Some have bought the cheapest guitar they could find on Amazon and found the strings painfully too high to press down. Many have downloaded a tuner app or found a clip-on tuner but have no intuition about which direction to turn the pegs to satisfy the blinking lights on the screen. Perhaps they've tried to fret a chord shape only to find buzzing or thunking strings and painful fingertips. Some folks on the guitar path have inherited an old classical guitar with corroded strings and noticed a gulf between the sounds coming from their instrument and the bright, aggressive strumming of their favorite Americana tune.
So why the vasty different experiences between the uke and guitar strummers? The physical challenges are clear--a steel-string guitar resists almost 200lbs of string tension and a ukulele, maybe 30. A setup is vital to a beginner's comfortable guitar-playing experience. The open strings on a uke already produce a lovely C6 chord, and the lower pitched guitar ring to the tune of open Em11. A C-chord on a uke is a one-finger-win. On a guitar, it first feels like the 'sit-and-reach' from gym class. The fundamental difference, however, I think is the emotional 'baggage-to-blank-slate' ratio, and it's simply not in the guitar's favor. What do I mean? Scroll through the years worth of world-class guitar players of every conceivable genre on Youtube--it's impossible, of course. However, since we are all primates and comparison junkies, it's difficult not to feel overwhelmed. Van Halen and Jennifer Batten, Kaki King and Andy Mckee, Tosin Abasi, Ed Sheeran...keep scrolling.
Now search for "ukulele cover". What do you find? I see someone smiling in almost every thumbnail. A much more even gender balance compared to the boys-club of rock & roll (notable exceptions of course). Kids in middle and high school playing pop tunes. Looks like inclusive fun, doesn't it? Guitar teachers, we've got some more work to do!
My father's childhood friend, Steve Fingerett, was a longtime record promoter for Warner Bros. In middle school, I had a summer job of sorts packaging magic kits at Steve's house and listening to his record collection while he and my dad played backgammon. I remember the record sleeves and dusty analog sounds of Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Lang, Paul Simon, and Ry Cooder. Those growly fingerpicking textures from Leo Kottke's 12-string were late-summer magic, and I had to find out how the illusion worked. Fingerett passed away recently, and I'm still working on the magic trick.
"Sunny" is a great old tune from soul singer Bobby Hebb in 1966. Here's my rendition. The video was shot at photographer Erin Johnson's wonderful and whimsical studio. Enjoy.
Howdy guitar fans on the interwebs,
I'm excited to announce that my solo album NEOLITHIC is set for release this fall! It features eleven original compositions and one traditional old-time tune. While this is a 'solo' guitar record, I've "guitar-orchestrated" much of the album with a mad-scientist concoction of 12-string guitar, 8-string classical, banjo, ukulele, and fretless uke bass. One of the exceptions is track 9, "Paco", written on the 8-string as a simple, somber sketch of the late flamenco legend Paco de Lucía.
Thanks to phototrapher Erin Johnson for the use of her whimsical studio space: https://erinjohnsonphoto.com/2014/01/02/enjoy-studio/
Enjoy and stay tuned!