The ‘Strike a Chord’ Blog™ RSS
by Mark Clemente

The ‘Strike a Chord’ Blog™ relays stories about the art of the guitar to inform and inspire players of all styles.
It’s for guitarists who approach the instrument as a life-long creative pursuit for the benefit of themselves,
their listeners, and the world in general.

A Guitar Lesson from Bruce Lee

The famous martial artist Bruce Lee advocated a unique approach to learning his art that blatantly defied thousands of years of history and tradition. Some people say it cost him his life.


Lee, of course, was the iconic actor, teacher, and philosopher who forged his own martial arts style. Along the way he became the first to take highly secretive Chinese martial art techniques and make them available to the world. He originally began teaching a traditional martial art system of kung fu known as Wing Chun, but later introduced his distinct new system called jeet kun do.


He is famously quoted that his form of martial art is the “style of no styles.” That philosophy is an intriguing way to think about our own approach to the guitar―as we’ll see in a moment. Some background first.


The legendary Lee’s advice to his students was to avoid what he called the “classical mess.”  What he meant was rejecting the strict adherence to the ways of one traditional system, while also avoiding a rigid close-mindedness to others. Lee felt that no martial art style was inherently better than another. Each had its own strengths and weaknesses.


Lee also believed that everyone has fundamentally different skills and levels of physical aptitude. A given technique in one system might be appropriate for one person, but not for another. Lee espoused a broad-minded approach to studying the martial arts based on his professed aversion to the “classical mess”―that is, by telling students to “accept what is useful, and discard what is not.”


A particular example of accepting what is useful in guitar playing comes to mind.


As a jazz player, I listen to a lot of Barney Kessel―a personal favorite and influence. The blues have always suffused his style. Yet, in his later years, certain elements of rock seem to have entered his playing. Personally, I hear rock-like lines in his playing as marked by, among other things, occasional yet aggressive string-bending.


Could Kessel have picked this up during his many years as a studio musician on the legendary Wrecking Crew―the group of studio players, many from the jazz ranks, who played on countless pop tunes in the 1960s and 1970s? Kessel was recorded on hundreds of numbers, including hits by the Beach Boys and the Monkees. He was the archetypical jazz player. But he was immersed in the world of rock and roll, like many other players of his day, to pay the bills. Over time, it appears that Kessel accepted what was useful to him and made certain rock phrases part of his sound.


Bruce would have been proud of Barney.


Kessel opened his mind and ears to techniques outside his base style. In the spirit of Bruce Lee, he took different concepts and incorporated them into his own sound. That’s an important take-away for all guitarists.


Lee’s free-form philosophies and insistence on opening up martial arts instruction to all caused him to incur the wrath of his martial art elders. His shocking death at age 32 has forever been shrouded in mystery. Many believe he died at the hands of vengeful rivals. Lee’s death was officially attributed to cerebral edema, which is accumulation of fluid in the brain. But conspiracy theories remain.


This, of course, is irrelevant in the context of the guitar. What is relevant, however, is Lee’s fundamental world view. His belief in unhindered creative personal expression and boundless exploration is an inspiring way to approach musical discovery, in general, and our instrument, in particular.


And just to clarify …


In guitar playing, avoiding the “classical mess” doesn’t mean shunning Segovia. (Apologies to the memory of the great grandmaster.) Rather, it’s about avoiding being locked into a style-centric way of thinking that can potentially limit our musical growth.


Clearly, it’s also about embracing what could be viewed as Bruce Lee’s fundamental lesson for guitarists: embracing a “style that is no style” … one based on taking what is useful from any and all others, one where you take what is useful for you as an individual player.


While this mindset is not right for every guitarist, it personally is for me and my approach to the instrument. Either way, it’s a compelling concept to consider.

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Facts About History’s First “Lead Guitar” Player

The first electric guitar soloist in history had the ultimate “starter guitar.” It was made out of a cigar box.


Yes, legend has it that this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee played his earliest gigs on a resonant, one-time container of stogies with a makeshift neck and strings attached. Someday, they would name an electric guitar pickup after him.


He is Charlie Christian. Surely, all jazz players and students of guitar history know the name. He was the Oklahoma-raised, blues- and country-influenced player who took the guitar out of the rhythm section shadows and thrust it into the musical limelight. By amplifying the instrument for the first time, he was able to move the guitar to center stage. It has remained there ever since for players across musical genres.


History shows that Christian had a seismic impact on the emergence of jazz guitar in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But it’s interesting to consider his rock and roll recognition.


Everyone’s first reaction: a jazz guitarist in the rock hall of fame? Makes sense, though, when you realize that he was the first player to ever step forward and play an electric guitar solo!


(To be fair, two other players lay claim to being the first to amplify their axe. Both Eddie Durham and George Barnes maintain that they were the first to use an amplified guitar. OK, so Christian was one of the first to do so. He’s certainly the most famous.)


Christian amplified his guitar to cut through and be heard in the horn-centric combos of his day. Amplification may be the aspect of his playing for which Christian is best known. Yet it was his distinct sense of swing and intricate lines that completely redefined what could be done on six strings. At the same time, he was strongly influencing the emerging jazz form, bebop.


An endless list of guitarists was influenced by Christian. They include virtually all the jazz guitar legends who came to prominence in the 40s and 50s—namely Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Tiny Grimes, Herb Ellis, and others. Included in that list are players who hail from different genres: Chet Atkins, the famed fingerstyle and country guitarist, is just one player outside the jazz world who is said to have been influenced by Christian.


Some other quick facts about Charlie Christian …


  • In his early years, he played bass and piano, in addition to guitar
  • His principal musical influence was the saxophonist Lester Young, whose fluid horn lines inspired Christian’s approach to single-string lead playing
  • In his audition for the clarinetist Benny Goodman’s sextet, Christian reportedly played a 47-minute solo on the song Rose Room – supposedly blowing Goodman away and cementing Christian’s place in the band going forward
  • Christian was only 26 when he died of tuberculosis in 1942.


Christian’s core approach to single-string improvisation has sustained to this day. It’s still reverberating.


He elevated the guitar to first-instrument status. And, in a striking example of musical exploration and unbounded creativity, he incorporated horn-like phrasings into his improvisation … not to mention his original infusions of country and blues.


Every guitarist stepping up to take his or her next solo should offer thanks to Charlie Christian for his historic contributions to the guitar—and a happy 100th birthday!(coming up on July 29).

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The Smoke In Jerry Garcia’s Eyes

Few if any guitarists from the 1960s personified the counter-culture nature of the times more than Jerry Garcia.


The late, great, Grateful Dead leader came to symbolize the hazy vibe of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury section, where the billows in the air weren’t coming from gas emissions alone. You get the idea. On many levels, Garcia’s public persona was shaped by his god-like standing in the drug culture of the day. He was, after all, affectionately nicknamed “Captain Trips.”


So mention the word “smoke” in the context of Jerry Garcia and a certain kind of combustible immediately comes to mind―at least it did to mine when I came across a YouTube video of Garcia’s version of the famous American Songbook standard, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.


On the surface, it would seem that recording the song was a tongue-in-cheek musical move by Garcia. But was it?


Certainly, he knew his following of fans, most of whom had probably never even heard of the song when Garcia covered it in 1995. Regardless, he knew the cannabis connection would likely be obvious. Yet an interesting fact about Garcia’s background suggests that it wasn’t just a marketing ploy to cover Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, but rather a show of respect through musical expression and exploration.


You see, Garcia―born Jerome John Garcia―was reportedly named after Jerome Kern, the composer of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Kern, as you may know, was among the great songwriters of the 20th Century, penning such standards as All the Things You Are, The Way You Look Tonight, and Ol’ Man River.


Biographies of Garcia attest to the fact that he drew from a wide range of influences in developing his distinctive sound. Elements of jazz, contemporary blues, bluegrass, and country pervade Garcia’s style. Perhaps most interesting, his improvisational technique is said to have been strongly influenced by the legendary John Coltrane―a horn player.


I probably went to six or so Grateful Dead concerts when I was (a lot) younger. One thing was clear to me as a guitarist even back then: Garcia had to have influences beyond basic rock and roll. The Dead’s extended jams and musical explorations were marked by sounds that included―but which transcended―pure rock and country.


Give a listen to Garcia’s cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The intro features rock guitar lines that lead into the chorus, which carries a bossa nova-like beat. Garcia is most likely playing a solid body guitar on the track, but is shown in the video holding what appears to be a vintage Gibson Super 400 archtop. Soaring 1950s era vocals provide the background and recall one of the most popular versions of the song, that of The Platters in 1958.


Garcia’s cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes takes an American standard and applies a unique array of sounds and musical styles, played over sophisticated jazz changes. The end result is a fascinating musical mix that creates one of the more novel renditions of the song. (It’s a fun video too, with a number of well-known Hollywood faces appearing throughout.)


As for the smoke, Garcia is shown in several scenes puffing a cigar―the exact filler contents unknown.


Certainly, it was a long, strange musical trip for Garcia before his death at age 53 in 1995. It ended with his cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, one of the last songs he ever recorded. Thankfully, Garcia left us with a perfect example of how a guitarist can take a song from one genre and make it his or her own by adding other influences, effects, or stylistic techniques.


Recording Smoke Gets in Your Eyes seemingly had special significance for Garcia, given his namesake connection with Kern and presumed familiarity with Kern’s other works through Garcia's jazz leanings. No, cutting the track wasn’t a ploy by Garcia to perpetuate a lighthearted pot joke. It was likely a genuine gesture of musical respect.


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