Chasing A Book

Jun 18, 2020
There is, of course, no corporal punishment around our house, but when things are getting too out of line there is one threat I can be heard to issue: "Don't make me tell you a 'When I Was A Kid' story!" As in: "What? your cell reception is no good in that particular corner of your room and it's rendering life void and meaningless? Listen, when I was kid, the cord from the rotary phone in the kitchen didn't even reach as far as..."

You get the idea.

That said...when I was kid, the idea of opening a screen, on demand, and watching – watching! – Mississippi John Hurt sit around a table picking guitar with Pete Seeger would have felt as unlikely as the prospect of personally stepping onto the moon. Instead, I struggled to decode songs I couldn't even find LPs of from completely unstandardized tab in the few books on folk and blues guitar held by the public library. There were, however, a few resources that did really offer a window in, and I treasured their insights all the more for their scarcity. This past week, someone in my membership Forum asked for book suggestions, and since I haven't done my annual Summer Reading List yet, I thought I'd post a few titles here as well, starting with the instructional, moving on to a few on creativity and practice and winding up with some fun reads about (almost) everyone's favorite decade. So here goes.
Fingerstyle Instruction:
  • Ken Perlman, Fingerstyle Guitar. An actual method book for anyone wanting to learn fingerstyle from the ground up, including how to develop an alternating-thumb bass and which fingers to apply to which strings. While Perlman covers a variety of roots styles, from blues to folk to Celtic to ragtime, the emphasis is definitely on the Travis picking side of things. For more of the steady-bass approach, see the next entry.
  • Happy Traum, Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee. Ok, I didn't actually come across this book until I was an adult, but it's the book I wish I'd had as a kid. Happy took lessons from McGhee in the 1950s, toting a D-28 and reel-to-reel deck from the Bronx to Brownie's walkup apartment, and years later wrote this "as told to" guide. It's a clear, hands-on approach to finding chords and licks on the steady-bass blues in open position keys like E and A, conveying a good deal of McGhee's pragmatic point of view along the way
  • Richard Saslow, The Art of Ragtime Guitar. I've mentioned this one before, but it's always worth bringing up again. Each of Saslow's nine original tunes is an album-worthy, thoroughly satisfying repertoire piece. The notation and tab is clear and the tunes are carefully crafted to sound varied and cool while almost always lying comfortably under the fingers, providing maximum bang for your practicing buck. Along the way, he provides additional tips on how to handle certain chords, specific right-hand details, and more.
Creativity & Practice:
  • Pressfield, Stephen, The War of Art. Pressfield is addressing writers here, but his take on work and procrastination, cast here as the effort to overcome Resistance through adoption of the pragmatic, dogged ethos of the Professional, is concise, refreshing, witty and pretty inspiring. In particular, his notions about showing up for work and developing one's craft, rather than waiting for the muse to surface, offer a bracing perspective for anyone who's ever struggled to sit down and practice on a regular basis.
  • Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar. Not unlike Pressfield, Sudo presents his ideas on art and creativity through a succession of succinct, literate meditations. While he's partial to epigraphs from rock stars like Clapton and Hendrix, his application of now-popularized Zen ideas like "beginner's mind" to the pursuit of playing guitar can be just the ticket when you need to ratchet down your internal critics and reconnect with what you love about the instrument.
  • Jasper Rees, A Devil To Play. This one's here for a little perspective. I remember how, after spending a semester as a beginning piano student my sophomore year, the guitar suddenly seemed a much fairer proposition. "Hey man," I'd think, "at least both my hands are united in a common goal again!" In A Devil To Play, journalist Rees recounts his year of learning French horn, "the orchestra's most difficult instrument," from scratch. 'Nough said.
Roots and Pop Music
  • Mick Houghton, Becoming Elektra. If you had no idea the Doors consciously ripped of Koerner, Ray and Glover but love the idea as much as I do, you'll dig Houghton's profile of Jac Holzman and his rise from curator of obscure, genuine folk music to rock 'n' roll tastemaker.
  • Steve Turner, Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year. The only thing more surprising to Ms. Fretboard than watching me turn into a quarantine lush (well – relatively speaking, that is; nothing to panic about) is my evidently limitless, gleeful capacity for yet another book about the Beatles. Beatles '66 is a compelling, month-by-month look into that perfect year of balance between rock 'n' roll stage act and exploratory studio band.
  • Elijah Wald, Dylan Goes Electric! Much more than a retelling of how Albert Grossman and Alan Lomax got in a fist fight or whether Pete Seeger really ran around onstage with ax, Dylan Goes Electric interprets that landmark moment as the fulcrum for a decade of cultural ferment and musical development.
Personally, by the end of the summer, I may have finished wading through Mark Lewisohn's Tune In, volume one of his proposed Fab Four trilogy. Then again, I might only succeed in rereading the complete Mr. Mulliner stories by P.G. Wodehouse. I know the suspense is hard to take, so I'll keep you posted on further developments.

More soon,