Loud Music

Apr 02, 2020
I knew this guy Micah in high school, and he and his band were obsessed with the Rolling Stones. For the time, that wasn't unusual. But these guys were enterprising as well as obsessed: when they found out the Stones had rented a place in western Massachusetts to hang out and rehearse, Micah and his friends grabbed their gear and hit the road, determined to make an impression. Arriving at night, they somehow found a place to set up and plug in within earshot of Keef, Mick and company, and started blasting. Even more unlikely, they succeeded in ringing up the band and actually getting someone on the phone. They didn't get discovered that night, but they did score a bit of helpful advice – "try a little less reverb!" – plus bragging rights. Not everyone gets to submit "We woke up the Rolling Stones!" for their senior yearbook quote, but Micah did.

I've had an ambivalent relationship with electric music myself, so the closest I ever came to waking up the Stones happened the year Truefire held its one and only Guitar Expo in Boston. I was there to teach and play, and wound up in a presentation room designed for tasteful Power Points, not Telecasters and blackface amps. The walls, to be precise, were virtually useless. The faculty, on the other hand, was pretty impressive, and on a break in the green room I found myself in a brief conversation with J. Geils. Geils had just put out his jump blues record with Magic Dick, sort of the blues-rocker's equivalent of finally making a standards album with Tony Bennett, and so was presumably on hand to discuss the finer points of T-Bone Walker and Tiny Grimes, not deconstruct FM hits like "Love Stinks." Hoping to get a piece of that jump blues action, I opened with "hey, I think I was teaching next door to you this morning!" "Yeah?" replied Geils in his Boston accent. "You wuh loud!"

It wasn't exactly rousting a snoring Keith Richards out of bed, but having spent the better part of my life playing folk music, bluegrass and acoustic blues, being called "loud" by J. Geils remains one of my prouder achievements. I've never really connected with the whole Dionysian aspect of playing rock 'n' roll – in fact, just now I had to spell check where the apostrophes in "rock 'n' roll" belong – so I think one of the things I like so much about fingerstyle blues is that it provides access to everything I like about musicians like the Allman Brothers or Dire Straits, without the need to operate on the operatic scale of a stadium act. Also, I was already weirdly aware, before I was old enough to legally drink, that there's a lot more dignity in playing roots music into your '70s than in jumping around in spandex, even if, at the end of the day, you're still basically singing about the same things. So now that I'm closer to 70 than 20 (cripes!) acoustic music looks to have been a pretty good move. Plus, it's not like they were beating a path to my door with the spandex gigs anyway.

So this week, I continue my Travis Picking The Blues series with a lesson on how to use short and long phrases to build cool pentatonic solos over an alternating thumb bass. We're in E, of course, the most rock 'n' roll of all keys, and you can check out the lesson here:

Improvising with Short/Long Phrasing

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