In 2010 the band The Carolina Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for best traditional album (Genuine Negro Jigs). Featured in the band was the outstanding vocalist and clawhammer banjo player RhiannonGiddens. This young lady is a native of North Carolina and, although she comes from an academic background (she had even studied opera), she was deeply immersed in the traditional music of her region. She is a unique roots music performer. At the time of this recording there was nobody quite like her. Well, time marches on and another female roots music performer is making her mark. This is the Michigan raised, multi-instrumentalist Laurel Premo (Banjo, Fiddle, Guitar, Lap Steel Guitar).
From her website – “She is a Michigan-based artist who has been writing, arranging, and touring since 2009 with vocal and instrumental roots acts, and is internationally known from her collaborations with Michael Beauchamp-Cohen in the duo Red Tail Ring. Premo holds a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) from the Performing Arts Technology Dept. of the University of Michigan School of Music, and has spent half-year stints at both the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, Finland and the University College of Southeast Norway in Telemark to study traditional music and dance. Important mentors who have helped shape Laurel’s lens in the folk arts have been her parents Bette & Dean Premo (fiddle, guitar, and traditional song, Michigan), Joel Mabus (clawhammer banjo, Michigan), Arto Järvelä (fiddle, Finland), and Ånon Egeland (fiddle, Norway). Alongside several continuing music projects, she is active in organizing community events that connect people with folk art and dance.”
“Laurel Premo is known for her rhythmically deep and rapt delivery of roots music on fiddle, guitar, and vocals. Her solo performances dive deep into traditional and new fiddle music, musically revealing a bloom of underlying harmonic drones, minimalist repetition, and rich polyrhythms. Presenting these sounds on finger style electric guitar and fiddle, Premo fully leans in to the archaic melodies and in-between intonations that connect folk sounds to the mystic and unknown.”
Despite the invention of streaming services my musical medium of choice remains the CD. However, in recent years I have fallen under the spell of YouTube and, although the technical quality of some videos is sub-par, it has the advantage of supplying new artists, new music and vast quantities of archival material. I often stumble on material that is not readily available on CD or DVD. Case in point is the following YouTube clip featuring Laurel Premo and Anna Gustavsson. They are performing ‘Sally In The Garden,’ a traditional American tune, on gourd banjo and nyckelharpa (a traditional Swedish instrument).
Laurel has no hesitation in delving into traditional music that is outside her own culture. Here is her interpretation of a classic British folk song.
Michigan is not known as a hot bed of traditional Blues. Never-the-less here is Laurel’s interpretation of a song written by the master blues artist Skip James (1902-1969) . Laurel Premo added several new verses and interludes to his original composition
While exploring the many streams of traditional music Rhiannon Giddens will continue to be a musician who will continue to entertain and inform. At the same time we should remain aware of the musical talents of Laurel Premo. I think her musical explorations will continue to surprise and inspire us.
The Mike Clark Blues Band at Studio 64 in Kimberley
Saturday November 19, 2022 – This was the last concert of the 2022 Fall Jazz and Blues Concert Series.
For a Blues artist being born and growing up in the “Delta” is almost a stamp of authenticity. Well, Mike Clark really is a ”Delta Blues Man” but not of Mississippi river fame. Originally he hails from the Fraser River Delta in Richmond B.C. His musical and geographical domain isn’t one of humid heat, flat lands, cotton fields and Afro-Americans slaving under a hot southern sun. No, it is more like cool temperate weather conditions peopled by South Asian immigrants picking strawberries and blueberries all within reach of the towering snow-capped coastal ranges of British Columbia. The work is still back breaking but without the violent racial overtones of the American South. This is not the usual recipe for Delta Blues. And yet, despite this more genteel environment of his youth, Mike has managed to develop a searing blues based tenor sax and vocal style that would not be out of place in Memphis or New Orleans.
The Studio 64 Organizing Committee managed to pry the Mike Blues Band from it’s home town hang out in Mickey’s on 12th Avenue in Calgary to perform in the wonderful performance space of Studio 64 at the Kimberley Art Council building in down town Kimberley. This band included veteran blues artists Mike Clark on Tenor Sax, Guitar and Vocals, Don Muir on keyboards, Brian Pollock on Bass, Tom Moon on Drums and, holding up the youthful end of the age spectrum, Brett Spaulding on lead Guitar. Brett’s use of guitar pedals was outstanding. This is a solid working blues band with a good repertoire of Willie Dixon tunes (Spoonful, Hoochie Coochie Man), Al Green’s Take Me to the River, some James Brown (I Feel Good), a Ray Charles tune, The Crusaders (Put It Where You want It) and a number of original songs that included Dark Waters and Down Where the River Meets the Sea. All great songs spiced up with searing tenor sax solos, rollicking keyboards and very tasty lead guitar lines that was unpinned by the solid rhythm duo of Tom Moon and Brian Pollock. As I said this is a solid working band that if it returns to Kimberley should not be missed.
For this wonderful night of music, we should thank the Stage 64 Organizing Committee and its Volunteers. Also the corporate sponsor Overtime Beer Works, the City of Kimberley and last but not least the chair of the committee Keith Nicholas who is retiring as the chair person. His replacement will be Peter Kearns.
Here are some images from a rollicking night of music……..
Black Umfolosi – The Second 2022 Fall Jazz and Blues Concert; 8pm Saturday, October 29th, 2022.
Some years back I stumbled onto a YouTube video of Bonnie Raitt and slide blues guitarist Roy Rogers performing at a Austin City Limits event. As expected it was a fine performance. But what was unexpected was the second act of the evening performed by a musician from Zimbabwe. Bonnie and Roy are, in essence, blues musicians and up until this particular performance I had never fully realized how much “a downer” the blues can be. Essentially it is “victims” music and has an aura of depression, repression and “Oh Woe is Me”, “My man treats me awful mean”, etc. When the Zimbabwean musician stepped up to the microphone all that depression disappeared. With sinuous bass lines and dancing rhythms there was a monumental shift from depression to joy and, although the songs were in another language, they sounded so happy that one could only feel the same way. When Bonnie and Roy returned to the stage for their second set the music went crashing back down down into instant depression. I have never been able to listen to the blues the same way since. From that time on I have paid attention to the multitude styles of African music and, regardless of geography, that sense of joy and community seems to ring through all African music. When I heard that that the Zimbabwean cappella group Black Umfolosi was going to perform in the newly renovated Centre 64 Theater in Kimberly it would be a rare opportunity to experience music that, in this part of the world, is way out of the ordinary.
“Black Umfolosi are a multi-discipline performing arts group, based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The group began as a means of entertaining themselves while still at school in 1982. They have since become an internationally acclaimed harmonic cappella singing and traditional African dance group The original six members have developed their skills and their organization to a point where the now 18 members provide a multitude of services in the performing arts industry in Zimbabwe and are internationally. compared to the likes of Lady Smith Black Mambazo of South Africa. Black Umfolosi, tour extensively from their homeland Zimbabwe to the UK, Australia, Asia, Europe, Canada and the USA. They have released a number of recordings that feature the singing styles of Imbube, Mbaganga and Township songs. Their dynamic live performances showcase the traditional dancing styles of the Southern African region as well as the more contemporary styles and movements they have developed themselves. Black Umfolosi is much more than a performing group; they are active in training others, particularly the youth, in dance and voice. They try to identify and develop up and coming groups and mentor them along their path to success. They provide workshops and residences in dance, voice, theater, costume design, poetry, mime and also address various issues affecting society today. In short, Black Umfolosi are a community driven organization aiming to give back to people what they themselves have received. The group run various outreach programs both at home and internationally, and does a lot of development educational work with universities, hospitals, prisons, community centers and other arts institutions.” ………. WIKIPEDIA.
Kimberley was the first stop on the Canadian tour and this was the first time the two ladies had been out of Africa. After 45+ days in the UK and the USA their fondest wish for their time in Canada is “to see snow falling from the sky”. In the photo below the featured musicians from left to right are …….
Sotsha Moyo (Lead)
Sandi Dube (Alto/Soprano)
Thomeki Dube (Tenor)
Luzibo Moyo (Alto)
Austin Chisare (Bass)
Here are images from an evening that started with a warmup (note the jackets and sweaters) in “The Green Room” followed by two sets on the main stage that included some active participation by members of the audience.
In The Green Room
The First Set
The Second Set
The Gumboot Song
Black Umfolosi sing in a vocal style from southern Africa called Mbube (Zulu for Lion). It is a style of music that was developed amongst the tribal migrant workers in Southern Africa in the 1930s and on up to the present time. It is just another example of when people are separated from their main cultural roots then they just go on and create and build a “new” culture. It happens all the time and is probably happening as we speak in ways of which we are unaware. Just think back, where did Ragtime, Jazz, Calypso, Salsa, Reggae, etc come from? The most striking feature of the Mbube is that it is entirely vocal and the most well known song in the Mbube style is When the Lion Sleeps Tonight. And everybody knows that song. There is no instrumental component in Mbube music. It is described as “homophonically rhythmic unison vocals” that are used to create intricate harmonies and textures. The nearest to an instrumental accompaniment is the slapping of the “gumboots” in the appropriately name Gumboot Song. Although some of the performances in the concert were in English the majority of the songs were sung in Nguni (a Zulu dialect) and the performers provided enough commentary to inform the audience of the content and meaning of the songs.
Another brilliant concert and once again thanks should go to the Overtime Beer Works, The Kootenay Credit Union, The BC Touring Grant and to the Studio 64 Committee and volunteers that have made this concert possible.
WIL & Heather Gemmell – Centre 64 Gallery and Stage 64 performing space. 8:00 pm, Friday, September 30, 2022. This is the first show of the fall Jazz and Blues Concert Series. The featured act was the Indie Folk-rock duo WIL from Calgary.
The evening’s entertainment was kicked off by Heather Gemmell in the gallery. Over the years this local performer continues to musically grow and develop. At the beginning of her musical career, she was a singer / guitar player in a kind of folksy mold. She morphed into a “Blues Babe”, “Rocker Chick” (with a full-on electric guitar band), “Country Girl” (in the acoustic Rosie Brown Band), “Singer Songwriter” and, now in this instance, to a rootsy banjo playing solo act. Her acoustic set of vocals, original songs and clawhammer banjo tunes was a perfect fit for the gallery.
In Studio 64 WIL, William Mimnaugh on acoustic guitar and vocals was accompanied by drummer Keith Gallant though the two sets that rocked the house though out the evening.
The organizing committee of the Kimberley Arts Council would like to thank the volunteers and the sponsor Overtime Beer Works for another successful concert.
Black Cherry Perry’s Mississippi Medicine Show – Stage 64, The Final show of the 2022 Spring Jazz and Blues Season, Friday 2022-06-17
Perry Gangur, in his own words, this is how the Black Cherry Perry’s Medicine Show evolved: “In 2003, I had a life changing experience. 2003 was the 100th anniversary of WC Handy discovering and then publishing blues music. I took a trip to the Mississippi Delta, just south of Memphis, to see it all for myself. I met a young gypsy woman in West Helena, Arkansas who completely changed everything for me. She told me about my past, my present and what my future could hold. My challenge was to use my new path to heal myself by immersing myself into my music and performance, and to help heal others along the way.
“In 2005, I met ailing Canadian blues veteran Back Alley John, in Calgary Alberta, who took me under his wing. In addition to harp lessons, Back Alley let me sit in with him at his jams and gigs. After a while he was too sick to host his jam at the Point on 17th. I was asked to take it over.”
That same year Black Cherry Perry’s Mississippi Medicine Show came into being and has developed into a dynamic original recording act that reaches back into the heart of the Mississippi blues of the last century. This a music that is so dark and powerful that it has virtually changed the face of modern music. Where would we be without the music of Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Elmore James? The blues stars were and are big time entertainers. Audiences are looking for a show. They want to be entertained. They want to let their hair down, and they want to cut loose. In Black Cherry Perry’s Mississippi Medicine Show we have some theatrical background, and we can’t just stand there. The music takes over us… It’s like we’re men possessed”.
For the Studio 64 show Perry enlisted the help of guitarist Quintin Rybuck, Willy Garcia on drums and the “goto” Calgary bass player Tommy Knowles. The idea was to not just collect a group of fine blues musician together but to “put on a show”. To that end the evening was a success. The opening song was the appropriately named Mississippi Medicine Show. Perry dedicated the tune Bar-BQ Bob to a long time friend in Vancouver. Other songs included T-Bone Walker’s Shuffle, an original tune called Mama’s Kitchen and a magnificent cover of the classic J.J.Cale’s They Call me the Breeze with a great open guitar riff and a chuga-chuga rhythm and bass line.
They Call me the breeze
I keep blowing down the road
Well now they call me the breeze
I keep blowing down the road
I ain’t got me nobody
I don’t carry me no load
Other tunes included Where’s there’s Smoke there’s Fire, Choke the Chicken, and Disco Blues.
This concert was the end of the Spring Season, and it is now time to turn our thoughts and expectations to the coming fall season. As always special thanks should go to the staff and volunteers that make the series possible and we also need to thank the new sponsors Overtime Beer Works.
Gordie Tentrees at Centre 64 in Kimberley, Saturday November 28, 2021, 8pm
In this day and age performers like Gordie Tentrees are labelled as Singer / Song writers. In Gordie’s case that is true but it is not the whole story. Singer / Song writers can run the whole gamut from trivial pop music through the most esoteric music possible. In a different era Gordie would have been labelled simply as a “Folk Singer” but these days that is a rather a quaint label to hang on an artist. When was the last time you saw “Folk Singer” given any promotional prominence? Never-the-less, that’s what Gordie is, an honest-to-goodness folk singer and storyteller in the tradition of Woody Gutherie (without the prewar politics), Pete Seeger (without the banjo), John Prine (without the twang) and, closer to home, the Canadians Freddie Eaglesmith and David Francy. With these masters the story is the thing and in Gordie’s case the songs are slices of life polished to a gem like luster to enhance the story.
Gordie Tentrees (vocal, guitar, harmonica, Dobro, foot tambourine and stomp box) was accompanied by his side kick, the “icon of the Yukon”, Bob Hamilton on pedal steel guitar, mandolin and arc top guitar. They traveled down from Whitehorse in the Yukon to do a string of twelve performances and, despite the horrendous weather, torrential rains, floods, wash outs and road closures they made it all the way through to Kimberley for the gig on Saturday November 28, 2021. The next day they headed off to Calgary for the long trip back up north to their home base in Whitehorse. That is a lot of kilometers to traverse to play twelve gigs in venues governed by strict Covid rules.
The show opened with some nice, gentle pedal steel guitar on the song Wind Walker. For the next hour and a half the audience was treated to a plethora of stories and songs that touched on Far Away Friends, Ring Speed (experiences as a boxer), Bye Gone Days (a desire to rewrite Canadian history), Craft Beards and Man Buns (dubious man fashions), Less is More (you don’t have to be a deadbeat dad), a Tlingit song and lots of stories culled from and interesting life that started in Bancroft, Ontario before heading across Canada and the world. Along the way he spent time in New Zealand and Western Australia and in one of my favorite places – Byron Bay, New South Wales.
Bob Hamilton played his appointed role as an accompanist on Pedal steel guitar in a C6 tuning (for those interested in that sort of thing), some driving mandolin and arc top guitar. Geordie gave him lots of solo space and spiced up the music with some tasteful foot tambourine and stomp box. Because of covid restrictions there was no interval. In these trying times we are thankful for the Kimberley crew who planned and organized the evening’s music. Well done guys.
Here are some more images from the evening:
Gordie’s comments on race relations are worth repeating “the New Zealanders are way ahead of Canada and Australia is way, way behind”. Australia has yet to confront its racist past and its treatment of indigenous people. I can verify his opinions. I am Australian born and lived in Australia until I moved to Canada in my early 30’s. Growing up in Australia I had no contact with Aborigines. I met my first Aborigine in Byron Bay while working in a slaughter house. I was then in my late twenties. Prior to that time I had worked and lived in Sydney and each day I caught the train into the city to go to work.. Each day I would step off the train at Central station and, unbeknownst to me, immediately behind the station, on the other side of tracks, so to speak, there was an aboriginal ghetto.I worked in the city for nine years without being aware of that fact. In later years I learnt there were parts of the city where “whites” were not welcome. In the late 1960s I hitch hiked across Australia to Perth and outside Kalgoorlie in Western Australia I was picked up by a driver who must have been in his seventies. In conversation he mentioned that in his youth he was a drover on one of the big cattle stations and, because they speared cattle, he said that they were under orders to shoot “wild blacks”. That would have placed such instances back in the early part of the twentieth century. Not that long ago when you stop and think about it.
Since that time I have traveled to New Zealand a number of times. I even lived there for the best part of a year and became aware of the Maori culture and its impact and integration into New Zealand society. New Zealand must be the only place on the planet where the indigenous culture has changed the white man. If I had not finally settled in Canada, New Zealand would have been my choice as a place to live and bring up a family. Every body should take a trip to New Zealand before they die. It is a very special place.
In 1961 President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation, expressed his concerns about the dangers of massive military spending, particularly deficit spending and government contracts to private military manufacturers, which he dubbed ” the military-industrial complex”. His warnings were prophetic and much of his concerns have come to pass. The growth and influence of “the military-industrial complex” in the US has led to a distortion of the political and economic make up of the country. For the past 50+ years the US has been in a permanent state of war for which there seems to be no end in sight.
Now, it is not the same thing of course, but I suggest that the music “industry” seems to be in in a similar predicament. The mere fact that we consider music as an industry at all pretty well under scores the existence of a “music-industrial complex”. Of course we don’t call it that. We know it simply as the “the entertainment industry”. It implies that if it doesn’t “entertain” then it has no value”. I suggest that this is responsible for the sorry state of music in general. All pop music sounds the same. Maybe it is because I now fall into that group of “old farts” who are incapable of recognizing “new and vibrant music”. Maybe, but I don’t think so. It is now usual for music to be pigeon holed into various genres and categories and within these groupings the music has been homogenized to point where original and creative performances are hard to come by. If you hear one good Blue Grass band then you have pretty well heard them all. The formula is there and to make a living the musicians pretty well have stick to it. Every rock band seems to be still rattling around inside the standard configurations pioneered in the classic rock era. Imaginative instrumental music has been replaced by a thousand and one singer / song writers. There are some great wordsmiths out there but a lot of the music is pretty ordinary. So much so that audiences no longer know how to listen to interesting instrumental music.They don’t know the instruments, the forms and the repertoire. Instrumental music is just too abstract for most audiences.
Every Community College and University in the land markets a range of diplomas and degree programs designed to dissect all aspects of music and parcel it up for students looking to equip themselves for a career in music. Even the “high art” genres such as Jazz and Classical music seemed to have fallen prey to the mass marketing of career building skills. The end result is the flooding of the “market” with thousands and thousands of highly trained and highly skilled musicians, producers, sound engineers, and support staff for careers in music that just don’t exist and probably not likely to exist in the future. The result is most musicians, etc barely make a living. Those that do usually end up in teaching careers. This aspect of the Classical Music Industry was very successfully explored in the book and the TV series Mozart in the Jungle. The whole topic brings to mind a conversation I had some years ago with a classical viola player who, despite a music degree and tenure in a number of symphony orchestras, was heading back to school to get either an unrelated degree or vocational training to equip her for life “in the real world”. She found the rounds of soul destroying auditions had become too much to bear.
All is not lost. In fact technology has come to the rescue in the form of YouTube. It is possible to spend many hours a day exploring performances on YouTube that fall outside “the music-industrial complex”. Here is an example. I have no idea of the exact name of the song. I have no idea of the content of the lyrics. I can only surmise that the music is probably Greek. The performers are two female vocalists who harmonize in a style that sounds some what Eastern European (Balkan, Bulgarian, Romanian, Turkish, Armenian – pick one) and is way outside the norms of the entertainment industry. One of the girls accompanies the performance on the Arab Oud. She uses the standard oud pick called a Risha that gives the music a vibrant percussive sound that also sets it further outside current entertainment norms. The other lass uses some finger castanets to add some percussion variety. Take a listen to a performance that, to my ear, is creative and imaginative.
I was fortunate to stumble on an analysis of the song on the website Oud for Guitarists. If you are a musician take a note of the key signature in the manuscript. With its Bb and a half Eb notations it is not a key signature that the average western musician would know. As an analysis the video it it is a good introduction to some of the nuances of Middle Eastern music.This is music way outside the norms of the “music-industrial complex”
Here is another interpretation of the same tune by a young musician on electric guitar who is jamming along with the video of the two girls.
So, as I said. All is not lost. Explore the back roads and by ways of YouTube and find the hidden gems that are sitting there waiting to be discovered.
A LITTLE VOODOO – Contemporary Blues, Centre 64, Outdoor Covid Protocol Concert; Saturday September 25th, 2021, 6pm.
We are over 18 months into the Covid Pandemic and across the nation and the world it has taken a devastating toll on the hospitality and entertainment industries. Live music performances have virtually disappeared. Recently the Fisher Peak Performing Arts Society managed to sponsor some performances in Cranbrook’s Rotary Park but a projected music festival scheduled for late September had to be cancelled because of the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic. Apart from that, there has been no significant musical events for around eighteen months. However, there was a glimmer of light when the Kimberley Arts Council decided, in a limited fashion, to go ahead with their late summer schedule of musical events. The first event in the schedule is an outdoor performance by the Calgary rock/blues band A Little Voodoo. In keeping with Covid Public Health Protocols attendance is restricted to only 50 patrons with social distancing the order of the day. The tickets sold out in half a day.
This Calgary band has been around for many years. The two principal protagonists, Ron Burke on vocals and lead guitar, Tommy Knowles on bass guitar have been performing together for nigh on thirty years. As a band A Little Voodoo is a staple on Calgary blues scene. They have won many awards and opened for the likes of Colin James, the late Jeff Healey, The Headstones, Paul Rodgers, Long John Baldry, David Gogo, Omar and the Howler, Bo Diddley and a host of others. In 2010 the Calgary Blues Music Hall of Fame named Ron Burke as the Guitar Player of the Year and bassist Tommy Knowles repeated his 2009 win as the Bass Player of the Year.
A Little Voodoo is not new to this area. They last performed here in Studio 64, Kimberley in October 2015. Rob Vulic was the drummer for that gig. For this beautiful late summer evening concert Ron, Tommy and Rob were joined by Geoff Brock on second guitar. They kicked off this evening of loud rocking music with Tired of Living Hand to Mouth and followed that up with two hours of an exciting mix of original tunes and standards from the blues/rock repertoire. Included in the evening’s performance were B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby, and from way back in the 1960s folk era, a stellar rocked up version of Donovan’s SunshineSuperman.There were some Jimmy Reed Memphis sounds and a wonderful faux peddle steel solo by Geoff Brock on Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Also in the musical atmosphere there were some Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winters vibes all spiced up with great slide guitar riffs and lots of sterling solos from both guitarists.
And, as they say in the movies, “as the sun slowly sunk in the west” or in our instance, over the North Star Ski Hill, “we bid farewell” to A Little Voodoo and the light they shone into our dark pandemic tunnel.
Here are some more images from a great night of music……….
My thanks go to the members of A Little Voodoo, to Ray on sound and the brave members of Kimberley Arts Council for putting themselves out there to promote and stage this event.
Way back in the early 1960s the first 12 String Guitar music I remember hearing was on the recordings by Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter, 1888 – 1949). He was an American Negro folk musician, notable for his clear and forceful singing and his powerful use of the 12-string guitar. His popular performances predated the folk revival of the 1960s but his recordings were staples of the era. In 1988 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The first live performance of 12 String Guitar I witnessed was by Pete Seeger on his 1963-64 Australian tour. Pete walked onto the Stage at Sydney University with a a banjo in one hand and a 12 String Guitar in the other. He then proceeded to give a spell binding concert that is still imprinted on my brain. Included in the performance was his classic tune Living in the Country.
During the classic rock and folk era of the 1970s the acoustic and electric 12 String Guitars were pretty well staples on the music scene.There were plenty of 12 String players in that era but perhaps the most notable was the singer / song writer Leo Kottke. He had a great voice and powerful driving finger picking style that was reminiscent of the classic country blues style. With the use of a slide he added a new twist to the classic techniques. Here are some Youtube videos of Leo.
Although there are a lot of clips of Leo’s performances on YouTube the quality of the videos is mostly subpar. However the music and the humor are, as always, excellent.
Over the years the unique sound of the instrument has somewhat faded from the scene to be replaced by 12 String Guitars that sounds just like a a regular 6 String Guitar with just 6 extras strings. Musicians seem to have decided to abandon traditional low tunings to stick with the standard guitar tuning.To my ear the thundering rhythms and bass runs seem to be missing.
Of course there is always one in every pack. Some one who is just so different that he or she completely defies tradition and standard practice and ends up in a category all by themselves. 12 string guitar players are no different and the man completely outside the box is the jazz guitarist Ralph Towner.
Ralph confesses “I am a piano player who plays guitar”. He started on piano as a young child and was a serious trumpet player growing up. He didn’t tackle the fretboard until his final year at the University of Oregon, when he began playing classical guitar as part of his composition studies. “I somehow managed to buy one for almost nothing,” he told All About Jazz’s Mario Calvitti in 2017. “I started to teach myself and I realized I was not gonna go very far.”
After college, Towner scraped together the money to study with Karl Scheidt in Vienna. He set aside horn, keyboard, and jazz and spent a year focusing on his new instrument. “The classical technique got the most sound, the most colors and articulation,” he said later. “When I studied the classical guitar, all I played was classical music and I tried to stay away from improvising.”
A return to the U.S. did bring a return to jazz and improvisation—only it was on the piano, where he found a foothold in the NYC jazz scene. But the division between classical guitar and jazz keys crumbled in the 1970s as Towner co-founded the band Oregon and began collaborating with the likes of Weather Report, Gary Burton, Paul Winter, and his frequent artistic partner John Abercrombie. Besides the classical guitar, he would eventually bring 12-string and baritone guitars into his unconventional arsenal—additions that make a certain sense, as both instrument types have wide necks and fingerboards, closer to classical models than a standard steel-string acoustic.
“Towner didn’t have guitar players as role models for his unique style of guitar improvisation,” biographer B. Kimberly Taylor says. “The influence of Bill Evans was channeled through the medium of guitar instead of piano, and Towner [plays] the guitar in a ‘pianistic’ manner, almost transcending the instrument in a way that makes it sound like a small orchestra.” ……… JAZZ TIMES, Published – Emile Menasche
Ralph has a completely unique sound and approach to the 12 String Guitar. While some of that is due to his background in Jazz and Classical music it is possibly his tuning system for the 12 String Guitar that give him his unique sound. His guitar is tuned CG / EbG / BbC / FD / AG / DD. Here is a clip explaining the tuning he uses.
For many years I never had any real urge to take up 12 String Guitar. As an instrument it just appeared to be too difficult to play. In 1999 Jamie Wiens, a local luthier built me a wonderful small body Auditorium 6 String Guitar. He followed that up with a custom Cittern that, through no real fault of Jamie, was not quite so successful. It was a first for both of us.He had to figure out how to build it and I had to figure out how to tune it and play it. The instrument has a wonderful sound and unbelievable sustain but over the years the long scale neck made it difficult for me to continue using it as my main instrument. I switched to a smaller scale instrument built by Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island. Mean while, Jamie had some nice Koa and spruce tone woods available and he persuaded me to commission him to build a 12 String Guitar. The result was a one-of-a-kind instrument that is absolutely magnificent. The instrument is a masterpiece but as a life experience the building process was horrendously bad. Jamie took eight years to complete the project and by the end we were no longer friends.
To complete the sonic possibilities my friend Dave Carlson installed a dual K&K contact pickup. So with this magnificent guitar in hand how was I going to tune it to get a classic 12 String Sound? Shawn Robertson is a 12 String Guitarist in Kimberley who suggested that I try Leo Kottke’s C9 tuning. That is C G C G C D (low to high) with octave strings on the lower courses and unison strings on the top two courses. It turned out to be a great tuning and thanks to Jamie’s workmanship this guitar was easier to play than most 6 string instruments that I had experienced. It didn’t quite get the big 12 string sound I was hoping for but there were other musical attributes of the C9 tuning that more than made up for some lost expectations. When exploring new tunes Jamie’s 12 String Guitar in a C9 tuning is my go to instrument. It is very easy to play finger style in the keys of C, G, F, Dmin, Bb, and C minor Dorian without the use of a capo. Of course with a capo playing in all keys is possible..
Back to the Future: Despite the overwhelming success of the C9 experiment the thunderous old time sounds still haunt me. Is it the instrument? Is it the tuning? Is it my poor technique? A little research turned up some answers. Pete Seeger plays his Living in the Country in a dropped D tuning. Keith Potgers probably uses the dropped D tuning to great effect in in the Folk band The Seekers. It is probably part of the solution but not the complete answer. Further research revealed that Blind Willie McTell tuned his 12 String Guitar down to Dropped C or even even down to Dropped B. Going to these lower tuning can pose some problems with the required heavier strings and some guitars can become unplayable when tuned that low.
The dropped C tuning is C G C F A E. It is very close the the C9 tuning but has the advantage of the availability of familiar chord shapes. Just use the dropped D shapes to end up playing in the key of C, etc. If the guitar can stand it and the string gauges are suitable it is possible to drop all the strings down even another semitone or whole tone to get more bass.
THE STELLA 12-STRING GUITAR. This was the instrument favored by the classic blues artists such as Leadbelly and Blind Willie Mctell. It is described as a “Jumbo bodied Flat Topped guitar” with a tailpiece and a bridge glued to the top of the guitar. Generally most acoustic 6 string guitars have a scale length 24.75″ to 25.5″. The Stella’s have a very long length scale length of 26.5′”. That’s not the only difference. Luthiers chase three adjectives when sculpting acoustic guitar tops: dry, stiff and lightweight. Stiffness without lightness means a heavy, thick top that doesn’t reverberate. A light top that isn’t stiff means loose, flabby tone with blurred note definition. To get the perfect mix, luthiers often use very thin tops for reverberation and a series of braces to provide stiffness for definition. These braces also provide structural integrity to hold fast against the stress that string tension puts on a guitar body. The layout and precision of these braces influence a guitar’s character in a big way. Here’s a look at two historical approaches.
The Ladder Brace and the Fan or X Brace
Ladder Bracing | More Treble, More Air
The X-brace is what we now consider to be the standard top-bracing pattern on flat top guitars. But when you go back far enough into the history of acoustic guitar manufacturing, you would come across a period in which the Ladder-braced guitar was king. In the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, a majority of the flattop acoustic guitars being produced during this period featured ladder bracing. Many of these “budget” instruments, including the Stellas would go on to become the defining sound of countless blues, folk, and country musicians of the era. In low tunings the Stellas were big robust instruments with a big rumbling sound with lots of bass
Here are a couple of images of a restored 1929 Stella 12-string guitar…..
Most modern guitar manufacturers have 12 String models available. Ralph Towner plays a Guild; Keith Potgers (The Seekers) plays a marvelous Maton EM100C; Taylor guitars has been used by Leo Kottke and is a very popular model. An outstanding, if unusual, instrument is the Godin A-12. It is a slim line guitar with a reputation for outstanding electronics and ease of playing.
A few years ago they were priced under $1,000 but, unfortunately, they are now listed at $1,600 (sigh).
Postscript: Serious musicians all travel a road of exploration and discovery.
Jamie Neve: A local musician who has traveled one such road. Here is his 12 String Guitar story………
“I began my journey with 12 string guitars in early 1972 with a Framus. It was a heavy piece of lumber with a rather heavy top made of plywood and a wide neck. Hence it was lucky I was young with a strong left hand but its voice was a bit dull and a challenge to be nimble on the neck. So the guitar left my collection. Fast forward to the mid 90’s and an improvement in my economic circumstances and the purchase of slope shoulder sitka topped Larrivee. It was a huge step up, nice warm sound, but with some jangle. It also had a good quality Fishman pickup and preamp and worked well in the live situation. Again the neck was not quite right for my hand. But a nearby friend found it perfect so aaway she went.
But then I was in a music store in Kelowna and enter a used Alvarez AJ60 S. A unique jumbo with a solid Maple top, back and sides. I snapped it up. Now she is 25 years young. Luthiers would call it a bargain guitar. I call it a dream to play even up neck with a very true lie so no annoying buzzes. Paired with the Fishman. 4 band Tranducer and phase control it has a rich full spectrum sound. In all aspects a quality build from Korea.
As things go a band I formed with local mates led us down the rabbit hole of The Beatles and Byrds tunes with 12 string guitar. Enter a Danelectro Vintage 12 string – a rival to the Ricki and all other semi-hollow body electrics. Another easy to play gitfiddle with tons of tone management options that sounds great paired with the MXR Dyna Comp compressor. Enter a tune up by local luthier Jamie Weins and string reordering flipping thin for fat on the lower 3 and what a dream to play.This guitar stands out on songs like MyBack Pages and Mr. Tamborine Man.
All in all 12 strings occupy a big space in my musical repertoire but they require a real commitment to practice that is for certain.
Play On ”
Me and my 12 String(s) – Dave Prinn. Another local musician who has also traveled a 12-String Guitar road.
Like the blogster Mr. Wilson, my first live exposure to a 12 string was also with Pete Seeger. My experience though was in 1960 at Place des Arts in Montreal when Pete was leading The Weavers. My mother told me I did not manage to stay awake through the entire concert, but I have had a soft spot for the full spectrum ringing of a 12 string guitar ever since.
My first 12 string guitar was an Ovation Glen Campbell model purchased through a music store in Calgary in 1972. It was a high end special order that has a nightmare story attached. I will perhaps relay that story in a different chapter of this blog. The guitar arrived nearly two years after I had paid for it, and although it sounded wonderful, I was young and did not quite understand the delicacies of wood or how a fine guitar needed to be treated. The guitar traveled in the back of my truck and endured a tortuous three year existence until the top began to bulge behind the bridge from a lack of humidification. The guitar never made it back to my hands from the repair shop – as I was handing it to the technician behind the counter, I beheld a 1974 Martin HD 28 Ambertone, and it was lust at first sight. They took the Ovation as a trade-in and I left the shop a very happy young man.
A couple of decades later and an entry level mandolin was traded for an Takamine 11 string of unknown vintage that was covered in dust. It too had a Fishman 4 band EQ and it sounded amazing – especially in “Drop-D” tuning. Unfortunately, the neck had the feel of a smooth 2 x 4, and the guitar did not get played very often or for very long. It was eventually sold to a gentleman who had a hand apparently shaped like a 2 x 4. He loves the guitar.
Another couple of decades disappear and I am in the home of Mr. J. Neve (see article above) and he offers me a Larrivee 12 string to strum. Nothing flashy, but Sitka Spruce top and rosewood sides and back. To my hand the neck fit like a glove and to my ear – perfection. I told Mr. Neve that if he ever decided to sell it, I would like to be at the top of the call list. A year or so later I learned that he had sold it to the wife of a long time friend to be given as a birthday present. Although I understood the “why”, I still expressed my disappointment to a mutual friend. When he advised me that he had the identical guitar for sale I jumped, and the 12-string that I had so enjoyed playing was mine. I added a vintage “Big Tone” piezo under-saddle pick up and although a passive pick-up, the guitar has more gain than any other guitar in my collection.
I too dropped into the Byrds repertoire and learned the Roger McGuinn 12-string break in “Turn Turn Turn”, as well as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambouring Man. I have yet to explore the tunings less traveled. The 12 string is a guitar with a magical voice that add a depth to many genres of music.
Conventional wisdom has it that guitars are a certain shape, have six strings and generally tuned EADGBE (low to high). That is, by and large true but it is not set in concrete. The Arab Oud, the grand daddy of all guitar like instruments is a pear shaped, round back instrument with eleven strings and comes with a number of tuning systems (Arab, Syrian, Turkish etc). The Lute is the first European descendant of the Oud and it maintained the pear shape and the round back and also came in a number of string configurations and tunings. The first recognizable guitar shape was the Spanish Vihuela followed by the Renaissance Guitar, the Baroque Guitar, the Spanish Guitar and in the mid- twentieth century the solid body electric guitar. Modern Luthiers are constantly tinkering with the fundamental construction techniques and the string configuration of the modern guitar. Everything from types of wood, plastics, composite materials, strings and tuning systems are up for grabs. Here is a video that briefly outlines the mainstream history of the modern guitar………
followed by a number of YouTube videos with more details………..
This description and analysis of right hand “thumb under” and “thumb out” techniques used on the Renaissance Lute are very interesting when compared to modern classical guitar and finger picking folk styles of modern times . To a modern player the “thumb under” techniques would be considered awkward.
These configurations and variations that were involved in the mainstream development of the modern guitar are not the only possibilities that were explored over the centuries. There many interesting little side streams and eddies in the realms of folk music. One of the most interesting is the Portuguese Guitarra.
This is a six course flat backed lute like instrument that appears to have resulted from the importation and modification of the English lute or English Guitar into Portugal. That probably occurred around the time of Elizabeth I or later (This is supposition on my part). Physically the instrument features a unique peghead and tuning devices. Modern performers use a type of “thumb under” right hand technique aided by the use of attached thumb and finger picks. The instrument is the mainstay of the Portuguese Fado and as such seems to continue the melancholic traditions of Elizabethan English lute music.
Amongst the folkloric instruments there are the Cavaquino, the Ukulele, the Cuban Tiple and Tres; The MexicanGuitarron and Mexican Vihuela; The Andean Charango; The Russian Seven String Guitar; The BrazilianSeven String Guitar and, of course the modern 12 String Folk Guitar and Electric guitars. The list does not end there. Any exploration of ethnic music is likely turn up many similar guitar like instruments. As mentioned earlier, even In the Classical Guitar world Luthiers are constantly experimenting with ways to extend the range and tonal possibilities of the instrument by adding more strings and tuning possibilities.