Monday, May 16, 2011

Early tappy

Kaki King, who I featured yesterday, is famed for her "tapping" style of percussive guitar play (though yesterday's song didn't feature that). But this style long predates Michael Hedges (who Kaki explicitly mentions as an influence upon her guitar style). This is Bukka White, an old-time blues player from the 1930's, recorded in the early 60's singing his song "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues".

-- Badtux the Music Penguin


  1. Thank you for this! Great stuff.

  2. Another reinventor of guitar technique!

    Speaking of reinventing guitar technique, in a completely different musical style, have you ever seen Stanley Jordan in live performance?

  3. Bukka didn't re-invent anything, he learned the technique in the early 1930's from another bluesman who'd learned it many years earlier. If I cared to go dig in my references again I could tell you who he learned it from. Kaki King didn't re-invent anything, she explicitly notes Michael Hedges as the person who influenced her to use the technique. Michael Hedges perhaps re-invented the technique, if that's what you're thinking of...

    -- Badtux the Music Penguin

  4. No, I'm thinking of Stanley Jordan, whom I heard in Seattle about 12 years ago at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. He uses both hands in rather odd-looking ways, with incredible acoustic results. Look him up on YouTube; he's very much worth your time.

  5. Hmm, Stanley Jordan looks almost normal compared to Kaki's tapping. Of course, Kaki is tapping an acoustic guitar and the Stanley Jordan vids I looked at had him doing an electric guitar, which is significantly easier to tap... but then on one vid he was tapping two guitars at once. Eeek!

    BTW, tapping is a *lot* harder than it looks. I've experimented a bit with it, and it's not easy by any means. I won't even attempt it on my acoustic guitar -- that honor goes to my Duo-Sonic with its short scale and light action.

    - Badtux the Music Penguin

  6. My only real experience with fretted stringed instruments was with viola da gamba ("viol" in period English). The height of a fret is the diameter of a broken gut string tied around the neck; that's how the frets are made. Different diameter strings may work better at different points along the fretboard. Since a fretted instrument is a tempered instrument, some viol players used to tie the frets at various angles across the fretboard to change the temperament, something modern guitarists literally can't do.

    In any case, tapping or hammering on is a relatively rare technique on the viol... but not nonexistent. Those guys at the court of Louis XIV, real virtuosos by the evidence of the (beautifully engraved) printed music they left behind, thought of most possible things, including tapping. One unique ornament on the viol is using two fingers on one string, one as usual behind the fret and the next finger atop the fret, rocking the whole assembly to make an intense, wide, mostly upward vibrato bearing no resemblance to the vibrato sounds violinists make today.

    Here ends the 18th-century lesson for the day... :-)

  7. Oh, I forgot... in answer to your comment, my impression in person is that Stanley Jordan is one of those rare and fortunate musicians for whom economy of motion is genuinely natural. He sits still; he does his thing with small finger motions. He's a kind of big guy, which in a way makes that economy even more remarkable.

    Dimitriou's is a setting you would enjoy if you're ever in Seattle. It's a dinner jazz club; people come to dine and listen... and I do mean listen. I actually saw the management quietly remove someone who was making a racket, minor but loud enough to disturb others in the audience. Serious audiences for serious musicians are their stock in trade.

  8. With a guitar, it's not just hammer-ons, it's also pull-offs and note bends while you're hammered on, the various alterations of notes possible with the technique is more important than the notes themselves. It may be a tempered instrument, but you can bypass that by "feeling in" notes that don't exist but should :). With the proper amp and effects to get sufficient sustain, you can do some really interesting things this way, basically playing one octave with the left and one octave with the right. The hardest thing for me is to actively make my right hand move along the neck, it's used to sitting in one place strumming various strings with the only motion being vertical across the strings (well, and picking the plectrum up away from the string to move it to the next string I want to flatpick, of course). My left hand, by contrast, hammers at will.

    In short, it's like regular guitar playing, except twice as much :). Which brings up the main reason I don't play more piano -- I have a hard time getting my left hand and right hand to *both* do stuff. One or the other wants to settle into just hitting the keys of a chord over and over again, rather than the more interesting sound of playing the notes of a chord in a particular pattern then varying that pattern into the next chord (sorry, that's how I think of things musically, as collections of notes in chords rather than as discrete notes). I guess I'm just too old and set in my ways to play piano the way it should be played... or to play the guitar the way it *could* be played, for that matter.

    Kaki King is a really tiny woman, around 5'1", which probably is why she looks like she's being really energetic with that giant Ovation guitar she's pounding on. But you watch her actually play and it's apparent that she's relaxed and in the groove, flowing with the song.

    BTW, I've spent more time playing music this evening than talking about it. For a change. Because we started talking about tapping, I of course had to head into my music room and do some nice tappy action :). Well, until The Mighty Fang came in and jumped on my music table and started knocking stuff off, at which time I picked up one of my penny whistles, closed all the holes, and blew *real* hard :). (In case you don't know, that makes a very high-pitched and loud note that cats *hate*). He looked annoyed and left the room. Heh. Wish it worked on some annoying *people* I know :)

    - Badtux the Music Penguin

  9. Oh, yes, I know about pennywhistles. Every recorder player is drafted to play pennywhistle, notwithstanding the limited similarity of the instruments. I was nothing if not a serious recorder player (faculty position, pro ensembles, etc.), but on pennywhistle... not so much. I could scare a cat with the best of 'em!

    Back in the 1980s I lived with a girlfriend and her cat, and the cat either loved or hated harpsichord, we could never be sure which. When I played, she would come and settle in, and pretty much stay until I stopped. One other theory I advanced is that what kitty really wanted was to be let out the door right beside the bench...

    Remember that a viol is above all a chordal instrument. The literature is full of multiple stops, four-, five-, six- or even seven-string chords, which you stop just like a guitar and sound by sweeping the bow. The instrument is absurdly resonant: dig in on the bassmost string, and it will still be sounding by the time your sweep reaches the treblemost. In those cases, with no bending etc., temperament does matter. But in single-line parts, gambists (now that's a modern usage, but it's really what they're called) do stuff to the notes just like guitarists.

    Glad you got a chance to do some tapping of your own, BadTux. Thanks for the lessons on various techniques.

  10. One last thing, and then I'll STFU... Wayne Moss, a gambist with whom I had the fortune to work for a couple of decades, now works in Colonial Williamsburg; here he plays an allemande. Forgive his teacher's instinct to lecture at the beginning; it's part of his job at Williamsburg. And forgive the sound of a camera clicking, which sometimes almost overrides the music.

    This is very conventional straightforward French viola da gamba literature, complete with the chords I described above. Note how the chords vary in intensity and speed of arpeggiation, especially the grand concluding chord. It's all rather understated by today's standards, but after a while the passion of this music gets under your skin.

  11. What a treasure trove this post is!

    Bukka moves seamlessly from tapping to strumming to bottle neck. Serious WOW!

    Now I've got to dig out my Robert Johnson box set.

    I didn't realize there was anyone playing viola da gamba these days. Moss is damned good at it, too.

    Now, I really am going to bed.


  12. JzB, Bukka was in his mid 50's here, an age at which fine motor control isn't what it used to be. Think of what he could have done back in the 30's during his prime... but he was a black man, recording in the middle of the Great Depression. Siiigh.

    Steve, your description of your pennywhistle playing resembles my description of my recorder playing :). I could certainly play the recorder well if I spent sufficient time practicing it, but the fingering is non-intuitive to someone accustomed to the simple linear fingering of a pennywhistle, and the tendency to screech the thing far too common because breathing doesn't quite work the same as the pennywhistle, where if you want a higher note, you blow harder for the fingered higher note (and enough harder to get above the screech, if you're trying to reach the next register up). All in all, I just haven't felt motivated to learn to play the recorder the way it deserves to be played. It isn't the most exciting instrument around (sorry!) especially for my style of music, which tends more towards folk/bluegrass/new country/indie than classical or jazz.

    Regarding the viola da gamba, interesting instrument. Any idea why it is fretted? Is it because you otherwise have difficulty handling the sustain of the instrument if you arpeggio chords? I've thought about learning the fiddle err "violin" for you medieval heathen ;), which of course is a fretless string instrument (and one quite common in the sorts of music I listen to), but any sustain is from your bowing due to the small scale and body and besides there ain't a whole lot of sustain in bluegrass, just a whole lotta notes real fast ;).

    Anyhow, time to post something to the blog itself, instead of filling up comments on a post that nobody's going to read...

    - Badtux the Musical Penguin


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