Monday, October 5, 2009

Someone Will Surely Help You If You Try, But You Must Try Hard (How to Play Like Chuck Berry AND Muddy Waters, Volume 3)

(You probably can't, and I definitely can't, but I learn stuff trying!)

I’m not the most focused individual. I hop from thing to thing. I start a book, and then drop it for another. I listen to one performer for a few days and then switch to a different one. I have three guitars, and I abandon them one after another. For a while I try finger picking. Then for a few days I might return to the hopeless task of jazz chords. And then I pull out another guitar and return to my feeble version of the blues.

But what I lack in focus, I make up for in endurance. I keep trying. (Yesterday I "ran" a marathon.  I wasn't prepared. I messed up the two long runs in my training. I didn't think I'd make it-- and I didn't make it to the finish line quickly.  But I finished nearly 8 minutes faster than my last marathon, so I was happy.)

My interests have also endured. I found Chuck Berry and B. B. King 40 years ago and I’m still interested today. I found the stars around the same time, and still love them. I started trying to play the guitar 35 years ago and I’m still trying. And still learning!  One tiny bit at a time.

I probably first tried to copy the intro to Johnny B. Goode 35 years ago soon after I learned a couple of blues licks. I got pretty close, too. I also learned a close approximation of the very similar intro to Roll Over Beethoven. But I knew that I never got Johnny (or any other Chuck Berry solo) quite right. I wasn’t ringing like Chuck, and there were always a couple of notes that I couldn’t find for my life.  In the intro to Johnny it was a couple of notes just before he begins the string of slurs.

But back to the lack of focus-- the flitting about. For the past few weeks Chuck Berry has not really been on my mind. I’ve been reading the biography of Muddy Waters and listening to a lot of his early music from the Stovall plantation and from Chess. The biography is great because it includes good descriptions of the songs, including some interviews with the creators. There’s a part where Muddy is quoted telling Alan Lomax how he tuned his guitar on the song "Country Blues," the first that he recorded with Alan Lomax.  Once I read it, I ran to the stereo. I tuned my guitar the same way.  And I had a breakthrough.

I have never really been able to play slide guitar—but I always wrongly assumed one tuning was as good as the next for slide, and so I always tuned it to an open E. Suddenly, at age 53, I realized that different songs are built on different tunings. Once I knew how Muddy tuned his guitar, the notes made perfect sense. Within a couple minutes I figured out what he was doing during the verses. Within a couple of days I was able to do a reasonable (if weak) facsimile. (I was not, and will never be, able to do a reasonable or even a bad facsimile of Muddy Waters’ singing.) It wasn't much, but it was my first complete slide guitar song, and my first real Delta Blues song— about 35 years after I bought a “how to” book on the Delta Blues! And it was a good song to learn, because it was a two-fer—a nearly verbatim musical remake of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.”

(Here's someone who plays it a lot better than I do.)

But after a few days I realized I’d been neglecting other styles, so I put on a Chuck Berry record and tried to play rhythm. And when I got to Johnny B. Goode I tried the intro again, and got stuck on those weird, unattainable notes at the end of part one. And then I resorted to my own advice—I took a look at the ARC music Chuck Berry songbook that I wrote about on __. And there it was—a weird drop out of the root fingering where I’d tried to stay all these years. I’d finally got it—with help.

I should have known. One of my favorite Chuck Berry interviews was about 20 years ago in Guitar Player Magazine. I liked because the interviewer, Tom Wheeler, mentioned how people tended to simplify Chuck Berry’s sound when trying to play like Chuck Berry. I knew this from my own explorations, but I never bothered to play the notes Wheeler referenced in the interview. I now realize they were the exact notes I’d been looking for all these years. And although I needed help to find them, I take a certain pride in the endurance it took to do it.

Here's an excerpt from the interview that shows how to get to those notes.

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