May 2019 – The Story of Modern Music in 1,500+ Facts – Part III

Introduction

Well, my, my, my… Here we are back again with spring just about to morph into balmy summer. I can’t believe that we are nearly half way through the last year of the 2010s already.

This means that we are now well into this year’s major music project with article number three of, well, who knows how many at the moment. Such a venture needs breaking down into digestible chunks or it would be colossal as just one bite at the proverbial cherry. The source data is immense, yet still only manages to brush the surface of a monumental subject matter. As always, if there are errors or omissions that I should consider including retrospectively, let me know via e‑mail or the web site’s contact form.

If you would like to pop in and (re)visit the first two parts of the story to‑date, you can do so here (each link opens a new browser tab):

The Story of Modern Music Part III 1920-1939

This month, we start at the beginning of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and finish at the end of the ‘Dirty Thirties’ (the latter being a moniker apparently associated with the Dustbowl era rather than something inherently naughty – apologies for that!).

The world had never seen decades like these and hasn’t since. As such, they exhibit polar opposites in human endeavour. These twenty years stand a testimonial to the rapid progress of civilisation while also as a condemnation of the self‑destructive stupidity of the human condition. Hindsight, as ‘they’ say is a wonderful thing, so perhaps we should learn something profound from an examination of our collective past and build a better future for mankind. However, I digress…

This brings us to the format of this article, which follows the same tripartite structure for each 10‑year span as last month. Each decade is given a broad historical context outlining the sorts of global events – good and bad – that occurred, followed by examples of how music genres emerged and changed over the period and, finally, the whole point of this series, some music facts associated with the same years. As a whole, it hopefully provides an interesting insight into what went on. Here we go…

One noticeable trait that comes through strongly this month is the number of births occurring in the 1920s and 1930s of people who would go on to be significant musical icons in the 1950s and thereafter. This means that this month’s ‘facts’ are setting the foundation for future articles, while later ones will see a shift to the other, and rather more mortal, end of their illustrious lifetimes.

Historical Context 1920-1929

The 1920s was a paradigm shift in global affairs. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ and were characterised by post‑WWI optimism, individualism, industrial and economic growth, as well as social, artistic, and cultural dynamism. However, underlying the positivity was an omnipresent political paranoia, fuelled by conspiracy and corruption that stood a portent of the looming storm clouds that were gathering. The rise of radical political doctrines including communism and fascism would ultimately lead to further international conflict. Women were experiencing greater emancipation as a result of the suffragette movement, paving the way for later equalities movements.

Year

Global Events

1920

The United States introduced national legislation to ban the production, transport and sale of alcohol, widely known as the prohibition.

1921

The Irish Revolution led to the partitioning of Ireland into Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom and the South, which is now the Republic of Ireland.

1922

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was created and existed until c.1991 when the political confederation collapsed.

Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician Joseph Stalin became leader, and later dictator, of the USSR.

Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr won the Nobel Prize for his work on atomic structure and quantum theory.

Fascist leader Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister in Italy and proceeded to seize power as dictator espousing an ideology of ‘revolutionary nationalism’.

1923

Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened by British archaeologist Howard Carter.

The first Le Mans 24 Hours Grand Prix of Endurance motor race took place in France. It remains the world’s oldest endurance sports car racing event.

1924

The first international Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France.

1925

Author Franz Kafka wrote the novel, ‘The Trial’, the same year that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’.

The first successful black & white television transmission was made by Scottish engineer John Logie Baird in the UK, with the first public demonstration the following year.

1926

The first General Strike took place in Britain after the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for widespread industrial action to support miners who were locked out by owners demanding longer hours for less pay.

The famous U.S. Route 66 highway from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California was opened, with a total length of 2,448 miles (3,940 km).

1927

Aviator Charles Lindburgh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in his plane The Spirit of St. Louis.

The sprawling epic dystopian science fiction silent film, ‘Metropolis’, directed by Fritz Lang was released.

Russian/American singer and actor Al Jolson starred in the first commercial feature length ‘talkie’ film, ‘The Jazz Singer’.

1928

Scottish biologist, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the anti‑biotic penicillin, which would go on to revolutionise modern medicine.

American animator Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse to the public in the short film, ‘Steamboat Willie’.

Republican politician Herbert Hoover became the 31st president of the United States of America.

1929

Notorious gangster Al Capone allegedly carried out the brutal Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 7 members of the North Side Gang in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois.

American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that the universe is expanding.

The Vatican City became an independent and sovereign state located within Rome, Italy.

The U.S. Stock Market collapsed, known widely as the Wall Street Crash, precipitating the worldwide Great Depression that lasted until the late 1930s.

Musical Genre Development 1920-1929

Blues and jazz continued to be popular during the 1920s, the latter sparking the ‘jazzmania’ craze. These twin pillars of modern musical culture also began to spawn new genre styles and to influence a diverse range of musical expression. Record, radio and film companies started to search out new artists and music to bring to a wider audience. It was in 1925 that the electrical recording and the 78rpm vinyl record became standard, the same year that television began, thereby opening up a whole new market for musicians.

In the 1920s, two separate musical forms emerged from Louisiana in the deep south of the United States, cajun and zydeco. The Cajuns were French colonists, called Acadians, from North Eastern America (Canada and Nova Scotia) who migrated to Louisiana in the late 18th Century, bringing with them Cajun musical traditions. The creole were people descended from the inhabitants of French colonial Louisiana and who developed their own distinct musical style called zydeco. Although often regarded as similar, the two forms developed in parallel and have different cultural origins and styles. Cajun music is often played on accordion and fiddle, while zydeco is usually played on accordion and washboard. Both forms became popular outside insular local communities from the late 1920s when early recordings became available. Stylistic origins derived from blues, jazz, spirituals, traditional folk and country music, as well as regional influences from Europe, Africa, indigenous Americans and the Caribbean. Both cajun and zydeco are often used as dance music, including two‑steps and waltzes. Cajun and zydeco, in turn, influenced other forms of American roots music.

From the 1880s, musical theatre such as vaudeville and burlesque were common and very popular. From around 1920, commercial theatrical Broadway musicals originated in New York and London, becoming widespread and attracting big audiences before ‘talkie’ cinema movies began to adopt musical storytelling as a reflection of popular culture. Successful composers of the time included George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Prior to the 1920s most music distribution was by way of sheet music, piano rolls or live performance. It was during the 1920s that recording and distribution of popular music really took off, giving audiences much greater access to a wide range of music. However, the gramophone had strong competition from the proliferation of wireless radio and commercial radio stations during the 1920s, as well as motion pictures. In 1927, the first commercial feature length film to incorporate synchronised music, singing and speech, ‘The Jazz Singer’, starring Al Jolson was released. Broadway musicals reached their zenith in the 1940s with hits such as Oklahoma (1943). The convergence and crossover between Broadway and cinema musicals became a major launch pad for musical dissemination into the 1950s and beyond, including the development of soundtrack compositions for film and, later, television.

Country music was another genre that emerged from the Appalachian Mountain region of southern and eastern America during the 1920s, particularly in Tennessee but also Oklahoma and Texas. The roots of country music came largely from traditional genres such as folk, blues, hillbilly and western music, and was heavily influenced by Irish, English and wider European immigrants to the American east and south. Early popular country music, including cowboy songs, were often regarded as the music of the American rural working classes. Popular establishments for hillbilly music were the rowdy honky‑tonk bars of the period. Country music comprised of song ballads and dances normally constructed from simple arrangements, lyrics that told a story, and vocal harmonies. In addition country music accompaniment was usually provided by an array of acoustic string instruments such as banjos, guitars and fiddles as well as harmonicas and Jews harps. Early pioneers of country music included Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, followed by other famous artists such as Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. Country music is a massive commercial industry, now largely centred on Nashville, Tennessee. Country music is a diverse musical form of expression and continues to evolve, having seen several resurgences of popularity since its early heyday.

Musical Facts 1920-1929

Bert Weedon

Day

Month

Year

Music Fact

10

May

1920

English guitarist and a guide for millions of fledgling guitarists the world over, Bert Weedon OBE (1920-2012, 91) was born in London.

29

August

1920

Legendary American jazz/bebop saxophonist and composer, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker Jr. was born in Kansas City, Kansas.

7

June

1921

Virtuoso American jazz guitarist, Tal Farlow (1921-1998, 77) was born in Greensboro, North Carolina.

4

August

1921

Influential and highly renowned American jazz guitarist Herb Ellis (1921-2010, 88) was born in Farmersville, Texas.

7

August

1921

French virtuoso gypsy flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata (1921-2014, 93) was born in Sète.

3

April

1922

American singer and Hollywood actress Doris Day was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.

22

April

1922

Hugely influential American jazz double bass player and bandleader Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona.

10

June

1922

Famous American actress, singer and dancer Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

5

January

1923

Legendary American producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama. Phillips signed artists including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

6

March

1923

Legendary and hugely influential American jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery (1923-1968, 45) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana.

25

April

1923

Legendary guitarist and one of the ‘Three ‘Kings’ of blues guitar, the one and only Albert King (1923-1992, 69) was born in Indianola, Mississippi.

29

July

1923

One of the world’s great innovators in modern music, nicknamed ‘The Father Of Loud’, Dr Jim Marshall OBE (1923-2012, 88), founder of Marshall Amplification PLC, was born in London.

17

October

1923

Great American jazz guitarist Barney Kessel (1923-2004, 80) was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

27

March

1924

Highly acclaimed Grammy award winning American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey.

18

April

1924

American blues rock guitarist, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown (1924-2005, 81) was born in Vinton, Louisiana.

20

June

1924

Great American country guitarist and producer who established the Nashville sound, nicknamed ‘The Country Gentleman’ and ‘Mr. Guitar’, Chet Atkins (1924-2001, 77) was born in Luttrell, Tennessee.

6

July

1925

American guitarist, singer and Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneer Bill Haley (1925-1981, 55) was born in Highland Park, Michigan.

15

August

1925

Virtuoso Canadian jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson was born in Montreal, Quebec.

6

September

1925

American electric blues guitarist and Hall of Famer, Jimmy Reed (1925-1976, 50) was born in Dunleith, Mississippi.

16

September

1925

Legendary American blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer supreme, one of the ‘Three ‘Kings’ of blues guitar, Mr BB King (1925-2015, 89) was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi.

28

November

1925

The famous country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry was founded in Nashville, Tennessee by George D. Hay to promote country music and showcase its history.

8

December

1925

American singer, musician, dancer, actor, vaudevillian and comedian Sammy Davis Jr. was born in Harlem, New York.

2

January

1926

The first edition of the monthly popular music magazine ‘Melody Maker’ was published in the UK, priced at just 3 pence. It ran for over 74 years until 2000.

3

January

1926

English record producer, composer and conductor, Sir George Martin was born in London. He was well known for his pioneering collaboration with The Beatles.

26

April

1926

Hugely influential American blues guitarist J.B. Hutto (1926‑1983, 57) was born in Blackville, South Carolina.

26

May

1926

Legendary and hugely influential American jazz trumpeter and composer, Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois.

17

September

1926

American bass guitarist who played with Elvis Presley in the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll years, Bill Black (1926-1965, 39) was born in Memphis, Tennessee.

18

October

1926

Hugely influential pioneering American rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, singer and songwriter, the legendary Chuck Berry (1926‑2016, 90) was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

23

November

1926

Underrated American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, the inimitable R.L. Burnside (1926-2005, 78) was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi.

10

December

1926

Pioneering New Orleans blues guitarist, Guitar Slim (real name, Eddie Jones, 1926-1959, 32) was born in Greenwood, Mississippi.

28

January

1927

English jazz saxophonist and founder of the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club situated in Soho, London in 1959, Ronnie Scott OBE was born in Aldgate, London.

January

1928

American country guitarist and member of Johnny Cash’s band, the Tennessee Three, Luther Perkins (1928-1968, 40) was born in Como, Mississippi.

19

April

1928

Influential English musician and pioneer of the British blues/R&B scene in the 1960s, Alexis Korner was born in Paris, France.

5

May

1928

One of the main men behind the ‘Man In Black’, American bass player with Johnny Cash’s band, the Tennessee Two, Marshall Grant (1928-2011, 83) was born in Bryson City, North Carolina.

6

August

1928

Famous American pop artist, manager of The Velvet Underground, producer, director and album artwork designer, Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

30

December

1928

Massively influential in the development of modern music, American guitarist, singer and songwriter Bo Diddley (1928-2008, 79) was born in McComb, Mississippi.

13

January

1929

American virtuoso jazz guitarist, Joe Pass (1929-1994, 65) was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

10

February

1929

Legendary American film and television music composer and conductor, Jerry Goldsmith was born in Los Angeles, California.

17

April

1929

German composer and big band leader of the James Last Orchestra, James Last was born in Bremen, Germany.

2

May

1929

Highly influential American rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, Link Wray (1929-2005, 76) was born in Dunn, North Carolina.

23

June

1929

American country singer, songwriter, actress, author, member of the famous Carter family and wife of Jonny Cash, June Carter Cash, was born in Maces Spring, Virginia.

19

December

1929

American blues and gospel guitarist, singer and songwriter, Blind Lemon Jefferson died from a reported heart attack in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 36.


Historical Context 1930-1939

After a period of relative peace during the 1920s, the ‘Dirty Thirties’ followed. The harshness of the global recession set in, resulting in widespread unemployment, hardship, deprivation and poverty. The catalysts for descent of the globe’s major industrialised countries into a second and even more destructive world war had been seeded and, despite progress in other areas of human civilisation such as science, technology and art, the political die was already cast. Expansionist agendas fuelled Fascism in Europe, which coalesced into the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and its Axis power allies, while communism was also on the rise.

Year

Global Events

1930

The first FIFA soccer World Cup was held in Uruguay; the home team beat Argentina in the final.

1931

The Empire State Building opened in Manhattan, New York, reaching 102 stories and 1,250 feet (381m) tall.

1932

English author Aldous Huxley published his famous futurist novel, ‘Brave New World’.

American aviator Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

1933

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected 32nd President of the United States of America.

After 13 years, the nationwide prohibition of manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol in America was ended.

In Germany, Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party became Chancellor and subsequently Führer in 1934, establishing his one‑party dictatorship.

Infamous American bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were shot and killed after being ambushed by a posse of law enforcement officers in Louisiana.

1934

The worst ever American drought led to severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies, known widely as the Dust Bowl.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, an American maximum security prison island located in San Francisco Bay, California, also known as ‘The Rock’, opened its cell doors for the country’s most notorious criminals.

1935

British publishing house Penguin Books was founded and introduced the first inexpensive paperback books.

1936

The massive art deco style Hoover Dam, spanning the Colorado River in Nevada became operational, with a height of 726 feet (221m) and a length of 1,244 feet (379m).

British monarch King George V died. His successor, Edward VIII was crowned and soon abdicated, and George VI became King.

The bitter Spanish Civil War started after the Spanish army in support of General Franco rebelled against the Republican presidency. The conflict lasted until 1939, resulting in Franco becoming nationalist dictator of Spain until 1975.

1937

The German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed when attempting to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 people.

Conservative Party MP Neville Chamberlain was elected British Prime Minister.

1938

Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast adapting H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel ‘The War Of The Worlds’ caused mass panic in America.

The first comic book appearance of fictional superhero Superman was published by Action Comics.

1939

The classic ‘golden era’ Hollywood films ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ were released.

The first comic book appearance of fictional superhero Batman was published by Detective Comics (DC).

The Second World War (WWII) began when Britain and France responded to Germany’s military invasion of Poland.

The first successful flight of a jet-propelled aircraft was undertaken by a Heinkel He178, developed for the German Luftwaffe, in Rostock, Germany.

Musical Genre Development 1930-1939

Music of the 1930s was largely characterised by social events such as the Great Depression and the growth in popularity of radio and Hollywood cinema, which began to replace Broadway musical theatre. Established genres such as jazz continued to evolve to reflect changes in social culture, giving birth to swing and big band music. Jump blues music began to appear in the 1930s, adapting the grand swing and big band music for smaller venues, performed by small bands. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the electric guitar, which began to play a part in evolution of popular music of the decade.

Hawaiian music was popular with mainstream audiences in America during the 1930s, even though it had been a major genre in the mid-Pacific since the late 19th Century. Hawaiian music was important because of its influence on country music, including the introduction of the lap steel guitar, often played horizontally and using a slide. It also helped to shape Polynesian music across the Pacific islands.

Traditional folk music has been an enduring form of musical expression throughout the centuries, in many nations and regions across the globe. Historically, folk music is often regarded as an oral tradition being handed down by word of mouth over many generations. During the 1930s, contemporary folk music, an Anglo‑American acoustic style, experienced a revival, often commenting about social issues including war, work, civil unrest, economic hardship, as well as love songs and non‑topical comedy themes. As the roots of folk music predate many modern musical genres, influences came from all over the world, imported by immigrants to America from Europe and Asia, as well as traditional songs used by African slaves. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, America in particular experienced a booming folk scene. The record industry began to exploit folk songs as an alternative to other popular genres. One of the most significant folk singer/songwriters of the generation was Woody Guthrie, whose work in the 1930s and 1940s was often seen as a protest against rural injustice, and which has influenced many artists since. Other famous artists from the 1940s to the early 1960s included Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in America, Donovan, Ralph McTell and Martin Carthy in the UK, as well as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie in Canada.

Swing music is a close relative of jazz and has its roots as early as the 1920s, becoming a dominant genre during the 1930s and 1940s, predominantly in urban cities such as Chicago, New York and Kansas City. It is notable because music with a strong ‘swing feel’ became popular dance music, especially in lively clubs that could accommodate swing ensembles. Swing was popularised by big band swing orchestras such as that led by Benny Goodman. Other famous swing artists included Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. The ‘swing era’ lasted for about 10 years from 1935 to 1946, when popularity began to fade during and after World War II. Swing was also hugely influential in popular music with artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Dance crazes of the swing era included the jitterbug and the shag, which would evolve into dances later associated with genres such as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Swing and its derivatives have experienced a number of revivals in subsequent years.

Musical Facts 1930-1939

Day

Month

Year

Music Fact

15

January

1930

American Chicago blues guitarist working either solo or with other artists, Earl Hooker (1930-1970, 40) was born in Quitman County, Mississippi.

17

June

1930

American rock ‘n’ roll guitarist who played with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps in the 1950s, Cliff Gallup (1930-1988, 58) was born in Norfolk, Virginia.

3

July

1930

Highly regarded, prolific American session guitarist, Tommy Tedesco (1930-1997, 67) was born in Niagara Falls, New York.

30

August

1930

American entrepreneur, musician and innovator of guitar equipment, Ernie Ball (1930-2004, 74) was born in Santa Monica, California.

29

April

1931

Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist, often referred to as the ‘King of Skiffle’, Lonnie Donegan (1931-2002, 71) was born in Glasgow.

17

September

1931

Record company RCA-Victor first demonstrated the 331/3 rpm Long Playing (LP) record. Astoundingly, the vinyl ‘album’ is still going strong, even now.

5

November

1931

Controversial American R&B/soul guitarist, songwriter, producer and rock ‘n’ roll innovator, Ike Turner (1931-2007, 76) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

16

November

1931

Influential American blues guitarist, singer and long-term member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011, 80) was born in Greenwood, Mississippi.

27

December

1931

Influential rock ‘n’ roll legend, American guitarist Scotty Moore (1931-2016, 84) who played with Elvis Presley in the early days was born in Gadsden, Tennessee.

26

February

1932

The great American country legend that is Mr Johnny Cash (1932-2003, 71) was born in Kingsland, Arkansas.

9

April

1932

Great American singer, songwriter and guitarist, Carl Perkins (1932-1998, 65) was born in Tiptonville, Tennessee.

1

October

1932

Legendary American blues/rock guitarist and singer, ‘the master of the Telecaster’ and ‘the ice man’, Albert Collins (1932-1993, 61) was born in Leona, Texas.

14

March

1933

Multi-award-winning American musician and record producer Quincy Jones was born in Chicago, Illinois.

29

April

1933

Legendary American outlaw country legend, guitarist, singer and songwriter, Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas.

3

May

1933

Legendary American singer, songwriter and producer, often proclaimed as the ‘godfather of soul’, James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina.

15

July

1933

English virtuoso classical guitarist and one of the very best musicians of his generation, Julian Bream was born in London.

3

November

1933

English composer of film and TV scores, including 11 James Bond film soundtracks and numerous theme tunes, John Barry OBE was born in York, Yorkshire.

29

November

1933

Legendary English blues/rock guitarist, singer, songwriter and founder of the Bluesbreakers, John Mayall OBE was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire.

7

February

1934

American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, Earl King (1934-2003, 69) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.

28

April

1934

Renowned American delta blues guitarist Charlie Patton died from a heart disorder in Sunflower County, Mississippi at the age of 43.

3

September

1934

Hugely influential American blues guitarist and one of the ‘Three Kings’ of blues guitar, Freddie King (1934-1976, 42) was born in Gilmer, Texas.

21

September

1934

Legendary Canadian guitarist, singer and songwriter, Leonard Cohen (1934-2016, 82) was born in Montreal, Quebec.

1

December

1934

American blues and ragtime guitarist Arthur ‘Blind’ Blake died from tuberculosis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the age of 38.

8

January

1935

American singer, guitarist and cultural icon that would become ‘The King’, Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977, 42) was born in Tupelo, Mississippi.

3

February

1935

Flamboyant American soul, blues and funk guitarist, singer and songwriter, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson (1935-1996, 61) was born in Houston, Texas.

29

April

1935

Influential American Chicago blues guitarist and singer, Otis Rush, (1935-2018, 84) was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

6

June

1935

American virtuoso jazz guitarist and composer Grant Green (1935-1979, 43) was born in St Louis, Missouri.

17

October

1935

English dairy farmer and founder of the world famous Glastonbury Music Festival from 1970 to date, Michael Eavis was born in Pilton Somerset.

22

April

1936

Great American singer, songwriter and guitarist, Glen Campbell (1936-2017, 81) was born in Billstown, Arkansas.

30

July

1936

Legendary and highly influential American Chicago Blues guitarist and singer, George ‘Buddy’ Guy was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana.

7

September

1936

Legendary American rock ‘n’ roll star, guitarist, singer and songwriter, Buddy Holly (1936-1959, 22) was born in Lubbock, Texas.

24

October

1936

English bass guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, former member of rock band The Rolling Stones and bandleader with The Rhythm Kings, Bill Wyman was born in London.

6

April

1937

Acclaimed American country singer, songwriter and guitarist, Merle Haggard (1937-2016, 79) was born in Oildale, California.

4

May

1937

Influential American surf rock guitarist often referred to as ‘the king of the surf guitar’ Dick Dale (1937-2019, 81) was born in Boston, Massachusetts.

15

May

1937

Renowned American guitarist, singer and actor, Trinidad ‘Trini’ Lopez III was born in Dallas, Texas.

15

June

1937

Influential American country guitarist and singer, Waylon Jennings (1937-2002, 64) was born in Littlefield, Texas.

13

January

1938

Australian guitarist, singer, songwriter and co-founder of psychedelic rock bands Soft Machine and Gong, Daevid Allen (1938-2015, 77) was born in Melbourne, Victoria.

25

January

1938

Grammy award-winning artist and Hall of Famer, legendary American songstress, Etta James was born in Los Angeles, California.

26

April

1938

American rock ‘n’ roll guitarist who became famous for his signature ‘twang’ guitar sound, Duane Eddy was born in Corning, New York.

16

August

1938

Legendary American blues guitarist Robert Johnson died in mysterious circumstances in Greenwood, Mississippi at the age of 27. The bizarre mythology surrounding Johnson’s life and demise continues to deepen with time.

3

October

1938

Legendary American singer and guitarist, Eddie Cochran (1938-1960, 21) was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota.

5

December

1938

Highly influential American guitarist, singer and songwriter, J.J. Cale (1938-2013, 74) was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

18

December

1938

English bass guitarist with The Animals, record producer and manager of both Slade and Jimi Hendrix, Chas Chandler (1938-1996, 57) was born in Newcastle upon Tyne.

2

April

1939

American singer, Motown soul legend and multi-award winning artist, Marvin Gaye was born in Washington DC.

4

April

1939

Incomparable English double bass guitarist who has collaborated with artists like John Martyn and Richard Thompson to great effect, Danny Thompson was born in Teignmouth, Devon.

28

July

1939

American singer and actress, Judy Garland recorded the perennial all‑time‑favourite song, ‘Over The Rainbow’ from the classic feature film, ‘The Wizard Of Oz’.

21

August

1939

Hall of Famer and prolific American guitarist and collaborator extraordinaire, James Burton was born in Dubberly, Louisiana.

23

September

1939

Influential American blues/rock guitarist Roy Buchanan (1939-1988, 48) was born in Ozark, Arkansas.

26

November

1939

American-born Swiss soul/R&B/pop singer, songwriter and actress Tina Turner was born in (where else?) Nutbush, Tennessee.

26

December

1939

Famous but volatile American ‘Wall of Sound’ record producer Phil Spector was born in New York. He is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence in California for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003.

Tailpiece

Phew! That was a bit of a 20‑year roller coaster. However, this still hasn’t got us to point at which ‘modern music’ arguably really begins, i.e. from the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll and will ultimately bring us up‑to‑date. However, it is a fascinating insight into not only what the rapidly growing global population got up to but also how this was inextricably linked to how music was also progressing. Social culture and music are symbiotically interdependent – culture shapes and stimulates music and music reflects and influences culture. The 20 years covered in this article are therefore fundamental building blocks of the unstoppable development that will lead us to rock ‘n’ roll and beyond. The next article will, hopefully, bridge the gap from the start of WWII to the ground-breaking events that would take place in the 1950s.

Watch this space and make sure you tune in, same time same place next month. I can’t wait… can you? Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Don’t try to learn from geniuses how to be a genius. They are unique. Think for yourself and you are a genius, even if no-one else notices. That is also integrity.”

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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April 2019 – The Story of Modern Music in 1,500+ Facts – Part II

Introduction

Hello and welcome back to the second part of what is turning out to be CRAVE Guitars’ magnum opus for this year. You can revisit Part I by clicking on the link below (it will open in new browser tab):

After posting Part I in March 2019, I realised that the intended approach wasn’t going to work as I’d originally intended, especially as the series would progress. The idea for this year was to present each section in two parts, i) a short narrative setting the general historical context through global political, technological and economic events of the time, and ii) the list of music facts covering the same period. That worked well enough for the first article, which briefly covered 250 years (1650 to 1900) as a precursor to ‘modern’ musical times (from 1900 onwards).

Now… after a bit of reflection, this posed a few problems once we get into the 20th and 21st Centuries, as the number of facts and the historical context expanded in quantity and complexity. Not only this, there was a noticeable disconnect between the context and the musical facts that seemed to leave a hole in the story. While not a huge problem, I wasn’t happy with the result. The course of events needed something additional not only to make the story more coherent but also to become more interesting.

So, as it’s ‘early doors’ in the project, I decided to revisit the deferred piece of research that I was going to publish this year. This brainwave enabled me to adapt that other idea and to combine it with the historical context and musical facts. It isn’t quite what I was thinking of but I reckon it will work quite well. This extensive new piece of work involved documenting the development of relevant musical genres that took place over the same time period as the rest. This move, however, will negate the original idea I had for 2019. Oh well, never mind.

Unfortunately for me, this presented another issue which was to undertake the background work needed for it to make sense and this was on top of the other elements I was already working on. If that was the end of the story, that would be enough. However, it also meant that the length of each section would then not only become too long but also too ‘chunky’. The answer to that is to split the sections into decades, each comprising three parts – historical context, musical genre developments and music facts. That’s where we are this month.

As music is an art not a science, the approach is, to some extent, necessarily arbitrary. In an attempt to avoid repetition, each genre is only covered in the first period when it became popular. As you might expect, history, genres, artists and time periods are not always neatly organised, so there is often overlap and a degree of ‘fuzziness’ around the edges. I hope, however, that the structure is relatively easy to follow and makes some kind of sense.

As previously mentioned, this is not a detailed, comprehensive academic exercise. It is purely for entertainment and each snippet of information barely scratches the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you want to know more, I’m afraid you’ll have to go and explore where it takes you for yourself.

Finally, before we get started with this month’s part of musical history, I also have to say that the starting point of the series is from the perspective of the guitar and guitar music. If you are reading this, then you probably already appreciate that anyway, however, it does need to be said. This means that, while other aspects of music are covered, it will have a definite and obvious guitar bias. As the author, that’s my prerogative and I’m not apologising for that. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this part of the story because this is where things begin to get enthralling.

The Story of Modern Music Part II  – 1900-1919

Musical Context

This is the new bit of the story added to cement the whole together, so a quick recap is needed.

Popular music of the early 1900s was very different from the predominantly highly structured classical music genres that preceded it. Starting around 1870, the catalyst for the emergent modern styles led to a seemingly miraculous eruption of musical innovation, creativity and experimentation during the 20th Century that was unlike anything that preceded it and probably unlike anything we will see again, at least in our lifetimes. Blues, jazz, gospel and folk were becoming particularly prominent and relevant in the western world.

In order to appreciate where modern music of the 20th Century began, we need to take a brief look at the origins that began to appear in the late 19th Century, even though they were still not necessarily prominent at the turn of the millennium. In these sections it is important to recognise that musical genres did not appear from nothing and neither did they disappear overnight. In addition, many musical genres endured and morphed over decades and many have seen periodical revivals. The categorisation of music into decades for the sake of this article is simply a convenient device to provide a frame of reference within which the ‘facts’ can be readily accommodated. Similarly, genre boundaries and musical styles emanating from particular geographical territories should be seen as fluid and constantly cross‑pollinating, and should not, therefore, be taken as definitive. Where appropriate, relevant notes will be included. Nothing in music, it seems, is simple or straightforward.

1870s

The Blues, or ‘the devil’s music’ is a major musical genre that originated in the Deep South of the United States such as Mississippi, Louisiana and southern Texas from around the 1870s and spread widely across the country changing its style as its popularity increased. Blues really came to prominence at the beginning of the 20th Century. The basis of the blues came predominantly from African American music and traditional African music, as well as European traditional folk music. The genre can be recognised often by repeating chord progressions and commonly a 12‑bar structure. The word ‘blues’ is largely attributed to melancholy, sad or depressed mental states and is often associated with trials and tribulations of post‑slavery black oppression. The development of the blues included work songs, spiritual songs, chants, and ballads. Around 1902, African American musician WC Handy, often called ‘the father of the blues’, heard blues music being played at a railway station and set about promoting the genre through early recordings. Some of the early practitioners of blues include Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly, along with many others. Blues music has been highly influential over the last 150 years and its lasting effects can be found widely in jazz as well as later musical genres such as rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rock music. Blues has also spawned many sub‑genres including Delta blues, country blues, Piedmont blues, hill country blues, West Coast blues, electric Chicago blues, Texas blues and blues rock.

1890s

While orchestral music remained popular up to the end of the 19th Century, a new breed of music was attracting listeners’ attention. Ragtime emanated from the African American communities of urban cities including St. Louis in Missouri around 1895-1897. Ragtime takes the traditional march musical style that had been made popular by John Philip Sousa and was often played by African American bands. Ragtime incorporated ‘ragged’ syncopated rhythms often reminiscent of polyrhythmic African music. Ragtime became a massively popular form of dance music up to around 1919. Ragtime, along with blues music largely influenced and evolved into Jazz from about 1917. Dance crazes inspired by ragtime became popular with contemporary audiences of the time including the shimmy, the turkey trot, the buzzard lope, the chicken scratch, the monkey glide, and the bunny hug. Predominantly white audiences first encountered the new craze at popular vaudeville shows, with artists soon migrating to the music clubs. Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott are known as the ‘big three’ ragtime composers of their time.

Right, now things are back on track, let’s get going with the early part of the 20th Century.

The 1900s

The 1900s was a decade that heralded not only intense hope for a new millennium but also further leaps of scientific and technological progress.

 Historical Context 1900-1909

1900

Work on the famous New York subway from City Hall to the Bronx began.

1901

The first Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.

The Commonwealth of Australia was created.

Hubert Cecil Booth made the world’s first commercial vacuum cleaner.

King Gillette and William Nickerson founded the American Safety Razor Company.

After 63 years on the throne, British monarch Queen Victoria died and was succeeded by King Edward VII.

The first 2000‑mile transatlantic radio message from England to Newfoundland was sent by Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi.

1902

The Flatiron Building in Manhattan, New York became the world’s tallest at 20 stories and 205 feet tall.

1903

The first powered flight was made by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright using the first heavier than air powered airplane, the Wright Flyer.

American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford started mass production of motor cars in America.

The first baseball World Series was held.

1905

Albert Einstein published his ‘Special Theory of Relativity’ proposing the relationship between space and time.

1906

A massive 7.9 (estimated) magnitude earthquake struck California, killing 3,000 people and destroying 80% of San Francisco. The Britain suffragette movement began, aiming to give women the vote.

The first Grand Prix motor race took place at Le Mans in France.

1908

Lord Baden‑Powell founded the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement.

The headquarters of the Singer Manufacturing Company in Manhattan reached 47 stories and 612 feet tall.

The American agency, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) was formed.

Ford introduced the massively popular Model T motor car, which sold for $850.

1909

Explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson claim to be the first people to reach the North Pole.

Musical Genre Development 1900-1909

Blues music was beginning to spread from the rural areas of the American Deep South and varieties such as hill blues and country blues reflected the social culture of their regional origins. Church music was also prominent in the American Bible belt, as was Anglo‑American folk music with immigrants influencing home grown styles.

Although classical music began to be overtaken rapidly by more modern forms, opera became particularly popular in the early 20th Century and sustained interest until about 1960.

Jazz music, often termed ‘America’s classical music’, is another major musical genre starting from around 1900. Early forms of jazz musical expression emerged mainly from the American south and particularly around the city of New Orleans in Louisiana, often referred to as Dixieland. Jazz stemmed from existing blues, ragtime and European military band music, all of which were popular in the late 19th Century. Musician Buddy Bolden is widely recognised for fusing blues and ragtime to form the basis of jazz. Partly because of these origins, early jazz music was principally performed by African American musicians. Jazz is characterized by ‘swing’ and ‘blue’ notes, call and response patterns, polyrhythmic arrangements and extensive improvisation. Jazz rapidly diversified with forms such as ‘honky‑tonk’, ‘boogie woogie’ and simple jug band music. The main surge in the popularity of jazz music occurred after WWI and particularly from 1920 onwards, known widely as ‘the Jazz Age’. The growth of the jazz craze soon spread to dance halls and speakeasies as well as ubiquitous marching bands. Music and dancing became a significant part of popular jazz culture, including the cakewalk, the black bottom, the Charleston, the lindy hop and the jitterbug. The introduction of recording technology and wireless radio also gave much broader exposure to the exciting new musical genre. Popular jazz artists included Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Fats Waller, as well as big band orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Jazz rapidly diversified including forms such as Kansas City jazz, gypsy jazz, bebop, cool jazz, free jazz and fusion. Jazz and its many different styles remained hugely popular up to the 1940s and its legacy heavily influenced the proliferation of other musical genres from the early 1950s.

Musical Facts 1901-1909

DayMonthYearMusic Fact
4August1901Legendary American jazz trumpet player, singer and composer, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana.
21March1902Legendary and influential blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, Son House (1902-1988, 86) was born in Lyon, Mississippi.
9June1902Influential delta blues guitarist and singer Skip James (1902-1969, 67) was born in Bentonia, Mississippi.
10October1902American luthier Orville Gibson founded The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd in Kalamazoo, Michigan, now better known as manufacturer of Gibson guitars.
26June1903American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958, 65) was born in Jefferson County, Arkansas.
1March1904American big-band trombone player, arranger, composer, and bandleader Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa.
21August1904American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey.
19November1905American jazz trombone player, composer, conductor and bandleader, the ‘Sentimental Gentleman of Swing’ Tommy Dorsey was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.
12January1906American country blues singer and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell (1906-1972, 66) was born in Rossville, Tennessee.
12November1906American delta blues guitarist and singer Booker T. Washington ‘Bukka’ White (1906 or 1909-1977, 67 or 70) was born between Aberdeen and Houston, Mississippi.
2December1906The inventor of the long playing microgroove record (a.k.a. the LP) for Columbia Records, Peter Carl Goldmark was born in Budapest, Hungary.
29September1907American guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor, rodeo performer and businessman, ‘the singing cowboy’ Gene Autry (1907-1998, 91) was born in Tioga, Texas
26January1908Amazing French virtuoso jazz violinist, known as ‘the grandfather of jazz violinists’ Stéphane Grappelli was born in Paris.
30May1909American jazz clarinet player and bandleader, the ‘King of Swing’, Benny Goodman was born in Chicago, Illinois.
10August1909One of the most significant figures in guitar music history and business, Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991, 81) was born in Anaheim, California.
10October1909American businessman, president of guitar manufacturer Gibson and mentor to luthier Paul Reed Smith, the formidable Theodore ‘Ted’ McCarty (1909-2002, 91) was born in Somerset, Kentucky.

The 1910s

The 1910s was a tumultuous decade and one that would leave the world on a watershed, with positive and negative implications for the ones that would follow.

 Historical Context 1910-1919

1911

Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole.

The Chinese Revolution led to the formation of the republic of China.

The first Indianapolis 500 motor race took place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana.

1912

The so‑called unsinkable ocean liner, the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden transatlantic voyage from Southampton to New York after striking an iceberg, killing over 1,500 passengers and crew.

1913

The first crossword puzzle was published in a Sunday newspaper, the New York World.

1914

The Panama Canal in Central America opened, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The First World War (WWI) started between Germany/Austria and Britain/France/Russia, which lasted until 1918.

1915

A German torpedo sank the British ocean liner Lusitania off the Irish coast, killing nearly 1,200 people.

1916

Albert Einstein published his ‘General Theory of Relativity’ proposing a unified description of gravitation as a geometric property of space and time.

1917

The Russian Bolshevik Revolution took place, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

America joined WWI on the side of the Allies.

1918

The British Royal Air Force was founded.

Women over the age of 30 were given the vote in Britain.

A deadly influenza pandemic infected c.500 million people around the world and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million, equivalent to 3-5% of the global population.

The armistice between the Allies and Germany ended WWI. Approximately 17 million people were killed during the conflict.

1919

The infamous Chicago Black Sox baseball match fixing scandal, when 8 members of the White Sox were accused of intentionally losing the World Series to Cincinnati for money from a gambling syndicate.

The Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was created.

After WWI, the League of Nations was established, intended to ensure world peace, lasting until it was abandoned in 1946.

Musical Genre Development 1910-1919

By 1910, blues music was migrating into urban areas and would have a major influence on all forms of music. Jazz particularly New Orleans Jazz maintained its popularity during the 1910s. Religion was of great solace to the oppressed black communities of southern USA and unaccompanied singing of spirituals grew in popularity, eventually morphing into gospel by the 1930s. Social development in America and particularly Europe during the 1910s was heavily impacted by World War I. In the absence of technological music distribution, the ‘new’ music from the previous decade continued to spread and it maintained its influence during the 1910s. As a consequence, no major genre styles appeared before the boom period of the post‑war ‘roaring twenties’. Recordings of Afro‑Caribbean calypso music began to appear in the 1910s, which proved not only popular but also influential.

Musical Facts 1910-1919

DayMonthYearMusic Fact
23January1910Belgian/French virtuoso gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt (1910-1953, 43) was born in Liberchies, Pont‑à‑Celles, Belgium.
28May1910Influential American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter T-Bone Walker (1910-1975, 64) was born in Linden, Texas.
10June1910Legendary blues American guitarist and singer Howlin’ Wolf (real name, Chester Burnett) (1910-1976, 65) was born in White Station, Mississippi.
8May1911Legendary American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, Robert Johnson (1911-1938, 27) was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
5November1911American singer, guitarist and popular Western film actor, known as the ‘King of the Cowboys’ Roy Rogers (1911‑1998, 86) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.
15March1912American country blues singer, songwriter and guitar legend, Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins (may be 1911 or 1912‑1982, 69) was born in Centreville, Texas.
14July1912Legendary and influential American folk singer, songwriter and guitarist, Woody Guthrie (1912‑1967, 55) was born in Okemah, Oklahoma.
4April1913Legendary American Chicago blues guitarist, Muddy Waters a.k.a. McKinley Morganfield, (1913-1983, 70) was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi.
7August1913American pioneer of the 7-string jazz guitar, long before its current popularity in modern rock music, George Van Eps (1913-1998, 85) was born in Plainfield, New Jersey.
22November1913Famous English classical composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk.
20March1915Influential American gospel singer, songwriter and guitarist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973, 58) was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas.
7April1915Legendary American singer Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, She is widely recognised as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.
9June1915True American guitar legend and musical innovator, the incomparable Les Paul, a.k.a. Lester William Polsfuss (1915-2009, 84) was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
1July1915Influential American blues singer, songwriter, upright bass player and guitarist, Willie Dixon (1915-1992, 75) was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
29July1916Highly influential American jazz guitarist, Charlie Christian (1916-1942, 25) was born in Bonham, Texas.
12March1917American record producer and co-founder of Chess Records in Chicago, famous for pioneering blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists, Leonard Chess was born in Motal, Poland.
7June1917American singer, actor, comedian, and producer Dean Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio.
22August1917Massively influential American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, an all-time great music man, John Lee Hooker (1917-2001, 83) was born in Tutwiler, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.
30September1917Legendary American jazz drummer and band leader Buddy Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York.
21October1917American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and singer Dizzie Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina.
17November1917Influential American country singer, songwriter and guitarist, Merle Travis (1917-1983, 65) was born in Rosewood, Kentucky.
27January1918American blues guitarist, the ‘king of the slide guitar’, Elmore James (1918-1963, 45) was born in Richland, Mississippi.
25April1918Renowned American jazz singer, known as the ‘First Lady of Song’ and the ‘Queen of Jazz’, Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia.
19August1918Pioneering American luthier, Orville H. Gibson, founder of Gibson guitars, died in a New York hospital at the age of 62.

Tailpiece

OK, there you have it for this month’s article and we’ve only covered two decades! But, what influential decades they were. Things are just starting to hot up and there is still plenty to look forward to over coming months. Music and world events begin to get even more complicated and quite exciting from here on in. I’m not sure how many months this series will last, so we’ll just have to take things as they come.

In the background, the repatriation project is ongoing at an intentionally slow pace with about 3‑4 guitars a month attracting some much deserved tender loving care and attention. Also, the ‘most wanted’ vintage gear hunt is still underway but with no desperate urgency, as there is plenty else to be getting on with. Also, the postponed and much‑needed cellar renovation (i.e. future guitar accommodation) may begin to get underway by mid‑year. So, lots of fun and games to be had if at all possible. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Intelligence is not about what you know or how much you know but about having the curiosity to ask ‘why?’”

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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April 2017 – How Much Music Theory Do You Need To Play Guitar?

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

While CRAVE Guitars’ relocation hullabaloo is taking place in the background, here’s a guitar‑related topic which made me think a bit (again).

Recent articles have thrown up what I think are some interesting questions that have then triggered further thoughts. There have been topics around guitar motivations, personal preferences, diverse musical choices and inspirational guitarists that have produced standout musical experiences. Then there was the recent topic about the science and social psychology of music and why/how it affects us in the way it does. These tomes have explored why we may be drawn towards things we consciously or unconsciously like? This article is a bit different although, in some ways, it is also a logical extension of some of those preceding threads. So… to what extent do guitarists need formal musical training?

This particular topic was triggered by a well-worn bit of clichéd guitar humour, “This is called sheet music. You can show it to a lead guitarist to make them stop playing” (see above). Very funny – ha-ha! However, as is my wont, this got me thinking. The joke is, sadly, poignant and I can personally relate to it. There has been a long-running debate as to whether guitarists must learn music theory and whether it enhances or detracts from their ability to enjoy playing or to be a successful working musician. So in the interests of being provocative, I thought I’d throw my tuppence-worth in. The language of music, in my naïve way of thinking, should be liberating, not inhibiting. If anyone has an effective antidote to the following, I would be keen for a prescription and to take my medicine.

The beauty of learning to play the guitar is that, unlike many other instrumental disciplines, proficiency in theoretical musical concepts is not a prerequisite or a necessity (thankfully!). An analogy may be that one does not need to be a linguistic expert in order to deliver grammatically appropriate prose (but it helps). For instance, in order to have fun on our favourite instrument, do you need to memorise and regurgitate the notes that make up the obscure jazz chord, F#7b10b13 (it does exist, honest) or trot out the notes in Lydian Augmented scale in Bb without working it out? NB. I can’t! (NB. for info, Bb, C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb). However, I accede to the principle that a basic understanding of where all the notes are and how they generally relate to each other is probably helpful.

A newbie can pick up a modest guitar and, within a relatively short space of time, standard tuning and a few simple chords gain reasonable access to a very diverse range of modern music. Think how many great tunes over the past 50 years have been based around the open A, C, D, E and G major chords. A bit more work gives you B and F, and therefore access to many major and minor barre chords all the way up the neck. Diatonic ‘power chords’ are easy to learn and 7th (both major and minor) variations expand things substantially.

Basic rhythm can be picked up by moving between these chords. Applying these fundamentals to, for example, 12-bar blues based around the I, IV and V chord pattern is a relatively straightforward starter-for-ten. Start with 4/4 tempo and take it from there, perhaps adding a bit of ‘swing’ or ‘boogie’ to make it more interesting. Some guitarists spend their entire lives perfecting their craft around these elementary concepts without ever needing to make life complicated. As the legendary American folk singer/songwriter and guitarist, Woody Guthrie said, Anyone who used more than three chords is just showing off”. One could argue that, if it was good enough for him (and everyone who followed in his footsteps)…

Playing strong rhythm guitar is an essential skill in its own right and some guitarists never need to exhibit flashy pyrotechnical displays of digital dexterity to ply their trade. Don’t underestimate the skills of solid accompaniment to musical structure. Without it, there would be no ‘groove’. Sometimes, less really is more.

Learning scales is a bit more involved but the common pentatonic scale (major and minor) again covers a lot of ground without having to understand all the intervening notes. Add in a few ‘blue’ notes and, all of a sudden, you’re a guitar prodigy with aspirations to be the next Jimi Hendrix! This immediate accessibility can also prove to be a drawback, as many guitarists will then ‘hit the wall’ that prevents them from progressing. This is where the complexity of chords, scales and keys can get both intimidating and exciting, depending on your proclivity for the medium and your learning style. Sadly for me, the bait of genuine understanding is disappointingly just beyond my meagre grasp.

First confession – I really, really struggle with music theory. I have tried very hard, honestly I have. I am not stupid but attempting, as I have done on many occasions since I picked up my first guitar as a teenager, to learn the complex language of music has proved to be an insurmountable barrier. I don’t know why, either, which is irritating – perhaps it’s just the way my sad brain works. It gets to the point that I either glaze over and switch off, or I become so frustrated that it alienates me from the one thing that I enjoy doing, which is actually playing music (albeit badly). Either way, I end up giving up (again) and repeated failures simply reinforce the fallibility. It has now got to the point that I don’t even bother trying.

The poor man’s equivalent of notation is ‘guitar tab’, which attempts to provide a half‑way house for those that fear to tread the path and ‘5-bar gate’ of genuine manuscript. This should help, you’d think. However, it has now got to the point that attempting to wade through guitar tab isn’t worth the effort if I can’t nail it quickly. As I get older, my attention span reduces, compounded with the feeling that there is something better to do than struggle. Reading magazines doesn’t help, as the descriptive narrative uses all-or-nothing jargon that often loses me before I start. The Internet is often unreliable and contradictory to the point of increasing confusion, rather than diminishing it. Videos don’t help, as one can’t stop and ask questions, seek clarification or go off at tangents to explore interesting dead ends.

Second confession – I also lack natural musical talent. I don’t have the intrinsic feel and ear for music that many people seem to have without even trying. Many guitarists have incredible instinctive ability that they don’t seem to have to work hard to learn the mechanics. Some incredible guitarists have both the talent and theoretical ability and that, to me, is just not fair. I have genuine admiration for such talented, knowledgeable people and I can respect the hard work they must have put in to achieve it. So… why doesn’t it work for me?

Ultimately that old adage of ‘life is too short’ prevails and I get back to playing within my limitations. I am not afraid of hard work, as long as it serves some sort of positive outcome and in some way adds value to the investment in time and energy. When something becomes a chore with no guarantee that it will make me a better guitar player, then it becomes an obstacle in its own right. I know I’m missing out but the concepts cannot seem to penetrate my intellect and ignite an epiphany. I wish I could read music and memorize the theory but I think I must accept that I just can’t. Admitting defeat is an anathema to me, so I just can’t win. This is where egotistical narcissism and delusional hubris meets crippling self-doubt and pervasive inadequacy. Ouch!

I hasten to add that this is not a position borne out of snobbishness, defiance or indolence. I would dearly like to be able to demonstrate consummate musical skills. However, it just isn’t worth inflicting a masochistic doctrine disproportionate to the perceived derived gratification.

Third confession – I am self-taught and that imposes many petty constraints, perhaps the most obvious being that it has allowed me to pick and choose what one learns (including the inevitable bad habits) and what one doesn’t. I haven’t been formally educated in the guitar, whether it be by some form of passive learning (which generally falls into the ‘can’t be arsed’ category), or interactively with either peers or a seasoned guitar teacher. While I know that I must surely benefit from the latter, I have an ingrained irrational prejudice with this as well. Even if a teacher knows a lot more than I do, particularly regarding theory, I have the feeling that they are just another frustrated guitar wannabee that never made it and the most they could ever teach me would be to be as unsuccessful as they are (i.e. those who can’t… teach). I acknowledge this is a blatant fallacy but it is a practical issue for me, especially if I’m giving up good time and money to invest in my personal learning. There are numerous excellent tutors out there who could probably inspire me but they are geographically and economically beyond my reach. Perhaps when I ‘retire’, it may provide an opportunity to take lessons and improve my knowledge and experience. However, I must accept that it is too little too late to become the guitar god that I deceived myself into believing I could become in my early teens.

I used to play in bands and playing with others is stretching and challenging, both positively and negatively. Being naturally inclined to misanthropy, finding that person or group of people that have the mutually beneficial ‘fit’ is typically difficult. The depressing result is that I currently play in splendid isolation, which is far from ideal, but at least it avoids the inevitable social compromises of ‘playing well with others’. Again, I recognise that my behaviour is self-indulgent, self-limiting and unproductive. Maybe I should set myself a target to play in a band again, just to prove to myself that I can still do it. Then what?

The outcome is that I am caught in that horrible trap where, despite my best efforts, I am neither technically proficient nor naturally talented. It is frustrating that I have known the basics for decades but cannot seem to progress sufficiently to acquire genuine expertise in my chosen instrument. However, I enjoy playing even though, like most guitarists, I regularly get stuck in a rut. Where do I go from here and how do I improve significantly? Ideally, I would like someone to help inspire even a moment of greatness from my admittedly rather mundane approach towards guitar music, I would be keen to explore what may be possible. I realise that this requires some form of direct call-to-action on my part to make it happen; it won’t magically fall into my lap. If I don’t do something, I guess I’ll end up noodling my life away without ever feeling fulfilled, without realising any latent potential, and therefore impeding any possible mastery of the instrument. Unrequited aspiration strikes again.

Another issue for me is my mercurial musical tastes. I pity any guitar tutor who tries to adapt to my predilection at any one time. Like my musical listening tastes, one minute I want to experiment with blues and the next moment, it’s metal, then funk, then reggae, then rock, then jazz, folk, prog, rock ‘n’ roll, fusion, psychedelic, indie, ambient, pop, country, etc. It’s a bit ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. You get the idea. I do draw the line at learning classical guitar though – there are just too many prescribed ‘rules’ involved (another fallacy and one that I just can’t be bothered to controvert!).

One of the other things that guitar is great at is the ease with which it can adopt alternative tunings (try and do that with a piano!). As you might guess, I struggle with chords and scales in ‘standard’ 6-string EADGBE tuning. My poor little brain shudders at the likelihood of having to internalise chord inversions and scale modes for multiple tunings. Never mind adding in physical differences associated with, for instance, 7 (or more) strings, baritones, tenors, harps, banjos, ukuleles, etc. As A.A. Milne wrote about Winnie-the-Pooh, “I am a bear of very little brain…”.

Thankfully, we guitarists also aren’t constrained by 12 fixed notes like many other instruments. Frets help precision most of the time, especially with chords. In addition, we can also bend notes and add vibrato (again, try that with a piano!). This can be taken even further by using a bottleneck or slide. While there are few fretless guitars (Vigier being the most obvious proponent), we’ve had fretless basses since well before the advent of the electric bass guitar. Many of these characteristics make the guitar one of the most expressive and flexible of musical instruments in existence.

While theory is good at articulating tempo, it isn’t very good at describing timbre and tone let alone touch and feel, which are the Holy Grail for many guitarists. The guitarist’s eternal quest for ‘tone’, i.e. the sound we construct in our heads, as opposed to what we hear when the sound comes out of a speaker at the end of the signal chain, is perhaps a topic for another time.

I hinted at the start of this article that theory can inhibit creativity and innovation as it can tend to constrain ones mental ability to experiment outside the fixed tenets. A lot of ground breaking guitar music over the last half century has been created by people without enough theoretical knowledge about what’s ‘right’, which enabled them to break the rules and come up with something new, which then becomes incorporated into the ever‑expanding ‘norm’ over time. The counter argument is that musicians cannot really escape the confines of ignorance without understanding what rules they might be seeking to break, and then providing them with the appropriate tools with which to break them. The more (or less) you know, the better equipped you are for challenging the boundaries. I remain agnostic on this particular subject, principally because I am not informed enough to comment objectively.

I also hinted at the relationship between theory and ‘success’. Arguably, the best, most prolific and longstanding credible guitarists have a workmanlike mix of theory and talent. As an example, session musicians in particular would struggle without being able to sight‑read sheet music and rapidly adapt their playing style to suit the context. Without having to think about what they are ‘reading’, experienced professional musicians can be liberated to add something of themselves to the mix. This playing beyond the conscious is the basis of Zen guitar, a quasi-religious state of being. Equally, classical guitarists really need to be able to stick closely to what the original composer intended (i.e. no improvisational freedom), so rudimental theory is essential. To many singer/songwriters though, just creating something that ‘sounds right’ is more important than comprehending which notes make it so and why. I tend to fall into the latter category, appreciating some combinations of notes without fitting them into some predetermined harmonic or melodic framework. I know it sounds good but not necessarily why it should do so.

A number of songwriting ‘manuals’ I’ve seen over the years often instruct readers about uniform song structure. While I agree that experience of the past should provide indicators as to what works and what doesn’t, sticking to a formula-driven structural solution to songwriting can produce music that can be anodyne and sterile. I guess that a conformist approach is helpful to begin with but rigid adherence to the rubrics may ultimately result in stagnation. Think what would happen if every song followed the same unbending pattern with little variation. The accepted wisdom is sound, as long as it provides for (and encourages) an antithetical approach as well. Creative rebellion can be a healthy reaction to standardisation and convention. Musically and culturally, it’s called rock ‘n’ roll! When Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’ (1953 film) was asked, what are you rebelling against?” he replied sublimely with, ‘whadda you got?”.

The mathematics of music can be fascinating, suggesting that music taps into something quite fundamental about the laws determining how our physical universe works. Musical appreciation may be the result not just of stylistic considerations and the prevailing cultural context but also by things beyond our comprehension. Perhaps this explains why many religious faiths use music to enhance the spiritual connection between the physical plane and the heavens. Since the days of Plato in ancient Greece, the theory of music has been built on fundamental scientific principles. They also understood that the mathematical framework of musical theory provides a basis for human expression through music. Why do humans experience the unique compulsive need to create and perform music at all? That’s another question altogether. “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Plato (c.428-348BCE)

Scientifically, the sound that we hear and our brains interpret is simply the result of vibrating air molecules and frequency is simply the rate at which those air molecules vibrate. The character of the instruments we hear is essentially the type of waveform created by those vibrations.

Getting technical for a moment, human hearing realistically only works in the range 20Hz‑20MHz and often less, especially as we age (losing about 1KHz per decade of our lives). A standard-tuned electric guitar has a fundamental frequency range of only around 80Hz-1200Hz (excluding harmonics – see below) – around 4 octaves. NB. an increase of 1 octave doubles the frequency. In comparison, a bass guitar covers approximately 60Hz-1000Hz and the human voice generally ranges between c.80Hz-260Hz (both genders). Drums range roughly between 60Hz-2KHz and cymbals between 8KHz-16KHz. As a consequence, we humans fit all our music within this limited audio spectrum.

Most musical tempos range between 40 beats per minute (BPM) technically described as Largo, up to 200BPM, called Presto. Blues and rock vary between about 80BPM and 120 BPM (Andante to Allegretto). Dance music varies between 120-160BPM (Allegro to Molto Allegro). There are, of course, many, many exceptions to these very rough indicators. It is amazing what we can create within these boundaries.

Pitch, rhythm and tempo are also essentially based on mathematical principles and resonate (sic!) unconsciously with something visceral and primitive in our physical makeup. Scientists have often referred to mathematics as music for the intellect. Perhaps the key relationship between science, mathematics and music could be a subject for another time (I need to do some more research first!).

In conclusion, and to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, you don’t need any formal training to start playing guitar and to get plenty of enjoyment from it. A modicum of conceptual knowledge can certainly help to get more from the playing experience and can open up all sorts of musical possibilities. Extensive theoretical understanding is certainly not a bad thing and can provide opportunities that otherwise might be closed to the purely practical musician. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and what they feel they need to know to get what they want out of playing the world’s most popular instrument. Music, like life, isn’t an all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all state. To end on a profound (and pretentious) note, knowledge is a continuum and we are all somewhere along the path between ignorance at one extreme and enlightenment at the other. I wouldn’t assume that everyone aspires to the latter, but, speaking personally, I would like to be a bit nearer to it than I am at the moment.

On that note, all things considered, I’m off to plink my planks again, albeit amateurishly and in blissful ignorance. It is my catharsis for the soul and partial therapy for the world’s many ailments. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Twelve little notes. So many combinations. Not enough time.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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