Guitar men

Guitar men
March 2011
By Tam Fiofori

I am a guitar freak. More correctly, I have grown much older to become an unrepentant guitar buff. Both acoustic and electric guitar! I remember the bruised near-bleeding fingertips of my left hand after self-imposed agonising hours of trying to master complex acoustic guitar chords. My friend, the late Peter Thomas, first African/Black boy to be Head Boy of a British Public School, and I, had this notion in the sixties that the hard way (without a capo) and lots of practice could make us good amateur guitar players in the mould of the country blues guitar masters we admired so much. Why not? After all, the star guitarists of the world- famous white pop groups of the sixties - the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Who, Cream (Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton et al) had literarily copied the inspirational country blues roots of the modern electric Chicago Blues music on which their repertoire and fame were anchored!

Musical instrument history reveals that the modern acoustic guitar came out of the African lute. It's no surprise that the Spanish, across the Mediterranean from Africa, eventually became masters of the flamenco classical-guitar genre. It is however, the then Negro in the Mississippi Delta of America, who completely revolutionised the sound of the guitar; stretching the sound texture of the instrument, both six-string and twelve-string, beyond conventional imagination. It was out of this Negro/African-American musical inventiveness on the guitar; created within the ‘new' musical genre of Country/Delta Blues as from the twenties that the now popular genres of music - Electric (Chicago) Blues, Rock n' Roll and ‘Soul' Jazz (all guitar-driven) - emerged.

Country Blues

The pivotal all-time classical example of acoustic Country blues at its creative best remains the 17-track CD ‘Robert Johnson-King of the Delta Blues' recorded in the late thirties on location in the Mississippi Delta. Johnson, the iconic master of the slide- guitar style, achieves haunting yet rich harmonic sounds of strummed chords which evoke sounds of human moaning, mechanical and natural sounds of rumbling trains and eerie sounds of the wind. It is an example of the tradition of making the guitar sing and talk; much like what other African-American musicians did in jazz with instruments like the saxophone and trumpet. It was this tradition of communicative expressiveness that spawned the deliberate and dedicated approach to electric guitar-playing in the birth of Electric Chicago Blues.

There are two distinct though interrelated schools of electric guitar-playing pioneered and sustained by African-Americans from the forties. The jazz-blues school style pioneered by T-Bone Walker and taken to its ultimate perfection by B.B.King. Parallel to this style within the genre of hardcore jazz has emerged master guitarists like Kenny Burrell and the revolutionary Wes Montgomery. The cutting edge of electric blues guitar remains the Chicago Blues; well recorded and exploited by Chess Records. A version of the development of this style of electric guitar playing and the genre of Chicago Blues is portrayed (however flawed) in the film, ‘Cadillac Records'.

Chicago Blues

The trademark of electric guitar playing in Chicago Blues is continuous multiple ultra-fast licks of wailing high-octave sounds. A most memorable music holiday I gave myself as a treat was a two-month trip to Chicago in the late sixties hanging out in the dangerous dives of the South Side and the more sedate and interracial clubs of the North side listening to the masters of this truly electrifying style of spontaneous creativity. Buddy Guy the enfant terrible, Otis Rush, Earl Hooker, Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Mighty Joe Young and rhythm guitarists like Jimmy Madison were the instrumentalists that laid the foundation for singers like Muddy Waters who initially defined and shaped the direction of Chicago Blues.

There is no dissent as to the huge influence of the Chicago Blues movement on the world pop and blues movement as later defined by the white megastars of the sixties both from Europe and America itself. They had the benefit of better management, media coverage and truth be told, racial hype; to wrongly give the impression that they were the true innovative creators of the pop/blues revolution of the sixties and seventies. They had either meticulously studied and copied from records made by African-Americans (as had Elvis Presley before them) or had gone directly to study at the feet of the Chicago Blues guitar masters like Buddy Guy.

Electric Blues

But then, the electric blues revolution, just like the country blues phenomenon, was not a regional phenomenon geographically. Just like other country blues musicians like Lightning Hopkins had instigated the transition from country blues to electric blues in Texas, the end result was the emergence of one of the most important exponents of electric guitar blues in Albert Iceman Collins. This West Coast movement has also spawned contemporary master electric blues guitarists like Robert Cray. But the bottom line is the ultimate genius who has emerged from this long tradition in the person of Jimmy Hendrix.

Jimmy Hendrix, undoubtedly, has been the defining voice of electric guitar playing in popular music and, not surprisingly, his roots and influences are deep in the Blues. It might not be common knowledge, but Hendrix from his teenage years went through an apprenticeship tenure of going on the road with the best of the African-American blues and pop icons including Little Richard. It is instructive to note that music equipment manufacturers have been business-like in responding to the perceived sound-needs of the innovative African-American electric guitarists. The Kalamazoo-based Gibson-guitar-manufacturing company came up with its Stratocaster version to meet the ultra-creative needs of guitarists like Hendrix. As an extension of business savvy, it came as no further surprise that Jimmy Hendrix was chosen to test run the wah-wah pedal which has given a definite sound-echo dimension to the electric guitar! Palm-wine guitar By now, it should also be no surprise to the reader that I am an unapologetic home-boy fan of guitar playing worldwide; more so as I have a historic and personal perspective of guitar playing. Much as I appreciate and admire the contributions of great guitar players like Segovia, Williams, Django, Clapton, and others, I am more fascinated by the unusual and innovatively authentic contributions of Afro-Americans in establishing the guitar as a lead instrument and voice in world popular music! Now where does Africa stand in this scheme of guitar music?

In West Africa, palm-wine guitar music is recognised as the creative precursor of Highlife the indigenous popular music of West Africa. Ghanaian palm-wine guitarists were recorded as early as the thirties when they visited Britain on a performance tour. The Congolese employed as many as five guitarists in the early fifties in their musical efforts to establish their brand of Congolese popular music, now world-famous.

In Nigeria, the guitar has also helped shape popular music. It is worth putting on record, that as Victor Uwaifo celebrates his seventieth birthday; he is an inventor (much like Bo Diddley's efforts in building innovative guitars) and has also added value to contemporary guitar playing with his outstanding world-class guitar solos on his megahits hits ‘Joromi' and ‘Guitar Boy'. Uwaifo and Oliver de Coque have put Nigeria on the world map of excellent guitar playing!

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