The Golden Age Of Guitar Players: A Six Month Six String Odyssey

By: Aaron Stein (@neddyo)

We are in the golden age of guitar players.

That’s something I’ve been saying/writing/tweeting for several years now, but it’s as true now as it’s ever been. For me, the first six months of 2016 has been a perfect distillation of this golden age: a steady flow of albums and performances, as varied and uniquely awe-inspiring as the various guitar tunings and styles they employ.

Of course, almost as long as there have been guitars, there have been guitar gods, larger than life personalities that demand your attention.  These are the people who the rock and roll universe has revolved around for decades.

While no less talented, the musicians I’m talking about here are not guitar gods. In fact, it is their mere mortal-ness, their ungodly humanness, that is so very appealing. Even the guitarists who play the most electronic, effects-laden, and loop-heavy music, seem to find a beautiful humanity in their playing. These artists play some of the most organic, deeply emotional music I have ever heard.

What’s struck me most is how these musicians all operating independently (most often totally unaccompanied) continued to resonate with each other in a variety ways, different strings in the same chord, throughout the year. There is no way I could cover all of them, but here is a little half-year recap of Guitar 2016 from my own perspective.

Noveller (aka Sara Lipstate) is the musical connection between two terrific days of guitar music I was lucky to experience this year. These were two events held at two different museums in New York City -- the first at the Museum of Modern Art back in January where the museum was showcasing the inclusion of a 1957 Fender Stratocaster and a 1959 Fender Bassman amplifier into their collection by having different musicians play short solo sets on the same “museum worthy” instrument.

While seeing music in a museum is always a cool treat, this was especially awesome -- watching different guitarists play the same instrument created a feeling that the art was more than just the instrument itself: the guitar was merely the canvas and the art came from the musicians -- just like the Pollocks and Picassos.

All the sets that afternoon were noteworthy, but the two I enjoyed most came from Noveller and Steve Gunn. Gunn noodled through instrumental themes off his Way Out Weather album, creating postmodern soundscapes worthy of framing and hanging on the wall in any gallery. Noveller took the same guitar and plugged in her massive set of pedals and effects, creating gorgeous complexity from simple layers, chaotic Jackson Pollock beauty via electric guitar.

Noveller provided a similar set in a different setting in June at the Met Cloisters. The Cloisters is a museum near the northernmost tip of Manhattan and has the look and feel of a medieval castle. On this day, the Cloisters hosted a “guitarfest” with different sets of solo guitar in different rooms and chapels.

Again, the guitar playing was art of the highest degree. Noveller played in a courtyard on a beautiful day, framed by stone walls, a modern day electro-minstrel. It was impossible to take it all in, but everything was a highlight in its own way.

Even with such excellence, it’s always interesting to me how one or two people stand out, the cream rising. On that day it was William Tyler who played in a small chapel, religious artifacts peering down from their sconces in the walls, his fingers working serious magic on his guitar, his Nashville roots bonding in holy matrimony with his prodigious skill, birthing the most beautiful, all-encompassing Americana you can imagine. 

Tyler is a special talent who has made several appearances in my musical journeys over the past 6 months. In early February he played Union Pool, an intimate spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that has become one of the premier places in NYC for observing this golden age.

On that night Tyler was awe-inspiring, alternating between acoustic and electric, his guitar telling six-string stories in five acts. He ended his set that night with probably the greatest version of the Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life” that I have ever heard, almost unrecognizably gorgeous.

As if that weren’t enough, a few weeks back, Tyler released his latest album Modern Country. The LP is an evolved departure from some of his earlier work, building sonic landscapes with additional musicians and ambient effects. It’s a real masterpiece.

It is probably only a small coincidence in the grand scheme of the guitarcentric universe in which we find ourselves that the same day Tyler’s album was released also saw the newest release from Steve Gunn who last we saw hanging art in a MoMA gallery.

Gunn is a personal favorite in this galaxy, a guy I’ve been following for a while. I place Gunn at the top of a subcategory of guitarists for his constant shapeshifting. It seems each year has brought a new Steve Gunn release, each very different in terms of who he’s playing with and the style. Solo instrumental acoustic guitar makes way for full band indie-rock followed by a release last year with the Black Twig Pickers playing a kind of ragged Appalachian ambient. The recent Eyes On the Lines release is his best yet.

In the same category as Gunn, but in most other ways quite different is Chicago’s Ryley Walker. Over the past couple years Walker has put out his own critically-acclaimed album (acclaimed for good reason, it was my favorite of last year) Primrose Green, as well as a record with fellow Chicagoan guitar master Bill McKay (a technicolor flower bed of guitar duets) and another with drummer Charles Rumback.

In each instance, Walker and his guitar are a constant, laid back presence of melodic brilliance and intrigue. One of my favorite sets of the year was back at Union Pool in April: Walker & Rumback spinning long improvisations of acoustic guitar picking and folk-jazz drumming that had my head spinning and the intimate crowd silent in wowed adulation. Scudding back along the timeline, Walker was back in NYC at the Cloisters event, this time in duet with an upright bassist, adding his guitar to a more song-centric set, new album material in the making.  

But there was one double-bill that was the original impetus for this piece:  Steve Gunn celebrating the release of his new album at Music Hall of Williamsburg with Yonatan Gat opening.

Gat is the yang to the yin of guys like Gunn, Tyler and Walker. His shows must be seen to be believed. The other players I’ve mentioned so far use their guitars as paint brushes or the quilled-pen of a poet or playwright. Gat’s guitar plays more like a weapon of war in concert with some of the most intense bass and drum playing you can imagine.

In fact, during one of his adrenaline-draining, ethno-psych-punk sets he often wields his guitar like a battle axe or medieval sword, unleashing fight-or-flight licks from the center of the floor (typically, that is, on this night he played from the stage). Like I said, the only way to fully appreciate Yonatan Gat is live and in your face, so don’t miss any opportuity to do so.

Still, at this show, Gunn played without peer. With the weird tunings and rapid finger-picking of his solo acoustic sets couched in a full band ready to heed his guitar’s leadership, the set was a clinic in six-string, guitar indiejam.

The new material proved to be a suitable for some search-and-plunder musical explorations. Working in tandem with Jim Elkington (a worthy wingman, check out his excellent guitar work with Nathan Salzburg), Gunn proved himself to be an able rock and roll frontman. I couldn’t help but think about the first time I saw Steve live: sitting in a chair, playing the final set of a long night to a fairly empty room, spinning long, elegant tales of unparalleled beauty on his acoustic guitar. 

Of course, this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, there is a mass of superlative guitar playing lurking below this superficial one-man’s-perspective overview. But before the first half of 2016 came to a close, there were two more musicians who made noteworthy contributions --  there often seems to be one or two guitarists who seem to elevate above even their most talented peers.

One night back in May I saw a full bill of guitarists put on by the VDSQ label (which exists for the sole purpose of highlighting the kind of music I’ve been talking about here). I won’t go through them all, but each played a solo set and each was interesting and certainly very unique in its own way.

But the clear highlight of the night was Marisa Anderson. So often in instrumental music you might hear someone say their song is “about” something, but when Anderson told her short stories in between songs, you really could feel that the music that followed was about something.

As I tweeted at the time: she is a deep thinker and a deep player and the two things are intimately entwined. A student of the music she plays, she did a whole album of songs from the public domain. With slide and lap guitars and a sound that is as historically fascinating as it is inventive and of-the-moment, Anderson should be on your shortlist if she isn’t already.

On the final new-music-day of this overfloweth-with-guitar half-year, Anderson released what might be my favorite album in the genre yet. In many ways like William Tyler did on his new one, Anderson has taken her I’m-crying-because-it’s-so-beautiful sound and built upon it with some lighter-than-air accompaniment. Quite the opposite of overdone, it is understated and flat out gorgeous. Can’t recommend it enough.   

On the other end of the spectrum is Dave Harrington who made a name for himself mostly as one half of the electo-duo Darkside. Over the past year or so, Harrington has played a range of gigs in the NYC area that have flat-out left my jaw on the ground. Mixing a jazz background, his career in electronic music and a serious love for Jerry Garcia, his sound and talent are ready-made for the improvisational battlefield.

On two separate occasions this year, Harrington was joined by Joe Russo on drums and Spencer Zahn for spur-of-the-moment late night jam sessions at Nublu, playing hair-raising, time-stopping improvisations that were equal parts booty-shaking and mind-zapping.

Later in the year, I saw the Dave Harrington Group -- a larger jazz-fusion ensemble -- play a set of music to an old Japanese thriller movie. This one was as fully improvised as the late-night jams, but where those were in full technicolor, on this April evening at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Harrington’s group was as black/white/million shades of grey as the film projected behind them. The Dave Harrington Group has a new album of improv-in-studio tracks that runs the gamut of brain-invaders, beautiful major-key melodic jams, and far out, off-path explorations.  

Harrington gets the honor of ending my January to June, 6-string-6-month odyssey, playing a late night jam session at Rough Trade this past Saturday. It’s interesting how in many ways the underlying presence that ties many of these guitar players together is none other than Jerry Garcia.

Sometimes it’s subtly implicit, sometimes it’s totally part of my imagination (e.g. I’m not sure if Gunn’s Garcia/Lesh-esque interplay at his MHOW gig was an intentional nod, or a mere coincidence) and sometimes it’s laid right out for you. With Harrington, it’s definitely the latter and this midnight set was billed as a post-Dead & Company show.

This is a six-month snapshot, an incomplete picture of a scene that continues to shapeshift and grow. The path from a complete unknown with guitar in her bedroom, a few effects and a 4-track recorder to the ears of the masses is as short as it ever has been. In fact, it is more or less non-existent.

And while I’m at it, I should say that yes, I realize Spotify and other streaming music services are imperfect, to say the least.  But I, for one, would probably know less than half of these musicians without them, let alone grow to love them enough to seek them out, arrange my life around seeing them and write longwinded pieces about them. Who knows what’s next?

Who did I miss? Let me know who your favorite under-the-radar guitar mortal is and we’ll see what the next 6 months brings.

Ed note: Aaron provides excellent insight on music like this in his weekly newsletter Noted::Nedsday.  Sign up here.

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