It’s difficult for me to imagine now, but it really wasn’t that long ago that the idea of listening to solo acoustic guitar music seemed pretentious and absurd. Not being a guitar player myself, I failed to imagine the depth of possibility available for this lone instrument, and cast off hundreds of hand drawn LP jackets into the New Age ghetto in the process. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of this misconception, but I imagined some kind of sickening marriage of rock’s BC Rich heavy pomp and wank to the ultra-sensitive ballads spewing from coffeehouses, and thought, “This isn’t for me.”
Without John Fahey, most of the music here would not exist, and even if it did, the interest in that music would be only a fraction of what it is. Like most, I discovered fingerstyle guitar via Fahey. Soon obsessed, I began peeling one layer after another away, chasing leads and blindly buying anything that looked the part. With luck and the knowledge of other collectors, I was able to assemble a library that was both deep and wide. Out of this I assembled a selection of my favorite, least exposed material.
Lovers of fingerstyle guitar need no introduction to this music, even if the particular players are not familiar to them. That being said, Guitar Soli is intended for the casual listener more than the instrumentalist, expert, or fan. This is not to say that any representative of the latter three groups won’t be satisfied, but that the choices were not made to enthrall with technical wizardry, to impress with historical importance, or to collect beloved nuggets that avid listeners will already be familiar with. This album might do a little bit of each, depending on the individual, but ultimately the primary goal is a collection of songs that can be enjoyed regardless of one’s connection to the genre. Since it is the instinct of every guitar player to explore a range of approaches, the music here seems to run a sort of spectrum. Soft and meditative makes up one end, melodic and playful somewhere in the middle, jagged and jarring on the far end. But the spectrum is a circle, and an ever-expanding one at that. Its practitioners only define the art of Guitar Soli, and they are the rare group of people who defy definition.
There are a few names that you will find repeated throughout these pages. The most prevalent by necessity is John Fahey, and we’ll assume that the listener has a basic familiarity with Fahey’s work. If not, we recommend to investigating his albums listed in the back of this book. Fahey’s biography is widely reported on and requires little additional coverage here, but there are a few key points that are best reviewed. He founded the Takoma label in 1960 to issue his own recordings, and then the recordings of traditional country blue artists like Bukka White and like-minded innovators like Robbie Basho. Despite Fahey’s apparent lack of business sense and disinterest in success, the label flourished and grew throughout the 1960s. Although his early LPs were pressed and repressed throughout the decade, true success began in 1968 with The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album and later that year with Leo Kottke’s 6 & 12-String Guitar, the latter of which became Takoma’s best selling title of all time.
To the casual music listener, Leo Kottke would become the figurehead of acoustic guitar music through most of the 1970s, and more often than not disciples of the instrument converted during this period arrived at Fahey via Kottke as opposed to a chronological route. The reasons for this were numerous. A charismatic performer, Kottke toured constantly, and engaged the audience with jokes and anecdotes and yes, occasional singing. If the audience wasn’t impressed by his technical prowess, there was plenty else to enjoy. Kottke’s technical dexterity was impressive to anyone. He did not shun flashy displays of skill the way Fahey did, nor did he lose direction and pursue virtuosity for its own sake. He was the perfect guitar player for mainstream America, and for better or for worse; this brought him high profile major label contracts and releases.
Fahey’s staunch independence and eccentric sensibilities made him far more culturally relevant, however, to the movement of sovereign guitar players with little need or desire to be associated with someone else’s label. The aesthetic of the Takoma releases was truly primitive and broadcast the revelation that anyone could muster the creative energy to package and produce a vinyl document on their own. The LPs that yielded the tracks compiled here also borrowed the visual language of Takoma: southern gothic, rural landscapes, and sometimes myth, legend, and fairytale make up the basic vocabulary.
William Ackerman was much like any of our unknown soldiers included here. He was a gifted guitar player, poet, and carpenter clearly influenced by Fahey. For evidence of this it isn’t necessary to go further than the title of his first album, The Search For The Turtle’s Navel. Fahey was a fanatic for the turtle and reportedly built a turtle sanctuary in his back yard during the best of times. The first release on Windham Hill was no more sophisticated than of its other self-released kin… it has been noted that the first pressing of covers was merely pasted-over dead stock of Angola Prisoner’s Blues jackets. Ackerman, however, had a keen business sense and even better taste, taking only half a decade to establish Windham Hill as one of the largest and most important independent labels in the United States.
Blame for this fact falls largely on the shoulders of yet another great champion of the acoustic guitar player whose name is necessarily dropped throughout these notes. George Winston was proficient on many instruments but he managed to create for the piano an alloy of international, traditional, and rural styles, much as Fahey had done for the guitar. They were attracted to each other’s music in the early 1970s, and Fahey recorded Winston’s brilliant but overlooked debut Ballads and Blues. He marinated for the rest of the decade until Ackerman lured him back into the studio and produced 1979’s Winston-described “Christmas carols for Halloween” LP, Autumn. It shattered the scale on which success for this music could be considered and transformed Windham Hill into a major force in not only the burgeoning New Age marketplace, but also a major player in the legitimate music business. For our purposes here, however, Winston was more important as a tireless supporter and friend to the unknown guitar player and unaccompanied instrumentalist.
The one musician that threatened to top Winston’s success on Windham Hill was Michael Hedges. Hedges deserves his own category entirely, and he gave himself many (New Edge, Heavy Mental, Acoustic Thrash), but what he did with the acoustic guitar was almost more similar to the work of an illusionist or magician. In performance, it rarely seemed like the music he played could possibly be emerging from the instrument in his hand. Unlike his predecessors, he seemed just as connected to pop, heavy metal, and rap as he was to American traditional and roots music.
The rise of Windham Hill had the happy consequence of returning the enigmatic Robbie Basho to the studio and the stage. It’s difficult to say just a few words about Basho. An extraordinary and complicated figure in the annals of modern guitar, his influence is impossible to determine: many players cite him as an influence, but nobody could really play much like him, or even close. A Robbie Basho performance seemed to yield one of two reactions: confusion or shock. He lived in constant poverty his entire life, giving literally everything to his art form. Basho died tragically and prematurely in 1986.
Another figure that must be given some introduction is Sandy Bull. On paper he is quite different than most of the guitar players collected here because he frequently incorporated other musicians, overdubs, and electric instruments into his recordings. He also played every stringed instrument he could get his hands on, including banjo, pedal steel, and oud. Nonetheless, he was philosophically linked to Fahey and Basho, and his popular Vanguard albums proselytized an expansive notion of what one could do with just one instrument. Many guitar players here cited his recordings as a major influence.
While these are undeniably the progenitors of the culture delved into with this collection, but it is by no means a complete treatment of modern guitar giants. It’s a travesty to ignore folks like Stefan Grossman, whose commitment to ragtime and his Kicking Mule label added an important dimension to American guitar playing, or John Renbourne, whose style incorporated Celtic and traditional English modes, or Davy Graham or Bert Jansch, who founded the British scene. Phil’s brother, Max Ochs, warrants mention for his role in the development of Takoma, as do Alex de Grassi and Michael Gulezian for their influence on Michael Hedges. Folks like Suni McGrath, Sid Brown, Bob Hadley, Ragtime Ralph, and Don Bikoff all had some small impact, but this isn’t the massive tome required to follow all of these various tributaries. It’s just a collection of songs, and very good ones we think.
The guitar players collected here share much in common with one another. In some ways they achieved where Fahey failed, managing to toil in the obscurity that he seemed to relish, and even strive for, with his hoaxes, obfuscations, and riddles. Even as the compositions are distinctive and idiosyncratic and occurred over a fifteen-year time span, there is an underlying trellis of understanding amongst them. As Jim Ohlschmidt pointed out to me, “Great guitar players everywhere tend to be kind and generous men.” In my experience collecting this material, his statement couldn’t be truer.