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Sleazier sounds: electric guitar solos are descended from saxophone solos (lrb.co.uk)
38 points by tintinnabula on Jan 12, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 19 comments

> A shitty thing about standard histories of rock and roll – ones that tell us that the music is half country and western, half rhythm and blues – is that they always slight jazz

Kind-of. Thing is, "country and western" as a genre can itself be seen as "one half traditional folk, one half jazz." The "father of country music," Jimmie Rodgers, was a vaudeville performer/hobo who knew the traditional songs from the railroad workers, but who aspired to be a jazz performer. The result was a fusion of "hillbilly music" and jazz. He even worked with Louie Armstrong in 1930: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BFbY9Vw8DM

Western Swing would spring up a few years later, which is clearly part-jazz just looking at its name, and would remain popular through the 1940s. This was the "country and western" that Elvis was listening to. If you check out some of the tracks from the 40s, the electric guitar solos are eerily pre-rock-and-roll, see 2:05 in this recording from around 1946: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aChNp0ePdMg

Jimmie Rodgers is dang near more just blues than anything else.

Commercial C&W ( is there any other kind? ) has always been a melting pot, much to the contrary of its self-image.

And don't forget Woody Guthrie - the folkies claim him, but he left a big imprint on especially California, although there's no telling how far it travelled.

Past a certain date, most of the musicians in Nashville had a pretty strong jazz background. By the time Hank Garland was doing sessions, it slipped into the foreground. Most Nashville stalwarts recorded a jazz album or two, especially the steel players. Buddy Emmons had a really interesting relationship with Lenny Breau.

Bob Wills melded more styles together than you'd think possible at the time, and in places where there was strong Jim Crow. He was a giant and a legend.

> Most Nashville stalwarts recorded a jazz album or two, especially the steel players. Buddy Emmons...

I love this, I bought a copy of Emmons' Steel Guitar Jazz a few years ago and it's a fantastic album. I wish there was more expansion/experimentation in that vein -- are you aware of any other steel guitar jazz albums worth checking out?

> Bob Wills melded more styles together than you'd think possible at the time, and in places where there was strong Jim Crow. He was a giant and a legend.

I'm a HUGE fan of Bob Wills. My most listened to artist on last.fm by a mile, I've spent a lot of time with his Tiffany Transcriptions. I remember thinking about how his music was very close to some ideal of what music "should" sound like -- energetic, uplifting, exciting, danceable, diverse, improvisational, and most of all, fun. I love the rest of the western swing gang: Milton Brown, Hank Penny, Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, but Bob Wills really was the King.

> are you aware of any other steel guitar jazz albums worth checking out?

Yes! Anything by Maurice Anderson, an awful lot of Curly Chalker, some of Lloyd Green... This is a pitifully incomplete list...

They are of course hard to find. There is always the Steel Guitar Forum.

> ... Bob Wills really was the King.

Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa used to have these... ten foot high face shots of Bob on the walls. Put a lump in my throat just looking at 'em.

FWIW, Leon Macauliffe taught/(teaches?) steel at Rogers State outside Tulsa. Take it away, Leon...

these guys (prominent mando players) are talking about Chuck Berry's possible roots in bluegrass/Bill Monroe's recordings

at 0:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftxl5tzIfXE

A demo one of my professors used to show was:

Bob Wills (damn, that pedal steel...): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFef08YZ6qk

Chuck Berry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RAfxiyMKAk

Wikipedia cites Wills' 1938 recording as the source, but it's fun to have the video. I totally believe Berry referenced Bill Monroe, I mean, Elvis' Blue Moon of Kentucky is a direct cover of a Bill Monroe tune. It's also thought that Scotty Moore's guitar style on Elvis' early singles was influenced heavily by Merle Travis' playing style ("Travis Picking" also see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8vOTKMqzw4).

The article is a neat primer and quite a good look into some of the band dynamics. The ending is particularly on-point as well, which I think is good for a lot of non-jazz people to hear about/research themselves:

>But the truth is that electric guitar solos are directly descended from saxophone solos via Charlie Christian, who defined his instrument (which was once seen as a joke among jazz musicians, much as the saxophone’s a joke in rock) by being the first guitarist good enough to cop saxophone riffs in cutting contests

I've listened to a lot of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery over the years. The similarities to great horn players is quite up front, I believe.

One thing that could be of interest, if one were to actually write a book on the subject, would be tracing the cost & technology & 'market forces' between guitars and horns (sax) during the past 50 years - as in, if guitars got cheaper and better (amps, effects, etc), and saxophones kept a higher barrier of entry cost, that might be a factor in the transition. Also public perception. Like the hits Guitar Hero and Rock Band - I'm pretty sure there's no way to plug in an Akai EWI or Yamaha piece to jam out on, just because there's not really a market I suppose.

I think the guitar being amplified has a lot to do with how popular it became. The guitar really took off when it became possible to be heard over a big band. This really emphasizes its usefulness as a solo instrument.

I think horns were traditionally used for these types of solos because they're loud and they really cut through the mix.

Well, you could always give the horn player a mic. I don't really recall many big band electric guitar soloists. The only one I can think of is Charlie Christian. So I doubt volume is a major factor in the guitar's popularity over the saxophone in popular music.

I think one big thing is the versatility of the electric guitar's sound. You can put it through different effects pedals to completely change the sound of the instrument. Wind instruments couldn't do this until the invention of the Varitone, but even then the natural tone of the instrument is still predominant. This is probably also why synthesizers became really popular.

I think another big factor is that the guitar (and other rock band instruments) is more "democratic". The guitar is more amenable to self-learning. It's cheaper than a wind instrument. Even beginner saxophones are several hundred USD, whereas you can get a low-end electric guitar for pretty cheap. It's easier to make a good sound right off the bat. Just press down a fret and pluck. No need to practice an embouchure and blowing technique. Really, the only hard part is to practice contorting your fingers into different chord positions. But rock musicians generally play a few simple chords, so this isn't that big a deal. And plus, you don't even have to learn to read music, since you can rely on tabs, which show you exactly how to position your fingers on the fretboard.

Tabs don't show you exactly how to position your fingers, only where to press the fretboard. There's still some skill required in figuring out which finger to use for each string, and the best finger sometimes depends on the size and flexibility of your hands.

This is true, and then there's the counter-example of Django, who managed to do stuff with two fingers lots of guitar lovers can't seem to come close to with four!

The perennial example of an electric guitar soloing in a big band setting is "Solo Flight" (1941) with Benny Goodman's big band https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IID2JPnGF00. Charlie Christian is featured all the way through and in that sense the tune was also a departure from the usual format for big band arrangements.

I didn't think I'd see an article like this on HN of all places. But yeah, jazz, r&b, and rock are musical cousins and often borrow from each other.

There was a discussion on /r/jazz on "Do average people (non-jazz fans) realize that jazz is improvisational?" And one answer is that average people don't realize how nuch improvisation is in music in general. The great rock guitarists often played improvised riffs and solos.

Zappa writes at length about the role of the saxophone even in his early career ( late 50s/early 60s ).

Guitars came in strong ( outside jazz/C&W ) with Sun Studios, but about the time Elvis joined the Army, it was Brill Building songs and piano. The Beatles then brought the guitar to prominence, but even then, almost as a stage prop more than an instrument - not to knock 'em as really good rhythm players but the solos were a bit rough. They caught flack for it, too.

One thing to consider - guitar players had to get better. Even for "stuff I'd played at 14" guys like Tommy Tedesco were ringers on everything recorded in LA until the bands got to where the members could play their own parts ( roughly at the time of Buffalo Springfield & The Byrds ). Same basic thing in England; Yardbirds/Zep and all that.

Horn players were already deeply established as serious players long before this, back to the 1930s.

A little nit-pick: I don't believe a saxophone qualifies as a "horn". The term "horn" usually refers to wind instruments where the player blows into it and vibrates their lips. These would be trumpets (very commonly also called "horns"), trombones, French horns, and tubas. A saxophone is a derivative of a clarinet, which is a reed instrument. The player blows into it, but the sound is produced by a vibrating reed which the player manipulates with their tongue.

Jazz and brass band musicians refer to all wind instruments as horns. It's a colloquial term, not a technical one. If we were to go with the technical definition, trumpets and trombones wouldn't be considered horns either, because they have cylindrical bores instead of conical bores.

the old joke about a classical and jazz player meeting:

Jazzer: "What do you play"

Classical: "Horn"

J: "What kind, sax, trumpet, bone?"

C: "There's only one instrument called "horn" you rube, and cor anglais doesn't qualify"

J: "Cor anglais??"

Through grade school and some college experience in band (alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone!) we called all the instruments horns. Even percussion mallets/sticks. It was just a formality of dealing with field orders during football/marching season, including "horns up."

That only took 50 years to figure out.

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