Back To The Basics

It was the great classical guitar master, Benjamin Verdery who said (paraphrasing), "Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics of playing the guitar." I have been ruminating over this comment ever since I heard it last year during a master class at St. Thomas University. Recently, it has been sounding a particularly resonant chord within. Of course, at the time, Ben was referring to technical aspects of playing the guitar, i.e. slurs, scales, arpeggios exercises, you know, guitar heads, the basic technical work that we all go through to become proficient players. Even when you think you have things under control, mastered maybe, there is always something to be learned and refined by revisiting the fundamentals. This is applicable to technical as well as metaphysical aspects of the playing the guitar. For this article, I am focusing on the metaphysical. Technique will be addressed at a later time.

Recently, as a finger-style guitarist, I have been reverting back to the basics of my playing by burying myself deep into some of the roots music that forms the relatively short, yet rich, history of American finger-style guitar. I think it is important to do this, to become aware of the history of what you do, to further deepen your relationship with the music you play and ultimately produce. I guess it is, essentially, looking back to move forward.

Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Joseph Spence, are the artists that have been speaking to me as of late. Blake's (ragtime) hey day was in the late '20s to early '30s. Fuller (blues/ragtime) was active in the late '20s to the '40s. And Spence (gospel/Bahamian songs) was 'discovered' in the late '50s and remained an active player until he died in 1984. I always find myself circling back to these players when I need to ground myself musically, when I feel things are spinning way out beyond the stratosphere and everything sounds like trash. It happens. These dudes are another form of gravity.

Blake, Fuller, and Spence exhibit three common qualities that all players should hear, listen to, and absorb (of course there are more but these are the ones that are most striking at the moment). You don't need to play their pieces, or explore their respective genres of music, or even like them for that matter, but there are some true bedrock, foundational principles that endure and will help anyone further their abilities. All three are open to interpretation in the strict sense, but when you listen, you'll know what I mean:

1. A profound sense of rhythm (groove)
2. A profound sense of emotional expressiveness (soul)
3. A profound sense of freedom (sense of humor and spontaneity)

All of these qualities are adaptable to any kind of music that you play. It is so easy to get bogged down by the 'what' and the 'how' and forget the 'way'. These three giants (and many others of their time and beyond) were connected in such a 'way' that is infectious. People smiled when they heard them, hell, people danced! Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics.

Ben Woolman is hailed as one of the Midwest's leading finger-style guitarists. His music can be heard around the world on cable, Internet, and terrestrial radio outlets in over 50 countries, spanning 6 continents, and among programming for Minnesota and National Public Radio. He has been a guest columnist for Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine and Guitar Teacher Magazine, contributed music to various film soundtracks, and has 10 recordings, solo and compilations, credited to date.

Mr. Woolman holds a BFA in Guitar Performance, with honors, from the University of Wisconsin/Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Cooperative Guitar Program, Milwaukee, WI.

Ben is currently performing in support of his latest finger-style CD entitled, "Many Moods".

Ben Woolman

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