Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sliding on the Strings

What is it about a lap acoustic guitars, whether it's a National, a Weissenborn, or just an old acoustic with raised strings? For me, the type of music doesn't matter all that much. It can be blues, Hawaiian, jazz or country music. Now it seems, with the release of Paris, Plages d'Hawaii 1930, I guess I'd also have to include French chansons. But then I'll listen to anything that entails an acoustic guitar sound played with a steel bar. Okay, so I admit, it’s a specialised taste. But there is also something universal about acoustic lap guitar and a slide that, when put together, evokes the human voice, as well as horns, whether saxophones, trumpets or trombones. It’s also a supremely melodic instrument, as opposed to a harmonically oriented nature of a standard six-string guitar. Though I’d played the standard guitar for years, I could never really get the sound I wanted from it. But from the moment I began playing my Weissenborn (made by Marc Silber in Berkeley CA), I knew that was the sound I'd been after. Within a couple years I'd traded my Gibson 335, which had been sitting in its case for years, for a square neck National Tricone.

I think my love of acoustic lap guitar began from the moment I heard, at age seventeen, Bernie Shields play acoustic lap guitar in the great but unsung Six and Seven Eighths String Band. A parlour group from New Orleans, it featured, as well as Shields, the great Dr Souchon on standard guitar and William Kleppinger on mandolin. Never heard of Six and Seven Eighths? That's hardly surprising. Though they'd been playing since sometime around 1915. However their only record that I know about was the 1956 Folkways release. Shields was unique in that he could make his lap guitar sound like any number of instruments. It could well be that R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Seranaders based themselves on Six and Seven Eighths. If not, they should have done so. You can still get a copy of the Six and Seven Eights record from Smithsonian-Folkways. Their version of Who’s Sorry Now sounds as good now as it did all those years ago.

Some years later, my interest in lap guitar was revived when I heard my old banjo teacher David Lindley play Weissenborn guitar on one of his records. These days I listen not only to Lindley, but phenomenal old Hawaiian players like King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, the Kalama Brothers, etc.. And, unlike many people, I prefer the National guitars to dobros, though there are moments when I wish I could produce the tight sound that you can only get from a dobro. Yet dobros don’t seem to have the flexibility of Nationals, nor the organic wood-based sound of Weissenborns. On the other hand, Jerry Douglas playing a Weissenborn is a joy to behold.

If I were to make a list of recommended lap guitar artists, it would include the following players:
King Bennie Nawahi
Black Ace
Casey Bill Weldon
Kelly Joe Phelps (the first three CDs)
Sol Hoopii
David Lindley
The Henrys
Kalama’s Quartet
Chris Darrow’s Slide on In

Hawaiians in Hollywood, Andy Iona, 1934-36
Vintage Hawaiian Stell Guitar Masters, 1928-34 (Rounder, put together by Bob Brozman)
Sliding on the Frets (Yazoo, put together by Robert Armstrong)
From Honolulu to Hollywood (Old Masters)
Hotter in Hawaii (a fantastic four CD set on JSP)
Paris, Plages d’Hawaii (Guitarres Hawaiiennes 1930, Paris Jazz Corner, compiled by Dominic Cravic and Cyril LeFebvre from R. Crumb’s Les Primitifs du Furtur a la Plage. An eye-opening and wide ranging collection)

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