Steel of Destiny

Music to my earsOne aspect of guitar playing that I have not really gotten too deeply into is slide and steel-string guitar. I am quite a fan of many players who have shown their potential through the style. Steel string is such an interesting mix of American musical influences. Southern Blues, Southwestern rock and Country, and obviously some Appalachia for good measure. Or maybe it’s the other way around, where those genres were influenced by steel string playing.

The first musician that comes to my mind is John Fahey, the late steel-string master who actually grew up nearby in the Takoma Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. He died in 2001 and I didn’t have the fortune of seeing him live (though I did see Leo Kottke around that time, when he was hosted by the Smithsonian Institute). His official website has a lot of interesting information surrounding his life and recordings, including his more well known ones like The Dance of Death (and Other Plantation Favorites).

John Fahey played in plenty of fun, crazy tunings and had a pretty interesting sense of humor in his work. My friends have mentioned he’s usually grouped in together with fellow DC-local crossover guitarists Robbie Basho and the aforementioned Leo Kottke. All three have made original efforts to further the dynamics and tradition of the steel-string guitar.

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DT holdin' it downAnother guitarist, whom in recent years has really shown himself to be talented with the slide, is Derek Trucks. He’s been around for ten years already, even though he’s still in his twenties. I remember seeing stuff about him in guitar magazines when I was a kid, but I didn’t actually hear him until pretty recently. I mean, in general, even back then I figured most guitar-mag guys were crap!

There is a pretty good video of him playing steel-string guitar with Warren Haynes. Warren Haynes is the singer/guitarist for the great southern-rock power-trio, Gov’t Mule. It’s likely Haynes and Trucks met through their mutual affiliation touring with the Allman Brothers Band, which has a pretty well-known rotating line-up of famous blues musicians. Gov’t Mule itself started as an offshoot of some of the new additions to the Allman Brothers Band. One of the founding members of Gov’t Mule, who has since passed away, was actually a fellow named Allen Woody. Yeah, I thought that was wild. If Woody Allen isn’t aware of these guys, he ought to be ashamed of himself.

Here’s another laid-back video with Derek Trucks, where using the slide, he demonstrates some raga-like techniques taken from Indian classical music (Ali Akbar Khan, specifically!). Pretty cool, accessible stuff. I was always a fan of Shawn Lane’s Indian fusion, but I never heard him implement the slide.

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MLF - Chapter 11One other name worth mentioning on the subject, is Michael Lee Firkins. From hearing his playing, you’d think you were hearing some completely modern, original spin on slide-guitar, but Firkins actually emulates the slide by using his whammy bar. The sound is completely distinct and beautiful.

Firkins actually became somewhat well-known as a cross-over “shredder” — someone who played metal-fusion guitar but gradually moved into a bluesy direction. I believe some of his albums were released on the infamous Shrapnel records label and as a friend of Jason Becker, he recorded the electric guitar parts in the well-known orchestral Becker opus, “End of the Beginning”.

In recent years, Firkins has developed a really nice hybrid style with a distinct tone that I recognize immediately. And he’s had a really versatile career. Say whatever you want about shred — the guys who start in shred and branch out into other styles (Tony Macalpine, Chris Poland, Greg Howe) always have incredible melodic dynamics, physical control and ability, and versatility. Not that other folks don’t have the same, but there are not that many other branches of electric guitar playing that emphasize such fundamental chops!

Check out a couple of MLF songs on Youtube (sorry, but it’s better than posting 1-2 minute mp3 samples!):

Michael Lee Firkins – 24 Grand Avenue — absolutely gorgeous harmonizing here!
MLF – Rain in the Tunnel — a nice variety of his rock and “twang” playing is showcased.

Shred and metal folks will do well to start with Firkins’ early albums, but he has some straight blues and blue-grassy-fusion albums later down the line. Dig it!

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~ by chaosrexmachinae on January 21, 2009.

3 Responses to “Steel of Destiny”

  1. Hey Simon. It’s anna from Australia. Slowly trawling my way through the text. New to blogs, you may be my first. I bought a banjitar last week, I’ve written three songs, it’s well-resonated. This is to join my 12 string pedal steel, 6 string lapsteel and 4 other more conventional guitars. I’ve been playing for 12 1/2 years but have no idea what I am doing! OK, back to reading for me. Where’s the scratchings on black metal?

  2. Hey Anna – great to hear from you! I’m pleased to see you know a thing or two about steel string guitars. The majority of my posts have little to do with acoustic/folk music, but I like to write about it from time to time.

    I’m glad you provided a link to your label, since I totally forgot what it was called. I’ll drop you an email and point you to some good resources on black metal and the other stuff we were talking about.

  3. man I seriously adore everything about John Fahey. The man’s a genius, his music is revelatory, and his personality is hilarious. His autobiography (of sorts) is called “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life”. He wasn’t kidding either, dude lived hard. Robbie Basho is great too. I can lend you the album I have, you might like him seeing as you’re into the whole Shawn Lane-esque western-guitar-virtuoso-adopts-eastern-music kinda thing. I never liked Leo Kottke too much, his music always seemed too soft and polite to me and it doesn’t help that he’s the token folk guitar virtuoso of the jam band set. However, this video comes close to making me turn around on him

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