Be the Revolutionary

It is a rare and valuable thing when you discover something that changed the course of music history.

I grew up in the grunge and nu-metal atmosphere of the California Bay Area. That meant that if you wanted to be counter-culture without really being outside mainstream culture (i.e. if you wanted to be ornery without being punk), then you listened to what we called “alternative” music. As such, it was different, but nothing especially revolutionary. Therefore, this entry should be taken with a grain of salt, as I’m not claiming any sort of expertise on the subject, but I’m going to give you a little introduction to a man called Davey Graham.

Ever wanted to know who originated the DADGBD tuning? That was this guy. See, he was pretty into Middle Eastern music in addition to the inspiration he already drew from British folk and American Jazz, and wanted to figure out some way to blend it all together. Changing the tuning, altering the instrument itself, was his way of doing it. At the time, rising at the same time as the Beatles and a predecessor of the revolution that Jimi Hendrix would bring, when everybody who was great at guitar was largely reproducing the traditional arrangements in different ways, his creation was revolutionary. That in itself, would have been enough to land him a notable spot in guitar history.

What was truly impressive, however, was not merely the innovation that he brought to tunings, but the way he fundamentally altered the way people thought about what you could accomplish with a guitar. Famous for his improvisation as well as his reinterpretation of traditional and contemporary songs, he often played two or more distinct musical parts at a time. An envious skill to say the least. Any fingerstyle acoustic guitarist, which I have become in no small part because of him, will easily recognize his skill and contributions in the form of his song “Angi,” which everyone has covered to death, not least of which was Bert Jansch, as well as various other arrangements. Hell, even Jimmy Paige talks about Graham as a substantial inspiration, so Davey’s influence is not limited to the British folk rock scene.

However, despite his substantial and undeniable ability to play jazz and folk with the best of them, he truly shone in the areas which were completely new ground. As mentioned earlier, I have never seen anyone seamlessly connect such supposedly disparate areas of music as Irish traditional folk and Middle Eastern, but that can easily be seen in his arrangement of “She Moved Through the Fair” . I’ll let that speak for itself.

In a song that I’ve discovered recently called “The Fakir,” Graham starts off with a very sitar-influenced melody, which begins with backing by hand drums and hand cymbals, easily placeable to even the casual listen as being traditionally Middle Eastern music. That soon transfers into a more jazzy backing beat, while Graham maintains the sitar-like treble riff. Then he gets absolutely insane and maintains the sitar riff while playing a full jazz bass solo. I never thought I’d hear the day, you know?

I could go on about all the different songs which showcase his unique skill, but suffice it to say that his playing itself changed the way people thought about the guitar and music. It is truly a rare ability to be able to draw out the common themes that connect all of us through our music, and Davey bears it with .

If you want to find out more, you can check out this piece written by John Renbourn, another fantastic contemporary English acoustic guitarist, part of the band Pentangle alongside Bert Jansch. Otherwise, it’s difficult to find much information on him, but I highly recommend seeking out his music, if for no other reason than to hear something that changed so much about music.

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One Response to “Be the Revolutionary”

  1. informative. well written. keep it coming.

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