Hello Troubadourians! Many years ago, I was at a Rod Stewart concert, and he opened the show with “Reason to Believe,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About it,” and “Handbags and Gladrags.” By the time he finished the third song I was in tears. The power of those songs… well, they got to me. Hard. And I started wondering “who is going to sing those songs when he’s gone…?” Fortunately, Sir Roderick Stewart is still with us and still singing all those songs that we love to hear him sing as well as an entire catalog of songs that we would have never expected a brash rocker like Rod would ever sing. But many musicians from that era are now gone. Some made the early exit that we could have expected from a rockstar. Some quietly retired, and others are still making music. But recently we have lost many heroes from that era. Jeff Beck and David Crosby being the most recent.
Jeff Beck continued to innovate and push guitar playing and instrumental music boundaries until the very end. Crosby, likewise, made beautiful music up until his passing. Both musicians maintained their artistic integrity and made it their mission to integrate and mentor younger musicians into their world. In doing so, they insured that there would be a continuation of their music and spirit with musicians who had first-hand experiences with these legends in addition to the vast catalog of their personal musical output. Not to mention all the musicians—past and present—whom they influenced as friends and contemporaries. And people like you and me…
The music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is the soundtrack for the youth of many people “of a certain age” and has proven to be timeless as it captures the essence of what could be called the Americana experience or that Laurel Canyon thing. It was an idealized and seemingly more innocent time, which was both reality and illusion. The Summer of Love and the Vietnam War shaped the society that birthed this music and whose lyrics were steeped in hope, relationships, and social unrest. Do we still remember…?
Any serious guitarist is in some way influenced by Jeff Beck. Whether it was the rocker era of Truth and Beck-Ola, the proto-fusion of Blow by Blow and Wired, or his otherworldly music from the 2000s, we all have some of Jeff’s playing that has seeped into what we do. I still remember the joy and adrenaline rush I felt the first time I ever played “Freeway Jam” with a full band who really knew the song. I could play “outside” and “inside” all at the same time. It was like my fingers were channeling something completely removed from anything else I’d ever played. Even to this day, the design and appearance of my current main guitar was heavily influenced by the Gibson Les Paul that Jeff played on Blow by Blow and appeared in the drawing on the album cover.
But back to the original thought… Who will sing these songs when the artist is gone? We are. We have to. Sure, there are lots of tribute bands that emulate legendary musicians, including those mentioned above. I’ve discussed tribute bands before, and there is certainly a place for them. Frankly, it takes a lot of work to put one of these bands together and keep it together with the sonic and visual integrity of the concept intact. I could neither put one together nor could I play in one. I’m not capable of the discipline required for “sticking to the script,” which is essential to deliver the proper show and perpetuate the illusion for the audience that they are seeing the real thing. Rather, for me, I am much better at interpreting classic songs and recrafting them to fit my own talents and limitations as well as those of the other musicians that I’m playing with. Some people can do note for note, and if you can, then do it! There is an audience for you to entertain. If you’re like me, you reimagine song in a way that allows you to experience and perform them authentically rather than trying to pretend that you are—or could be—the original artist. Covering classic songs has a rich and honored history. Any really great song in any genre has been covered by least a dozen different artists, not all of whom are in the original genre. Sometimes a genre shift can bring an entirely new audience to a song. Case in point: Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” couldn’t be more sonically different, yet the song holds up well whether played by a solo performer with an acoustic guitar or a rocker with a Stratocaster and a stack of Marshall amplifiers.
I’ve taken songs for a ride in both directions… rock songs transformed into bluegrass jams, acoustic laments morphed into power ballads, and practically everything in between. The key requirement for this process to occur is to begin with a great song, one that isn’t limited by genre or instrumentation. You’ll know right away if a song works. You’ll also discover your own limitations as a musician. Adapting the key, chords, and arrangement to fit what you’re attempting and still have the song be as recognizable and inviting as the original can be a huge challenge. But it’s worth it when you succeed in creating a version of the song that is uniquely yours and stands side by side with the original. Just to be clear, I’m talking about something that you put real work into, not just some half-assed version that you do because you were too lazy to learn the original version. The original is always where you begin even if you can’t perform it as is. Taking a great song and making it your own requires respecting the source material and knowing your own abilities well enough to keep what you can and build the rest with what you bring to it. Be creative and listen to what the song is telling you. It will guide you to where you both need to be.
And keep playing those classic songs because somebody has to… why not you? Pass it on…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)