No. 3: Weird Fingerstyle Guitar

On March 9, 2013 by Prester John

I didn’t think this was going to be Weird Guitar Lesson No. 3, but as I got into it I felt (hoped) I’d provided enough information in the texts to instruct those interested in “weird guitar.” This is me, Shawn Persinger is Prester John, performing the song “Gray Green Yellow.” Below you will find the sheet music and tablature, a basic musical analysis of the piece, and a “Modern/Primitive Guitar Primer.” Thanks for watching.

This is a piece I wrote in 2003 while being hosted at the Fundacion Valparaiso residency in Almeria, Spain. You can find it on my solo CD The Art of Modern/Primitive Guitar.

GGY 201

For what it is worth I like to think of my fingerstyle guitar playing is a mix of John Fahey, Larry Coryell, Frank Zappa, and Anton Webern. I call this style “Modern/Primitive Guitar.” Below the analysis you will find the liner notes from the CD The Art of Modern/Primitive Guitar which are basically a primer regarding the essential characteristics of the style.

This analysis is a little theory heavy. If you get it, great. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. One of the reason I’m sharing this is to show that there is an overall, cohesive architecture and theme to the piece.

Gray Green Yellow: Analysis 

    1. The theme is thirds, major and minor. And finding a way to use all 12 notes of the chromatic scale without sounding atonal.
    2. Opening: E chord with rasgueado, to a whole tone phrase (B A G F) which implies E7#9 and E7b9.
    3. Followed by a diminished phrase (D D# F#) which implies E Phrygian dominant.
    4. This sets up the Db – Bb, minor third theme, which comes from out of nowhere.
    5. So far we have the pitches E F F# G A Bb B D D# (also G# if you count the E chord).
    6. The main theme of thirds begins: C – E to B – Eb (bass goes down to C#,  giving us all 12 notes). I like the open D string to the fretted D.
    7. A “John Fahey Roll,” with “Hendrix chord” shape. (In this Fahey video he does one of his signature rolls at 0:30).
    8. Same Bb on two different strings.
    9. Three octaves of BOctave displacement ideas.
    10. Another third, F# – A#, in two octaves. With emphasis on dynamics.
    11. More thirds.
    12. Another whole tone idea in the harmony and melody, emphasis on thirds.
    13. Repeated main theme C – E to B – Eb.
    14. Serious octave displacement idea to vary the Bb to Bb to D idea found in measure four.
    15. End with the thirds F# – A#, in two octaves.

A Modern/Primitive Guitar Primer

Disclaimer: I would be the first to admit that these notes are a little stiff and a bit longwinded (if you’ve ever been to one of my performance you know I can be loquacious but never uptight) but I really wanted to establish what I feel Modern/Primitive Guitar is all about. That said, this is no manifesto but rather a snapshot of a particular time and personal interest.

1. What is Modern/Primitive Guitar?

A world of content musical paradoxes:

· Dark yet playful

· Sophisticated yet naïve

· Technically demanding yet sloppy

· Haphazard yet exact

Modern/Primitive Guitar is a style of guitar music that is the aural equivalent of the visual Modern/Primitive art form explored and developed by such painters as: Jean DuBuffet, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, William Henry Johnson, Paul Klee, Karl Appel and Jean Michel Basquiat. All of these artists were highly skilled yet worked with a more visceral approach, technique and vision. The same attitude and ideas are found in the Modern/Primitive Guitar style.

Sonically, M/P Guitar combines the radical musical styles of avant-garde musicians such as Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith and John Zorn with the more traditional leanings of guitarists such as Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges and Larry Coryell. The vocabulary and form found in the music of such “concert works” composers as Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazolla and Igor Stravinsky also play a role in the M/P sound.

Modern/Primitive Guitar derives its name from both the Modern/Primitive visual arts (also known as Outsider Art and L’Art Brute) and as an evolution of the American Primitive Guitar sound developed by musician John Fahey. 
For more information on Modern/Primitive Art (including viewing actual paintings) I suggest the obvious reference, the internet. Search for M/P Art and/or any of the artists listed above.

2. What are the key elements of Modern/Primitive Guitar?

As the name implies, a major element of the Modern/Primitive Guitar style is contradiction. Mixing genres and themes that seem radically dissimilar yet coexist happily by building off each other’s differences. Examples of this are the musical paradoxes mentioned at the beginning of this introduction. Other characteristics that are not necessarily contradictory, and certainly are not exclusive to any one genre, include:

· Dissonance

· Nontraditional song structure

· Brevity

· Rhythmic invention

· Repetition

· Large Interval Leaps (Octave Displacement)

· Animated

· Angular Melodies

· Odd Meters

· Aggressiveness

· Abrupt changes in tempo, key or meter

· Sound effects using extended technique, i.e.:

1. Using the guitar body as a percussive instrument.

2. Playing notes behind the nut.

3. Bending the headstock and guitar neck.

4. Preparing the guitar with items such as slip rings, pencils and foam rubber.

5. Scraping the strings in a coarse manner.

And several other unusual musical techniques.

Ultimately there are no hard and fast rules for Modern/Primitive Guitar, only elements of style. I am not interested in limiting myself (or anyone else) to only these components. Nevertheless, these are the main ingredients that create the foundation for the M/P Guitar sound. 

Interestingly enough when different, specific, audiences are presented with a workshop on M/P Guitar what is “modern” and what is “primitive” can have altered meaning. What is new and unusual in one genre of music is often viewed as standard repertoire in another and vice versa. When giving a talk and demonstration at an academic based composers conference in Washington D.C. I found that audience members thought the idea of extended technique to be conventional in the world of “concert” music. Whereas in the world of the mainstream music listener extended technique is often a new and eye opening concept. By contrast what most 20th century composers consider to be standard “modern” musical vocabulary i.e.: the use of dissonance and pantonatlity (or atonality as it is more commonly known) and extreme rhythmic syncopation, is still very foreign, shocking and “primitive” sounding to commercial audiences. It is the unification of these two distinct worlds of music I am interested in.

3. Who plays/composes Modern/Primitive Guitar?

As far as I know, I am the only musician/composer to have used this term to distinguish a style of music. But I would NOT dare to claim I am the only person playing the guitar in this manner. There are far too many guitarist on the planet for such a statement to be valid. In my search I have found other guitarists who have hinted towards similar leanings but, to my knowledge, have not produced an extended body of work or given it a classification. Composers I consider influences of this genre include: Janet Feder, Marc Ribot and Don Van Vliet, as well as all of the aforementioned artists.

I should mention that the Cuneiform Records Compilation CD: “156 Strings” (which includes one track by Shawn Persinger is Prester John) features several guitarist working in a similar style, though most with strictly avant-garde and experimental slants. There are many excellent performances on this CD. 

If anyone reading this knows of other guitarists or composers working in a similar style I would love to learn about them, I have no interest in flag planting.


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