Today at Folk Alliance, I spent the morning in the audience listening to James Burton talk about music, guitar playing and his career playing guitar behind Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and a hundred others.
James was the first one who replaced his first four guitar strings with banjo strings and then used his fourth string as a fifth string and his fifth string as a sixth string. He invented the unwound third string that the Beatles were so thrilled to discover. He did it before there were gauges of strings. The string manufacturers got the idea from him. He did it to make playing lead guitar easier. Pretty bold stuff.
He wrote Suzy Q when he was 16.
So you get the idea. He is a guitar pioneer and well respected by everyone in the music industry. He also happens to be an extraordinary guitar player.
After the break, we went into a music hall and heard him play some guitar. He was joined on the stage by Albert Lee (www.albertlee.co.uk) , Luke Doucet (www.lukedoucet.com) , and several other truly remarkable guitar players. Actually too many to make it easy to hear what each was individually doing, though they all did themselves proud.
And in that arena, the pros once again shone like diamonds. Much more than the other players, Albert and James listened to what was going down and then they added when they thought that they could contribute. They played solos that had architecture, momentum, destination and arrival. Everyone played well, but you could see and hear the difference. They got out of the way when the music called for that.
I was hoping that all the players would mix themselves and take it down to allow the soloist to shine, but I guess in the excitement of playing with Burton, they got carried away. They all played great solos, but for me, Burton was simply the most satisfying. I liked his choices and his development of solos, though I’ve never played lead guitar as well as any of those who were up there.
But that listening thing was a real lesson. The two seasoned pros paid attention to the overall sound and what the other musicians were doing and it was more like a conversation from them. For the young turks it was more everyone playing at once, tho they solo’d one at a time.
Please keep in mind when you are sharing the stage and the arrangement, specifically if it is a “head” arrangement, you have to listen as it really is a conversation. Nothing gets communicated if everyone speaks at once, so you have to listen and then respond.
Burton gave a master class just by doing what he does naturally. Humbling stuff. Check him out at www.jamesburtonmusic.com and his yearly festival can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org
You owe it to yourself to check him out.