Fingerstyle guitar dared itself to transform. To grow beyond its presumed roots and sprout beautiful, perhaps even unsightly – yet truth-telling – limbs. I found this thrilling and, for me personally, transformative in how I approached the solo guitar as a listener, fan, critic. This is the music I'd put on to unwind and open up, but increasingly, musicians gave challenge to that notion – not to sit idly as background, to merely be a vessel for a "cosmic" experience.
At the same time my wheels started turning – with emails written back and forth between editors and musicians to poke at a possible piece for NPR Music – Grayson Haver Currin went ahead and, just, published the story for the New York Times. This is the collective unconscious of music journalists, especially those with niche interests that intersect folk traditions and the avant-garde: We see movement and piece the puzzle together. I admire Grayson's writing and have had the joy of editing his work from time to time, but dang, I was crushed to see that story (executed with such care and craft) live somewhere else. (Still, though, I highly recommend… Grayson's got a knack for pulling humanity out of presumably rigid music scenes.)
But like a drone rattled in a deranged alternate tuning, this thought stirred still, as did this obstruction – or rather, instruction – from Sarah Louise: "How cool would it be to have a piece on guitar that didn’t have to center or even name him!" He Who Shall Not Be Named looms large over the prescribed history and technique — and I still love guitar music made in that style — but Sarah is right: No one owns fingerstyle guitar, where it's been or where it's going. It's a melange of Black blues, Indian ragas, old-time rags, ambient reflection, punk spit, free-jazz exploration, psychedelic vibes and electronic rhythms – its guitar heroes are as much Elizabeth Cotton, Joseph Spence and Robbie Basho as they are Eddie Van Halen, Chuck Brown and Alice Coltrane.
I made a BNDCMPR playlist of several guitar albums (and sonic play cousins) that gave me great joy in 2021, but three records irrevocably changed how I will hear this music from now on.
Daniel Bachman's Axacan is an audible reaction/retraction/reworking of the roots still inside him… a distance through dark noise and muck, untangling melodies far more sparse and alien than before. When everyone else patted themselves on the back about Protesting Racism By Putting Factoids On Instagram, Bachman not only reached deep into history, but examined how white supremacy runs through his own… the wordless music speaks an ancient and haunted wisdom. In a decade of phenomenal records, this is his masterwork.
Sarah Louise’s Earth Bow is earthly synthesis, formed and modulated from nature. You may ask yourself while listening, "Is that even a guitar?" And that’s sorta the point. When Sarah Louise initially put down her 12-string guitar, my heart sank – those early records flow like flowers down creeks. But setting aside an instrument associated with a patriarchal scene not only allowed her to explore the folkloric possibilities of samplers and synths, but also reclaim the feminist roots of the guitar. Earth Bow is her most ambitious and realized version of that search for the beyond. (By the way, Sarah did revisit the 12-string for a Bandcamp Friday exclusive called "We Found Our Joy in Connection" – now deleted – that radically reimagines her approach to the instrument.)
Yasmin Williams flies in the face of what we've seen in guitar music for decades. That's really exciting in and of itself, especially when I think back to the Takoma Park festival from some years back and just a sea of white dudes in their 40s and 50s. But more exciting to me is the way she communicates with the guitar, builds structures and techniques that serve her work. And in Urban Driftwood, there's a light-ness that I had been missing in this music.
In March, I started a long email chain with Daniel, Sarah and Yasmin to probe a reckoning of the solo guitar. Well, maybe that's too strong a word, but I can't overstate the power these records have had over my year. So, yeah, we reckoned over a couple months about the guitar as a springboard to composition, treating "music as living – not a static – artifact," American Primitive as an outdated (and, frankly, racist) term, and the new era to come. For ease of reading, I've edited the conversations into thematic sections.
Sarah Louise: Since guitar was the first instrument I composed for, it's become a lens for other instruments I play, especially synths and samplers at the moment (you can "fingerpick" anything, I swear!). And then, of course, digitally manipulating my guitar so that it is a foundational electronic instrument for me has been the other side of that coin.
Yasmin Williams: I don't really know why I play the guitar, to be honest. I didn't really grow up with it and no one plays it in my immediate family. I guess it gives me the most flexibility to express myself musically and there doesn't really seem to be a ceiling on what you can do with the guitar. Guitar also fits in with so many various genres of music, it's easy to experiment with, and sounds great with other instruments.
My personal goal with my music has changed quite a bit over the last year or so. I used to just play for myself without caring about what it means for me to even be playing this style of music. I didn't really think to focus on my race or musical upbringing, for example. I just wanted to establish myself as a good guitar player. Now I care and think about how I can have my music showcase where I'm from and the cool things that can happen when you mix various musical languages together. There aren't many people who play this style of guitar that can think about how to blend go-go or hip hop or West African music with folk guitar, for example. It helps that I now tend to think of myself as a composer rather than solely a guitarist. This is probably because I have a lot of various musical backgrounds now, from the rap and R&B I listened to as a youngin, to the rock, metal, ambient, and other stuff I listened to as a teen, to the classical music and counterpoint I studied in college. It's cool and interesting to think about how to blend some of these things to maybe create a new sound.
Daniel Bachman: Like Sarah and Yasmin, I too do not feel tied to just that one instrument and even think it's limiting in what the guitar can express at times. And you really can fingerpick anything! The guitar taught me how to arrange and compose, but music, sound and expression are much bigger than the guitar.
Daniel Bachman: I've always been interested in history first, ever since I was a weird little kid… that led me to old-time music, blues and traditional music, which led me to folklore studies. I always wanted to study this stuff in a university, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards this time around, so I've had to put a lot together for myself and with the help of those around me.
Growing up where and when I did (the literal birthplace of white supremacy and racial capitalism in America), I was mostly exposed to a white-centric world view and its colonial history. Even though I think we had a little more hip family than most in our area, the pro-Confederate propaganda and normalization of these systems were absolutely present then and still are now. This, I feel, really influenced the tone, attitude and spirit in which I composed and not always in a positive way. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the deeper I got into the history of this place, it was less wildflowers, rural vistas and romanticized bygone eras, but more genocide, unrelenting pain, and patriarchal white rage. Things that a minor or major chord just cannot say and why I've been using so much found sound in my music. This all might be super obvious to some people, but it's been a personal journey for me and one I suspect I will be on for the rest of my life.
Sarah Louise: I consider myself less of a composer and more of a connector. My practice is to connect with the land and produce music from the part of me that is in touch with nature. It's collaborative with our intelligent planet and ultimately unknowable through language. Music is pre-lingual: the body knows. I'm interested in creating new folk music, not in the sense of making a new set of old chestnuts, but to bring alive the idea that it is possible to listen to the earth in an embodied way and produce music from it. This is not a new idea – in fact it is ancient – but as some humans became more disconnected from the Earth it got forgotten. I think the reason I also like jazz so much, too, is because it treats the music as living – not a static – artifact. It combines the best of composition and spontaneous expression. My own grief surrounding climate change and my hope that there is a way back to connection with nature for anyone who wants it is what propels me.
As important as nature is to my music, it's important for me to bring my life today to this idea, meaning technology has a role. How can I take an instrument like guitar and make something rooted in this primal sense of connection while simultaneously using tools that are new? Putting my guitar through my sampler taught me more about folk music than maybe any practice other than being out in nature. As samples combined and evolved, it felt like I was seeing the evolution of the music. It was an organic process sped up and reminded me of how folk songs evolve and change form over time. So this digital tool was a true teacher for what it means to experience music as alive. Because my primary instrument is guitar, that's the origin of many of my sounds, but through this organic digital process, they transformed to the point where they don't necessarily evoke that instrument.
Sarah Louise: I'm glad that "American Primitive" is falling out of favor as a term, but I think there's still ongoing erasure of the music that it so heavily draws from, most notably blues. Changing language feels like an excellent first step and it feels important to ponder what comes next.
Daniel Bachman: I'm just excited about the new tones in which music, scholarship, creative expression etc., are taking these days. It really does feel like the beginning of a new era. I hope that through my art I can do a better job at representing it truthfully and in earnest, as well as being held accountable for anything my ancestors or myself have done to keep these power structures in place.
Yasmin Williams: I'm also glad "American Primitive" is falling out of favor. It's not something I identify with at all. It's interesting and ironic for me to be called an "American Primitive" artist anyway since the foundation of the genre is basically a white man appropriating Black music and labeling it with an offensive name for white audiences.
It's always funny when someone asks me if I'm influenced by [He Who Shall Not Be Named] and I tell them I didn't know who he was until a couple years ago and that I'm more influenced by Earth, Wind and Fire. It's as though people cannot associate this style of guitar playing with Black genres of music even though the foundation of "American Primitive" music is... Black music. I'm not sure what's wrong with just calling the genre fingerstyle or fingerpicking or letting artists define it for themselves.
I definitely agree with Daniel saying that this seems like a new age. I've never really listened to a lot of guitar music because I simply didn't care for it. I didn't find acoustic guitar-centric music to be interesting most of the time, so I was really in my own head when I first started teaching myself how to play, 11 or so years ago. However, recently I've been listening to a lot more guitar music; people are really starting to find their own voices and not get sucked into following traditional "guitar canon" works, whether that's the "American Primitive" style or more technical modern fingerstyle playing or whatever. Like what Sarah is doing with her music now is really great and refreshing, as is Daniel's music. I hope to follow their example with connecting my music to both nature and my own personal life journey more.