'The gypsy jazz guitar is sweet-sounding but very fiery, almost like a flamenco jazz guitar," says Anthony Leigh Adams, cowriter and director of Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar. On Thursday, September 7, this "theatrical concert" will debut at the Birch North Park Theatre. Featuring nearly 20 musicians, the chronological narrative will demonstrate guitar styles from 1500 B.C. (as imagined by the writers) to new compositions and predictions for the next development in each style.
Gypsy jazz was spawned by Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. "Reinhardt was an excellent player, but in a circus fire most of the fingers on his left hand were melted together, leaving only two fingers, or stumps, [with which] to play. It was only when he had that impediment that he started playing vertically [up and down the frets] instead of horizontally [across the fretboard]," says Adams. Gypsy jazz tends to include a lead guitar, violin, rhythm guitar (to supply a steady beat for the melody of the lead guitar), and, on occasion, an accordion, but no drums.
The classical genre denotes a style of music that originated in Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries from the work of composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. "The classical six-string guitar has nylon strings as opposed to steel strings," explains Adams. For Primal Twang, contemporary musician Andrew York will play a classical song followed by one of his own compositions in a new style known as "progressive classical."
"Andy tunes his guitar in alternate tunings, which is unheard of in classical style. His new thing is to play jazz harmonies and rhythms from other styles, like reggae, on a classical guitar," says Adams.
Adams insists that before the 1960s, guitar styles (like flamenco, which is "bright and percussive," country, and blues) were rarely mixed. "In the '60s, on one bill you'd have a jazz group, a rock group -- a diversity of the lineup that was not done before. But hippies mixed it all up. That started the ball rolling with the synthesis of styles."
Many styles are born of marriages between two other styles. Jazz is a combination of ragtime and blues. Bossa nova (think "The Girl from Ipanema") merges jazz with Brazil's samba. Musicians tend to take from their predecessors and add their own flair; several styles are even named after those virtuosos who made them popular. Chet Atkins, a country music guitarist, is one such example, who drew from other greats like Django Reinhardt and Les Paul to create his own sound.
"Chet learned to combine moving bass with melody, like a piano, playing melody and chords and moving bass at the same time," explains Adams. Contemporary guitarist Doyle Dykes will perform a classic Chet Atkins tune and play an original composition that "combines a classical guitar tremolo technique while keeping an independent moving baseline with this thumb and playing a melody in harmonics, which means every note sounds higher than it actually is," says Adams, adding, "To my knowledge, this has never been done by anybody in any style."
The Chet Atkins model of guitar, made by Gretsch, produces a "twangy" sound. "If you tried to do Chet on a solid body, it wouldn't work well. You need an electric hollow body to get the acoustic effect of finger picking," explains Adams.
Musicians continue to experiment. "Eric Johnson's music combines rock, country, new age, jazz, and blues. He'll play the classic delta blues song 'Crossroads' with the energy of rock -- instead of the original, played on an acoustic guitar with a bottleneck, he plays it on a Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall stack turned up to ten. It's very high volume and has the sexual energy of rock 'n' roll, even though it's the same chords and words as the original." Johnson has also combined Celtic melodies with jazz and rock lead structures.
John McLaughlin's band, Shakti, blends jazz with classical Indian music and employs a custom-made guitar with "sympathetic strings," which are the resonating strings often found on sitars.
"The '70s was progressive rock, and the guitar moved forward on an electronic level," says Adams. "All of the sudden, at the end of the '70s into the '80s, things started getting elemental, with the Cars and the Pretenders. New-age music became incredibly popular; the acoustic guitar was soothing and meditative. From the '80s into the '90s, people went wild with open tuning and made the guitar sound like a different instrument."
According to Adams, one popular genre now is newgrass. "Newgrass combines elements from other styles of music into the formerly very traditional bluegrass. The Dixie Chicks started out with traditional country-slash-bluegrass, but if you listen to their new album they're on tour for right now, it sounds like rock 'n' roll with a country flavor."
Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar
Thursday, September 7, through Sunday, September 10
7 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Birch North Park Theatre
2891 University Avenue (corner of University and 29th)
Cost: $29.75 to $49.75
Info: 619-239-8836 or www.primaltwang.com