Monday, 23 October 2006
I am reading and much enjoying the book Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brookes. The text alternates chapters about the custom guitar that Brookes is having made with chapters that describe the history of the guitar, with a heavy emphasis on its role in the U.S. For example, I was only vaguely aware of how popular Hawaiian guitar was in the 20s and 30s all through the US, and I did not know at all that the slide guitar, that mainstay of the blues, was invented by the Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku.
At one point, Brookes talks to Rich Kirby, a guitarist, DJ, record producer, and folklorist of traditional music, who had this surprising (to me) observation to make:
People complained that the guitar ruined old-time music because it forced a chordal structure on it that it didn't have. In Letcher County in the 1920s, virtually every household had a banjo. And to a lesser extent the fiddle. Not many pianos except in the Blue Ridge. A lot of the traditional music was in either the unaccompanied voice or [it used] musical instruments that had no definite pitches built in -- in other words, no fretted instruments, and no keyboard instruments. Many of the banjos and, of course, all of the fiddles were fretless. There was no standard tuning for the banjo, and the standard tuning for the fiddle was only one of many tunings that were, and to some extent still are, used.
So people had a wide-ranging, anarchistic sense of pitch, and many of the intonations used were clearly not of the standard twelve tones that you can find on a piano. I can remember listening to my grandmother's music, and she would sometimes hit what sounded like a wrong note, but when she would hit it in exactly the same place twelve verses in a row you would realize that it was not an accident, it was just a different scale.
These days, we tend to think of music in terms of white notes and black notes, tones and semitones, three-chord rock and roll songs. When I look at the guitar fingerboard I see the rectangles formed by strings and frets being like pigeonholes: everything must fit in here somewhere.
This view is urban and modern. It doesn't take into account the fact that the human voice doesn't work in neat incremental steps. Nor did old-time fiddlers, who hit pitches that sound weird and wrong to modern ears because they landed somewhere in between an E, say, and an E flat. The guitar erased those subtle differences -- as used in rural white music in America, at least.