Saturday, 24 March 2012

A two-fingered salute to Merle Travis – the guitar-pickin’ giant who made one guitar sound like a band

Every now and then I pull out the guitar tablature version of “Blue Smoke” from a dusty pile of guitar classics that have defeated me, and give it one more shot on my Taylor acoustic. And then stick it back in the pile, defeated as usual.

Before I bought an electric guitar eighteen years ago, I used to play “Mystery Train” on an acoustic using my thumb and first two fingers. Worked surprisingly well, actually. The reason it works is that Elvis’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, is Travis-picking. Whenever you listen to Chet Atkins, you’re listening to a variant of Travis-picking (you can see him playing John D. Loudermilk's haunting "Windy and Warm" here). Paul Simon’s another fan of the style – “The Boxer” is a classic example. Lots of folkies followed suit – "Angie", the 1960s folk instrumental that every guitarist had to be able to play back then, employs yet another take on the basic Travis-picking style (I play a slightly simpler version of this number).

The principle is simple enough: the thumb picks out a steady rhythm on the bass strings – usually alternating between the E and D strings, to give it a nice bouncy feel, while the index finger (plus one or two others, according to taste) picks out a melody on the high strings. The effect is to make one guitar sound like (at least) two. When most of us hear Travis-picking for the first time, the sound is so rich, so busy, we naturally assume that we’re listening to several guitarists playing simultaneously.

Part of the reason we tend not to notice the paucity of musicians on Elvis’s early Sun tracks is that Bill Black’s double bass tends to act as the bass and drum (with the slap-back echo standing in for the ride cymbal), while Scotty Moore’s ES 295 Gibson acts as electric bass and lead guitar: if Moore had been playing one string at a time or even double-stopping, the recording might have sounded thin, and certainly less rhythmic – instead, it sounds as if there’s at least five country boys whoopin’ it up in the studio (including Elvis on rhythm guitar).

Merle Travis was an unlikely musical hero. A troubled, pudgy, violent drunk beset by myriad insecurities, his greatest period of chart success came in the late 1940s with a bunch of corny self-penned country tunes on which his  guitar playing was barely noticeable, while his rather ordinary voice was foregrounded (crazy!). His star faded, only to flare back into life when Tennessee Ernie Ford did a version of Travis’s “Sixteen Tons” to create one of the most distinctive and most successful records of the era – it topped the US Billboard chart for ten weeks late in 1955.

The song (whose authorship is disputed) had made its first appearance back in 1946 on Folk Songs from The Hills, a box-set of 78s on which Travis – who hailed from the coal-mining region of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky - performed solo versions of traditional folk songs such as “John Henry”, “Nine Pound Hammer” and “I Am a Pilgrim”, plus a few of his own compositions (“Dark as a Dungeon” became a folkie standard in the 1960s). Despite the toe-curlingly folksy spoken introductions, the album was a masterpiece: the acoustic guitar-playing, in particular, is a revelation – clear, clean, rhythmically muscular and melodic: quintessential Travis-picking from the man himself. 

I only discovered Merle Travis after Chet Atkins, in a guitar magazine interview,  talked about the enormous influence the picker had had on his own playing style – he said hearing Travis for the first time on radio as a kid in 1939 convinced him that he had to become a guitar player.  So I tracked down a reissued vinyl copy of that 1946 album (retitled Back Home) and realised that what I really wanted to do on a guitar was Travis-pick (albeit badly). The album itself sold poorly when first released – but it has become a cult classic over the years, and is probably what Travis is now best remembered for (apart, perhaps, from an appearance playing guitar and singing "Re-enlistment Blues" in From Here to Eternity.

Of course, Travis didn’t invent his guitar style from scratch – many blues, folk and country players had treated their thumb and index fingers like the two hands of a boogie-woogie piano player, one playing bass, the other melody (including Ike Everly, father of The Everly Brothers, and Mose Rager - both of whom were also from from Muhlenberg County) – but he distilled the style and took it to new levels of sophistication and inventiveness.  

I’ll leave you with two final examples of Travis's art. First, he's in a playful mood with 1947’s “Merle Boogie Woogie” which proves definitively (a) that Travis could flatpick (i.e. play on one string at a time) when he chose to, and (b) that Les Paul wasn’t the only guitarist experimenting with recording tricks at the time. 

And I'll end with "Cannonball Rag", where you'll see how his basic style broke all the guitar-playing rules - the palm of his left hand should be arched well away from the guitar neck, with only the thumb in contact with the back of it: but the thumb is hooked round the front so it can fret the bass notes (this is likely to leave first-timers with a dirty great blister):


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