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10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Duane Allman

April 12, 2007
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AFTER ACQUIRING AND EVENTUALLY WEARING OUT HIS FIRST MOTORCYCLE, YOUNG DUANE ALLMAN BECAME INFATUATED WITH HIS YOUNGER BROTHER GREGG’S LATEST ACQUISITION—a Silvertone acoustic guitar that would soon become a source of incessant squabbling between the two siblings. The situation wasn’t resolved until Duane traded a bag of bike parts for his own ax. After graduating to electric and getting some pointers from both his brother and local guitar whiz Jim Shepley (who introduced him to the music of Jimmy Reed and B.B. King), Duane Allman became a voracious woodshedder. His intense dedication bred a fiery, individualistic style and eventually led to the formation of the Escorts, the House Rockers, the Allman Joys, the Hour Glass, and ultimately the Allman Brothers Band, which single-handedly introduced the world to a brand-new Southern-tinged progressive blues-rock sound.

The Allmans’ powerhouse combination of tight ensemble arrangements, soulful vocals (courtesy of Gregg) and explosive improvisations for two guitars, Hammond organ, bass, and twin drum kits was immortalized on four classic albums—The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, Live at Fillmore East, and Eat a Peach (plus the Dreams box set and a slew of live material released between 1989 and 2003). Along the way, Allman wrote the book on electric bottleneck guitar and was invited to guest on numerous high-profile recordings, most notably alongside Eric Clapton on Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Tragically, on October 29, 1971, Allman, at the peak of his career, was killed in a motorcycle accident. In the spirit of his epitaph and in celebration of one of the most powerful guitar styles the world has ever known, this lesson will show you how to cop some of Duane’s mojo. First, you gotta...

 

1


Grow Roots and Branches

Duane Allman’s road to glory was paved with equal parts inspiration and perspiration. Fiercely dedicated to his craft from the start, Allman got inside the heads of his musical influences by analyzing their recordings. Mike Johnstone, a roomie at the military academy they both attended, recalls Duane playing along with a B.B. King album barefooted, stopping and holding the record with his toe while he learned a lick, letting the record go until he got to the next lick, then going through both sides of the record and repeating the entire process for hours at a time. Friend and eventual manager Bill McEuen later described Allman as “totally glued and tuned in to those licks. He could hear something and in a half-hour have it down. When Duane played guitar he was part of the song .… He was visually interpreting his music, like John Lee Hooker or Jimi Hendrix.” Allman’s myriad influences soon expanded to include Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Slim Harpo, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Hank Garland, Chet Atkins, Kenny Burrell, Chuck Berry, the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane—a wide and strikingly diverse tent.

 

2


Get Some Rods & Reels

Unfortunately, it’d cost a not-so-small fortune to reassemble Allman’s lineage of vintage axes today. His first electric was a cherry-red 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior, but Allman soon moved on to a Fender Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck, a 1957 Gibson Les Paul gold-top, a circa-1961 Gibson Les Paul/SG (used for slide), a dot-neck sunburst Gibson ES-335 (dated between 1958 and 1962), and, ultimately, a tobacco sunburst Gibson Les Paul of indeterminate origin acquired in June of 1971. (Though one of his earliest electric guitars was a heavily modified ’56 or ’57 Stratocaster, Allman apparently never modded any of his own gear.) His favorite acoustic was a pre-war Gibson L-00, and for session work, Allman rendered his magic on a three-tone sunburst 1961 Stratocaster.

 

3


Stock That Tackle Box

Allman started out with a Vox Super Beatle amp containing six ten-inch speakers and two horns, then switched to a Fender Twin Reverb. In the Allmans, Duane used a pair of Marshall 50-watt heads driving two Marshall 4x12 cabs loaded with JBL D-120F speakers. (He would also employ a Vega PA system on some gigs.) For sessions, though, Allman still preferred a Twin Reverb with JBLs. He also had a Maestro Echoplex early on, and later created a run on Coricidin bottles by making them his slides of choice.

 

4


Lust For Life

Whether on stage, in the studio, or just fishin’, Duane Allman was a happy guy who lived life to the fullest. His self-penned tombstone epitaph best reveals his creed: “I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it, and offer it to everyone who will take it ... seek knowledge from those wiser ... and teach those who wish to learn from me.” Always willing to help out a friend in need, Allman’s musical collaborations often extended far beyond the call of duty. Case in point: When Eric Clapton was stuck for an intro during the historic Layla sessions that marked a high point in Duane’s career, Allman adjourned to another room and returned shortly thereafter with a gift for his friend—the title song’s signature opening riff. Those seven notes would help secure Allman a permanent place in rock history. (His epic slide part on the song didn’t hurt either!)

 

5


Sharpen Your Claws

Though Allman had already rocked hard with the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass, he brought an instinctive and soulful R&B sensibility to the studio, honing his skills as a session cat tracking for Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Delaney and Bonnie, Ronnie Hawkins, Clarence Carter, John Hammond, Boz Scaggs, Herbie Mann, and the others documented on 1972’s Duane Allman: An Anthology Volumes 1 & 2. Allman’s raw talent and down-home Southern demeanor kept him in demand throughout his career. To totally understand where the ’dog was coming from, you’ll need to get a few supportive Cropper-, Mayfield- and Hendrix- influenced sliding fourths, hammered-and-pulled filigrees, and broken sixths under your belt [Ex. 1]. Here, Allman avoids collisions with the vocalist by leaving beat one open during each measure of a simple I-V-V7-I progression in the key of F#.

 

6


Slide It On Home

It’s likely that one of the things that drew Allman to slide guitar (besides hearing Ry Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis play it) was the wealth of phrasing options offered by this expressive technique. Allman always wore his Coricidin bottle on his 3rd finger and plucked the strings with his bare fingers. To soar like Skydog, you’ve gotta raise your action and get familiar with some basic slide moves in open E, his preferred tuning (E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high). Ex. 2a illustrates open and slide-fretted E chords, plus three common triad inversions and arpeggios. Be sure to place your slide directly over the 12th fret and experiment with various degrees of string damping behind the slide. Anchor your thumb on the back of the neck, loosen your wrist, and think wailing blues harp as you explore the phrasing options in Ex. 2b. (Transfer these moves to all adjacent lower string groups.) Also, discover whole- and half-step (and in-between) neighbor tones that form an open-E box pattern in Examples 2c and 2d, and blow through the short I-chord lick in Ex. 2e.

 

7


Fly Sky-High

Put into practice, Allman’s signature slide moves become thrilling sheets of sound. Ex. 3a shows a pair of related blues-harp-style slide motifs that surface in several Allman solos, while the IV-I lick in Ex. 3b features signature string zips à la “Statesboro Blues.” Finally, the turnaround in Ex. 3c gives you a taste of the stratospherically high, off-the-fretboard accuracy that Allman flaunted on the coda to Clapton’s “Layla.”

 

8


Harmonically Converge

The harmonized lines of Allman and co-guitarist Dickey Betts were a defining element of the original Allman Brothers sound. Ex. 4a features a tightly arranged blend of fourth and third harmonies based on “Revival,” the infectious opening cut from Idlewild South. For total authenticity, play the notes that appear on the and of beat two and on beat three in both measures one sixteenth-note pulse earlier. And for a little bit of country, check out the improvised twin lead work à la “Mountain Jam” in Ex. 4b. Allman and Betts were well-known for harmonizing lines on the fly, and this fragment begins with semi-“outside” sevenths and sixths, then concludes with more characteristic fourths and thirds. The two harmonic schemes are derived mainly from the E pentatonic major scale, and, with practice, it’s possible for a single guitar to play both parts simultaneously (as is also

the case with Ex. 4a.) For a complete dual-guitar harmony workout, dig out the August 1999 GP and dig into my full transcription of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

 

9


Take Modal Excursions

Whether it’s a ten-minute solo during “Elizabeth Reed,” or one of the Brothers’ trademark extended cadenzas, you’ve gotta get fluent with the kind of extended modal jamming that permeated the band’s live performances. The emphasis on Am7’s upper extensions—the 9 (B), 11 (D), and 13 (F#)—played over the Im7-IV Dorian-based vamp in Ex. 5a reveals Allman’s professed admiration for the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Ex. 5b is derived from three successive motifs that Allman regularly reprised during his extended closing improvisations in the Allman Brothers staple “You Don’t Love Me”: sliding parallel fifths reminiscent of his work on Clapton’s arrangement of “Little Wing,” a legato reading of the melody to “Joy to the World,” and a flashy display of upper-register A major-based thirty-second-note triplets.

 

10


Know a Must-Know Solo

Of course, you’ll need to learn a few key Duane Allman leads to really get inside the legend’s head. Allman’s 16-bar “Hoochie Coochie Man” solo [Ex. 6] may not be as well-known as some of his more famous lead work, but it’s a textbook look at Skydog’s fearlessly inventive style applied to a timeless Willie Dixon standard. Amazingly, Allman still manages to conjure a slide vibe using only a pick and bare fingers—compelling evidence that with or without bottleneck, this was simply how the guitarist heard his instrument. Savor his staccato call-and-response phrases (bars 1 - 8), deceptive pre-bends (bars 2, 3, 7, 13, and 14), gritty over-bends (bars 1, 4, 5 and 10), two-against-three poly-rhythms (bars 13 and 14), and, as Duane so aptly put it, “Just rock on, and have you a good time!”

For more insight into Allman’s slide tactics, read Jesse Gress’ “Soaring with Skydog” lesson from the October ’93 GP, which has also been reprinted in GuitaRevolution [Backbeat]. For a thorough and enthralling Duane Allman biography, Gress recommends Skydog: The Duane Allman Story by Randy Poe [Backbeat], which was referenced in the writing of this article.

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