Glenn Jones

February 13, 2012

Although Glenn Jones first became attracted to the guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love in 1967, his own playing owes more to John Fahey’s American Primitive school of fingerstyle guitar playing, which also included Robbie Basho, Peter Lang, and Michael Gulezian. The American Primitive players (a.k.a., the Takoma school, as they mostly recorded for Fahey’s Takoma label) were distinguished by their adventurousness and disregard for the musical conventions of the time. Jones has embraced this philosophy throughout his career, eschewing traditional song forms and harmonic structures, and playing in nearly every imaginable tuning other than standard, often with the aid of partial capos. In addition to releasing three solo albums on the Strange Attractors label, Jones released nine albums with the Bostonbased psych-rock band Cul de Sac—some of which included Fahey and Can singer Dano Suzuki—as well as recording and performing with the late fingerstyle guitar and lap-steel innovator Jack Rose.

Jones’ latest release, The Wanting [Thrill Jockey], comprises seven solo tunes played on 6-string and 10-string guitars, three solo banjo tunes (he doesn’t play banjo in the conventional manner, either), and a wild 17:47 duet with drummer Chris Corsano. Recorded by experimental guitarist Reuben Son in a fourth-floor apartment in Allston, Massachusetts, you can occasionally detect the faint sound of trains in the distance, which is somehow appropriate.

Let’s start with the title. Did you have anything particular in mind?
In a lot of my music I feel like there’s a wanting or yearning for something beyond just putting fingers on strings and frets to sound notes. It’s as if I’m trying to transcend just the musical aspect and go into some other realm—something of a voyage or possibly music as catharsis.

Is that in terms of your personal experience as you’re playing, or something you’re hoping to communicate to the audience, or both?
A little bit of both I suppose. I recognize that there’s an audience out there and it’s not my intention to ignore them—but I tend to follow my own instincts and feelings first with the assumption that what I feel is not going to be so far removed from people that it will seem esoteric or obscure. I figure if it is meaningful to me, it will be meaningful to someone else. That’s something I got from the people who are my main influences, like John Fahey and Robbie Basho. The discovery of Fahey’s music, in particular, was kind of a lightning bolt. It made me realize that there’s a way of expressing yourself unaccompanied on a single instrument, and that you don’t necessarily need lyrics or a singer to communicate something. For John, playing music was a cathartic emotional experience in the Aristotelian or Freudian sense—he was really into Freud—and not only positive emotions such as joy and ecstasy, but also the dark stuff like fear and anger. That definitely drew me in. Fahey and Basho gave me permission to explore the guitar and its emotional capabilities, something I had never conceived of before I discovered their music.

Is there also a technical aspect to the American Primitive approach to guitar playing?
Yes, although technique isn’t central. Certainly Fahey was accomplished technically, and there was a craft to his work, but the technique was a means to something else. Robbie Basho said, “Soul first, technique later.” Sometimes Robbie reached for things that were beyond his grasp, but the effort of reaching was the most important thing. There’s also a love of open tunings in the American Primitive style, and an attempt to synthesize different musical forms, from country bluesmen such as Charlie Patton and Mississippi John Hurt to Indian, Persian, and Japanese music to classical composers such as Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, and Bartok.

Given the strong gravitational pull of your primary influences, how did you find your own musical voice?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I look at Fahey and Basho and younger players such as Cian Nugent, Sean Smith, and James Blackshaw, and it astonishes me that they found their voices while so young. For me, it was a matter of playing and playing for many years, and listening to a lot of different players, including those I didn’t want to emulate. I didn’t really begin finding my voice as a player until I was in my late 30s or early 40s.

Your picking style evolved out of Fahey’s approach, too, right?
Definitely, although Fahey got the alternating bass thing and other aspects of his approach from country blues players like Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Patton. I also do things that I didn’t get from Fahey, like brushing my thumb along the strings and arpeggiating in certain ways using upstrokes. I’ve used a thumbpick since I began playing fingerstyle and can’t really play without it. I also go to a Vietnamese nail salon every three weeks to get an acrylic or a rosin thing put on my fingers because my nails are just too weak and the steel strings wear them down, especially on tour when I’m playing every night.

What instruments did you play on the album?
My main 6-string is a Westerly-era Guild DV-52 [Guild guitars were built in Westerly, RI, between 1966 and the late ’80s], and my two main 12-strings are a Westerly-era Guild F-512 jumbo and a Taylor LKSM, though they are actually only strung with ten strings. I also have a National Radio-Tone Bendaway Resonator guitar and a no-name open-back 5-string banjo.

Why ten strings instead of 12?
The first two strings are unison strings, so doubling them doesn’t give you the octave effect that you get on the other strings. But it is also because not doubling those strings makes bending them easier, as well as making the 12-string a little bit easier to play overall.

What gauge strings do you use?
I use D’Addario EJ17 or EJ12 mediumgauge sets on the 6-string, usually with the sixth string tuned down to B or C. And I use D’Addario EJ38 medium/heavy sets on the 10-string, with the stock first and second strings replaced with .013s and .017s, because I tend to tune down low and like the treble strings to be heavier so they’re not too floppy.

On several songs there’s a buzzing sound, almost like the bottle caps on an African mbira. Is that just the result of tuning the strings down so low?
Probably. I also use partial capos on the bass strings sometimes, and by tuning those strings down so much to begin with they still sound low with a capo at, say, the fifth fret. When I do that, the octave strings definitely buzz, which I like, and that may be what you are hearing.

Speaking of tunings, is it true that you use a different tuning on every song?
That’s almost true. There are a few songs where I use the same tuning. But I haven’t played in standard tuning in about 30 years. The main reason for that is that I felt like I knew too much in standard tuning in terms of keys and changes. I know that may sound ridiculous when people like Django Reinhardt never exhausted the possibilities within standard tuning, but a lot of what I tried writing in standard tuning didn’t feel like it was mine. So, exploring the world of open tunings became a way of navigating a terrain that I purposefully wanted to be unfamiliar with. I know that often I’m probably still just going from G to D or C to G or something like that, but in an open tuning sometimes I feel like that progression belongs to me rather than just being a cliché, because I earned it by finding those chords myself in that tuning. Partial capos are also a means to that end.

Do you have any favorite tunings that you tend to return to?
I tend to come back to variations of open-C tuning. There are a number of pieces on which I’ll tune the third string down a couple of steps, or the second string down a step. Then, I’ll use a partial capo in those tunings. Some tunings feel more limiting than others, but they all offer something.

What’s the most unusual tuning you’ve used on a song?
It would have to be the one I used for a song on my second record called “Bill Muller on the Erie Lackawanna,” because it has half-step intervals on both the bass and treble strings. The tuning is Gb, B, Eb, Gb, G, D, low to high, with a partial capo on the four lowest strings. That’s the only song I’ve recorded using that tuning because it is so bizarre.

How did you get into using partial capos?
I found changing tunings while playing live to be frustrating because it took too much time. It occurred to me that most lead playing in open tunings took place on the first two strings, so if I made a capo that only barred the bottom four strings I could change tunings quickly, and still be able to play the full length of the first two strings. What I didn’t think about was that by doing that I was also changing the scale length, which affected the whole texture and color of that tuning. But that also became an aide to composing, and at this point I have more songs that use partial capos than songs played without capos. I’ve made capos for just about every combination of strings, and that’s allowed me to write pieces that couldn’t be played without them—though I’d like to see someone try!

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