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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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