GP Flashback: Sonny Sharrock, February 1990

November 14, 2011
“Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all” is the last emphatic, fist-shaking line in Andre Breton’s surrealist romance, Nadja, but it could have been written by Sonny Sharrock. In fact, the guitarist expressed a similar sentiment in his February 1989 Guitar Player article on free improvisation when he adjured players to pursue beauty, “be it the fragile beauty of a snowflake, or the terrible beauty of an erupting volcano.”

Some critics, like the one who compared Sharrock’s fretwork to “shards of splintered glass,” have chosen to underscore that “terrible” quality, forgetting that the asterisk of cracks in a shattered windshield can be as beautiful as a snowflake in its own jagged way. After all, isn’t the stained glass window in a Gothic cathedral, dazzling when the sun makes its colors catch fire, just so much splintered glass? Sharrock’s guitar-playing is like stained glass—ragged-edged and razor-sharp, but possessed of a burning beauty.

To be sure, the beauty that Sharrock has pursed through the years on records by Herbie Mann, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, and Bill Laswell—as well as his own—has been unorthodox. And he has sought that unorthodox beauty with unorthodox techniques. Sharrock is a musical polyglot, and his style bears the stamp of a dozen-odd influences. Using a lap-steel bar slide, he tosses off machine-gunned double-stops that harken to Blind Willie Johnson and mewling glissandi that mimic the squeaks and squeals of Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone. His heavily accented, highly syncopated strumming recalls Bo Diddley, while his shuffling, behind-the-beat rhythms, echo New Orleans stride pianist Professor Longhair. In his single-note lines, he combines volume, distortion, and percussive picking to create pitches so rich in overtones that they sound almost chordal, recalling the multi-phonic melodies of saxman Ornette Coleman.

“I’m a romantic,” says Sharrock, “and there are certain feelings that hurt good. That’s what I’m trying to reach. I want to create a feeling with what I play—something that hurts.”

Nearing 50, Sharrock is amused to find himself the grand old man of “out” guitar, the damn-the-torpedoes unorthodoxy and sweat-drizzling fury of his playing an inspiration to a new generation of noisemakers. Ironically, he is, by his own admission, becoming more melodic as the years go by. He must sometimes wonder what younger players would think if they knew that the man whose solos sound like a handful of nuts, bolts, and ball bearings zinging around in a washing machine still dreams of being a doo-wop star.
You’ve said that you first started playing freely while accompanying Miles Davis’ “Milestones.” Technically speaking, how did your style change?

Well, I started picking very heavily. These days, I pick so heavily that I break strings. I pick slower, too, but picking heavily has so much more feeling. When I hit a string, especially on record, you can hear three or four notes. There’s the note comes from where my left hand is placed, as well as from the pick action. It gives a hell of a sound to each note. And then I run it all through distortion.
I was in a local music store the other day, and a guy came in with a guitar he wanted to have fixed to give him a particular sound. I had to leave the room, because I almost laughed in this guy’s face. I think of myself as a horn player, and horn players rely on their embouchure [the position of the lips] to give them their particular sound. That’s what makes Sonny Rollins different from Coltrane, and Charlie Parker different from Benny Carter. So, as a guitarist who always thought he was a horn player, I always believed the sound was in my hands—not in the electronic boxes or the internal circuitry of the guitar. I can play a Les Paul, an ES-175, or whatever, and get the same sound, because it’s all in my hands. Each player has the sound in his hands, and if he doesn’t have the sound in his hands, he ain’t playin’ nothing at all!

Generally, though, it’s all in the right hand. I alternate-pick with a heavy slapping action. I’m very noisy—very dirty. I’ve tried to decrease some of the dirt by holding the pick with the fingers out—like an “okay” sign. I have to use a big pick, because I pick so hard that if I use smaller ones, I lose or break them. I go through a lot of picks in a night. I use a triangular pick, rotating it around the triangle. The best are those black Gibson mediums—they just get a nicer tone.

You’ve made it clear that harmony doesn’t interest you much. At the same time, you consider yourself a jazz player. How do you reconcile those attitudes, considering that so much jazz guitar is chordally oriented?

Well, look at the size of my fingers—they’re like little sausages! I can’t do those extended chords. Also, you need that really clean tone to play those chords, and I obviously don’t have that. The truth is, I just don’t have time for chord substitution.

I think that harmony gets in my way. It clutters things up, and I end up doing formulas instead of trying to reach something. Of course, I love Coltrane—who was the master of harmony—but look at his music towards the end. He had put harmony out at the back door. He was concentrating on playing through one tonal center—or a couple of tonal centers—to reach the thing he was after. He was still a harmonic player, but he had pushed aside the harmonies that he’d been given.

Still, you don’t always play single-line melodies. You frequently use Jimmy Reed-style double-stops, or droning open strings juxtaposed with fretted notes in a way that recalls country blues.

Well, the guitar naturally lends itself to those things. When I first started doing that back in the ’60s, double-stops and droning strings were a blues thing. Nobody had done it in a jazz way. But I always admired the sound of those effects, and thought they were just a natural part of the instrument.

That drone thing is definitely inherent to the guitar. I used to work a lot with playing fretted notes against open strings, although I don’t do that as much anymore. I worked out a whole bunch of techniques for doing that, using different tunings that facilitated it. The original recording of “Blind Willie” on Black Woman involved tuning all the strings to E, in different octaves. Guys used to try to see what I was doing, because they couldn’t understand how I got that sound.

I heard this drone sound in my mind, but I didn’t want a harmonic drone because I wouldn’t be free to go other places. You see, if I had tuned it to one chord, I would have been hampered by that chord. But to tune to one note, and make that the tonal center, left me free to go all over the place.

Players seem to be taking an increasingly pianistic approach to the guitar, using techniques such as two-handed tapping to replicate the wide intervallic spans one can get on a keyboard. Do these developments whet your appetite for chordal playing?

I ain’t got time for that! I’m trying to reach something in the soul. Jazz—or whatever critics want to call the music I play—is an improvisational music. This tapping thing, where you’re dealing with harmony, has to be thought out upfront. It’s not directed toward an improvisatory end. Back when I first started listening to jazz, guitar players would do these chord solos, and you knew they weren’t improvised. There was no way you could improvise those things. The fingerings just had to be worked out in advance. That is not improvisation, and improvisation is what my music is about. I want to create melody, to create a feeling, something that hurts.

How do you feel about the state of jazz guitar today?

Is there such a thing [laughs]? Seriously, though, there are some really excellent players out there, and I enjoy what they do. But jazz guitarists aren’t so interested in making it hurt—they’re more interested in making it clean. The cry of jazz has been forgotten by a lot of people, and that is probably the most important element in jazz. When you are finally able to play after 20 years of practicing, then you get the cry. And when you get that, then you’re playing something. But because they play an electric instrument, many guitarists forget that cry. They become interested in making something clean and they lose something.

How do you improvise?

I play the melody, and, by the time I reach its end, I want it to have led me to someplace else. There’s a point where you’re walking along the road, and then the road disappears from under your feet. But that doesn’t matter, because as you step, the road builds itself. Sometimes, I improvise and play a phrase that’s so beautiful—and beauty is the thing I’m after—that it’s everything for me. I’ll just quit, right then. Other times, I get very bored with what I’m doing, so I just stop. It doesn’t take very long for me to get bored with myself. When it’s right, on the other hand, I’m just going where the music is leading me. Then, it’s just a matter of thinking about the feeling I’m working in and making that feeling come out musically. I’m trying to get closer and closer to that pure melody, and whatever it takes to get there, I’ll do it. But I don’t want to go through a lot of B.S. on the way—effects pedals, worrying about the electricity, and all that business.

Like I’ve said, I just don’t have time to think about these things when I’m trying to play, and I don’t know who does. I’ve seen players who stand there, and you can see that their minds are working like an IBM PC, rattling things off, and I’m always disturbed by that. I hate thinking players! You should know what you’re about, and just let yourself go. Thinking! I’d rather have an audience that’s jumping down on the floor, getting with the music, feeling the music, rather than sitting there with a pipe and all. What is that? I like it down and dirty! Let’s tumble!

Are there ever moments in the middle of an improvisation where you think, “That’s it—that’s the payoff”? Or is that goal just a mirage that musicians spend their lives chasing?

Well, I know that when I play, I never get it right. And every time, it gets worse for me. There are more things I forgot to say. I’m not talking about notes—I’m talking about feelings. I listen to records or tapes and I hear where I lose it, and I’ll say, “Oh, man! I’m just meandering all over the place. What happened?” Trying to make it go the way I want it to go, to make that sound I want to hear, is so difficult, man! Trying to describe it in words—in terms of notes or extensions of harmony or whatever—is just impossible. Maybe if I did realize what I’m after, it would be like Jimmy Swaggart and the rapture, you know. That cat really thinks he’s gonna be lifted up when everything goes down.

I’m really just going where the music takes me. I’m not trying to direct it in any way. I don’t know if anyone will understand this or not, but the concepts it’s leading me to are very still. Of course, the eruptions still happen. There are times when things just explode, and it’s all fire—kind of like The Towering Inferno with the windows popping out of the building and all that. And then everything just comes back down, and it’s still again. But those eruptions have to be there, and always will be. You can stop breathing if you get too still. —Excerpted from the February 1990 issue of Guitar Player
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