Writing and Recording Acoustic Rock, Part 1
Frets Editor Jimmy Leslie shares the lessons he learned creating Spirit Hustler’s inspired recording “The Spirit of ’69.”
For rock and technology, 1969 was a most transformative year. A stellar synergetic example is how the BBC included rising star David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in its coverage of NASA’s Apollo 11 spaceflight to the moon. We’re still feeling the ripple effect trickling down to the present.
An iPhone packs more tech than it took to get to the Moon, and an app offers many more tracks than Bowie had at his disposal. I spent much of the past few years exploring digital audio and video possibilities, and have finally rendered the kind of modern/classic rock album I’ve dreamed of making since birth, in 1969.
I’m thrilled to share lessons learned about creating Spirit Hustler’s self-titled debut album, starting with the cosmic lead track, “The Spirit of ’69.”
Unbelievably, the first MP3 copy blasted into space with Dr. Chris Boshuizen sitting right alongside William Shatner.
Like each of the diverse 10 tunes, it has an acoustic guitar origin story.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Each instrument offers a unique creative opportunity and can have huge sway on how you play. Case in point, I wasn’t deeply tuned into the triple-0/OM body style until 2019, when Martin introduced the Modern Deluxe series and sent an MD OM-28 (opens in new tab) for review.
It’s a natural fingerpicker, and the fact that it has no cutaway, a shallow depth and a spacious fingerboard influenced my approach, especially higher up on the neck.
One day, I went to form a standard A chord at the ninth position with a pinkie on the root at the 12th fret of the fifth string, but the stretch was a bit much, so I used a simplified version with an open A root and left the high E string open as well.
The next move was a revelation.
The somewhat asymmetrical neck somehow invited me to form a slightly unusual A minor: Leave the index finger on the E at the ninth fret of the third string, and then find the minor 3rd (C) at the 10th fret of the fourth string with the middle finger. The ring finger then replaces the middle finger at the A on the 10th fret of the second string.
Enthralled by the ability to toggle between A major and minor, I soon developed a fingerpicking pattern.
The next realization was that I could slide the whole shebang down a step using the index finger to lead the charge.
The ringing open strings sounded even cooler surrounding G major and minor, and then again when I tried sliding the whole thing down another step, to F.
Sliding down another step didn’t work, so I found some weird diminished-sounding formation in the fifth position and landed on a low open E.
Then came a similar major-to-minor motif in E using a comparable chord fingerpicking strategy, again starting at the ninth position and using different formations to descend over a sixth-string root.
I followed up with an ascending progression starting on a standard E chord. It’s a continuous climb of various shapes using only the second-through-fourth strings, leaving the first string open while copping a bass climb on the sixth string with a wrapped thumb.
I realized I could “shoot the moon” all the way back up to an E power chord in the eighth position. It sounded classic yet modern, somewhat akin to “Hotel California.” And like the song says, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”
LIFT-OFF AT THE MARTIN MUSEUM
The 50th anniversary of the lunar landing was happening, and my generation was turning 50 as well. We’d lived half an analog life and were the first to come of age in the digital age.
That set the stage for the song’s lyrics.
When I took a tour of the Martin (opens in new tab) Museum in the fall, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was the original 1930 OM-45 that set the mold for the neck on the MD OM-28 I’d been playing, as well as a custom HD-28 (opens in new tab) commemorating the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon!
They were setting up a video shoot and graciously allowed me to play both quickly for a soundcheck.
That rendered the first recording of “The Spirit of ’69.”
Jimmy Leslie has been Frets Editor since 2016. See many Guitar Player- and Frets-related videos on his YouTube channel (opens in new tab), and learn all about his psychedelic folk-rock group at spirithustler.com (opens in new tab)
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Jimmy Leslie has been Frets editor since 2016. See many Guitar Player- and Frets-related videos on his YouTube channel (opens in new tab), and learn about his acoustic/electric rock group at spirithustler.com (opens in new tab).
By Tom Kolb