BRITISH GUITARIST JUSTIN ADAMS HAS devised a gritty fusion of North and West African traditions and rock ’n’ roll. Adams spent a good part of 2009 touring Europe and North America with his Gambian collaborator Juldeh Camara on ritti (a one-string fiddle), and percussionist Salah Dawson Miller. The band is small, but the sound is deep, strong, and rocking, with Adams’ muscular Les Paul riffs holding the center. “Bands don’t have to have bassists,” said Adams before the trio’s recent performance at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. “For instance, if you listen to Bukka White playing guitar accompanied by just a washboard, it sounds pretty good.”
Adams has traced a musical path that touches on Middle Eastern music, punk rock, Delta blues, reggae, Motown, funk, and guitarists from James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock to Fela Kuti and Ali Farka Toure. He was Robert Plant’s guitarist in the Strange Sensation before teaming up with Camara.
When it comes to African music, Adams bypasses the pretty stuff. “I want that feeling of dread,” he says. “Something I can’t bear to listen to because it’s so heavy. Really deep rhythms.” Camara’s squealing tone and squirrelly, pentatonic ritti melodies hit the spot, and from their first encounter Adams realized that he could sneak blues licks into the music without it interfering. “Juldeh wasn’t freaked out if I got a little bit rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “On the contrary, he liked it.” Adams recalls a “Eureka moment” when he discovered that chunking out a Bo Diddley beat fit perfectly into Camara’s song, “Ya Ta Kaara.” The result is a joyfully raucous jam on their debut CD, Soul Science [World Village].
When he was young, Adams’ family lived in Amman, Jordan for a few years, where he learned to slap out basic Arabic rhythms— all grist for the mill of his future innovations. Back in England as a teenager, Adams grew frustrated with his inability to make his cheap classical guitar sound like the lush, florid riffs he heard rockers such as Eric Clapton playing. “When I was 16, punk rock hit England, so I would buy stuff like the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Jam, and the New York bands like Television and Talking Heads,” he says. “The whole punk aesthetic was that doing anything fancy on the guitar was not cool. At all.” While punk simplicity was initially liberating for Adams—a self-described “researcher”—it soon served as a bridge to blues, funk, African music, and more.
For example, Richard Thompson’s guitar playing taught Adams the power of drones— a crucial aspect of his sound today. “You could tell he’d listened to fiddle and flute music,” observes the guitarist. Adams went to Turkey and came back with a saz (longnecked lute). He noted the way Middle Eastern pickers—especially oud players— sound every pulse in a bar. “Funk guitarists do that, too,” he observes. “They play all the up and down strokes, but they only press down for the notes they want to hear.” Adams’ advice to guitarists struggling with rhythm is to, “Be aware of the pulses, and know which one you’re on: 16 beats, or 24 if you’re playing in 6/8. Not that you necessarily need to count it—but feel it.”
Adams traveled to Mali with the French band Lojo in 1998, where he first heard Tuareg music from the Sahara desert. He went on to produce breakthrough albums for the Tuareg rock band Tinariwen, and to record a solo album called Desert Road. All this led to his collaborations with Plant and later Camara, who has proven an ideal musical foil. Camara does most of the melodic soloing in the act, wailing in the D pentatonic scales from his Fulani tradition. In another mysterious Africa-blues connection, Adams often accompanies Camara using the “Charley Patton tuning” of D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high.
Listening to Soul Science and the equally excellent Adams-Camara release Tell No Lies [Real World], you can’t miss Adams’ formidable, beefy tone. His preferred guitar is a ’52 Gibson Les Paul goldtop, and he favors tube amps such as the Vox AC30. But the essential aspect of his big sound is his choice of strings. “When I bought that Les Paul somebody told me I should put heavy strings on it, because that’s what the guitar was built for,” he explains. “So my high-E string is a .012 and I have a wound G string. I can’t play that fast, or do really extreme bends, so I’m limiting myself—but in favor of tone. And when I play a note, I hope to really play it. I’m not just skittering around. That’s the note I want to play, and that’s the beat that I want to play it on.” That sort of clarity and certainty help Adams to keep his head amid an otherwise dizzying swirl of styles and cultures.