Richard Osborn's Modern Primitive "Free Raga" Improvisations

At stranded records (formerly aquarius) in the Mission District of San Francisco—not far from where Carlos Santana went to high school—an almost overlooked acoustic player from the same era is celebrating the release of his third solo CD, Endless [Tompkins Square].
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At stranded records (formerly aquarius) in the Mission District of San Francisco—not far from where Carlos Santana went to high school—an almost overlooked acoustic player from the same era is celebrating the release of his third solo CD, Endless [Tompkins Square]. A folk-hipster audience is entranced by a concert that might never have been, as guitarist Richard Osborn struggled for decades to overcome a wounded and impaired fretting hand.

Osborn’s musical saga began in 1968, when he became a pupil of American primitive guitarist and raga pioneer Robbie Basho (1940-1986). Those nine months were followed by a decade of artistic frustration, and then a decade-and-a-half of being completely sidelined by serious injuries to the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He took up abstract painting, and, interestingly, his new love led Osborn to an epiphany regarding guitar playing.

“Abstract painting directly illuminated the process of improvisation for me,” says Osborn. “Like a bolt of lightning, it struck me that improvisation is a way of thinking. From painting, to jazz, to Ali Akbar Khan—it’s all the same thing.”

It took until 1995 for Osborn to gain enough hand strength to play nylon-string guitar, and he spent a decade building his chops back up for the steel-string. In 2010, a nearly recovered—and reinvigorated—Osborn was discovered by Tompkins Square, and, that same year, he was included on the label’s compilation, Beyond Berkeley Guitar.

The original ragas on Endless unfold in the moment of inspiration, and yet classical influences inform Osborn’s fingerpicking, as well as his melodic sensibilities. He even incorporates a bit of “Pastoral” from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony into his instrumental interpretation of the folk standard “Streets of Laredo.” Osborn’s appearance at Stranded Records was also notable due to his main instrument—a 1915 Vincenzo DeLucia parlor guitar.

What’s it like to play a Vincenzo DeLucia that’s more than a hundred years old?

I stumbled upon it about 40 years ago at Jon Lundberg’s shop in Berkeley—which was a mecca for archival instruments—and it felt like I’d found the ideal steel-string guitar. If an old guitar has sturdy enough bones to hold up, the wood fibers in its body and top can dry out across 100 years to become incredibly resonant. The DeLucia has a big voice for a little guitar.

What kind of strings to you use on it?

D’Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze Medium.

Do you use acrylic nails?

Yes, and, for me, making that commitment was frankly revolutionary. I was always breaking nails. It was stupid. Acrylic nails allow me to throw my hand with abandon into those steel strings without worry. If I do break a nail, I simply go back to the salon for a fix. Psychologically, it’s a big deal.

What’s your primary tuning?

I pretty much leave the DeLucia in a variation of open C with a suspended second on the first string. Low to high, it’s C, G, C, G, C, D. The only other tuning I used on Endless was for the opening track, “In a Monastery Garden.” It’s a weird variation of DADGAD that I call “BAGDAD” because it’s close to that. Low to high, it’s Bb, G, D, G, A, D. It’s easy to shift colors and tonalities in that tuning. I recorded that song on a guitar commissioned from Trevor Healy to commemorate Tompkins Square’s tenth anniversary. I was happy to use the Healy because of its rich low end.

Another variation I find fruitful is what Basho called “C41,” in reference to the tuning process. That one goes C, G, C, G, B, C, so you tune from the third to the second string at the 4th fret, and then from the second string to the first string at the 1st fret. That tuning incorporates a minor 7th, and it works with major or minor ragas. I didn’t use C41 on the new record, though.

What’s the story on your groovy 12-string with the fanned frets?

Kerri Leslie

I commissioned that from a fine builder in Danville, California, named Tsuneyuki “Tony” Yamamoto. The fanned frets may look weird, but they make it easy to play. I still have residual weakness in my left hand, but, amazingly, I can actually play barre chords on the Yamamoto.

Basho was a real trailblazer on the 12-string, as well. When you listen to “Cathedrals et Fleur de Lis,” you hear someone realizing that the 12-string is a different instrument. It’s more symphonic, and that’s what I’m into. It can begin to sound like a big organ, or even a symphony orchestra. A lot of players approach it like a 6-string to create huge washes of sound. It’s overwhelming. I’m into playing very few notes, so you can hear the different registers and voices, and let them kind of move around.

What was it like to study with Robbie Basho?

Basho was not a very good teacher. I had high hopes that he could lead me to the wellspring of improvisation, but he was deeply immersed in his own creative process. He’d show me how to play his pieces, and we’d wind up jamming for a couple of hours. He had developed a raga approach, and the techniques themselves were relatively simple. The complexity lies in fitting various pieces together—such as combining pieces of arpeggios—and plucking alternations of the thumb and first three fingers. At the time, all folk music plucking was dominated by a Fahey-style alternating-thumb pattern, or the Delta blues style of constant thumb thumping. When you liberate yourself from those preconceptions, longer and more complex rhythmic lines become available.

You use your thumb to create the melodic thrust, and your fingers for drones.

Right. My approach differs from Basho’s in that he tended to use the first two strings more as the drone, and drive the melody from the third down to the fifth strings. Perhaps because I’ve studied classical music, I develop the drone on the bottom string, as well as on the first two. I’m more aware of nesting the melody between those registers.

Who’s your biggest musical hero?

Ali Akbar Khan approached ragas with a particular kind of thinking that resonates with me. Melodies evolve organically. Ragas are not pure improvisation. They can be a stringing together of small compositions or frameworks. I stay true to having a formless introduction—which Indians call the “alap.” It’s an exploration of the scale and the melody. You find that individual notes or parts of the scale are like places. You look at a particular note, and then you look at it from the perspective of another note. It’s like wandering through a landscape, trying to achieve a deeper appreciation of how the whole thing fits together. Your drone sets the tone and the feeling, or “rasa,” meaning the emotional essence of the music. Basho used to say, “Soul first, technique later.” Indians say that a raga without rasa is an empty exercise.

Can you cite examples from Endless that best exemplify your point?

I’m very happy with “Your Eyes,” because it encapsulates that feeling of encountering a person, and getting deep into their spirit. “The Open Road” was inspired by a traditional Indian raga called “Misra Mand.” Frankly, I ripped off a lot of Ali Akbar Khan’s licks. These two songs were completely improvised.

Can you describe your plucking-hand mechanics as they relate to playing ragas?

I use whatever finger is necessary at the time. I practice breaking my fingerpicking patterns in order to accommodate the syncopation of a given melody in the moment of necessity. I play with my thumb and fingers extended, because it’s important to be able to be able to play a good rest stroke if you’re going to bring the melody up to the top two strings.

Even though your technique is advanced, it’s refreshing that it’s not too mechanically precise.

I’m happy to hear you make the observation. It means that you don’t have to develop the level of technique that I have in order to play beautiful music on guitar in the raga style.

Do you have any advice for players that have suffered hand injuries?

Work your way around it. Look at Django Reinhardt. I recovered my ability to play steel-string ragas by working for years mostly on classical-guitar techniques. A nylon-string guitar has 40 to 50 percent less tension than a steel-string.

How surreal is it for you to play for an audience of Bay Area hipsters at a vinyl-record store more than 50 years after the folk movement got going?

I feel like the ancient mariner. I remember back in the ’70s, when I was at Stanford, and my friend Will Ackerman was just beginning Windham Hill Records. He asked me if I wanted to make an album. I told him I wasn’t sure if I had anything to say yet. That has always been my attitude. Don’t rush off to record if you’re not ready. When you have something to say, then go for it.