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Great Players: Pierre Bensusan

Pierre Bensusan emerged from France in the mid-70s as a young fingerstyle guitar prodigy. His playing had a folk/celtic sound influenced by British players like Martin Carthy and John Renbourn, and, like them, he experimented with alternatives to standard guitar tuning. Soon he settled on a suspended 4th tuning called DADGAD (the name spells the pitch of the 6 open strings), and he began an exploration which has led to a unique musical vision on the guitar. Pierre's playing encompasses celtic, gypsy, moorish, classical, jazz, musette (traditional French accordion music) and Brazilian influences.
He has taken a tuning which was commonly used in a fairly simple modal manner, and has plumbed it as deeply as any great jazz player explores standard tuning. The result is a music which combines the distinctive airy modal sound of DADGAD with the richest jazz voicings and modulations. Add a very modern sense of rhythm and syncopation, lots of cool bass movement, remarkably expressive technique in both hands, (Oh, and let's not forget incredible chops,) and you have an idea of the arena in which Pierre operates. While he usually has a very rich acoustic sound, in recent years he achieves it through the use of some sophisticated electronic gadgetry which he has incorporated into his technique.
My favorite album of Pierre's is entitled "Solilai". Although there is a certain amount of ensemble work on it, the feel is still very much like solo guitar, and this album, along with the one entitled "Musiques", seems to catalog one of his richest compositional periods. All of his recordings are worth hearing, though. There are two books of his transcriptions available, and two instructional videos and one concert video. Any of these items should be available through Elderly Instruments.Posted 3/25/97

Here's A Tip!

DADGAD is an easy tuning to get started in, and affords great possibilities for arranging and composing. If you're in standard tuning, just lower both E strings to D and lower the B string to A. You're all set! We'll be thinking of playing in the key of D here. Now, conceptually, you could realize that your lower 4 strings are identical to "Drop D" tuning. (That means you have the possibility of a drone bass on the 6th and 4th strings.) The two high strings have both been lowered one step, which means that they can operate exactly as they would in standard tuning, key of E! Now you have a way of thinking about all 6 strings, and, if you're already a fingerstyle player, you may just want to mess around with that for a bit. But the beauty of this tuning lies in the way the lower and upper strings can be united, using the one step interval between the 3rd and 2nd strings, which are now tuned toG and A respectively. Try playing this little passage (Note that the vertical lines above the staff indicate the 4 beats.):



Because of that interval between the 3rd and 2nd strings, you now get a very scalar sound with no left hand movement, kind of like melodic style banjo. In addition, you have the harp-like effect produced by the fact that all the strings can ring simultaneously.
Now try this longer scale passage. Practice it until you can play it smoothly, allowing the notes to ring as much as possible.



Pretty, isn't it? Now, how about some harmonic underpinnings? These aren't straight chords. They're more like bass positions which mix in with the prevailing harmonic atmosphere of DADGAD to provide harmonic movement without losing the unique "sus4" sound.Some of these chords may sound pretty weird if you just strum them, so try arpeggiating them instead:

....D..................G.................C................Bm< BR> ....................X <--don't play
| | | | | |.......| | | | | |.......| | | | | |......| | | | | |
| | | O | |.......| | | | O |.......| | O | | |......| O | | | |
| | | | | |.......| | | | | |.......| O | | | |......| | | | | |
| | | | | O.......| | | | | |.......| | | | | |......| | O | | |
| | | | | |.......O | | | | |.......| | | | | |......| | | | | |


| | | | | |.......| | | | | |.......| | | | | |......| | | | | |
O O O | | |.......| | | | | |.......| | O | | |......| | | | | |
| | | | | |.......O O O | | |.......| | | | | |......| | | | | |
| | | | | |.......| | | | | |.......| | | | O |......O | O | | |

Remember, this is just a tip on getting started. The exploration of these fingerings will hopefully lead you and your ears to other interesting ways of playing in DADGAD. Dm and G are interesting keys to play in as well! If you have questions or comments, Email me or leave a message at the guitar posting area. Also, check out Pierre's books, for transcriptions of lots of his amazing arrangements! Have fun!!

Tony Rice:

I've been doing a lot of flatpicking lately, and, in exploring this genre, have developed a new, deeper appreciation for the genius of several players. While Doc Watson sort of invented the style, and Clarence White, in his short life, provided some pretty hefty shoulders for later players to stand on, The Man for our generation has to be Tony Rice! He's been able to stretch the envelope in all directions, taking a style which is often stereotyped as a "strictly-bluegrass" sound, and, via a series of brilliant recordings, using it to explore acoustic jazz ("Acoustics", "River Suite"), singer/songwriter ("Rice Sings Lightfoot", "Church Street Blues"), newgrass/bluegrass (numerous titles), gospel ("Crossings"), and others. He has done this, not by being a musical chameleon, but by imprinting his distinctive style on each project.
In his playing, you'll hear material that's mind-bogglingly virtuosic and other playing (as on "Tone Poems" with David Grisman) that is stunning simply for its beautiful tone and smoothness. His recordings, including early David Grisman group work and duo recordings with Norman Blake and John Carlini, are so consistently excellent that it's hard to recommend one over another. If you're not a Bluegrass fan, you might start with the "Rice Sings Lightfoot" album or "Church Street Blues". If you are a Bluegrass fan, you probably already have all these albums! (A lot of music I recommend here can be mail ordered through Elderly Instruments, a great retailer and mail order catalog store in Lansing MI.) Posted 11/24/96

Here's A Tip!

Try this great bluesy flatpicking run in the key of G that's typical of Tony Rice's playing:


|-3-1-----1-------|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------| |-----2-3---2p1---|2p1--1-----------|-----------------|-----------------| |---------------3-|---3---3p0---3-0-|-----0-----------|-----------------| |-----------------|-----------3-----|-3-0---3-0---3-0-|-----------------| |-----------------|-----------------|-----------3-----|-1h2-1p0---------| |-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|---------3-------|

Note that, other than the triplet (marked by the "3" above) in the second measure, all the notes are straight eighths. While Tony is famous for his unpatterned pick movement, you'll probably do best with this run if you pick down on the beat (vertical lines above) and up on the off-beat. After you learn it, see if you can extract little parts of it for use in smaller places. I find the first half of the second measure to be particularly distinctive.
"h" means "hammer".
"p" means "pull-off".
Have fun!

George Van Eps:

One of the great all-time fingerstyle jazz players is George Van Eps. A guitar player in the Ray Noble and Benny Goodman bands during the thirties and forties, Van Eps really stepped out as a solo player from the late forties on, playing primarily on a 7 string guitar built for him by the original Epiphone company. The guitar had a low bass string tuned an octave below the A string, and the whole thing was then tuned down a whole step to GDGCFAD, allowing Van Eps to retain the "soft" feel associated with nylon strings, have most of the range of a string bass, and still be able to play in the higher registers. While a lot has been made of this unique instrument, the really unique thing about Van Eps is his amazing technique (see the tip below), the concepts of which are taught in his three volume set of exercises and theory "Harmonic Mechanisms For Guitar", published by Mel Bay. The resulting music often sounds like several instruments at once, as rhythm, bass, and melody merrily roll along together. Stanley Jordan, eat your heart out!!
I'm no longer sure which of the classic albums are in print, but Van Eps has two recent releases; one with Howard Alden, and the other, half of a CD of solos, with Johnny Smith as the other half! If the concerts I heard him play circa 1990 are any indicator, he has lost nothing over the years, and is still a mind-boggling player! My favorite recordings, though, are still the "four memorable solos" which he played plectrum style in the forties. They were released as part of an LP entitled "For Home Use Only" on Jump Records, which was filled out with a trio including Stan Wrightsman on Piano and Eddie Miller on Sax. This, to me, is some of the finest stuff ever recorded, and may be available through the Allegheny Jazz Society, located in Meadville PA. The four solos may also be available on one of the Yazoo anthologies. Chris Rietz at Elderly would know which one, if any. (A lot of music I recommend here can be mail ordered through Elderly Instruments, a great retailer and mail order catalog store in Lansing MI.) Posted 7/29/96

Here's A Tip!

George Van Eps' style enables him to play melody, bass, and rhythm simultaneously. Try this exercise for melding chords and melody; First, play a diatonic chord scale in C using the top three strings (GBE). You'll pluck GCE for the C chord, then ADF for the D minor, BEG for E minor, CFA for F major, DGB for G major, EAC for A minor, FBD for B minor b5, and GCE (now at the twelfth fret) for C major again. Once you're comfortable moving up and down the neck with this sequence, you're ready for the next step; while your first chord, GCE, is still ringing, play F and then back to E on the E string. This will sound like a C chord with a little melody, E-F-E, played over it. Do this at every chord in the sequence, using only the C major scale (no sharps or flats.) The result is that, while the chords are going "C-Dm-Em-F,etc.", the melody notes will go "E-F-E, F-G-F, G-A-G, A-B-A, etc." Make sure the chords keep ringing while you add the melody. That's what gives it that "2 guitar" sound.
What we're doing here is adding a melody on the top line of the three part harmony indicated by the chords. After you master this, you can do the same chords, but put the melody movement on the middle line. (The first C chord would have a "C-D-C" melody.) Then the lower line. (G-A-G.) Once you've mastered all three variations, try interchanging the lines as you move up the chord scale. Before you know it, you'll be improvising melody lines with a chord structure built in underneath or around them! Then all you have to do is be able to carry on this insanity in all keys and modes, play a swinging bass line underneath it, add a dash of genius, and you'll be playing just like George Van Eps!!...sort of. :^)

Rev. Gary Davis:

I would be remiss if I did not initiate this section with mention of Rev. Gary Davis. As the years since his death in 1971 go by, his influence steadily increases through the many students who profitted from his benevolent teaching. If you've never heard him, you're missing one of the great geniuses (genii?) of the instrument. I spent a weekend chaperoning him at a festival in Ohio in 1969. He was...illuminated. A man of great spirit and heart, who kindly sat down with me for two hours of unsolicited guitar teaching at the end of the weekend. There are lots of great recordings. I'm presently very fond of "Blues and Ragtime" on Shanachie, and also recommend "Rev. Gary Davis Live At Newport" on Vanguard. (A lot of music I recommend here can be mail ordered through Elderly Instruments, a great retailer and mail order catalog store in Lansing MI.) Posted 6/16/96

Here's A Tip!

With just his right thumb and forefinger, Gary Davis was able to create an amazing texture of chords, counterpoint, moving bass, and melody. While it's hard to begin by doing all of this at once, you can start with just melody. Alternate the thumb and forefinger. The thumb plays notes that are on the beat. The forefinger plays notes that are off the beat. Play a C major scale in the first position (index finger at first fret).After awhile, you'll be comfortable playing in eighth notes from the C on the A string up through the G on the hi E, then down to the open lo E, then back up to the first C again. Then you can try it in "4"s, like this; CDEF,DEFG,EFGA,FGAB, etc.Starting back down, go GFED, FEDC,EDCB,DCBA, etc. For variety, play scales in closed positions. On the right hand, make sure the index finger is closer to the bridge, and the thumb is closer to the neck. This technique is easiest to do with thumb and finger picks. The Rev. used plastic, but I've always been more comfortable with a plastic thumb pick and metal fingerpicks. Even if you play with 3 or 4 fingers, you can still use this "thumb-index" technique for melodic passages.
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