Saturday, September 04, 2010

Martin Carthy - notes on technique

Video clips below ...

"The Threefold Pulse of Martin Carthy's Guitar" - by David Nigel Lloyd, California musician who was his driver on a concert tour in the West ...

Carthy's style of "vertical playing ... [in which] melodies are mostly found by moving up and down the length of the string" ...
Early on, Martin Carthy developed a style of guitar playing which makes the guitar sound like, as one astute reviewer wrote, an indigenous British folk instrument of centuries' standing. This important development is, I feel, Carthy's primary service to English folk music. Nobody plays guitar like Martin Carthy unless they are imitating him.

At the heart of his innovation is his tuning. Bearing in mind that guitars are standardly tuned E A D G B E, Martin drops the bass string of his guitar down two whole steps from E to C. The instrument is tuned C G C D G A, which he says is like a cello if a cello had two strings added between its first and second strings. This yields a very resonant earthy sound and encourages vertical playing, that is to say melodies are mostly found by moving up and down the length of the string as opposed to crossing from one string to another. Vertical playing more closely approximates singing. In Martin's playing this vertical technique seems to be accomplished on two strings in tandem with occasional 'assists' from neighboring strings.
Also: the Carthy/Waterson "harmonic technique" - i.e. improvised harmonies - and fingerpicking:
If there is one particular aspect of his technique which unearths that pulse, it is his thumb-work. While most finger-style players wear plastic picks on their thumbs, Martin, as I mentioned, uses metal thumb picks, Swiss zither picks in fact. With gun-hammer precision, he continuously snaps that thumb pick down onto the bass strings. That creates the pulse. For his finger-work, he uses his nails as would a classical player.

In Martin Carthy's playing we find a very interesting cross-pollination which results in what I call this rebirth of English music. For if English music tends to plod predictably, in Martin's playing we find odd rhythmic anomalies and juxtapositions. The rhythmic anomalies, especially in his phrasing, suggest the syncopation which is the hallmark of African-American blues and jazz. The vertical playing, however, suggests the music of Britain's most beloved colony: India. It should be noted that the black Delta Blues player Big Bill Broonzy was very popular in Britain in the late 1950s. Martin Carthy also relates going, almost on a whim, to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar's first London concert; Carthy was dressed in his school uniform, he says, and relates that it was a watershed experience for him.

Martin's genius, however, is not that his playing mixes Indian music with English music with the blues. That is the early accomplishment of two British bands: The Incredible String Band and the folk baroque band Pentangle. Carthy's genius is that the vertical playing, the syncopations sound uniquely English and populous as opposed to courtly. It makes me wonder: Did it take the music of the colonized and the enslaved to liberate the music of the colonizer and the slaver? This question is implied for me in Martin Carthy's playing.

"The Siege of Delhi" - from the DVD "British Fingerstyle Guitar."

"The Cuckoo's Nest" - concert clip, but good angle on both hands

"In Tune with Martin Carthy" - on YouTube but from Five Culture MySpace page - Carthy talks about his open tunings, banjo, frailing, mountain minor, West African influence, etc., as he tunes his guitar

1 comment:

Dan said...

Thanks for posting this: it's really given me an insight that is sorely lacking elsewhere on this interweb.