Q&A August 2013, Part II

Re: Does humour belong in music?
Hello Richard!

So asked Frank Zappa, and that album title came to mind as I was trying (and failing) to lift some Jerry Reed licks.

Both men were obviously monstrous guitar players, their musical bona fides not to be questioned. But it struck me that to much of the general public, both Zappa and Reed are considered "novelty" acts, guys who wrote songs with funny titles like "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" and "She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)."  

That's something I find unfortunate when discussing musicians of such high calibre, and it made me question why the addition of humour to music leads to a perception of being less quote/unquote "serious." If music is about emotional connection between player and listener, surely making someone smile or laugh is as noble a connection as making someone feel sad/romantic/outraged/aggressive/politically engaged/etc.? I know I get a buzz listening to Reed snap the hell out of his strings while laughing about Amos Moses being used as alligator bait.

As a player and songwriter of reknown who has been known to pepper his songs with wit, do you have any theories on why humour doesn't seem as valued in a musical context (outside, perhaps, of songs written for the stage)? Or do you think I'm off base?

Music often comes as part of a package, and we have to decide, as listeners, if we are willing to go along with the context. With someone like Fats Waller, I don't even think about it. It's funny and musically brilliant, and the one is inseparable from the other. It is clearly entertainment, whilst including more 'artistic' elements. Zappa plied his trade mainly as a satirist, but was a fine guitarist and arranger. Jerry Reed's personality is so strongly stamped on his performance, singing, writing and playing that you have to just take it all as it comes, from all directions, and single out the guitar-playing later for special attention. Humour certainly makes some artists more accessible, and we should not think less, or more, of them artistically for it. If only Wagner went in for a bit more toilet humour…


I'd also like to ask for advice (I'm certain you've been asked this before, but I couldn't find it after a search through the Beesweb vault). I get annoyed with myself if I end up leaning on familiar licks and positions when it comes to my turn to solo. When practicing, I'll try all sorts of different techniques, and I'll lovingly rip off my favourite players to expand my vocabulary. But when the moment comes, I find the pull of the familiar to be very strong.  Do you have any suggestions/tricks to keep the solos from being too "safe," and for properly applying new thoughts and styles when your number is called? Is it simply a case of practicing to the point that the new stuff enters the subconscious for easy access?

Love Electric, by the way. It's been on heavy rotation. And thought it was great of you to let those young up and comers My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Robert Dylan close for you during your recent show in Toronto. Looking forward to the next time you're up our way. Best regards, Andrew

There may be infinite answers to this question! Here's a few quick thoughts:

Start the solo on an unusual note, say, a seventh or ninth, and find some melodic way to resolve it. Then use a similar pattern over different chords.

Start a solo very tersely, just a note or two every couple of bars, and build the note frequency slowly.

Play your usual licks, but up or down a 4th, so they are in the 'wrong' key. See if this inspires a different avenue.

Select 4 notes to play at the beginning of the solo, and then jumble them, so you play them in an order that wouldn't occur to you normally. Then work on variations of those 4 notes - forwards, backwards, mirrored, and in every possible sequence and time configuration.

He's been gone for a while now, but wondered what your thoughts were on Levon Helm. When his playing hits my ear, I always feel joy. Loved that he had a late career renaissance. Andrew Dundass

Levon was the true definition of what Americana has come to mean. He played all the roots styles, and was an immensely influential drummer, with an unusual style. Also, of course, a fine singer, guitarist and mandolinist. Everyone in the UK was floored when they heard Big Pink, and it truly changed the landscape. It was such a thrill to play with him on Elvis Costello's TV special. I got to sing a verse of The Weight, with Levon's drums about 3 feet behind me - what a great feeling.