Monday, December 26, 2011

Play it!--Guitar Solos, pt. I

People who know me know that the guitar is my number one hobby.  I've been playing in earnest for over 25 years, and as I always say, I should be a lot better.  I don't currently play any better than I did on the leads of this song back in 2003

I mean, I do ok; and I have a style which incorporates a variation of hybrid picking that gives me my own sound.  But besides a failure to practice consistently, I have always had the serious weakness of not learning songs.  I have always been impressed by people who can learn songs, and famous guitar solos.  While I would always want to inject my own "thing" into any song, I do wish that I could play some trademark guitar parts "note for note".  Honestly, I should just dedicate a summer (I am a teacher, and I get long vacations) to doing this.  Style differences don't matter: after all, Eddie Van Halen famously claims to have learned Eric Clapton's solos this way, and there is no hint of Slowhand in Mr. 5150's playing.

Thinking about this made me want to come up with a list of solos that I would like to learn.  They are presented below, in no particular order.  Some would not be all that tricky, others might take a lifetime.  But if I could play these solos, I would really consider myself an adept guitarist.  To other musicians out there, what are the solos you want to learn?

Ok, let's start out with the white whale.  This is probably unattainable, even if I live to be 106 years old. This duet, "Mediterranean Sunset", between fusion master Al DiMeola and flamenco genius Paco DeLucia can be found on the album Friday Night In San Francisco (which also features the legendary John McLaughlin).  I bought this my first year in college and literally wore out the vinyl listening to it.  One of my best friends was a very talented heavy metal guitarist, who used to play me the latest from all of the big haired, spandex clad wielders of Floyd Rose equipped shred machines.  I would play this piece to shut him up.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is one of my all-time favorite simple solos.  I actually figured this one out while writing this post!  Anyway, it is a great love song by Paul McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed", off his first solo album.  The guitar solo is by Henry McCullough and it is nearly perfect.  To me, a great guitar solo needs to be hummable, and have a melody that either complements or transcends the song in which it is encased.  This is one of those solos. 


Another solo that has always totally transfixed me is "25 or 6 to 4" by Chicago, off their second album.  The solo is played by Terry Kath, a seriously underrated guitarist of the late 1960's and early 1970's, who died tragically in a Russian Roulette accident at the age of 27.  Jimi Hendrix famously declared Kath one of the best players of the time.  It is a sad cosmic co-incidence that they both died at 27.  Even weirder is that Kath's widow later married guitar playing actor Kiefer Sutherland who starred in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon, making Kath's "Bacon Number" 2 (mine is 3).  Kath's fills throughout the song seem to emphasize the urgency implied by Peter Cetera's vocals and the horn arrangement.  The solo is a masterpiece of wah-wah infused energy and passion.  This is one of those solos that is a song unto itself. I know there are numerous YouTube pages out there teaching this solo, but I feel like I need to teach it to myself.  But I will probably break down and use them to get me started.  And I don't know what I will need to do to capture the emotional energy of the piece.

 "Rock Around The Clock" is one of the earliest songs I can remember noticing the guitar on (it was the theme of the tv show "Happy Days" , a staple of my youth).  This early rock n' roll song (it is more of a Texas swing/rockabilly hybrid to me) legendarily caused riots among youths in England in the 1950's.  The solo (which is almost bebop in its speed running through the song's chord changes) was recorded by Danny Cedrone, who died shortly after recording this at the age of 33, due to falling down a staircase.  The speed and precision of this solo takes my breath away every time I hear it.  Cedrone was replaced in the Comets (and in the video below) by Fran Beecher, who I used to see shopping at a local guitar shop when I was a teenager.


Sticking with the rockabilly theme, I have always been impressed by players who pluck the strings with a combination of pick and fingers (as I do).  The following video comes from Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads guitar festival, and features several legendary guitarists.  The song is "Mystery Train", made popular by Elvis Presley.  The vocals are sung by Vince Gill, who also picks a breathtaking second solo.  The third solo is played by British guitar legend Albert Lee.  But the fills and the first solo come from the amazing James Burton.  Burton made his claim to fame as a teenager playing on Ricky Nelson's songs (and on tv).  He was one of the first players to substitute thin banjo strings for the then heavy guitar strings, which enabled him to bend the strings like a steel guitar player.  He later directed Elvis's band (which is where Gill's Elvis reference comes in) and also played with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. I love the "chicken pickin" on display from all the players, where they pluck the strings in a rapid, staccato style.  The players also expertly mix open strings with fretted notes.  I would feel like a complete guitarist if I could master the neck of the instrument like these men can.

One of the early giants of rock/rockabilly was Gene Vincent.   Along with his group, the Blue Caps, he made stirring, stunning music that was danceable but also had a dangerous edge.  Vincent had a tough life.  While in the Navy he suffered grievous injuries in a motorcycle accident.  In 1960, while on tour in Britain, Vincent was a passenger in car alongside teen guitar hero Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran.  Vincent's leg was injured again, and Cochran perished.  Four years later, again on tour in England,  Vincent stopped at the Air Force hospital where my father was stationed and asked to see a doctor--Gene wanted his leg amputated.   My father turned him away, only to be surprised that the British nurses were all agog at the rock legend limping away.  Vincent died of an ulcer in 1971 at the age of 36.

The guitar on this song is played by the legendary Cliff Gallup.  Gallup played on a number of Vincent's early hit songs before giving up the rock life to settle down in Virginia and play in his church.  Rock legend Jeff Beck (who was turned onto guitar on Vincent's tour of England) has made the study of Gallup's playing his lifelong pursuit, eventually recording a tribute album, and acquiring one of Cliff's guitars. 


Ok, one more hybrid picker.  Probably my all-time favorite musician, if I had to pick, would be British singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson.  While I could go on and on about Thompson (I have over 28 hours of his music on my computer), I will save that for another blog post.  In addition to his deeply sad and moving songs, he can also write brilliantly funny tunes, like the one here.  "Tear Stained Letter", which contains lyrics like "My head was beating like a song by the Clash/ Writing checks that my body couldn't cash" or "Well I like coffee and I like tea, but I just don't like this fiddle dee dee/ Makes me nervous, gives me the hives/ Waiting for a kiss from a bunch of fives".  He can also blast epic guitar solos like nobody else.  The extended solo in this version from the 1980's is a great example.  Honestly, (an alternate version of) this song is a great "shut up" tune to play to shredders who have a narrow view of the instrument.  This solo makes me begin to understand the way that saxophonists in the 1940's must have felt about Charlie Parker. This is some serious blowing!

Finally, for me it is impossible to talk about great guitar solos without mentioning Steely Dan.  Not only were their hits staples of Album Oriented Rock stations when I was growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, but their subtly coded (and not so subtly coded) messages of drugs and illicit sex were quite scandalous when I would figure them out.  Steely Dan featured a revolving cast of legendary studio musicians, which helped make each song sound different.  When I was a teenager I got guitar lessons from a local guitar genius who had studied in LA at the Guitar Institute of Technology.  He was deeply into jazz fusion, and turned me on to the deeper coolness of these songs.  

"My Old School", from the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" is a fanciful story about the group's time at Bard College.  Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (now a Defense Dept. contractor) played the lead on this number, featuring great use of pick harmonics.

Elliott Randall  did the amazing lead guitar on "Reelin' In The Years", from 1972's "Can't Buy A Thrill" record.  Randall was a session player who was also the first guitarist in the debut Broadway run of "Jesus Christ Superstar".   The speed and energy of this solo, along with the call and response style make this easy to hum, and the devil to play!  As I've said before, a great guitar solo is like a song in itself, and this solo could definitely stand on its own.

Finally, "Bodhisattva" (also from "Countdown to Ecstasy") and is a warp speed blues featuring solos from Baxter and Denny Dias.  I never get tired of listening to this song.


Well, there they are.  I have more, but I am running out of room.  And my all-time favorite guitar solo ever (David Grissom on Joe Ely's "Letter to LA" off the "Live At Liberty Lunch" record) is impossible to find online in a version I can share with you.  Please write in the comments about songs with your favorite solos!  And keep on pickin'!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mark Lazarus 1953-2012

Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about how I became the person I am.  We are all the sum of  our experiences, and all of the people we meet in our lives play a role in shaping us.  Having said that, however, some people stand out above all the rest. First of all, it is undeniable that my parents influenced me heavily, especially for my first 18 years .  As a young boy they taught me morals, shaped my outlook on the world, and are largely responsible for the goals that I have set in my life.

For the last two decades it is my wife, Courtney, who has played the biggest role in shaping my personality and character.  I have lived with her since I was 22, and I consider her to be the lodestar of my life.  Her goodness and generosity of spirit have been an inspiration, and give me a lot to live up to.

But to quote Yoda, "there is another". My uncle, Mark Lazarus, has shaped my life in so many ways that, when I tried to count them all, I was amazed.  Just a brief sampling of the things that I do because of him will show the impact he has had on me.  Without Mark, I would not:

  • watch sports
  • play sports
  • research sports history and stats
  • play guitar
  • love classic rock music
  • love Star Trek
there are more, but that should do for going on with.  Mark entered my life when I was very young, and even before marrying my Aunt Lisa he was a fixture (they were college sweethearts who got married in 1977, as soon as Lisa graduated school).  For many years we saw Lisa and Mark nearly every week, even after they moved to Philadelphia and Mark began an arduous commute to Manhattan every day.

 He had season tickets in section 525 behind home plate at Veterans Stadium from the early 1970's until it closed in 2003.  Mark attended virtually every home game every year, and he made a point of bringing me to several games each season as I got older.  Mark kept score at a ballgame using his own, highly detailed system (one that I have tried to teach to others in my turn).  But as much as he hated to miss a single play, he never quibbled about getting up to buy me pizza, hot dogs, and sodas, or to take me to the rest room.  All the while he made a point of teaching me fine points about the game, such as the communication between middle infielders, the positioning of the players, and pitch selection.

Mark took me to my first game when I was four, in what was literally a formative moment for me.  Neither my mother nor my father really cared much for sports, but Mark could tell that I did, and encouraged it all the time.  And since he was my hero, it didn't take much encouragement for me to follow along.  Mark kindly took me to out-of-town parks, including a visit to now-vanished fields such as Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1979, Yankee Stadium in 1980, Shea Stadium for the sign day double header in 1982 and Tiger Stadium for my 17th birthday in 1987.  He also took me on overnight trips to Cooperstown during the 1981 strike and to Boston's Fenway Park in 1983, shortly before the birth of his son.  At Boston that weekend, Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski was having the final good series of his career, including a 5-RBI game on Saturday.   As Yaz came to the plate in the fifth, Mark said that if the legend hit a homer, he would name his child "Yaz Lazarus".  Well, #8 hit one to the deepest part of Fenway, missing a homer off the wall of the triangle, and settling for a double.  And that is why my cousin is named Dan.

In 2003, Mark invited me to the final two games at Veterans Stadium.  I have written about this experience elsewhere, but it is safe to say that it was one of the most thrilling and emotional weekends (sports-wise) I've ever experienced.  I am glad that we were able to get some photos to commemorate the experience.  In the picture at right, Mark is wearing his uniform from when he did Phillies "Dream Week", and I am wearing my late father's Phillies cap.  It later got soaked in the rain that fell in buckets that day, and the red color ran all over the P.  So that was the last time that cap was worn.  But I still have it today.

On long drives to ballgames, Mark would often have music playing.  In fact, Mark was the first person I knew with a Sony Walkman ("Take It Easy" by the Eagles was the first song I heard on headphones).  He was a fount of information about progressive rock acts like Yes and Chicago, and of classic rock like Elton John, Billy Joel and most significantly, the Beatles.  I remember being impressed that both Mark AND Lisa had first pressings of the White Album (with the embossed serial number on the front).  I borrowed dozens of his old LP's and they became the cornerstone of my musical appreciation.

As a good child of the late 1960's, Mark had tried to learn how to play guitar, and he gladly loaned me his old instrument when I expressed interest in it in 8th grade.  I played that guitar (with only four strings) for a year before graduating to Lisa's much nicer classical guitar (and lessons) and then to my first real guitar.  And music and guitar are the main hobbies and diversions of my life to this day.  

Mark is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he often turned his intellect to baseball.  He joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), early on, and was published in their journal The National Pastime , as well as in Bill James' Baseball Analyst during the 1980's.  I loved watching Mark do his research (which in that pre-database, pre-computer age, meant reading old issues of The Sporting News and combing the Baseball Encyclopedia), and he could tell.  Mark bought me a book called The Illustrated Book of Baseball Folklore  when I was eight. He inscribed it:

"To Ethan: The best nephew in the world--This is yours to read and enjoy and learn about baseball.  Love Uncle Mark"

Needless to say, I read the book over and over (including once more this past summer).  When Mark's article about HIS boyhood hero, slugger Dick Allen was published in a compilation book by SABR, Mark gave me a copy autographed by himself and Allen.  Mark's inscription read:

"Ethan--To a true baseball historian-- Happy Reading!---Uncle Mark"

By then my path was set.  Mark had given me a membership to SABR when I was 15, and I have maintained it for 27 years.  My first project was to comb the Baseball Encyclopedia for every player born on August 30th (my cousin's birthday).  I went on to write my senior thesis in college, as well as my Master's thesis on baseball related topics.  My favorite moment, however, was  when SABR published an article of mine in The National Pastime and I was able to return to favor and give Mark a copy of the work that he had most certainly inspired.  

When I was young, Mark played in basketball and softball leagues after work.  For reasons not wholly clear to me, the games were played closer to where I lived in Warminster, PA, than they were to his home.  Anyway, I used to love watching Mark get dressed for his games.  There was a ritualistic aspect to his preparations that hinted at a "right way" to do things, and to respect the game.  
Once, when I was 12, I went to one of Mark's softball games.  His team was short players, and faced a forfeit.  I told Mark that I could play, and he trusted me enough to run it past the coach.  The coach, umpire and other team were reluctant to agree, but they relented and I played right field.  I also reached on a walk and a fielder's choice.  After the game, Mark took me to dinner and told me how proud he was when I took the first pitch, stepped out of the box, and got back in for the next pitch.  He said I "looked like a real ballplayer", which meant the world to me.  For years I used to imagine telling this story to Baseball Digest as "The Game I'll Never Forget".

Mark had played baseball for the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University), and regaled me of tales of his hippie teammates, running the bases with long flowing locks coming out of their caps.  Years later, when I helped found the Hampshire College Baseball Collective, I took similar pride in my team of hirsute, unconventional-looking men (and women) who respected the game and tried to play it right.   

My family is not very big, and Mark has always been a key part of it.  My father was sick for most of my life, and Mark definitely bridged the gap between uncle/older brother and father figure.  And after my father died, Mark has been the last "older man" left in my life.   I remember when my father had his lung removed when I was in college, Mark had to be out of town on business.  Mark called the hospital for an update, telling the Intensive Care nurse that he was asking about his "brother".  For my whole life my father was estranged from his actual brother, and when he heard about this act of Mark's, my father was moved deeply.  I'll never forget this.  And while Mark is "only" a relative by marriage, I can't imagine my life without him. Even as I have moved into my 40's, I still look up to him. 

When I think about how eagerly I soaked up everything Mark had to give, whether it was baseball (real or Strat-o-Matic), music, or what have you, I sometimes get embarrassed.  It must have felt strange for Mark to see the hero-worship--I know it would for me.  

But he never made me feel odd or uncomfortable.  I never knew the Mark Lazarus who  was "the only white would-be Black Panther" at a "Free Bobby Seale" rally.  I never knew the 18-year old who made the trip to Chicago to stalk Dick Allen during his 1972 MVP season, while wearing his homemade "Dick Allen Superstar" t-shirt.  And the Mark Lazarus who for two decades was on the cutting edge of performance fabric technology and marketing was only a rumor to me. But the Mark Lazarus I have known, the Mark Lazarus who was the best man at my wedding, who taught me a lot about patience, love and devotion, the person who can send me text messages about the Phillies and Eagles while suffering from a particularly awful cancer will always be a huge part of who I am.   

Happy birthday, Uncle Mark!

UPDATE:  On March 28, 2012, Mark Lazarus finally lost his 15-month long battle with cancer.  He was the model of courage and optimism during the entire time.  When I last saw him 10 days before he died, the disease had almost completely taken hold.  But Mark's sense of humor was still there, he still wanted to talk about the Iggles and Phillies, and most of all his concern and love for his family was still front and foremost with him.  58 years was not nearly enough, but Mark made sure to make the most of his time on Earth. I will never stop missing him.