“I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were/A protest singer/Oh, I can smile about it now/But at the time it was terrible.”
I appreciate Morrissey‘s lyrics as much as the next person. He’s an entertaining chap. But it’s also worth remembering this is also the man who stated, “You can’t help but feel the Chinese people are a subspecies.” So, whilst I love a lot of songs by The Smiths, due to his tendency to sometimes make the most repugnant statements, I don’t love Morrissey. I do however love the acoustic guitar. Whilst we can be forgiven for allowing ourselves a wry chuckle at the aforementioned lyric penned by the Mozfather, an image planted firmly in our heads of the archetypal cringingly earnest folkie, it is worth remembering at a time where governments are plunging to ever deeper depths of despicableness, a bit of protest music is more than called for, whatever the instrumental backing.
Without going into too much detail regarding the evolution of the actual instrument, the acoustic guitar, be it of a somewhat smaller frame, was largely the same as it is today by the 19th century. This simple continuity is comforting. Sit down and strum a chord and you’re not doing something all that different to someone 100 or even 200 years ago. As a teenager the acoustic guitar was appealing. Not least because of Nirvana‘s Unplugged in New York album. This not only demonstrated Nirvana had great songs because they worked so well in that format, it simply made the acoustic guitar cool again. Suddenly it seemed like everyone was at it – all the rock bands were ensuring they made space on their albums for a quiet acoustic number or two. I certainly didn’t squirm à la Morrissey at the sight of an acoustic guitar when I was growing up, the acoustic guitar was fashionable as far as my age group was concerned, whether protest was the order of the day or not.
Perhaps because the music of my youth was inherently retro and also because mine was a generation closer to the previous in its tastes than any other, be it listening to The Beatles or smoking marijuana, my exposure to acoustic music was not only grounded in the artists of the era I was living in, but also the music of the 60s and 70s that my parents grew up on. If Bob Dylan could once be thought of as a protest singer, then the acoustic guitar and singing truth to power were certainly fine by me.
Yes Dylan went electric, but this was in no way controversial by the 1990s when In Utero and Unplugged in New York could happily coexist in a teenager’s CD collection. Not particularly sophisticated in my tastes in my younger years, it wouldn’t be until my twenties that I began to allow the music of Joni Mitchell to begin seeping into my expanding musical consciousness, her dazzling use of alternative open tunings helping make her up there with the best and most innovative of acoustic players, necessity being the mother of invention given that a childhood bout of polio had left her fingers too frail to play the guitar in any other way. Her immense talent makes it easy to see why Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were and are such big Joni fans, much of their music too, underpinned by acoustic guitar, be it collectively or in their solo guises.
When David Bowie came on the scene in his Ziggy incarnation, it is worth noting, despite the otherworldly imagery and music, much of his material was shaped around the trusty acoustic guitar, be it in the form of a 12-string. And Bowie’s music was arguably a form of protest too, not only despite his ambiguity but also purely because of it.
One of my favourite acoustic players has to be Bert Jansch. Anyone studying Jansch’s moody stare on the front cover of his eponymous 1965 debut album must surely agree this is a figure that epitomizes cool; not to forget long time inspirational collaborator to Jansch and acoustic visionary Davey Graham. Similarly cool in his aloofness but a much more tragic figure is of course Nick Drake. You could assert either one of these guitarists to be to the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric – truly boundary breaking and jaw-dropping in their proficiency and range of expression.
Whilst Jimi Hendrix was no slouch when it came to playing an acoustic guitar either, it was his psychedelic brand of blues music in general which first turned me on to the genre and in turn encouraged me to go further back and listen to the true pioneers. The early legends too of course were acoustic players, and anyone seeking to hear more in this vein would do well to investigate the music of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and, of course, Robert Johnson. There are countless more. And be in no doubt of course there was plenty of protest running through the output of these artists.
So much changes yet so much stays the same. Whilst the early blues performers existed at a time where the acoustic guitar was ideally suited to their context in that it was easy to pick up and play anytime and anywhere, providing you were equipped with the requisite talent, the musical landscape of today is of course wildly altered. Notwithstanding, whilst the acoustic guitar must now compete with all manner of diverse musical genres and fight for its own space, this is still a world in which Ed Sheeran can sell out Wembley Stadium thus the acoustic guitar is still very much a force to be reckoned with. And if you ever witness Jon Gomm playing an acoustic guitar you will be left in no doubt whatsoever it is an instrument that retains a mind boggling range of possibilities.
The ease of use of the acoustic of course remains unchanged after all these years. In this very locality we regularly witness the virtues of the acoustic approach in relation to Hangzhou-based label Medic Independent Records. Label co-founder John Carroll, whilst offering support to other emerging artists, is a talented songsmith in his own right and a modern acoustic pioneer, in the sense he is surely one of the first foreigners to tour solo extensively around China under his own steam, unable to resist the urge to independently explore what, to Westerners, by and large, is still the great unknown. The spirit of Woody Guthrie can indeed be found in the most unexpected places. In addition it is notable that Carroll, alongside other acts associated with the Medic roster such as Kelly Dance, and William Gray, although often recording and releasing music with a fuller sound, are equally adept at stripping it all down and performing solo, and have indeed been quick to exploit the advantages of doing so.
In essence, the acoustic guitar is supremely adaptable. If they can play, all a performer needs is to strap a 6-string on their back and hit the road, or increasingly in China’s case, the high-speed rail network. No carrying around heavy equipment. No need for lengthy sound checks. No endless search for the right band members. Instant music. Just add performer. The acoustic guitar will always be inherently cool if only for the power it concentrates in one pair of hands and, in turn, the freedom to explore both sound and geography this represents. No amount of protest will ever change that.