Cutting Contest

Sekhnet took me to see the incomparable Tommy Emmanuel at Town Hall last night.   He put on his usual great show, playing with virtuosity and joy throughout.   It’s a unique experience being moved by some beautiful and complicated playing and at virtually the same instant laughing at some offhand shtick the guy does at the same time.   The man is that good.   If you ever get a chance to see Tommy live, just go see him.

It’s clear watching him play how much he loves what he is doing.  He got that good because, in addition to the talent that God gave him, he loved what he was doing enough to do it for a million hours over the decades.  His joy and sense of how much fun he’s having is infectious.   After his opening number I turned to the guy next to me, another guitarist, and said “damn, he just keeps getting better!”  My neighbor agreed.  “Like a fine wine,” he said with a satisfied smile.

It was something the guy next to me said before the show that inspires what I’m thinking about now.   We were discussing guitarists we admire and at one point I mentioned some younger blues players I’d heard for the first time in recent years, including a passionate player named Jonny Lang.   He nodded and told me I should check out the youtube of Lang and Eric Gales trading riffs.  He’d started the conversation telling me about Gales.   

“At one point the crowd is urging Gales to cut Lang, and you can see the results, I mean Lang didn’t have a chance ….”

I stopped him to say I never got the point of cutting contests.  We didn’t get a chance to pursue the subject further, because Tommy Emmanuel took the stage and that was that.

You can read about cutting contests going all the way back.  A great trumpet player came to town, there was a jam session after the show.  The local trumpet king would bring his horn and proceed to try to out-blow the star trumpet player.  It was like gunslingers, making a name for themselves by outdrawing the fastest gun in the west.   It always struck me as an idiotic misuse of talent, an ego-driven exercise in being an asshole.  Or a killer.

As a guitar player I’ve found myself in these situations a few times over the years at jam sessions.   The session is, to some guitarists, not about playing the best music we can invent, it’s about proving who is the best guitar player.  To me the best guitar player is the one who always plays exactly what you want to hear in the music.  Nice inversions of chords set perfectly against what the singer is singing.  A little bass riff that sets up what another instrument is doing.   One note, vibrating plaintively against a series of harmonies.  Sometimes it’s playing your ass off in tandem with another instrument, riffing off what the other player is doing.  I never see it as a contest and if I’m in a room where others do, it can sometimes be a long session.

A cutting contest has nothing to do with tasteful collaboration.   It’s about showing off.  It is a no holds barred competition for who is top dog.  I never understood that shit.  I know that professional musicians are often egotistical and competitive, that’s how they get to the the top of their game.  I suppose the cutting contest has some place in that world, though I’m pretty sure not everyone in that world engages in cutting contests.

But in a group of pissants renting a practice room to make some joyful noise? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?   Who is the best pissant guitarist?  Really, this is a question you think should be answered now?  Determining matters of dominance and submission instead of pursuing the highest quality musical interaction we can come up with?   

Ranking professional guitarists is dumb in any event, it’s largely a matter of taste.   Vying for supremacy with other amateur guitarists is useless at best.  You can play with virtually anyone unless they play out of tune, off time, too loud.    If you don’t like the way they play you don’t play with them anymore.  But a cutting contest among pissant guitarists?  This really how you want to waste our precious time?  Figuring out who will get to solo and who will hold down the rhythm part?

Tommy Emmanuel told a story that illuminated the issue beautifully.   His mother loved to sing and strummed a guitar and later took up lap steel guitar.   She needed an accompanist for her lap steel playing and, around the time Tommy began kindergarten, she taught him a few chords on guitar and he became her rhythm guitar player.   He couldn’t wait for school to be over so he could run home and play rhythm guitar for his mother.    His older brother Phil soon thereafter took up guitar, and he too wanted Tommy to play rhythm behind him.   He did it happily, for years.

The guitarists I love best, and I think mainly of Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt in this regard, were brilliant rhythm players.  Jimi said all guitar playing is rhythm guitar playing, and it made a big impression on me.  Django could play an accompaniment like nobody’s business, hard to imagine anyone doing it better.  If you can’t play the rhythm part to one of Django’s tunes, you have no hope of playing any other part of it.

When I was learning to play two guitarists would take turns playing rhythm guitar and lead guitar.  Think of the Beatles in their early rock ‘n roll days, John banged out the rhythm part that moved the band, along with the bass and drums, and George played the cool fills and riffs and took the solos.  We’d take turns.  I became a pretty good rhythm player, and I took pride in playing a solid rhythm part.  Sometimes another player would be so inspired by the solid rhythm part I was laying down he’d solo forever, which soured the whole thing for me.

I don’t know how much of the cutting contest mentality is a result of a capitalist mindset that endlessly compares endlessly competing entities and how much is just homo sapiens nature.   We are, after all, largely powerless, and often pissed off, and trying to unsee the terror we know awaits each one of us at the end of our mortal days.  Maybe that fleeting feeling of supremacy when we step on somebody who’s a little weaker is the best we’re going to get that day.   Count me out of that shit.  I’m busy trying to complete a reasonable written accounting of myself while I’m here.

By the way, I enjoyed the clip of Jonny Lang and Eric Gales.  Gales is great.  I don’t think anybody is cutting anybody here.  They are making a joyful noise.  If you like rock and blues guitar, check ’em out (no idea what’s up with Lang’s hairdo, or Gales’ for that matter).  Here you go.

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