John Wheatcroft examines the impressive style of modern blues phenomenon, Jonny Lang.
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jonny Lang has enjoyed a career approaching two decades, with five albums in the Billboard top 50, a Grammy on his mantlepiece, and a cameo in The Blues Brothers 2000 movie. Add to this a remarkably successful touring and recording schedule both as a solo artist, sharing stages with legends such as The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, BB King and Sting, and also as a regular member of the Experience Hendrix touring line-up. While these are undeniably significant achievments, what’s even more impressive is the fact that that he’s still just 33!
Jonny began playing at age 12 and literally hit the road running, recording his first independently released album, Smokin’ aged just 14, with his major label debut following a year or so later. Lang’s playing, and perhaps even more impressively his singing, possessed a maturity, authenticity and sophistication far beyond his years. From that point until this he has released a steady stream of releases, toured relentlessly and developed a voice as a solid and secure songwriter, and continued to progress as one of the most interesting contemporary musicians on the scene today.
Not content to restrict his music purely to the blues-rock idiom, Lang’s sound is equally inspired by Motown, soul and R&B; even contempory pop artists such as Prince and Michael Jackson continue to colour his sound. But it’s as a guitar player that his blues and rock roots truly come into the foreground. His playing is energetic, exciting and hugely expressive and dynamic, with great tone and phrasing to boot. Jonny sounds like a real ‘seat of the pants’ player, always in the moment and spontaneously creating ideas on the spot rather than trotting out a collection of preconceived and meticulously practiced licks and lines night after night. No, Jonny is really prepared to walk the improvisational tighrope, taking chances along the way - and his playing sounds all the more exciting and impressive for it.
There are five examples for your delectation this month and, as always, these are the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Jonny is capable of but serve as introductory illustrations of the inner working of his phrasing, note selection, conceptual approaces and ideas.
In the study of language it is common to consider any phrase from both a surface and a deep structure level, with ‘deep’ relating to the impulse or intention and ‘surface’ relating to the method employed to realise this goal, utilising a remarkble device known as ‘transformational grammar’.
The musical parallel could be considered in terms of concepts and ideas forming the ‘deep’ structure relating to specific musical phrases and licks; and the ‘surface’, where any such underlying theme or device can be expressed in an infinite number of ways by employing transformations in phrasing, note placement, selection and suchlike. With this in mind, be sure to live with each example for a while and aim to create your own variations on a theme, aiming to initialise any specific musical concepts and devices that take your fancy along the way!
Just because I’ve been able to play with great musicians my whole life, the learning curve was a lot steeper.
Jonny Lang: the precocious kid is now the real deal