IN­STRU­MEN­TAL in­qui­si­tion!

In­stru­men­tals have sup­plied some of mu­sic’s most evoca­tive mo­ments. We asked some top gui­tarists for their take on this iconic move­ment. This month: slide guitarist ex­traor­di­naire Sonny Lan­dreth.

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GT: What is it about in­stru­men­tals that ap­peals to you?

SL: There is an ab­stract qual­ity that I have al­ways been drawn to wherein the lis­tener is free to con­jure up im­agery as in­spired by the emo­tions they ex­pe­ri­ence from the mu­sic. Lyrics, though I love them dearly, lit­er­ally spell out one story whereas a good in­stru­men­tal can in­spire im­agery of many dif­fer­ent sto­ries and emo­tions in dif­fer­ent lis­ten­ers.

GT: What can an in­stru­men­tal pro­vide a lis­tener that a vo­cal can’t?

SL: There is some­thing in­tan­gi­ble and quite pro­found that res­onates in a more in­di­vid­ual and per­son­nel way. Maybe peo­ple just at­tach a strong emo­tion to a melody or a se­ries of chord changes that re­minds them of some­thing that is or was im­por­tant to them.

GT: Any ten­den­cies that you em­brace or avoid – rhythms, har­mony, play­ing ap­proach, tones?

SL: Well, melody is para­mount and it needs to come from an hon­est place and have in­tegrity. That’s what makes a great in­stru­men­tal so mem­o­rable. But of course, har­mony and rhythm are su­per im­por­tant too. Any ap­proach to all of the above is valid so long as the end re­sult is cre­ative and has an el­e­ment of sur­prise. One thing I try not to do is to re­peat a theme too of­ten. I don’t want to run it into the ground.

GT: Is a typ­i­cal song struc­ture – verse, cho­rus, mid­dle eight - use­ful?

SL: That for­mula is un­doubt­edly tried and true and I do think it’s im­por­tant to have both a good un­der­stand­ing of it and to be com­pe­tent us­ing it. I just think that it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily al­ways the way to go. I like the un­ex­pected.

GT: How use­ful is study­ing a vo­cal­ist’s ap­proach?

SL: There is po­ten­tially tremen­dous ben­e­fit to that. Learn­ing to cre­ate a vo­cal-like qual­ity with your in­stru­ment is a ma­jor step in achiev­ing a sound that is your own.

GT: How do you start writ­ing one?

SL: I hon­estly can’t ex­plain it as mu­sic has al­ways seemed to just come to me. I would sug­gest start­ing with a feel­ing about some­thing that truly moves you and try to ar­tic­u­late that with a par­tic­u­lar sound or tone and see where that takes you. Try to not get dis­tracted by pre­con­ceived no­tions and just let it fly.

GT: What do you aim for when your per­for­mance is cen­tre stage?

SL: I strive to find my way to the top of my po­ten­tial in that very mo­ment. Oth­er­wise it’s the same as a vo­cal per­for­mance in that I want the mu­sic to touch peo­ple and, for at least a while, for­get about their trou­bles.

GT: Many vo­cal songs fea­ture a solo that starts low and slow and fin­ishes high and fast. Is this struc­ture use­ful for in­stru­men­tal writ­ing?

SL: Yes, but I would say that build­ing a solo is more about a dy­namic shift in in­ten­sity and that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to in­clude play­ing fast at the end of it. One big note that truly says some­thing, is worth more than a flurry of them that doesn’t re­ally say any­thing or go any­where.

GT: What type of gui­tar tone do you pre­fer for in­stru­men­tals?

SL: I like a fat­ter tone in gen­eral but I’m al­ways open to what­ever sounds I think best serve the song. Like dif­fer­ent colours on a pal­ette to make a paint­ing.

GT: Favourite keys or tem­pos?

SL: I like to re­late keys to in­di­vid­ual tun­ings like E and A for more ten­sion and har­mon­ics and I like the looser, slack key tun­ings like G and D for blue­sier pieces. Tem­pos? I’m not par­tial to any par­tic­u­lar one but I do like prac­tis­ing with a click or metronome. It’s a good dis­ci­pline for de­vel­op­ing a keen sense of them all.

GT: Do you find Mi­nor or Ma­jor keys eas­ier to write in?

SL: I’m not sure about eas­ier but I have al­ways grav­i­tated to­wards the Mi­nor keys. I love the moody vibe, it feels deeper, some­how.

GT: Favourite modes?

SL: There is some­thing mys­te­ri­ous about Ly­dian that I never tire of.

GT: Mo­du­la­tions into new keys?

SL: Maybe it’s be­cause of all those John Philip Sousa marches that I played on trum­pet in my high school march­ing band, but I’m not a huge fan of mod­u­lat­ing. It’s just been done so much for so long by so many that I usu­ally pre­fer not to.

GT: Do you view the band dif­fer­ently than you would on a vo­cal song?

SL: No, be­cause it’s not so dif­fer­ent from the solo sec­tion of a song with lyrics. Still needs to be played with pas­sion and with con­vic­tion.

GT: What are your views on har­mon­is­ing melodies?

SL: It sure is po­tent when it ex­pands the scope of a song like the All­man Brothers did, but not ev­ery­one has that kind of mojo. With us mor­tals, it can seem me­thod­i­cal and too thought out. But when it’s taste­ful and soul­ful, it’s a grand thing.

GT: What three gui­tar in­stru­men­tals have in­spired you?

SL: I’ll go with some that started me on my path when I was barely a teenager. The Ven­tures’ ver­sion of Walk Don’t Run pushed me into the dis­cov­ery of barre chords in stan­dard tun­ing; Chet Atkins’ ver­sion of JD Lou­d­er­milk’s Windy And Warm for learn­ing how to fin­ger­pick; and Santo & Johnny’s Sleep­walk for its lyri­cal melan­choly that was early slide-speak to me from a steel gui­tar in chordal tun­ing.


Sonny Lan­dreth play­ing his gor­geous cut­away res­onator

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