Guitar heroes and the riffs you always loved

July 12, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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Tony Sarabia:

I take no shame in admitting that as early as an eight-year-old I was already pretty proficient at air guitar. Back in about 1971, me and a group of friends had a "band" for a spell. There were no real instruments, and we only lip synced to songs. I was the lead vocalist most of the time and handled guitar duty, using a large stick as my instrument. Oh, the concerts we gave under our family’s carport.

The musical gene skipped me and blessed my two older sons, who are rather talented guitarists.

There probably isn’t a tween out there who doesn’t fantasize about playing guitar; no matter where in the world they live. Some succeed while others like me are destined to watch and admire from the sidelines.

Last week I listened, with great admiration, to a guitarist cruise through a series of riffs of some of rock and roll’s most well-known tunes. Alex Chadwick plays guitar pretty well and when he’s not playing, he sells guitars and related gear at Chicago Music Exchange. He was telling his story about his now wildly popular 100 Riffs (A Brief History of Rock and Roll) video on Weekend Edition Sunday and it hit me — let’s devote our Thursday hour to guitar music and get Alex on to turn us on to some of his favorite guitarists and play a few riffs.

"Favorite" lists are almost always cumbersome and definitely always incomplete. And because we only have an hour, our selections are slim. We don’t even scratch the surface of all the greats that have graced and continue to grace our ears. I should give props here to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the few female blues guitarists from the first part of the 20th century and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Julian and Alex Sarabia, two of my sons who are also talented players. Below are three picks that I wanted share.

This former shepherd, djembe and ngoni player is considered Mali’s greatest guitarist: Djelimady Tounkara grew up in a family of griots-storytellers who use music to spin yarns. When he moved from the small but culturally rich town of Kita to Bamako in the 1960s he was planning on becoming a tailor, but music lured him from that path. He soon became a member of one of Mali’s many government sponsored orchestra’s and was voted best guitarist. That distinction landed the young player a slot with the highly popular Orchestre National as rhythm guitarist. But he’s most known for his work as electric guitarist with the legendary Rail Band which created some of its greatest work in the  1970s.

Tounkara was invited to be part of the Buena Vista Social Club sessions along with other Malian musicians but that original idea never materialized due to a host of factors. More than a decade later producer Nick Gold dusted off the plan and in 2010 released Afrocubism, a collection of Cuban and Malian musicians cross pollinating ideas. "Djelimady’s Rhumba" is from that album and it’s a superb display of Tounkara’s finger style picking. The sound exemplifies the importance and vast creativity of African players who are often overlooked by guitar fans here in the U.S.

From Mali we travel to Hungary for music from one of my favorite players: Gabor Szabo.  

Szabo got his first (and rather junky) guitar when he was 14 years old and was first influenced by guitar wielding singing cowboy Roy Rogers. The self-taught player fled Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, slipping past Russian soldiers with nothing but his guitar in tow.

He ended up in San Bernardino, Cali., and started a band called the Three Strings but despite his modest success in Hungarian clubs, film and television, Szabo had a hard time breaking into the U.S. music scene. It wasn’t until after enrolling into the Berklee College of Music that he began to meet musicians that would help him in his career, specifically drummer Chicago Hamilton. Szabo’s bluesy staccato style is featured on a number of Hamilton’s albums.  

"Sophisticated Wheels" is from the 1966 release Jazz Raga (one of musician Beck’s favorites). The sound is the result of Szabo’s growing interest in Eastern music and wanting to fuse rock and jazz, not to mention his new found respect for the Beatles and rock music in general.

The album opens with a slow but somewhat bright sounding number called Walking on Nails which starts with the lyric, “Be wary of the ground you walk, be cautious of the words you talk." It’s all very psychedelic — complete with sitar which Szabo plays on a few tunes. Sophisticated Wheels is the eighth of 11 numbers on the album and it’s a cooker. The format is trimmed to a trio from a quartet with sitar overdubs. Szabo’s blues drenched playing is on fire from the top; it’s three minutes and 55 seconds of musical bliss that you can shimmy to with abandon.

Ernie Isley is one of the unsung guitar heroes whom Eric Clapton needs to tap for his guitar festival (don’t get me started on the lack of innovation when it comes to programming that fest). True, Ernie is more rock than blues, but hey when you have Jimi Hendrix living in your family’s house and then serving as a guitarist early on for the Isley Brothers — what more needs to be said about that?

Ernie taught himself to play when he was 16 years old after hearing Jose Feliciano’s guitar work on the Doors’ "Light My Fire."  Ernie didn’t start playing guitar for his older brother’s band until the Isley Brothers’ early 1970s albums, but he was playing drums for the band when he was 14 years old!

I was going to go with Ernie’s solo on "Who’s That Lady" but I think his near four minute guitar solo closing out "Hope You Feel Better Love Part 1 & 2" from the classic album The Heat Is On, really showcases his chops.

These picks certainly don’t possess any recognizable guitar riffs such as the 100 Riffs Chicago guitarist Alex Chadwick rips through in just over 12 minutes. However, they represent some of the most creative guitarist the world has known.

And speaking of Alex; here are his three picks:

"Peaches en Regalia," Frank Zappa
"Green Onions," Booker T and the MG’s
"Rude Mood," Stevie Ray Vaughan

Richard Steele:

Fareed Haque was raised in Chicago by his Pakistani dad and his Chilean mom. That background, along with his extensive travels, exposed him to many different kinds of music from a very early age. Couple that with extensive guitar study and it’s easy to understand why Haque is recognized as a virtuoso in both classical and jazz music circles. He teaches jazz and classical guitar studies at the university level. Last year, he set the stage on fire at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. On this Neil Young composition, you can hear some of Haque’s Middle Eastern influences. The composition is called “Country Girl.”              

Freddie Green is often said to be the man who revolutionized the role of rhythm guitar during his 50 years with the Count Basie Orchestra. Jazz impresario John Hammond discovered Freddie playing at a small New York club and liked what he heard so much, Hammond set up an audition with the Basie Band. Green was with the band from 1937 to 1987.

Tenor sax Paul Quinchette told “All About Jazz” that part of Green’s musical legend was that “the band could always rely on Freddie to keep the tempo.” The other unique thing about him was his allegiance to playing a totally acoustic instrument. Because his playing was all chords, he rarely took a solo in the Basie band and practically never recorded as a solo artist. This recording is the closest thing I could find to that. It’s a duo effort with guitarist Herb Ellis who plays melody. The composition is called “Orange, Brown and Green.”          

Emily Remler was a superb jazz guitarist with eclectic tastes. When she started playing guitar as a 10-year-old, she was really into rock music. Years later when she was studying at Berklee College of Music, Remler was bitten by the jazz bug, and from then until her untimely death in 1980 at the age of 32, she explored the various forms. Wes Montgomery’s phenomenal style had a major influence on her playing. Several jazz critics observed that Remler was really beginning to find her own voice at the time of her death. She had formed collaborations with some “smooth jazz” artists like David Benoit. She was touring in Australia when she had a fatal heart attack.          

This music is an excerpt from a video of a training session Remler did. According to the description accompanying the video, the improvised blues tune is a combination of Wes Montgomery’s "D Natural Blues" and Thelonius Monk’s "Blue Monk."