Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guitar Workshop: John Fahey

These days, you can find any number of collections of sacred hymns and Christmas carols adapted to fingerpicking guitar. All of them owe a debt to the man who defied all convention in his day, and did it first.

John Fahey (1939-2001) (shown here with his mother in 1945) grew up in the town of Takoma Park, Maryland, just north of DC. "Takoma" was also the name of his first and self-made label, having no idea how to promote his unusual guitar work to established record companies. Much of what was written about him was apocryphal to varying degrees. He would often live out his bluesman persona under the name "Blind Joe Death," often convincing the uninitiated that he was actually a poor black man from down South. (Was there such a person? We may never know.) Although his success was marred by ill health, drinking, and a tumultuous personal life, Fahey was instrumental in the creation of a style known as "American Primitive," and the acceptance of the guitar in folk music, as more than the balladeer's backdrop.

Our first video clip is from the Laura Webber 1969 show "Guitar, Guitar", where he plays “In Christ There Is No East Or West”, a traditional Anglican hymn. The beauty of this hymn shows the combination of classical and blues playing elements, which was unheard of before the 1960s. Most chord progressions are in the first position, except for the occasional reach of the high notes. This makes the work readily accessible to the intermediate player.

In this next clip, the lesson continues, as seen on the DVD "The Guitar Of John Fahey (Volume One)" produced by guitarist and musicologist Stefan Grossman. While the previous clip is instructive in itself, Fahey takes the time to walk the viewer through certain parts. You can see that a hard life has already taken its toll on him, but not at the expense of his playing. You can find out more about the complete video at

Last but certainly not least, is this recording from the 1968 Takoma album “The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album.” This particular piece of vinyl has been in the collection of yours truly for over thirty years. The listener will notice that the lowest E string has been dropped to a D (hence the term "dropped D tuning"). This was among the least complicated of Fahey's special tunings. Like the other hymn, "Joy to the World" is also easy to learn, and you just might have enough time to get it down for that special day.

If anyone were to ask me why I no longer play for "folk Masses," I could give them some liturgical or theological reason, but my reticence actually began with artistic reasons. Even in "contemporary" choirs, the guitar is not treated as a serious instrument, but as mere window dressing for your typical parish diva. Any semblance of light and shade in the accompaniment is left to a "real" musician playing the piano as if to back up a nightclub singer.

That's the long explanation. The short one is, I don't get to play like Fahey.

Don't let that stop YOU.

(More information on the life and work of John Fahey can be found at Wikipedia, at, or at the Blind Joe Death Memorial Site.)

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