Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guitar Workshop: Doc Watson Reconsidered

This week's Guitar Workshop is a special edition, dedicated to the life and work of Doc Watson, one of the preeminent guitar players in the world of American roots music. Tributes have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, and even in Forbes magazine. This forum cannot do justice to the length and breadth of his life and his music, so we'll give you the short version here, and concentrate on his unique playing technique.

Arthel Lane Watson was born in 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina, where he continued to reside for his entire life. An eye infection took its toll by his first birthday, leaving him blind ever since.

His first guitar was a ten-dollar Stella, bought through a Sears Roebuck catalog. It was early in his musical career, preparing for a live radio broadcast, when somebody who presumed to be an expert on such things thought his name was too odd. Someone in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" in reference to Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, Doctor Watson. The name stuck, and whether because of it, or in spite of it, success followed.

Yesterday's clip of Watson playing "Deep River Blues" showed his prowess at Travis-style fingerpicking. But it was as a flatpicker that Doc made his mark on American folk music.

Doc played for local dances as a young man. Old-time country dances were usually led by the music of a banjo and the fiddle, often with the latter calling the moves for the dance. But western swing dances were also popular in the southern mountain towns by the 1950s. Whichever it was, a fiddle player was not always available to set the tone, so Doc learned fiddle tunes on the guitar, which was uncommon of at the time. He played them on a Gibson Les Paul, a solid body electric. Being plugged in was better suited not only to western swing, but to the "rockabilly" music that was popular then, and Doc became proficient there as well. This convergence of genres was the inspiration of his playing style, influencing virtually every bluegrass picker who was to follow.

When he was "discovered" by folklorist Ralph Rinzler in 1960, the folk music craze had already taken off, and Ralph urged Doc to return to the music he heard during his youth, for a new generation of listeners. The money would have been better than with tuning pianos as he had been doing, so Doc stuck with the acoustic guitar (a bottom-of-the-line Martin D-18 was his first decent acoustic model) and the mountain-style banjo for the remainder of his career. What was once a background instrument in country music earlier in the century, came to front and center stage as a lead instrument before its end.

Our first clip is a typical fiddle tune played in Doc signature style, "Black Mountain Rag." His combination of Carter-style licks, melody runs, and crosspicking is technically flawless. The second clip is a more up-close-and-personal look at his style, with another classic tune, "Salt Creek," performed by Doc himself, and assisted by instructor Steve Kaufman, in a lesson from the DVD "Flatpicking with Doc," available at Homespun Music Instruction. Another sample from this series is available as an instant download here, and the series itself, recommended for intermediate players, is available here.

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