The Memphis Effect

As mentioned in my last post, going to Memphis had an effect on me. One thing that it affected that I didn’t have the space to mention was how I was influenced musically.

First, let me tell you about American museums (or at least museums in Memphis): unlike here in Toronto (I’m thinking of the ROM) where you are basically in an Ikea and are able to roam about and find the exits freely, the museums I went to in Memphis (namely the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) subscribed to a similar script. First, thou shalt sit and watch an obligatory documentary for at least 12 minutes before entering said museum. Second, after said documentary has been screened, thou shalt exit through appointed theatre exits and continue through a prescribed path until the gift shop approacheth, not unlike a mouse in a maze.

Thing is, during the Stax documentary (which was very well done, as was the NCRM doc), I witnessed the apparition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Now, if you have a decent knowledge of rock-and-roll, you might have heard Sister Tharpe’s name as an early influence on the genre. This is similar to how some of us might hear the name Kepler attributed to astronomy or Cruyff as pertains soccer. I sat there on that Saturday afternoon (I was amongst a cohort of three people) and watched an excerpt of her performing the gospel standard Down By The Riverside with a choir behind her, ripping into her white Gibson SG for a ridiculously soulful guitar solo.

That did it.

Leaving Stax, I proceeded to watch everything I could on Tharpe, with particular attention to her electric guitar performances. This was not someone playing rhythm guitar while she sang, strumming chords. Just as her voice had a beautiful, soaring quality with a lot of power behind it, so did her guitar work. Technically and tonally she was (and is) extremely expressive, demonstrating a vocabulary of electric guitar playing that predated rock-and-roll as we know it, combining both religious and secular gospel with R&B. There are a number of good places to read more about her — here’s one. And another. It’s no surprise that when she was finally (belatedly) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard who introduced her.

But I wanted more. I was inspired to the degree that I wanted to explore what I saw beyond listenership. And so I did my research, and after a couple of weeks, I located a guitar teacher. And after a lesson or two, I ended up locating a semi-hollowbody guitar — an Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93 (pictured) that someone was selling because they weren’t finding use for it.

An Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93

I play drums and can do adequate keyboards, but I’ve never (ever) wanted to learn to play guitar (just magically “play” it? Sure, but not actually learn the thing), despite the fact that some of the greatest influences on me are from guitar-driven music. Learning guitar is a strange yet rewarding process of teaching the increasingly calloused finger tips of my left hand to traverse the frets and coordinate themselves, touching the strings at first hesitantly, then, with practice, confidently. Oh, and then there are the pickups, the tuning, the tremolo bar. I’m not doing this because I want to start a band or play on stage, but rather because I’m drawn to this process, and a relationship that I am building with the instrument.

What am I learning? Mostly surf and rockabilly, for the time being.

Here’s more SRT: