The Big Question: Laura Barton argues that the reach of its six strings makes the guitar more articulate than any other instrument...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
This spring a musician friend sent me a link to a video of a man busking by a kerb in Botswana (http://youtu.be/Tx4cRw6TIIg). On his lap rested a cheap guitar, its belly felt-tipped with an ad for pineapples at five pula each. As he played, his right hand strummed, and his left hand spiralled up and down the fret, as if he was alternately pressing the keys of a piano and operating a loom. The sound was irresistible, run through with a high, looping giddiness.
A few days later there was a media playback of Jack White’s album “Blunderbuss” at County Hall in London. White is one of the world’s finest guitarists, famed for his potent, scrawling style, and this is his first solo album. In the quiet of the debating chamber, the air was suddenly filled with a guitar that was deliciously ferocious, stalking and slavering and snarling its way around the room.
Together, the two moments made a glorious illustration of the reach of those six strings—not only their variety and versatility, but their extraordinary articulacy. I love the roar of a guitar, the screech and the rush of it, loud, electric, charged. But I love it lonely too — the strange, twisting quality of Blind Willie Johnson playing “Dark Was the Night”, speaking to the spine as much as the ear. Or the sweet steel guitar of Bon Iver’s “Flume”, a sound so fine, so taut, it seems to play on the veins, the blood, the heart.
And perhaps this is the essence of the guitar: its sheer physicality. Over the 4,000 years that it has shadowed man, from the tanburs of ancient Egypt to the Fenders of today, it has evolved breath and voice, sinews and muscle, to become an instrument that is not so much heard, appreciated and appraised, as felt on the skin and in the guts.
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Laura Barton is a novelist and Guardian feature writer. She has curated 12 concerts that are being staged this year in a boat on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London