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Free Your Guitar, Free Your Mind

Sonny Sharrock (pictured here with Linda Sharrock, then his wife) approach his guitar like Albert Ayler played his saxophone — fiercely, yet tenderly out of bounds.
Courtesy of the artist
Sonny Sharrock (pictured here with Linda Sharrock, then his wife) approach his guitar like Albert Ayler played his saxophone — fiercely, yet tenderly out of bounds.

The electric guitar has only existed since the 1930s, but it's spawned an amazing amount of innovation, in both construction and technique. The electric guitar already has some weighty history behind it: As with classical music and the violin, or jazz and the saxophone, rock music has claimed the six-stringer as its own. But while rock gives the electric guitar fire, avant-garde jazz musicians often re-think the instrument beyond its basic, melody- and rhythm-based functions.

Musicians such as Sonny Sharrock eschew standard conventions and instead approach the guitar as a device of pure sound. Here are five guitarists who turned the guitar inside out; if you have more to recommend, please do so in the comments below.

For more entries in NPR Music's weekly Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler series, click here.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Free Your Guitar, Free Your Mind

Sonny Sharrock

"Many Mansions"

From 'Ask the Ages'

Sonny Sharrock said it best himself: "I consider myself a jazz saxophonist with a very [expletive] horn." Like many, Sharrock fell in love with jazz when he discovered Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. His asthma prevented him from playing the saxophone, so Sharrock took up the guitar instead. But he played the guitar like Albert Ayler played the sax — fiercely, yet tenderly out of bounds. Sharrock's experiments with feedback predated Jimi Hendrix, and decades later, his punk-jazz supergroup Last Exit (featuring saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson) brought free-improvisation to heavy-metal decibels. Sharrock was also one of the few jazz guitarists who knew when to shred and when to be a bandleader. Jazz legends Pharoah Sanders (saxophone) and Elvin Jones (drums) had been resting on their laurels until their date on Sharrock's 1991 swan song, Ask the Ages. But Sharrock brought out the best in them: Sanders had never blown harder; Jones had never explored his kit further. "Many Mansions" features Sharrock's key strength on Ask the Ages — a melody that evolves from the whole band, yet allows each voice to be heard without the standard band-solo-band-solo structure. Sharrock himself takes a slide to the bridge and beats mercilessly, but also exhales with grace. Where to go next: Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman, Last Exit's Koln.

James Blood Ulmer

"Revelation March"

From 'Tales of Captain Black'

Coming up in the same decade as Sonny Sharrock, but with a different approach, was James Blood Ulmer. Ornette Coleman took Ulmer under his wing to teach him the indescribable music philosophy of "harmolodics." Ulmer mostly knots his fingers around chords instead of flying up and down the fretboard with single-note runs. It makes for awkward funk music with a beat you can almost dance to, jolting and jittering like a sugar rush gone wonderfully wrong. Now woefully out of print, Tales of Captain Black was Ulmer's first date as a leader in 1978, with "Revelation March" as his battle cry. Perhaps by pure talent or happy accident, "Revelation March" successfully creates an audio component to harmolodics' generally visual description — it paints multiple sounds as colors. Where to go next: Ornette Coleman's Dancing in Your Head (featuring guitarists Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee), Derek Bailey's unexpectedly funky Mirakle.

Masayuki Takayanagi

"Mass Hysterism IV"

From 'Mass Hysterism: In Another Situation'

The Japanese often take Western music forms and not only turn them inside-out, but also tear them apart to create something new. Guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi developed his technique outside of American and English free-jazz forms, unaware of forward-thinking musicians such as Derek Bailey. Under his "mass projection" approach, Takayanagi and his various ensembles (most notably the New Direction Unit) would layer on as much sound as aurally possible. The full-on assault caused riots, including one heard on La Grima, a concert performed for reported Japanese radicals in 1971. It's not hard to hear why: Takayanagi's hailstorm of noise was 20 or 30 years ahead of its time. Now, noise enthusiasts such as Thurston Moore regularly incorporate sections of guitar skronk, both in Sonic Youth and in improvisational groups. Mass Hysterism includes Takayanagi alongside second guitarist Akira Iijima and drummer Hiroshi Yamazaki. Newbie six-stringer Iijima wields feedback and not much more, but it provides a chaotic base for Takayanagi, who sounds as if he's tearing his guitar in half. Where to go next: Masayuki Takayanagi's April Is the Cruellest Month, Blue Humans' Clear to Higher Time, Lambsbread's Stereo Mars.

Nels Cline


From 'Draw Breath'

These days, most people know Nels Cline as a guitarist in Wilco. He's proven to be an important addition to the band, indulging the band's experimental tendencies while keeping it straight. This is part of why Cline is such a key figure in avant-garde jazz guitar: He takes from all music. One moment, he's playing a somber blues ballad, and the next, he's crushing eardrums with noise improvisers such as Carlos Giffoni. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Nels Cline Singers with Devin Hoff (contrabass) and Scott Amendola (drums). Because each track is different, it's hard to pinpoint the right starting place (though you'd be hard-pressed to find a Nels Cline album that wasn't good), but "Attempted" hits all of Cline's sweet spots. What begins as a fusion-y Mahavishnu Orchestra run evolves into spindly figures, continues as an all-out Black Sabbath-on-jazz freakout, and ends back where it started. Where to go next: Nels Cline's New Monastery, I Heart Lung's Interoceans.

Mary Halvorson

"Momentary Lapse (No. 1)"

From 'Dragon's Head'

Noise guitar has been a dominant trend in free-jazz, but it's also found peers in experimental-leaning indie-rock circles; few guitarists stick to a simple, clean or slightly distorted tone these days. Still a new voice, Mary Halvorson takes an approach to the guitar based more on skill than on sonic annihilation — not that there's anything wrong with that. Her style doesn't require an arsenal of effects pedals, just Halvorson's imaginative mind. Having studied under avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, she remains a frequent member of his ensembles, but she also performs in a chamber-music duo with violist Jessica Pavone, as well as in the avant-rock band People. These diverse musical exploits ring beautifully throughout Halvorson's debut as a bandleader, Dragon's Head. With bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, "Momentary Lapse (No. 1)" is full of stop-on-a-dime tempo changes, angular rhythms and fleeting moments of uneasy beauty. Halvorson isn't afraid to rock out Hendrix-style, albeit with fractured chord changes and scales falling like pterodactyls from heaven. Where to go next: Mary Halvorson and Weasel Walter's Opulence.

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