Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bert Jansch (1943-2011)

It's the first real rainy day of the fall season in Southern California, and the weather seems to be all too appropriate to learn of the passing of Bert Jansch. His music seemed perfect for rainy mornings, or perhaps for contemplative sunny late afternoons. In any case, Bert wrote and played music on the acoustic guitar that allowed him to give the ultimate gift with his music: to pass along evocative emotional content merely by strumming a chord or two.

There are plenty of places to read Bert's obituary (here's a good one), so I won't bother giving you the details of his life. There's also a pretty thorough biography on Wikipedia. What I can tell you about is that this man -- so quiet and unassuming that it's very likely you've never heard of him -- was possibly the most important influence on the musicians who I list as my most important influences. That's how I discovered Bert. In the beginning, it wasn't a direct exposure to his music, but instead through listening to the guitar playing of musicians like Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Nick Drake, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Johnny Marr, and many others. As I read up on how those guys honed their craft, I kept seeing one name popping up time and time again... one Bert Jansch.

Like any curious guitar player, I started listening to Bert once I found out that he was respected by so many of my favorite players, and was simply blown away. One thing that Bert did especially well was the rhythmic hammer-on. I'm pretty sure Bert didn't invent this technique -- it goes back to old blues players like Big Bill Broonzy and others -- but he did it so well that he was the one who introduced it to many other players. Take a regular chord, but instead of just playing it straightforward, hammer one of the notes from a full step down. It creates a lot of melodic interest within the chord. Some songs by Bert's devotees using this technique that you might recognize...

• "Ohio" (Neil Young -- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
• "I'm One" (Pete Townshend -- The Who)
• "Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
• "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" (John Lennon -- The Beatles)

And many more. But that's only one thing Bert brought to the party, musically speaking. There was a sound in his folksy playing that hearkened back to troubadours of ancient times. One could imagine Bert playing while hobbits walked through Rivendell, or playing before a medieval king's court. And yet, somehow, there was nothing contrived or hokey about his sound. He had an obvious mastery of fingerstyle guitar, but never really played very fast. It was his precise note selections that allowed each pluck to ring out as long as possible before switching to the next note that was impressive. And yet, it's not a style that needs to be analyzed and scrutinized. Just listening to a few songs tells you the whole story.

There won't be hundreds of comments on news sites today, mourning Bert's passing. That's okay; Bert never seemed to have the desire to stand in the spotlight. While I don't bemoan the general public's almost complete lack of awareness of the guy, it is a little disheartening to know that so many musicians out there will go the rest of their lives without any clue as to who Bert was and what he did during his time on the planet. Johnny Marr, the guitarist from the Smiths and a disciple of Bert's said it well...

"He completely reinvented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequalled today. Without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the '60s and '70s would have been very different. You hear him in Nick Drake, Pete Townshend, Donovan, The Beatles, Jimmy Page and Neil Young. There are people playing guitar who don't even realize they've been influenced by him one step removed."

Well said, Johnny. And rest in peace, Bert; thanks for everything.

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