JP Baldwin

Low on melodrama, high on melody.

“You say guitarist, I say guitar-iste,” or The Chameleon Conundrum

I owe it to Seagal. Steven Seagal, that is. Yes, that Seagal…actor, martial arts master, guitarist, and reserve deputy sheriff (really! …check out A&E’s “Lawman”).

You see, many years ago my brother and I were first introduced to music. First in school band, and then to my father’s Guild acoustic guitar sometime in middle school. My brother decided on taking up the bass guitar as a hobby, and I thought it sounded like fun. The only question was which way to go … bass or guitar? It’s a tough question to answer, was I more of a Jack Bruce or an Eric Clapton type of guy?

It’s a big question, and one that at 11 years old I wasn’t prepared to answer … on my own, that is. Clarity arrived in the most unlikely place, from the most unlikely person.

Buried somewhere deep within the soundtrack of a Steven Seagal movie on television, I heard some pretty serious guitar riffing. Upon hearing this, I decided … “That’s sounds cool, I’d like to be able to make sounds like that.”

And so the story goes….

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’m sitting here now. I still play everyday, and I’m still enjoying the sound of the instrument. It’s something I feel a great connection to, in terms of what music has meant to me, and on a more basic level the guitar has really become an added appendage.

Indeed, in many cases I’m more comfortable with a guitar in my hands than without. It’s funny the amount of time I spend just watching television while holding my guitar. Not playing really, just noodling a little here and there. It just feels right. Although for my wife’s sake, I usually try to stay basically silent until the commercials. Also, I’ve had to rewind programs more times than I’m able to count due to the credits rolling and coming to the realization I have no idea what just happened. The guitar has it’s way of gently pulling my attention away into another zone, and before I know it the seed of a new idea is born…

I’ve always been drawn to artists who I think have a similar relationship with the instrument. People like Clapton, Van Halen, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Keith Richards; you almost always see them with a guitar, and usually the “same” guitar.

Yes, they pick up other makes/models from time-to-time, or for specific purposes, but usually you picture them with The One. Clapton had the black Strat, Richard had the vintage Tele, Buckingham has the Turner. It’s as if these signature instruments had become not only part of their image, but part of their being. Almost as if picking up another guitar was akin to attempting to type with gloves on … yes, it seems simple enough, but it just feels weird.

I’ve always had the same approach. While I’ve tried several types of guitars over the years, I’ve usually been a one-guitar man. It’s just too hard for me to go back and forth, I get used to one conduit and I really don’t need another.  Especially when you find the guitar that really “fits” you. I’m a big believer that the sound is in the hands, and the guitar just serves to amplify those natural inherent qualities.

I consider myself a guitarist. I suppose I’m more textural in nature, I like to serve the song whether that means a little guitar solo, a Wes-style thumbed rhythm, or not playing at all. It’s all in how I use that second voice.

In our current age, however, we’re seeing rise of the “guitar-iste.” We’ve seen them, we’ve heard them. Products of natural talent and too much music education can sometimes lead to the neglect of developing a personal style, in favor of a “virtuoso-do-it-all” approach. Where some may use their fingers and inherent qualities of their chosen tool to emulate different sounds and effects (check out Roy Buchanan), others simply change guitars every song to slightly change sonic colors or fit the image of the song. The choice of their tool becomes the pigment, rather then the brush.

Now, I’m certainly not knocking this. It’s just not my thing. Perhaps I’m just aware of my personal limitations and, hopefully, have found ways to use those limitations to my advantage. I consider my approach a big part of who I am as a musician, and as a person.

I think sometimes that we live in an age of so many choices, so many types of guitars, of pickups, of amps, of boutique pedals, of strings, of YouTube lessons, of music degree programs, etc. that it’s become easy (well, it’s never easy, but possible anyway) to become a chameleon. It becomes easy to blend into the background, without really standing out.

Personally, I’d rather stick to one voice. After all, it’s worked pretty well. And besides who’s better at me, then me.