Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukulele and Guitar
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by King Bennie Nawahi ~ Hawaiian String Virtuoso: Steel Guitar Recordings of the 1920's (2-CD) ~ $16.18
- Released: September 15, 1992
- Originally Released: 1992
- Label: Yazoo
Song previews provided courtesy of iTunes
The only problem with this album is the use of the word "play" in the title. Sure, with most musicians it can be called "playing" an instrument. With Roy Smeck, what he does on Hawaiian guitar or just plain old regular guitar is more like a consecration. His banjo work is more like a reordering of molecules. "Ukulele Bounce" sounds like a man playing a ukulele, and very well at that, but creates more of a historical impact as one realizes recordings from nearly a quarter of a century are represented on this collection. Colorful lettering by none other than R. Crumb just adds to the class of the whole affair. Smeck was a technical genius of stringed instruments and also an explorer. He created sounds behind the bridge and nut, and on the body of the instrument as well. Listeners might be used to these types of techniques from avant-garde music, but the real innovators in this type of playing were musicians such as Smeck. He used these techniques in the course of so-called "normal" music, but the fact that it is neither atonal nor really weird shouldn't make one think it isn't exciting or interesting to listen to. His early pieces were pretty straight from the Hawaiian style, Smeck tinkering energetically around the edges of what might be acceptable to the "aloha" crowd while establishing his mastery of the genre's traditions. Exposure to jazz players such as Eddie Lang apparently inspired him to sit the guitar up straight in his lap and attack it with a plectrum, which is the same way he took on the banjo. The results are imaginative and frequently wild, perfect musical miniatures with such a visual presence one might think they were landscape paintings. Some of the titles add to the fun: "Tough Pickin'," "Guitarese," "Slippery Fingers," and "Nifty Pickin'." Smeck plays wonderfully whether the track was recorded in the '20s, '30s, or '40s. That's no surprise, seeing how he was the fellow who described his ascension in the music industry thusly: "I didn't play any better for 1,250 dollars than for 150 dollars." Which goes to show that even he considered what he did "playing," no matter how miraculous it sounded. Nobody ever played any better than he did, either. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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