By Kenny Berkowitz
On a bad day in 1980, American primitive guitarist Richard Osborn accidentally drove a chisel into the base of his left thumb, severing a nerve. Not long afterward, on another bad day, he sliced a tendon in his left index finger with a kitchen knife. He couldn’t play guitar for another 15 years, and even now, after 35 years, Osborn hasn’t regained all his strength. But it hasn’t kept him from launching a recording career as a solo improviser, self-releasing Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations in 2012 and following it with the recent Freehand.
“By around 1995, I realized I had enough strength in the thumb and index finger that I could think about playing the guitar again,” says Osborn, who frets with his left hand. Talking from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, he says, between 1995 and 2005, “I focused almost exclusively on classical, because there’s so much less tension on the strings. I really wanted to recapture the chops in my left hand, and once I realized I might have the strength to play steel-string again, I started playing in the raga style, just like before.
“It was like somebody gave me a train ticket and I got to go home again.”
Osborn, now 68, switched from playing classical piano to the guitar after getting swept up in the folk revival of the early 1960s, just before he departed for college at Stanford University. A love of the Delta blues led him to Mississippi John Hurt, which led to John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and the beginnings of the American primitive guitar movement, which could be heard everywhere in and around Berkeley at that time. After seeing Fahey perform in 1965, Osborn began imitating what he’d heard, but felt constrained playing in someone else’s style. He didn’t find his own musical direction until he heard Basho, who’d created an East-West fusion after studying with sarodist Ali Akbar Khan in nearby San Rafael.
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In a debt to Basho, Osborn calls his approach “free-raga style” or “American raga.” And though there’s little that sounds overtly North Indian about the music on Freehand, Osborn borrows some of the context. He begins the instrumentals with slow, meditative sections to state the themes (which Indians call alap), develops those ideas to reach the pieces’ emotional essence (rasa) using drones and sympathetic strings, and explores the possibilities of mixolydian mode (khamaj). But apart from “Winter Moon in the Oak Tree,” which reveals Osborn’s love of Japanese koto, the compositions on Freehand are mostly Western-inspired: “New Ledger Book Stories” is a Native American prayer; “Heading Home” includes echoes of Irish music; the Bach-esque “Cloud Tower” suggests the great sequoias. Osborn ends the set with an actual Bach composition, “Allemande,” from Cello Suite No. 1.
“There are a couple of pieces that are truly raga-style improvisations: ‘A Singing in the Blood,’ which was my first jam with [tabla player] Mark Choplin, and the lengthy ‘Night Sidewalks,’ which is a very personal, solo piece,” Osborn says. “But they all flow out of freeform improvisation, coming together over time. In the ways that star materials form stars, and stars form galaxies, these improvisations congeal to become set compositions. That’s the process.”
Osborn says he practices every day, working on technical exercises, including a set of Bach fugues and preludes to strengthen each finger, or playing along with slowed-down sarod recordings by Ali Akbar Khan. To work on improvisation, Osborn sits quietly with one of his guitars—usually his 1915 Vincenzo DeLucia—and lets his hands go wherever they want.
“That’s when the soul opens up,” Osborn says, “if you’re mindful and paying attention, following the flow.”
Osborn always loved making music, but he struggled early on with improvisation. He studied briefly with Basho in 1968, and even opened some Bay Area shows for the guitarist. But Osborn’s progress was slow and he was discouraged. “As a young guitarist, improvisation was difficult for me,” he says. “I would launch into musical ideas, but I didn’t really know how to form them, or how to make sense of them organically. I think listeners really enjoyed what I played, but I felt at a loss, because I wasn’t able to bring my ideas together.”
As Fahey and other artists on his Berkeley-based Takoma Records began getting more and more attention, Osborn turned to classical guitar, but soon decided to quit playing entirely. He’d never counted on having a musical career in the first place, and after stints as a truck driver and cabinet maker, he eventually settled into life as a civil-service real estate inspector.
“I was afraid the guitar was a crutch,” Osborn says. “I had a lot of inner turmoil, trying to figure out who I was and what life was about, which was symbolized by my stance to the guitar and to music in general.”
A year after he quit, Osborn severed the nerve in his left hand, lost the use of an opposable left thumb, and turned to painting abstracts.
When he picked up the guitar again, his world had changed.
“I realized the guitar flowed naturally from inside me, and I didn’t have to be anxious about it running me around,” Osborn says. “That little excursion had to do with being mindful, being clear on the meaning and intention of everything in life. When I came back years later, all of a sudden, improvisation was there. The wellsprings of melody opened up, and I evolved this way of practicing that I believe brought the tools and forms I needed for improvisation.
“The music was flowing freely from my fingers.”
Osborn heard exactly what he was looking for on a Tompkins Square records collection, Imaginational Anthem, released in 2004. It was the first in a series of compilations that combined first-generation American primitives with contemporary disciples such as Glenn Jones and Kaki King. Feeling inspired, Osborn emailed the label’s owner, Josh Rosenthal. Osborn then met with curator and guitarist Sean Smith, who invited Osborn to contribute a track to Beyond Berkeley Guitar, released in 2010. It would be then-63-year-old Osborn’s recording debut—a full 45 years after he started playing.
That was the boost Osborn needed. He made up for lost time, following two years later with the solo Giving Voice and now Freehand. Listening to the two albums is like turning back the clock, as if you’ve time-traveled to the early, heady days of Berkeley guitar and stumbled across an unknown master, rescued from obscurity.
Like Fahey, Osborn has a rich sense of American folk tradition, combined with an impressive range of technical skills on six- and 12-string guitars; like Basho, he has a love of ringing strings and slowly revelatory meditations on the natural world. Like Khan, Osborn has an unhurried, quiet spirit of adventure; and like Bach, he has a passion for organization, for understanding. But Osborn is completely himself, weaving those strands of inspiration into something all his own. He’s a long-overdue, first-generation American primitive who also borrows lessons from the visual arts to explore his inner landscape of darkness and light, thought and feeling.
“It took painting to help me form a sense of what improvisation might be about, and then as I got back into playing, those ideas began to come together,” says Osborn, who has no plans to perform live, preferring instead to stay home and work on his art and his next album.
“There was a crossover [from art to music], and part of arriving at that realization was my work in abstract art. My paintings are very freeform, with the calligraphic line carrying the full body of my being at that moment of putting brush to canvas. That carries over to the melody-driven idea of raga improvisation, and
it’s the same way of thinking that you hear in jazz, or in Bach, or in Ali Akbar Khan—using the chaos of being totally free to put it all on the line.”
WHAT RICHARD OSBORN PLAYS
1915 Vincenzo DeLucia parlor guitar
“DeLucia worked in Philadelphia in the 1910s and 1920s, mostly making mandolins,” Osborn says. “I found this guitar back in 1975 at Jon Lundberg’s shop in Berkeley, which was one of the main places where you could find vintage guitars at the time. And it’s still my main raga guitar.”
National Resophonic NRP-14
“When I really want to get into a sarod sound, I use the National, which was another revelation to me. Most people look at a resophonic and think, ‘I can play slide guitar like Howlin’ Wolf.’ But when I look at it, and when I hear the timbre, I think, ‘It’s a sarod with frets.’ It’s got a bell-like quality to it.”
Tony Yamamoto 12-string
“It has what Tony calls a multiscale, where the frets fan out. They’re not parallel, which makes the guitar easier to play—it fits the mechanics of how your hand and body move from the low positions all the way up to the high positions.”
Alan Perlman cutaway classical guitar
“A gorgeous guitar that I use on the Allemande from Bach’s first cello suite.”
Steel strings: Elixir Medium Nanoweb 80/20 bronze
“I know guitar enthusiasts who think these strings are not as lively as other strings, but they’re solid for me, and they keep their bounce for a long time.”
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