In 1969, Rick Deitrick was sitting in his backyard near Los Angeles, strumming a $100 pawnshop guitar, when he had an epiphany. Starting with a D chord, he slid his fingers up two frets, heard something new, and found himself on a “pathway from Earth to Valhalla. This was the start of his obsession,” Deitrick writes (in the third person) in the liner notes to this five-CD box set. “This was not just another chord as were so many others he’d known before. This was a sound from heaven.”
In the decades since, he’s recorded four homemade CDs, and along with a fifth of unissued tracks, Tompkins Square has now released Deitrick’s complete works, 44 selections that document a lifetime of musical wanderings, “made possible through nature and the medium of his steel-string transporter, in the world but not of this world.” Apart from a few folk tunes, they’re all his own compositions, and from start to finish, they’re all played in (approximate) standard tuning, with lush, loving arpeggios and unlikely fingerings to capture the otherworldliness of his guitar heroes’ open tunings.
On “Shenandoah,” from the album River Sun River Moon, Deitrick begins with a set of cascading arpeggios before shifting tempo for a few fragments of melody, followed by another cascade, a gentle roll of notes, and after three minutes, a return to the original melody with a broader palette, a richer sense of harmony, and a feeling of hearing the song for the first time. Listening to him play, it’s easy enough to imagine the flow of the river, the lushness of the valley—but really, Deitrick isn’t describing the landscape at all. He’s describing his place inside it, channeling the Angeles National Forest to create an abstract room of his own, a mindscape of nature and being.
That’s what makes him the “Unguitarist,” simply a channel with a guitar, and even in the shortest pieces, you can feel that search for incorporeality by someone who thinks he “swerved severely off-course . . . away from conventional definition.” Take the briefest track: Clocking in at 1:42, “Ballet La Jeunesse” meanders between Aadd9, Am, Cmaj7, Dmaj7#11, and F#m(add4) with a steady, ringing treble E that mark his steps along a less-traveled path. It’s this journey from improvisation to composition, this lonely, contrarian quest for beauty that makes these pieces so unassuming, so distinctive, and ultimately so rewarding.