In the mid-1960s, the British session and nightclub guitarist Derek Bailey shed the conventions of those contexts to pursue a musical life in free improvisation—less a style than a methodology, removed from the set structures associated with popular music, like 32-bar song forms and the 12-bar blues, and listener expectations. In the process, Bailey, with his unconventional ideas and techniques, did much to extend the vocabulary of the guitar.
A couple of generations later, a young cohort of improvisers, indebted to Bailey in their nonstandard musical thinking, continues to draw new sounds from the guitar. Wendy Eisenberg, Arian Shafiee, and Tashi Dorji—each with a solo acoustic album on the boutique record label VDSQ—play music of striking originality. I spoke with these musicians about their paths to improvisation, their discoveries along the way, and the tools of their trade.
Wendy Eisenberg was more or less a straight-ahead jazz guitarist when she enrolled as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music in 2010. But when she woke up one morning with a numb and throbbing picking arm, she knew that something was amiss. It turned out to be nerve entrapment, and that resulted in a change of direction.
“I decided to stay in school but limit my playing to only a little bit each day,” she says. “The technical limitations felt really bad, so I started getting into improvisation as a way of engaging with the vocabulary and texture of jazz—but in a personal way—and using my own kind of guitar techniques.”
As a longtime fan of punk, noise, and other idioms not taught at Eastman, Eisenberg had an uneasy relationship with academic jazz. So, after graduating in 2014 she headed to the New England Conservatory of Music, where she pursued her master’s degree in Contemporary Improvisation—a unique program, founded by the pianist Ran Blake, in which improvisation is freed from any particular genre. (Full disclosure: I attended the same program in the 1990s.) Eisenberg says, “What I really took from that program was how to critically engage in music through my own practice, as well as an amazing ear-training component that has allowed me to be able to play exactly what I hear.”
Eisenberg, now 27 and based in Western Massachusetts, has emerged as a fresh voice in a range of settings. She played guitar in the experimental and recently defunct band Birthing Hips, explores art song on her album Time Machine (HEC), leads an electric noise trio on The Machinic Unconscious (Tzadik), and plays spontaneous solo guitar compositions on Its Shape Is Your Touch (VDSQ).
Eisenberg used her cherished jazz box—a 1959 Gibson ES-175, its acoustic voice reinforced by scant amplification—to record Its Shape Is Your Touch in the home studio of Ted Reichman, a Boston-based accordionist, composer, and audio engineer. Eisenberg says, “I just went to Ted’s studio and improvised for two hours in this beautiful old room. I had all these gestural concepts that I’d been working on, and [making the album was all about] playing, setting up problems for myself and teasing them out in real time.”
Asked about a specific example of a problem, Eisenberg explains that it might be about how to explore the different permutations of a melody and how it behaves in a certain setting—or, “Take an open C chord,” she says. “You are not just dealing with the fact that it’s a triad, you’re dealing with its whole history on the instrument as a tool for songwriting and Americana guitar playing. That’s a major problem to be working on—in a good way.”
Under the Microscope
On “Goldenseal,” from Its Shape Is Your Touch, Eisenberg kicks things off by addressing how to approach one of the guitar’s most basic sonorities, an open C chord, in interesting ways. She does this through a range of transformations, as notated in Example 1. Some chords—like that in bar 2, which, having both a major third (E) and a minor third (Eb), is not easy to label—are quite tense. Others, like the Fmaj7 chord with a G in the bass, add a sense of peace and openness. Eisenberg definitely succeeded in solving the problem of handling that C chord.
What She Plays
1959 Gibson ES-175D with DR Pure Blues strings (.011–.050), Martin Sigma GCS-2 with various Martin strings; Fender Princeton amplifier; D’Andrea Pro Plec 351 (1.5mm) picks
Several years ago, Arian Shafiee sold the bulk of his gear and moved from Boston to New York. Camping out at a friend’s home in SoHo, without any equipment, he looked for an apartment-friendly guitar on eBay. “On a whim, I bought this early-’90s Guild for $200 and just got really hyped on it and wrote the music on my album.”
Shafiee, who is 27, started playing guitar as a teenager, when he discovered his mother’s electric in the basement of their San Francisco home. He went through a classic-rock and then a noise-rock phase before discovering a 20th century masterpiece that changed his life. “I heard Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2—this seven-hour string quartet—when I was 15,” he says. “That was a game-changer. After that, I got a little less interested in guitar and started working more towards composition. And things kind of coalesced together: composition, weird improvisational techniques, and playing the guitar.”
Like Eisenberg, Shafiee is a graduate of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation program, which he says gave him “basically a million different methodologies for improv.” He emerged with an idiosyncratic approach to music in which he blurs together Western and Middle Eastern influences, courtesy of his Iranian and Turkish background, as well as microtonal and noise elements. “My work is informed by everything from [composer Henryk] Górecki to the second wave of black metal,” Shafiee says.
In his art-rock band, Guerilla Toss, Shafiee generally plays with great exuberance, but his solo guitar album, A Scarlet Fail (VDSQ), finds him in a more introspective mode. He says the album began to take shape not long after he got the Guild, when he took to exploring the instrument in his friend’s stairwell. “The acoustics were really crazy,” Shafiee says. “I’d play something really basic, like a C chord, and hear all this other wild shit in it. Chords would bleed together in a way where almost anything I played sounded good.”
Shafiee turned his stairwell improvisations, some of them generated by nonstandard tunings and the use of a partial capo, into the more fixed compositions on the album. The pieces tend towards slowness and enigma, and though they sometimes hint at familiar territory—like the sudden and fleeting appearance of a major triad—they are decidedly nonidiomatic. “When I play electric guitar, I think about drums and keyboard,” Shafiee explains. “But on acoustic guitar, I use this weird visualization process, and most of the time I’m thinking about harp, which gives me a lot of compositional and improvisational choices that I never would have thought of.”
Under the Microscope
On “Muted Heather,” from A Scarlet Fail, Shafiee uses a nonstandard tuning of his own invention, lowest string to highest, D E B F# A# B. The excerpt shown here (Example 2), which starts at 2:40 on the recording and extends until the end of the piece, reveals Shafiee’s deft sense of harmony, in which he gives equal consideration to closely voiced chords (Gmaj7/F#), triads (B), and extended jazz voicings (Em11). The sum of these components is a rich and unexpected sonic tapestry.
What He Plays
Guild JF4-NT; D’Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze strings (.013–.056), with high E swapped out for a .017 and G exchanged for an unwound .024; Dunlop Max-Grip Jazz III and US Blues BWC brass 2mm picks; Kyser capos
As a teenager in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the early 1990s, Tashi Dorji had to go to great lengths to hear music beyond his country’s traditional fare. “I didn’t have access to television or the Internet, and there weren’t any music stores,” he says, “so when I could, I would get bootleg cassettes of albums, like Nirvana’s Bleach.”
Dorji got his first guitar at 15—an old nylon-string that a Swiss expatriate neighbor left behind—and taught himself by exploring the instrument and by copying what he heard on bootlegs and on shortwave radio, as well as picking up tips from friends who had managed to learn guitar. “It was all imagination and borrowing and hearing from people,” Dorji, now 40, says. “It was kind of like a mystical thing.”
A cassette that made a big impression on Dorji was a copy of A Meeting by the River, a 1993 album by the guitarist Ry Cooder with the mohan veena (a kind of Hindustani slide guitar) player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. “It was really impactful, because it inspired me to get into creating my own tunings. I also responded to how raw and open it sounded, and it provided little glimpses of my early improvisational kind of intuition.”
In 2000, Dorji moved to the United States to study at Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts school near Asheville, North Carolina, where he had much easier access to a world of sound. He lived at an arts space called The Big Idea, where he became steeped in experimental music. “It opened my eyes and ears to a lot of amazing music, which was very empowering,” Dorji says.
But it was Dorji’s discovery of a single album—Derek Bailey’s Ballads—in the used section of a music store that had the deepest influence. “It was so profound, and there was a kind of spark I hadn’t felt since first hearing Nirvana,” says Dorji. “I remember listening to Ballads and just feeling like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ It literally changed the way I thought and felt. There was almost a sense of anarchistic meaning in Bailey’s playing, and that was very attractive to me.”
On his Solo Acoustic Vol. 13 (VDSQ), which was recorded in both the United States and Bhutan, Dorji plays nylon-string guitar. He approached the music as he always does, improvising every selection, including its tuning, from start to finish. “My approach is very simple. I just get into a certain headspace before I go into recording, and then I go in and sit to play,” Dorji says. “It’s just kind of imperfect and impermanent music. I come from a pretty religious Buddhist family, and my music is guided by the idea of not retaining things.”
Under the Microscope
Get stories like this in your inbox
Everything Dorji plays—even the guitar tunings—is completely improvised, and although he doesn’t keep a record of the tunings, it’s possible to deduce them by listening carefully for clues like open strings and natural harmonics. The passage here (Example 3) depicts the opening phrases of “Choose Sides,” from Solo Acoustic Vol. 13 (VDSQ), which is apparently in the unusual tuning of D# G# C# G# C D. In bars 1–4 Dorji establishes a B-augmented motif, alternating between the notes G and D in the bass, while in the second four measures he settles into straight B-major territory. As with all of Dorji’s work, the music sounds at once familiar and esoteric.
What He Plays
Hohner HW605 with D’Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze strings (.013–.056), Ibanez 2839 with Martin M120 Silverplated Classical strings (.028–.043)
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.