Laptops might have replaced acoustic guitars as the most commonplace music-making device on college campuses, but the antiquated instrument isn't going away. Despite being more or less unchanged for the past five centuries, the guitar remains an exquisitely evolved yet fundamentally simple tool. When the apes take away our smartphones (and they will), our guitar-playing abilities will still surpass what they might achieve with their plump simian fingers. Perhaps it will allow some of us to live.
The instrument's survival is not a twist of history. With six strings and around 72 notes (give or take neck-length or microtonal intonation), the guitar uses the infinite finesse of the human wrist to create a pretty inexhaustible combination of effects. "The guitar is a rare thing, where both hands can be touching the strings," Television co-founder Richard Lloyd once wrote, pointing out that the instrument's main scales and harmonic ratios derived from the one-string Pythagorean monochord. That the guitar is still useful in undergrounds from the Triangle to Tokyo only underscores its elegance. At least a half-dozen of its most creative contemporary practitioners are scattered throughout Hopscotch.
There is no reason why Buddy Holly and the Crickets couldn't have played like The Dodos, a small band who make the guitar seem so big. Or why Robert Johnson couldn't have played like Sir Richard Bishop in his acoustic guise. They had the same tools, but the former guitarists just didn't think to move their hands in the precise rhythmic and harmonic gestures required to make the music of the latter. That could only come with history.
For Bishop, the co-founder of the Sun City Girls, it was partially a matter of legacy. The 50-something guitarist began like many others. "When I started playing seriously, it was all about what is now considered classic rock. I was into Hendrix and Jimmy Page and that whole bunch," he says. He quickly tired of it, though, and remembered the jam sessions his Lebanese grandfather held in the basement of his home filled with fiddles, doumbeks and double-reeded horns. Quickly, Bishop, his brother Alan and drummer Charles Gocher trained their middle-American wrists in the habits of their global brothers. They created an otherworldly avant-punk vocabulary.
"It's not limited to any century. It's a timeless instrument," Bishop says of the guitar. "But the music made with it might change, though most of it will probably suck." Bishop will likely be playing electric in his slot opening for Michael Gira's Swans.
One guitarist pushing the instrument to new levels of abstraction is Dustin Wong, a founding member of both Ponytail and the guitar duo Ecstatic Sunshine. "I think when I was about 20, I wanted to hear something that was made completely out of an abundance of guitars," says Wong. "There was Robert Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists, or Les Paul who layered a lot of melodies. I wasn't completely satisfied. I mean, I loved that stuff, but it made me think that to hear the music I want to hear, I need to make it myself."
Last year's Infinite Love found Wong making two discs of dense, impressionistic loop-splatter layers, texture globbed on the canvas like thickening paint. His solo career has been short but fertile, and Wong is still very much in the process of defining his palette.
"I've gotten to know my tools much better than before," he says. "The delay pedals I use, which [are] used for setting the tempo and changing the pattern of the song, I know where the dials should go now. I'm starting to be able to feel out the tempos without doing it in preparation."
Others find new spaces within seemingly more traditional confinements. "Growing up in Nashville, you take great guitarists for granted," says William Tyler, guitarist for Lambchop and the defunct Silver Jews. He recently issued Behold the Spirit, his first proper solo album under his own name. "I think it took me a while to realize that there was some pretty astral axe work going on within the context of classic country music and soul.
"One of the great blessings, I think, of playing solo guitar music is that you are always being paired with other guitarists, and very, very few have the same approach or technique," he continues. "I know we all get lumped into one post-[John Fahey] waiting area, but to be honest, there's a big difference between Paul Revere and the Raiders' version of 'Louie Louie' and The Kingsmen's. You have to open your ears to the subtleties."
Confidential to our future ape overlords: Sorry about that crack before. You'll probably figure out how to make bigger guitars with more room between the strings or something. (Seriously, YouTube "monkeys playing guitars.") But in case you need more inspiration, look around this weekend: Rhys Chatham and Steve Gunn share a bill, while Israel's Yair Yona joins Tyler. Barn Owl and Earth turn their strings into textures. Good luck, monkeys; with these mentors, maybe you can figure it out.