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Review: Bob Brozman

April 2001

Not So Much a Slide Clinic with Bob Brozman, but a Musical Playground


Bob Brozman, professional slide guitar anarchist, has been delighting Australian audiences from Woodford through Sydney to Goulburn, Port Fairy and Womad, with his spectacular multicultural blues guitar circus. He looks, plays and behaves something like a musical Groucho Marx. In his concerts I have certainly laughed as much at Bob's musical surprises as at his spoken wit. For example, he has told us that as a child, he told his parents that when he grew up, he wanted to be a musician. Apparently they said "I'm sorry son, you can't do both".

Thanks to Jackson's Rare Guitars, Bob gave us a free slide clinic at the Annandale Hotel in early March. Over a hundred guitarists showed up at this nice old pub, just down from Jackson's. Being chronically uncool, I perched myself right in front of Bob's "office", a spot in the front of the stage surrounded by Nationals, a beautiful lap-steel and some tiny charangos. Bob began saying how he wants to inspire us to play more and enjoy our music, and "I'm here to help you get out of the goal of your own making". He started off on stage fright: "Just forget about it. Embarrassment is brain space you should he devoting to your music."

He picked up his National Style O, his main instrument. He said he picked it up in 1967 when they were unknown, although they had been around since the 1920s. He said it's his main instrument because "It is loud and shiny, and tough. In fact you can kill a guy with one." Indeed his Style O had a large head-shaped dent in the lower bout, which was the result of an altercation several years ago. He said, and proved, that Nationals have a huge dynamic range (100 db), and wide tonal range, from the bassy warmth at the "f" holes to the mids and highs coming out of the cone. He demonstrated, as throughout the clinic, some incredible fingerpicking, bottleneck blues and ragtime tunes, proving the versatility and musical range of all his Nationals and other instruments.

Bob told us to concentrate on rhythm to make our music vital and expressive. "If you want to have lots of nerdy guys with glasses watching you, practise scales. If you want to get laid, work on your right hand". As a nerdy guy with glasses, I took note, and slid back an inch. Bob then said why he loves open tunings. Open tunings have no rules, and they teach you how to play by themselves. "What's more, you are only one fret away from a good note." Regular tuning (EADGBE) depends too much on theory, and because the scales make us work across the fretboard, we sacrifice tone for speed. Open tunings encourage us to work up and down the strings, not across the frets, so tone will be more consistent.

To show us some things to develop our rhythm skills, he got us slapping our knees: right, left, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. Then, continuing the right left thing, he made us start counting: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, swapping the "1" around from right to left. He showed how it was easier to do this if we started to move our bodies a bit to help emphasise the "1". It looked, sounded, and felt good. Then we had to bang our chests with one of the hands while we kept going. To become more rhythmically musical, the idea is to make triplets out of twos, as all rhythm is based on the numbers two and three. "African music isn't straight ahead, but it usually has the 1, 2 and the 1, 2, 3 going on at the same time".

Then he started us thinking about the upbeat (the "2" and the "4", the crucial rhythm behind music that swings). Bob told us "Colonisers everywhere concentrate on the downbeat: Oom Pa Pa, Oom Pa Pa; Left, Right, Left, Right. The colonised concentrate on the upbeat." We did more exercises on this, and I got a bit lost. But Bob said how to learn: "Go forth and bang on things, in the traffic, on the bus. Try improvising against any rhythm without repeating yourself. Turn the Doof Doof beat of the drug dealer's car next to you into something interesting, and improvise some complex rhythms.

"If you are in India and want to play tabla, you don't get to touch one for five years. This will do a lot more for your music than scales." We westerners have a lot to learn about rhythm. I remembered that in an earlier concert at the Rozelle Bridge Hotel he paused in the middle of an instrumental to ask "Why does the Woodford Festival drum circle always play the drum solo from Inna Gadda da Iva?" We don't have to sound the same. He suggested that we can have fun by pushing the "2" and the "4" in a normal 4/4 bar late, to help it swing more. "Move your eyes, your shoulders to help. Your lover will also appreciate it when you can do this".

Then Mr (or is it Dr? he is an ethnomusicologist) Brozman pulled out a new National Tricone. He says that this is a great slide instrument. His is tuned to open "G" tuning (DGDGBG), "the preferred tuning of colonised people. It involves the least number of changes from regular tuning to achieve a pleasing sound.

"This tuning is used around the world: in Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, South America, Africa, Madagascar." He then played a multicultural blues on it. He told us how the new Nationals sound at least as good as the old ones, particularly after the first three months it takes to help the 1st string to settle down. He said they will last a very long time, they have better intonation than the old ones, and the tone is very stable.

Then he said how music is most involving when we use all three of our brains:
· our intellect, the human cortex;
· feeling, the monkey (or mid) brain;
· movement, through the lizard brain.

We can actually practise expressing emotion in our music. He suggested we try picking a note gently, as if we are stroking a baby's face or our girlfriend's leg. Then, he said, make yourself feel angry and pick some notes. Listen to the difference. We have lots of feelings; start with the basic seven, and consciously work on them as we play. Another thing we can do to make people pay attention is to suddenly change dynamics. Bob crashed away at a driving groove before suddenly playing some soft, high slide. We had no choice but to think, "What's he up to now?" He described this as twiddling on the intensity knob. He also reminded us not to anchor our little right finger on the face of the guitar, because we then lose the chance to change our tone while we play by moving our right hand close to or away from the bridge.

Bob showed us how he does his signature slide harmonics. He starts a loud natural harmonic at the 12th fret, and then brings the slide up from behind the nut to whatever note he wants. I love this eerie, spooky sound, like a musical saw, and now I can do it too. The Hawaiian harmonics are another thing, however, and involve setting the heel of the right hand lightly across the 12th fret while plucking behind it on the fingerboard with your right thumb. If you stay around the 12th fret you can do chordal harmonics as well, as it is pretty easy to get these out. He played his custom handmade lap steel guitar, which he says is "An instrument of deep commitment. You've got to be prepared to sound bad for five years."

He played his own modern National invention, a Baritone, which has a neck three frets longer than standard. It reminded me of the difference between a baritone and a tenor saxophone, or between Coltrane and Bird.

He did some nice Charlie Patton tunes with Skip Sales, and talked about jamming. "If you are jamming, you have to reduce your slice of the musical pie. If you play with another person, cut it down to 50%. If there are three of you, make it 33%. Don't do the same stuff you do on your own. It's not a matter of rhythm or lead, but just keeping out of each other's way - make sure your partner has a good time".

To finish, Bob said there are three keys to helping our creativity escape its prison:
1. Work on rhythm and forget about scales.
2. Use your muscles to express emotions. See what feeling, texture and dynamics you can bring to your music.
3. Turn down your "give a shitter"'. There's no music police.

To finish, Bob gave us one of his great encores. We joined in on a chorus that you can't help but syncopate "Our Uncle Joe, our Uncle Joe. Give me more, give me more, give me more; do that thing that you done before".

I walked out to Parramatta Rd under a thick night sky, high and happy. Uncle Bob had just given me more, more, and more. He reminded us that we don't "work music;" we "play" it. I hope you get something out of it, too.

Good travellin',
Mark Allerton

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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