Some of the best guitarists I've ever seen or heard are/were from Africa. There are a huge variety of guitar styles across the African continent. In this blog post I explain a bit about some of these styles and some of the great musicians from Africa who have influenced me. Some of their music is on the playlists below. If your knowledge of the music of Africa begins and ends with Paul Simon's Graceland album, this blog post may open your ears to some amazing new music!
1. Franco, Michelino & Simaro from TPOK Jazz (DR Congo)
Congolese legend Franco Luambo Makiadi was one of the greatest musicians to come from Africa. From the 1950's until his death in 1989 he led the magnificent band TPOK Jazz to produce a legacy that no other band in Africa, or arguably anywhere, can rival. Franco recorded over 3000 songs, composing over 1000 of these, with the rest composed by other TPOK Jazz members. Many of these songs are over 10 minutes long and each contains an ecstatic instrumental climax called a sebene where the guitars chime out in glorious counterpoint. OK Jazz was an incredible band with many members through its history. At its peak in the late 70's and 80's It operated like a football team with musicians and singers substituting for others depending on the song that was being played. Franco was known as 'The Sorcerer of the Guitar' and his distinctive style has been very influential to me. Among the many great guitarists to pass through the ranks of OK Jazz my favourite is probably Michelino who is seen playing lead guitar in the Youtube clip of the song 'Kamikaze'. Franco is beside him, cutting an imposing figure whilst the other guitarist is Simaro, a wonderful composer who was Franco's right-hand man and played the rhythm guitar parts. Tracks like 'Coupe du Monde' and 'Tu es Méchante' showcase the infectious, multi-layered guitar sound of Franco and TPOK Jazz, my favourite band in the world!
2. Jean Bosco Mwenda (DR Congo)
I first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda through a recording by classical guitarist Timothy Walker of Mwenda's beautiful guitar piece 'Masanga'. Mwenda developed an intricate acoustic guitar finger-picking style that was hugely influential, likely influencing Franco and his colleagues. I don't know much about Mwenda, other than he his regarded as one of the pioneers of Congolese guitar playing and he sang beautifully to his intricate accompaniments. Famous classical guitarist John Williams has also recorded 'Masanga', although he can't get the rhythm and feel quite like Mwenda!
3. Ephraim Karimaura with Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe)
Thomas Mapfumo is probably Zimbabwe's most famous musician, a legend in Africa, he now lives in exile in the USA, after years of disputes with the Zimbabwean government. He was jailed by both the white colonial government of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, whom he once supported in the struggle for independence. In the 1970's Mapfumo developed a music style called 'Chimurenga', meaning 'struggle'. It was the soundtrack to Zimbabwean independence. Guitarists like Jonah Sithole and Joshua Dube developed a special guitar style to go with Mapfumo's new sound. They mute the strings to imitate the sound of the traditional 'mbira', what some Western musicologists might call a 'thumb piano'. I've been listening to Mapfumo's music for many years, since first discovering it randomly in the World Music section of the Ilac Centre Library in Dublin! I particularly like his albums 'Hondo' and 'Vahnu Vatema', which feature the beautiful guitar playing of Ephraim Karimaura. In 2000 I composed a piece in Mapfumo's honour called 'Chimurenga', which has been recorded by the Dublin Guitar Quartet. I've seen Mapfumo and his amazing band The Blacks Unlimited twice, Great nights of music!
4. Djelimady Tounkara and Salif Keita (Mali)
Mali's greatest band is probably the Super Rail Band, which features the incredible guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Originally known as the Rail Band in the 70's, the group has fostered many brilliant musicians including Salif Keita and Mory Kante, who both went on to successful international solo careers. Tounkara's guitar sets the Super Rail Band apart, he is one of the greatest guitar virtuosos from Africa. His style takes influences from Malian traditional instruments like the Kora and Balafon. Tounkara and the Super Rail Band played the 2007 Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire and I was lucky enough to be there for that briiiant concert. I've also had the pleasure of seeing Salif Keita in concert twice, most recently this year on his retirement tour. Now 70, his golden voice is as good as it ever was.
5. Jonah Sithole (Zimbabwe)
As mentioned before, Jonath Sithole pioneered the Chimurenga guitar sound during his time playing with Thomas Mapfumo. In the 1980's he started a solo career which brought him success and some international releases. I bought one of his CDs about 15 years ago when I lived in London. I got it at a great shop called Sterns African Music Centre, which unfortunately no longer exists other than as an online store. They used to have a café and lots of CDs to browse through that you couldn't get anywhere else. The digital streaming age ended Stern's viability. Strangely enough, Jonah Sithole's music isn't available on Spotify or other streaming services, but some fans have put his music up on Youtube. A great guitarist and his own albums are very enjoyable, in a similar style to Thomas Mapfumo.
6. Souza Vangu with Youlou Mabiala (Congo-Brazzaville)
Youlou Mabiala is a singer and composer from Congo-Brazzaville, a country beside DR Congo. He was a member of Franco's TPOK Jazz for some time, and he is Franco's son-in-law having married one of Franco's daughters. He became a solo star in the late 70's and 80's, producing some great albums with his band 'Orchestre Kamikaze', named after the song 'Kamikaze' which he composed. Orchestra Kamikaze's lead guitarist was a man called Souza Vangu, also from Congo-Brazzaville. His lead playing on the track 'Walimeya' is some of the most uplifting guitar playing I've ever heard!
7. Beniko Popolipo, Zamwangana & Jimmy Yaba of Zaiko Langa-Langa (DR Congo)
Zaiko Langa Langa come from the generation after Franco and TPOK Jazz, they developed the styles known as 'soukous' and 'rumba rock', which are generally a bit faster than the music Franco and TPOK Jazz played. The guitarists who have played with Zaiko Langa Langa over the years generally have to be able to play very fast! They are one of the most influential bands to come from Africa and their members included the late Papa Wemba, who became an international star, signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label. I haven't listened to a huge amount of their music, I don't find it as good as Franco and TPOK Jazz. However there is a great energy to some of their music from the 70's and 80's, like the song 'Antalia'.
8. Ali Farka Touré (Mali)
One of the best known musicians from Africa is the late Malian guitarist Ali Fark Touré. He gained fame through his collaborations with artists like American slide guitarist Ry Cooder and kora player Toumani Diabate. He is also featured in Martin Scorcese's documentary about the roots of the Blues, 'Feels like Going Home', where the music he played is called 'Desert Blues' and identified as the origins of the blues. Touré played in Dublin in the early 2000s and I intended to go, but it sold out fast so I missed out. I did eventually get to see him playing in London's Barbican Centre in a magical duo concert with Toumani Diabaté.
9. Niwel Tsumbu (DR Congo/Ireland)
Niwel Tsumbu is from DR Congo but has been living in Ireland for many years. Niwel is simply the best all-round guitarist I know. He can play anything! His own style seems to be a mix of Congolese styles, flamenco, jazz and contemporary music. I've worked with Niwel many times, he is a member of my ensembles D.F.F. and the Irish Memory Orchestra and in 2014 I composed a piece called Joy for Niwel and I to play with the Crash Ensemble. That piece is like a mix between Congolese Rumba and New York minimalism! Niwel has been putting some fantastic clips on youtube recently explaining various guitar styles. A recent video surprised me as he explained how the Open G tuning, that I use for Irish trad, is a tuning used in the Congo many years ago!
10. DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra (Tanzania)
In the early 2000s, with the advent of blogging, a treasure trove of rare African records were uploaded to blogs like World Service. These were records that were mostly unavailable commercially, so it was fantastic to be able to hear all this music for the first time, as most of it was unknown outside of Africa. It was on one of these blogs I discovered the Tanzanian band DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra. I can't find a lot of info about them, but it seems they were Tanzania's most popular band for many years. When you hear a track like 'Edita' that's not surprising. Towards the end of the song it seems to my ears that there are four electric guitars, which is unusual, as it is more common for these larger bands to have three guitarists. But it could be that one of the guitarists is so good they sound like two guitarists playing at once!
11. Western Jazz Band (Tanzania)
Another Tanzanian band I know little about is Western Jazz Band. I discovered their music through the beautiful song 'Rosa' on a compilation CD I bought many years ago called 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa'. There are indeed beautiful songs on this album, though they aren't necessarily 'the most beautiful' songs of Africa! I think they missed out on ten thousand or so other beautiful songs in compiling this album! An interesting aspect, to me, of the song 'Rosa' is that it has occasional odd rhythmic beat structures where a beat seems to go missing every now and again. I love the guitar playing on this beautiful record, I don't know who the guitarist is though.
12. D.O. Misiani (Tanzania/Kenya)
Also on 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa' is an artist called D.O. Misiani and his band Shirati Jazz. From what I've read Daniel O. Misiani was one of the most important band leaders in Africa during his heyday. His songs were important political and social songs that got him in trouble with the authorities from time to time. The style of music he pioneered is called 'Benga', and the album 'Benga Blast' is a great example of this style, which is a bit more pared down than the larger African 'orchestras'. I particularly like the way that the songs sometimes break down to just the rhythm guitar and drums, so you can hear the intricacy of these guitar parts that are usually in the background. Misiani passed away a few years ago.
13. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (South Africa)
Lots of people refer to Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album as being influenced by 'African' music, the truth though is that it is influenced by music styles purely from South Africa, like Township Jive and Palm Wine. Prior to 'Graceland' an album called 'The Indestructible Beat of Soweto' came out and proved hugely influential in the West. I got this album on tape in the 90's, not sure where it is anymore, I may have worn it out! There's lots of great guitar-based tracks on the album and I particularly like the tracks by Amaswazi Emvelo and Johnson Mkhalali. I don't know anything about these artists to be honest, I just enjoy the guitar sounds and distinctive vocals. Part of my composition 'The Clare Concerto' is influenced by this kind of music, 'Quilty Township Jive' mixes ideas from Irish trad and South African Township Jive and is dedicated to the Irish Memory Orchestra's South African conductor Bjorn Bantock.
There are so many other great bands and solo artists from across Africa, some more of which I've added to the Spotify playlist. This blog post only scratches the surface of the jewels to be found when you start looking for guitar music from Africa. I hope this post inspires you to discover some of this amazing music!
Traditional Irish music has been present in my life since childhood. My Mum had tapes of The Chieftains and Planxty which she played a lot, and my Dad was a huge fan of Christy Moore, whether he was singing old folk ballads or modern songs. When I was very young I heard a lot of tin whistle as my sister was learning it. I was sent for a few lessons with the same teacher, a lovely man called Piaras, but sadly he passed away very soon after I started with him. Perhaps there was something traumatic about that as I put down the whistle then and never played it again. It wasn't until my mid-teens when I began to listen again to traditional Irish music. My Mum spoke often about how much she enjoyed Andy Irvine's songs with Planxty, so one year, for her birthday I bought her a tape of Andy Irvine and Paul Brady's classic album. I ended up listening to it a lot more than she did! I soon started listening to her Planxty and Chieftains tapes and marvelled at The Chieftains almost orchestral version of The Foxhunt. Then, when I went to the Rock School in Ballyfermot after leaving school, I met Ciarán Swift and it wasn't too long before we started playing some trad guitar duets together, with a little help from Sarah McQuaid's DADGAD guitar book. Since then I've spent a huge amount of my life learning about traditional Irish music and playing it. Along the way I've been influenced by some great guitarists who I feature below in my "Celtic Guitars" playlists. My thoughts on these guitarists and their influence on me follows.
Paul Brady is best known as a hit singer-songwriter who has written songs for, among others, Tina Turner. Before he went down that path he was a well known singer and guitarist in traditional Irish music circles. He is one of the pioneers in playing Irish trad on the guitar. I first noticed how good he was when listening to his album with Andy Irvine. On that album he plays some Reels very impressively on the guitar. I'd never heard anyone doing that before and I loved the sound. He also had beautiful guitar accompaniments to songs like Mary and the Soldier and Arthur McBride. I did some research on his playing and found out he was using the same Open G tuning that I'd learnt from some guitar parts that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page played. I started learning Brady's Open G accompaniments to these songs and I liked the sound so much that I stuck with that tuning to accompany Irish trad, whilst most of my peers were using Dropped D or DADGAD tunings. I don't know anyone else who uses Open G to accompany Irish trad, which surprises me as it works really well.
In the year 2000, when I was 23, a friend of mine asked if I'd like to go to a trad gig at Dublin's National Concert Hall. I'd not heard of the musicians but Barry told me he was sure I'd enjoy it, especially because the guitarist had a really different way of accompanying Irish music. The gig was by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill and it was a life-changing event for me. Martin's fiddle playing was of course magnificent, however as a guitarist I was really drawn into Dennis' minimalist way of accompanying Martin. I loved the harmonies he used and was impressed by how he would suddenly start playing the tunes every now and again from out of nowhere. It wasn't long before I went to learn directly from Dennis at his guitar classes at the Feakle Traditional Music Festival in Clare. A few years later I went into Martin's fiddle class. Then by 2005 I'd convinced Martin and Dennis to work with me on a new composition which became 'Music for the Departed'. I've worked with them both a lot since then, and even stepped in for Dennis a couple of times to accompany Martin when Dennis wasn't available for Irish Memory Orchestra events. I spent a lot of time in my mid-20s working out how to play like Dennis, so I found it quite natural to write music for him and step into his shoes when needed. Overall I would say my trad guitar accompaniment style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill. Using Open G but a bit more minimalist in the use of chords, rhythms and harmonies than Brady is. Dennis is also a master joke teller, in fact when he speaks with you nearly every second line is a punchline!
Mícheál O Domhnaill (RIP)
I've never tried to learn how to play exactly like the legendary Bothy Band guitarist Mícheál O Domhnaill. I think this is because he mainly used DADGAD, a tuning I never really took to. Nonetheless I did play along to Bothy Band records a lot when I was younger and learnt some of his chord progressions. I saw him in concert a few times with the brilliant fiddle player Paddy Glackin. They were a magical duo to watch together. Last year I was hugely honoured to play with Paddy Glackin at the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival. I was very conscious then that I was occupying a space that Mícheál inhabited for many years with Paddy. It was a humbling and wonderful experience. Mícheál's playing is hugely influential to folk guitarists worldwide. He had a strong, innovative strumming accompaniment style which, alongside Donal Lunny and Tríona Ní Domhnaill, drove the Bothy Band's tune players to new heights of virtuosity and creativity in Irish music. He also did some beautiful finger-picking on songs and tunes like 'The Maids of Mitchelstown'. When he teamed up with Kevin Burke as a duo he also moved into jazz-influenced playing on tracks like 'The Promenade'. He passed away suddenly in 2006 aged just 54. A terrible loss for Irish music. May he rest in peace.
Steve Cooney is one of the most unique and gifted musicians in Ireland. Originally from Australia, he came to Ireland after spending time living with Aboriginals. They told him he needed to go to the land of his forefathers and to learn their language, music, poetry and way of life. He took their advice and moved to Ireland in the '80's. Soon after he was invited to join one of the biggest Irish groups of the time - Stockton's Wing. It was his next musical meeting that would really change the face of Irish music, when he teamed up with Kerry accordion player and singer Seamus Begley. With Begley, Cooney changed the nature of accompaniment in Irish music with an energetic, wild style that has proved hugely influential over the years. Steve has many imitators now, but none come close to his musicality. If you listen to him accompanying Martin Hayes on a piece like 'The Crooked Road' it is such a different style to how he plays with Begley. He's also recorded some great music with Tony McMahon, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon, Donal Lunny and many more trad greats. He was even a member of Sineád O'Connor's band for a few years and I once got a gig in his place at the Masters of Tradition Festival, when he got called to play with Sineád instead. Though he is best known for his blistering backing style, he is also a masterful fingerstyle soloist, who has a particular genius for interpreting the harp music of Turlough O'Carolan. A lovely soul and a living legend, I'm glad to have had the chance to chat with Steve a few times and also join him on stage on a couple of occasions. The energy he brings to the stage is incredible!
Arty McGlynn (RIP)
Arty McGlynn was, alongside Paul Brady, a real pioneer of Celtic Guitar playing. He was the first musician to make a solo album of traditional Irish music on guitar, 'McGlynn's Fancy' is a now legendary recording. He also made some great recordings playing Irish tunes on electric guitar, another innovation. He is best known though as a hugely popular accompanist, not only in trad, but also with songwriters as well known as Van Morrison. Arty sadly passed away last year. He was a close friend of some very good friends of mine and though I only met him a couple of times I had huge admiration for him as a man and musician. I've seen him play in numerous concerts over the years with luminaries including Liam O'Flynn, Matt Molloy, John Carty, and his long-time partner Nollaig Casey. I also saw him several times in a completely different guise, playing jazz on a Monday Night in Bogan's Bar in his home town of Omagh. He had a great sense of humour too and his stories, like his music live on. RIP Arty, you're sorely missed.
Ciaran Swift is definitely the most underrated guitarist on this list. Though I count him as one of my best friends, I can safely say he's one of the most influential trad guitarists to me, as it was Ciaran who really got me interested in exploring trad guitar when he told me about Sarah McQuaid's DADGAD book. In the late 90's we started learning tunes from the book together and worked out some arrangements that eventually made it onto my 2006 debut album 'Draíocht'. There are two guitar duets on that album and often people don't realise when they listen that it is Ciaran playing the lead melody on DADGAD steel string and me playing the accompaniment on nylon string guitar. I'm happy to set the record straight here! Ciarán has had a long diverse career working with songwriters like Fionn Regan and Roesy and touring the world in cover bands. He's at his best though when playing trad guitar and, as well as being a great tune player, he's a brilliant accompanist too with a really strong strumming technique as good as anyone on this list!
John Doyle is, like Steve Cooney, a man with many imitators and unfortunately most of his imitators do a poor job of it! John is a really versatile guitarist, however he's perhaps best known for his powerful accompaniment style with Liz Carroll and the band Solas. He's a fine singer and great tune player also. The main way he influenced me is through his work with Liz Carroll on the album 'Lost in the Loop'. I saw them in concert around the time that was released and I was really blown away by the power and chemistry of their musical partnership. I would have learnt a few of John's chord progressions at the time, without using his Dropped D tuning. Years later I'd have the honour of touring with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O'Connor. On that tour I didn't try to imitate John at all but I was definitely playing some of the chords he used with Liz! He achieved great things with Liz Carroll, nominated for a Grammy and even playing at the White House for President Obama. Their duo ended a few years ago and John moved into playing with American folk singers like Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I'm glad to see he has made it to the big time, however I feel his duo with Liz was his finest hour and would love to see them reunite.
Dáithí Sproule & Mark Kelly (Altan)
For several years, starting in the early 2000s I made an annual pilgrimage to the Frankie Kennedy Winter School in the beautiful area of Bunbeg and Dunlewey in Donegal. It was there I first saw the dynamic band Altan. I got all their albums over the first few years and spent a lot of time playing along to them, learning the chord progressions that guitarists Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule laid down with bouzouki player Ciaran Curran. I was never quite sure whether I was listening to Dáithí or Mark as they tended to alternate recording on different tracks. Dáithí usually played with Altan when they were touring the USA, with Mark touring with them elsewhere. However they'd sometimes both be at the Frankie Kennedy Winter School and sometimes they'd share the stage or alternate during the same gig. With Altan they play a similar style of DADGAD accompaniment, alternating between powerful strums and intricate finger-picking. Outside of Altan Dáithí has recorded with many other artists including Liz Carroll, with whom he was in the great group Trian. He's also a fine singer and was a member of the short lived but influential group Skara Brae with Mícheál O'Domhnaill and his sisters Máiréid and Tríona Ní Domhnaill.
It was at the same Frankie Kennedy Winter School that I first saw Seamie O'Dowd when he was playing with the fantastic band Dervish. I think they were really at the peak of their powers at that time and I remember the gig being a very special night and Seamie was on fire. A couple of years later he was back playing another amazing gig, this time with Mairtin O'Connor, Cathal Hayden, Garry O'Briain and the late Mary McPartlan. The same year I was really amazed to see him take the stage at a fiddle recital and he played the fiddle brilliantly too! Seamie is something of a genius multi-instrumentalist, equally good on harmonica, double bass and he's a great singer too. If that weren't enough he's regarded as one of Ireland's best blues rock players in the mould of Rory Gallagher. Seamie is a tough act to follow as I've learnt by playing with Máirtín O'Connor a few times over the years. Mairtin has often asked me to play 'The Road West' with him, and in that I'm directly learning from Seamie as he recorded the great guitar part on that album. I can't play it exactly like Seamie does as I'm more of a finger-style player and he's much quicker with a plectrum than I am. Maybe it's best I do my own version anyway!
I first saw Tony McManus play when John Feeley invited him to do a concert and workshop with his classical guitar students at the DIT College of Music in Dublin. We were all really impressed by his virtuoso way of playing traditional music from Scotland and Ireland on the steel string guitar. It takes a lot to impress a room full of classical guitarists, especially if you aren't playing classical guitar, so that's a testament to Tony's brilliance. A few years later I had a one-on-one masterclass with him at the Dundee Guitar Festival and it was great to spend an hour with him learning about his unique style. He showed me an open E tuning that he uses a lot to imitate the Highland Pipes. I liked the tuning, but instead of imitating it I decided the best thing I could do was forge my own way of playing trad on the guitar by finding my own tuning. Eventually I did by imitating the tuning of an Irish fiddle. One thing he does which I did learn and keep is his way of playing a treble/triplet ornament with his fingers in a way similar to how classical guitarists play a tremolo. Though Tony is Scottish he plays a lot of Irish traditional music and does it very well!
Addendum - My own trad guitar style
I've mentioned how my trad backing style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill, though in fairness to all those listed above, I'd have been influenced by them all in some way to make my style. I'm also influenced by bouzouki and mandolin players like Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine. I do my own thing though really so here's a summary of what I do with different tunings.
Open G - DGDGBD
I always use this when backing trad in sessions and often in concerts too. On record you can hear me use it on my first album 'Draíocht' on the songs/tunes 'The Mad Magician/Mad Magician's Daughter', 'Beautiful Freaks Like Us', 'Stone Walls' and 'The Magical Reel/Cinderella's Slipper'. I also used this tuning when I accompanied Martin Hayes in Irish Memory Orchestra gigs and on tour with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O'Connor. Occasionally I'll add some influences from African guitar styles into my backing, using this tuning.
Dropped D - DADGBE
I use this tuning when accompanying Máirtin O'Connor with the Irish Memory Orchestra on the tracks 'The Cuckoo', and 'Cat Chase Mouse'. On record I use it on the Draíocht tracks 'The Tempest in Mali' and 'The Monument'. When I have two guitars with me in concert, one is my Martin steel string tuned to Open G and the other a nylon string tuned to Dropped D, which I switch quickly to Standard tuning when needed.
Standard - EADGBE
I rarely use this when playing trad, but I use it in the Draíocht track 'Drowsy Maggie/The Coming of Spring' and also with Mairtin O'Connor sometimes.
Dave's Fiddle Tunings - DGDGAE / CGDGAE / BbFDGAE / DADGAE
I developed these tunings in order to play Irish trad tunes with an authentic style derived from fiddle playing and piping. These are the tunings I use on the album 'Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar'. Each tuning has the top four strings tuned DGAE, this gives the option of playing fiddle ornaments on the same open strings as fiddle players. I change the lower two strings according to the key of the tunes I am playing in. The main reason I developed this tuning though was because I'd learnt how to play a lot of Irish tunes on mandolin/banjo and instead of relearning the fingerings in a more common tuning I figured out a way of tuning the guitar so that I could just transfer the same fingerings from mandolin/banjo, whilst adding in some bass drones like a piper would. These tunings allow me to play ornaments like a fiddle player would. As far as I know, I'm the first and only guitarist to develop these tunings and techniques for Irish trad playing! I've also used this tuning on electric guitar when recording 'Christmas Eve' from my Winter Variations album.
When I was about 14 or 15 I started listening to a tape my Mum owned of the guitarist John Williams called "Guitar Music from Spain, England, Japan, Mexico & South America". Back then I couldn't read sheet music so I started learning some of the music by ear. I'd gradually transcribe it from the tape into Guitar TAB so I wouldn't forget it. The two main pieces I learnt then were Albeniz's 'Asturias' and the Japanese piece 'Sakura Variations' by Yocoh. I still play Sakura to this day, and have even played it on tour in Japan! Hearing John Williams play so beautifully inspired me to begin a lifelong journey with classical music. Below are Youtube and Spotify playlists featuring my favourite classical guitarists and some favourite classical guitar pieces, followed by some thoughts on each guitarist.
My favourite classical guitarist, by quite a distance, is the English guitarist Julian Bream. The reason I like Bream so much is that he is, first and foremost, a musician rather than being just a guitarist. His interpretative skills are world class. The repertoire he chose to play was also very wide ranging and he was groundbreaking in the way he commissioned new works from leading composers of his time. The classical guitar world has hundreds, perhaps thousands of technically brilliant players, many of whom would have better textbook technique than Bream. However few of them come close to matching Bream's masterful musicality. Bream can bring out so many wonderful textures and colours from the guitar, there are some tones he can produce that no other guitarist can. He seems a very nice chap indeed too in the mould of the eccentric English gent, as evidenced in this documentary. The pieces I've chosen for the playlist represent some of his finest interpretations, from Rodrigo's magical 'Passacaglia', to the 'Five Bagatelles' he commissioned from William Walton and the baroque 'Fantasie' by Weiss. I never got to see Bream live, which is a great regret in life. He's now retired, but he has passed the baton on to a supremely gifted young guitarist who is my newest classical guitar hero. More of which later.
As I mentioned, that John Williams tape inspired me to explore classical guitar seriously. I have seen him in concert a few times and each time was a masterclass in almost flawless guitar playing. Williams is particularly renowned for his perfectionism. Classical guitar is extremely difficult to master and Williams surpassed the legendary Segovia to bring the level of guitar technique to the heights of any classical virtuoso. For that he is lauded the world over. I would say his output is a bit more uneven than Bream's, but when he gets it right he is magnificent, as in the recordings of Yocoh's 'Sakura', Domeniconi's 'Koyunbaba' and Sagreras' dazzling 'El Colibri'. He was the first classical guitarist I saw in concert, at Dublin's National Concert Hall in the mid-90's. Aside from his guitar brilliance I loved the fact that he wore jeans on stage!
In 1998 my Mum and I went to a concert in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery by John Feeley, who was advertised as Ireland's finest classical guitarist. By the end of the concert I said to my Mum "He's not just Ireland's best, he's as good as John Williams!". My Mum encouraged me to chat with him about maybe getting some lessons. Being self-taught 'til then I was reluctant, but eventually I contacted him and met him at the DIT College of Music in Dublin where I played for him and he agreed to take me on as a student. I studied with John for the next five years, the latter four being during my undergraduate degree studies. John is a great teacher, very much a musician and a particularly brilliant interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach. John isn't as world famous as some other guitarists on this list, but he should be. In recent years a video of him performing Bach's imposing 'Chaconne' has propelled him to Youtube fame, it has over 3.5 million views! I'm lucky enough to have had John perform some of my compositions and I really enjoyed performing alongside him in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet with Hugh Buckley and Niwel Tsumbu. The Spotify playlist features him playing some music by contemporary Irish composer John Buckley. Dr. Feeley did his doctorate in modern Irish classical guitar music and he is widely regarded as the leading expert in the area having commissioned numerous composers over the years.
It came as a shock to me when Roland Dyens, the great Tunisian-French guitarist/composer passed away in 2016, aged just 61. Dyens was a truly unique guitarist/composer, unlike anyone else in the classical guitar world. In 2000 I travelled to the Nürtingen Guitar Festival in Germany where I spent a wonderful week learning from great guitar masters including Dyens. I was part of the guitar orchestra class that he was conducting. A group of about 30 guitarists from around the world worked together under his direction on a brand new piece called "Suite Polymorphe". Dyens had a wonderful way in rehearsals, incredibly patient and he could speak in about 7 languages so he could communicate to everyone easily. He brought us all for coffee after the last rehearsal and I got the opportunity to speak with him briefly. I saw him in concert quite a few times and always loved his approach. He never announced a programme, always began with an improvisation and moved through the concert spontaneously, playing pieces as he felt might suit the occasion. One of the remarkable things about him was his ability to play jazz almost as well as he played classical music. His compositions rank among the finest 20th/21st Century guitar works. I particularly like his "Libra Sonatine" which I learnt and played in my early 20's.
Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer is a true living legend of the guitar world. His diverse body of guitar works are performed by practically all classical guitarists. Brouwer's music appeals so much because he has run the gamut of modern composing styles, from very avant-garde experimentalism to minimalism and nationalistic folk styles. As a classical guitar student I played lots of Brouwer's music, both solo and in guitar ensembles. I particularly liked his solo piece Cuban Landscape with Bells and its sister pieces for guitar ensemble Cuban Landscape with Rain and Cuban Landscape with Rumba. I've never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brouwer although I did attend a festival where he was supposed to attend but he had to pull out due to ill health, such a shame! Brouwer was, at one point, a brilliant concert guitarist, but a hand injury forced him to give up his guitar playing and instead he focuses on composing and conducting. Some recordings of Brouwer at his heyday exist and it is wonderful to hear his own interpretations of his compositions and the music of other composers, like his version of Piazzolla's 'La Muerte Del Angel' on the playlists. You can also sense him 'playing' his own music when he conducts a guitar orchestra in "Cuban Landscape with Rain".
Dusan Bogdanovic is a Serbian guitarist/composer now living in the USA. I first heard about him in the early 2000s after getting a CD by Los Angeles Guitar Quartet member William Kanengiser which had his compositions '3 African Sketches', pieces I later learnt and performed in concert. I also learnt his idiosyncratic "6 Balkan Miniatures", which, at the time, made him stand apart from other classical guitar composers due to the complex time signatures inspired by Balkan folk music. In 2004 I attended Bogdanovic's composition masterclasses at the Nürtingen Guitar Festival, which were very informative and also shattered one of my illusions! In 2001 I had a eureka moment as a composer when I thought I'd discovered a new way of composing which I called 'Polymetric Cycles'. During his workshop Bogdanovic produced a book of compositions he'd written in 1990 called " Polyrhythmic and Polymetric Studies for Guitar". Within that book he talked about polymetric cycles and demonstrated how the concept of a polymetric cycle originated in ancient African music styles. So much for my great musical invention! I soon got over that and just enjoyed listening to Bogdanovic's intellectual yet accessible thoughts on music. Later in the festival he played a double-header concert with Roland Dyens. Here he displayed truly virtuosic guitar skills and also shared a wonderful improvisation with Dyens at the end. Quite why Bogdanovic isn't better known is beyond me, he is one of the most original classical guitarists I've seen and an excellent composer.
Pat Metheny playing Steve Reich
Pat Metheny is a jazz musician, not a classical guitarist, but he did premiere perhaps the most important guitar ensemble work by a classical composer of the late 20th Century, Steve Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint'. This hypnotic work, inspired by the Banda-Linda music of Central Africa and Metheny's own brand of jazz fusion, was composed in 1987. It is now considered the definitive piece for multiple guitars. It has been played by numerous classical guitarists and guitar ensembles and it was even sampled by 90's electronic music band 'The Orb' for their hit "Little Fluffy Clouds". Metheny's version remains the finest I've heard, although my friend Niwel Tsumbu performed it a few years ago when Reich was in Cork for a festival of his music and though I wasn't there to hear it, by all accounts Niwel's interpretation could be the best.
Last year I was Composer in Residence at the Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland. Whilst there I asked two of the students who their favourite guitarist was, without hesitation both of them said Laura Snowden. I had kinda been out of the classical guitar world for about 15 years by then, so I'd never heard of her. Intrigued I decided to watch some of her Youtube videos. It didn't take me long to understand why the younger generation of guitarists were holding her in such high regard. Laura is one of a very rare number of classical guitarists, like those mentioned above, who transcend the instrument and are simply great musicians, not just great guitarists. Laura is the best classical guitarist I've seen in a long time. She is also a great composer and holds another trump card up her sleeve that none of the other guitarists on this list hold, she sings beautifully and sometimes adds wordless singing to her guitar compositions. She also plays trad guitar in a folk group! In 2019 I was curating the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival and decided to invite Laura to perform at it, for what was her Irish debut. She played solo and also joined Michael O'Toole, David Creevy and I in a new group I put together called 'The Beckett Guitar Quartet'. It was wonderful to play alongside her and I look forward to working with her again in the future. Laura has yet to make a solo album, but I'm sure she is the future of the classical guitar, and none other than Julian Bream has taken her on as his protegé. Though she has no solo album yet, a beautifully produced video of her interpretation of Benjamin Britten's epic "Nocturnal" has recently been released. I put this on the Youtube Playlist.
As a classical guitar student in my early 20's I spent a lot of time playing the music of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. There was a documentary I saw on TV about Rodrigo which featured Pepe Romero as the main guitarist. He displayed a really deep understanding of Rodrigo's music that was inspirational to me. I found an old cassette of him playing Rodrigo's guitar works in Dublin's Ilac Centre Library. The tape wasn't available on CD then, so I transferred the tape to a blank CD and listened to it many times. Pepe Romero is one of Spain's greatest ever guitarists and he is also part of the great guitar quartet Los Romeros with some of his family members. I've never seen Pepe Romero live, but his recordings are wonderful.
If you study classical guitar you will inevitably study the music of Brazil's greatest composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos is one of the very few guitarist-composers who is spoken of in the pantheon of the great 20th Century classical composers. He has a huge body of works and his piano, cello and orchestral music are played the world over. Though Villa-Lobos was never a concert guitarist, recently released recordings of him playing two of his famous guitar works are revelatory as they reveal a way of playing these works that no other classical guitarist had considered. The recordings are old and crackly private tapes, so they can be difficult to listen to if you're not used to such things, but if you can move beyond the snaps, crackles and pops you will surely enjoy hearing the man himself play his beautiful music. As a student I played all of Villa-Lobos' music. In recent years I've started playing a few of them again and I try to bring some of what I've learnt from Bossa Nova and Samba music to it, as I can hear in Villa-Lobos' playing of his Choros No.1 that the rhythm is very connected to Bossa and Samba. They are all rooted in Brazilian folk music. Beyond his own recordings the definitive recordings of Villa-Lobos' music are surely by Julian Bream, who met Villa-Lobos as a young man and gave the British Premiere of Villa Lobos' Guitar Concerto. Villa-Lobos, who was self-taught, unusually used the little finger of his plucking hand, something that classical guitarists generally don't do. Segovia was baffled by this technique and told Villa-Lobos that other guitarists couldn't play his music that demanded the little finger. Villa-Lobos' response was "If you don't use it, then cut it off!" Coincidentally I naturally learnt to use my little finger a bit when teaching myself and I've composed some pieces which call for the use of the little finger, including "Four Etudes for Five Fingers", commissioned by the late Charles Postlewate, a pioneer in Five Finger technique.
Other Guitarists, including Segovia
The guitarists above are just my personal favourites, there are many other wonderful classical guitarists worth exploring, some of whom would, in the eyes of classical guitar aficiandos, be technically better than some of those mentioned above. I will list a few other guitarists who I have enjoyed seeing, hearing and sometimes learning from, to give some more options.
Scott Tennant, David Russell, Manuel Barrueco, Sharon Isbin, The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Ana Vidovic, William Kanengiser, Zoran Dukic. Benjamin Dwyer, Avril Kinsey, Charles Postlewate, Nikita Koshkin, Pavel Steidl.
You may notice that the famous Andres Segovia isn't on my list. I did try to get interested in Segovia's playing when I was a guitar student. I bought some Segovia CDs and listened to them, however I never felt an urge to go back to them very often. Maybe his style sounded old-fashioned to me at the time. I also am put off by Segovia's very conservative attitudes which led to a famous encounter with Igor Stravinsky. When Stravinsky asked Segovia "Why have you never requested I write music for you?", Segovia responded "I do not want to insult your music by not playing it!" With those snide words Segovia robbed guitarists of a potential masterpiece from one of the most important classical composers of all time!
Rarely is any guitarist from Africa mentioned in music journalist's lists of 'Greatest Ever Guitarists'. The guitarists I'm about to discuss deserve their place alongside Hendrix, Clapton, Django, Segovia et al. The fact is the African continent has produced some of the greatest guitarists the world has ever known.
It's misleading for anyone to use that all-encompassing term 'African Guitars' or 'African Music', as there are a huge variety of music styles in Africa. Nobody describes all the guitar styles in Europe as 'European Guitars'! So I'm hoping this post will help bring a new perspective to readers who may not know much about the diversity of guitar styles across Africa.
My favourite styles come from Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Mali, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Below are playlists featuring some of the guitar music from these countries that has inspired me so much over the years, followed by some comments on each band/artist. I also have heard some great guitar music from Nigeria, Guinea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Senegal, Cameroon and elsewhere. Too much for me to delve into here!
Franco et le TPOK Jazz
When I was in college studying classical guitar and composition I was also listening to a lot of music from Africa. My compositions inevitably became influenced by the music I heard. In 2001 a compilation called 'The Rough Guide to Franco' was released, I read about it and became intrigued by the story of the late, great Congolese bandleader and "Sorcerer of the Guitar" Franco Luambo Makiadi. Franco led the magnificent band Orchestre TPOK Jazz from the 1950's until his death in 1989, releasing over 300 albums and composing over 1000 songs! TPOK Jazz's peak period between the mid 70's - early 80's contains some of my favourite music. The song "Kamikaze" is a beautiful example of the multiple guitar interplay that was a signature of the band's sound. Franco and his right-hand man Simaro are joined on this recording by the great lead guitarist Michelino. There were many more great guitarists to pass through the OK Jazz ranks, but this trio may be the finest combination they ever had. The album 'Missile', is a masterclass in multi-layered guitars, some tracks having 9 guitar overdubs on them. "Coupe Du Monde" is a prime example of OK Jazz guitar heaven. My compositions 'Sebene' and 'Joy' are heavily influenced by Franco and his magnificent band, as are some songs from the D.F.F. album 'Pouric Songs', more of which later.
Jean Bosco Mwenda
I first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda through a recording, by the classical guitarist Timothy Walker, of Mwenda's beautiful composition "Masanga". Years later I got a recording of Mwenda himself and on the album he was singing songs like 'Bipi Mupenza" along to his complex finger-picking patterns. Mwenda was a pioneer of fingerstyle guitar in DR Congo and his influence is heard on the generations that followed him, including Franco.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
In my early 20s I used to go to Dublin's Ilac Centre Library regularly to borrow CDs and sheet music. They had a small section with "World" music and I'd take a chance on the odd CD from there every now and again. One day I picked up a CD called 'The Best of Thomas Mapfumo: Chimurenga Forever" knowing nothing about the music. I went home, put it on, but for whatever reason the first listen didn't grab me, perhaps it wasn't the kind of music I was expecting. I left it aside and nearly didn't listen to it again, but just before it was due back I gave it a proper listen with headphones. Soon I became hypnotized by the music and unusual guitar style, which I later learned was an imitation of the traditional 'mbira', a thumb piano from Zimbabwe. The style of music is called "Chimurenga", which means 'struggle' in the Shona language. The music was the soundtrack to the fight for Zimbabwean independence, Mapfumo's songs were banned by Ian Smith's colonial government and later banned again when Mapfumo turned his pen against the once beloved leader of Zimbabwean independence Robert Mugabe. Mugabe became corrupt and disillusioned Mapfumo, who would eventually be forced to live in exile in the USA. Mapfumo is known as "The Lion of Zimbabwe". I've had the privilege of seeing him and his brilliant band The Blacks Unlimited twice, in Dublin and London. His band has had some great guitarists, including the inventor of "mbira guitar" Jonah Sithole, Joshua Dube and Ephraim Karimaura. In 2000 I composed the guitar quartet piece "Chimurenga" in Mapfumo's honour, it was recorded by the Dublin Guitar Quartet on "Contemporary Irish".
Djelimady Tounkara , Salif Keita and Super Rail Band de Bamako
One of the most virtuosic guitarists in Africa is the Malian Djelimady Tounkara, lead guitarist of the famous Super Rail Band that the legendary Salif Keita was once part of. I first came across the Super Rail Band's music when they reformed in 2003 with the album 'Kongo Sigui", this led me to explore their fantastic back catalog. "Kongo Sigui" is a great album that showcases Tounkara's guitar magic perfectly. However their music from the late 70's, when they were just known as "Rail Band" are real gems, especially those with the majestic voice of Salif Keita. I saw the Super Rail Band live in Dun Laoghaire in 2007 when they played a great set at the Festival of World Cultures with Tounkara at the helm. Keita had long left the band by then, but I had the pleasure of seeing him twice, most recently on his retirement tour at this year's WOMAD in New Zealand. At 70 he's still an astounding artist and he is bowing out at the peak of his powers. The 3rd movement of my String Quartet No.2 'The Cranning' "The Bamako Highland", is inspired by the Super Rail Band - and Donegal fiddles!
I moved to London in 2003 to study composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When I lived there I made regular visits to Sterns African Music Store, which sadly no longer exists. It was there I picked up an album by Jonah Sithole. I don't know much about Jonah Sithole, other than the fact that he was the first guitarist in Thomas Mapfumo's band and he pioneered the Zimbabwean "Chimurenga" guitar style. The album is a great showcase of his unique sound. It isn't on Spotify, but you can find his music on Youtube. Sithole's brilliant guitar work is on lots of Thomas Mapfumo albums including Hokoyo, Zimbabwe-Mozambique and Corruption.
Souza Vangu with Youlou Mabiala
Youlou Mabiala is a renowned singer and composer from Congo-Brazzaville, a smaller country beside DR Congo. He is also the son-in-law of Franco. Mabiala sang with OK Jazz for several years before breaking out on his own with his band Orchestra Kamikaze, named after his song that OK Jazz recorded. The guitarist in Orchestra Kamikaze was the late Souza Vangu, from Brazzaville. Mabiala's albums with his Orchestra are in the Rumba style of OK Jazz, but different enough to be distinct and well worth exploring. Vangu's lead guitar playing is gorgeous, particularly on the track Walimeya.
Zaiko Langa Langa
Zaiko Langa Langa are a long-running supergroup who come from the generation after Franco. They tend to play faster music and their lead guitarists are suitably lightning quick. The most famous member of Zaiko Langa Langa was the late Papa Wemba, who became a world music superstar, signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. I must admit I haven't listened to Zaiko Langa Langa a huge amount, they don't compare with OK Jazz to me. However some of their music is infectious, especially in live performances, like the song 'Antalia' that's on the Youtube playlist.
Ali Farke Touré
Ali Farke Touré was a legendary Malian guitarist whose music was labelled 'Desert Blues'. He came to Dublin when I was in college and that was the first I'd heard of him. I intended to go to the gig but missed out as it sold out quickly. Years later I finally got to see him when he played a magical concert with the amazing Kora player Toumani Diabate at London's Barbican Centre. The music he played is seen by many to being the roots of the blues and this was explored in a great documentary by Martin Scorsese 'Feel Like Going Home'. He also recorded a seminal album with slide guitarist Ry Cooder.
In 2008 I came across the brilliant guitar playing of Niwel Tsumbu. I found Niwel's music because I was looking to see if there were any Congolese guitarists in Ireland that I could jam with. I soon got in touch with Niwel and I've now worked with him on lots of projects. Our first concert was a Congolese-Irish trad mash-up with Cion O'Callaghan and Martin Tourish, at 2010 Africa Day in Dublin. He then joined me for a couple of concerts with John Feeley and Hugh Buckley in a group we called The Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet. Next we recorded and toured together on the D.F.F. album 'Pouric Songs'. Then Niwel was the lead guitarist in a piece called 'Joy' which I composed for us to play with Crash Ensemble. Most recently Niwel has become a member of my ensemble The Irish Memory Orchestra. The reason I keep asking Niwel to join my projects is because he is simply the best all-round guitarist I know! He can play anything. He can play all sorts of African guitar styles as well as flamenco, jazz, rock, modern classical and pop. Basically anything that he tries he plays brilliantly. Besides this he has a unique style of composing and playing that seems to me to be a synthesis of all the music he plays, the track 'Mboka' being a great example . Why he isn't world famous is beyond me. Clapton has nothing on him!
DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra
Before streaming services like Spotify came along it could be quite hard to find records by African bands who weren't revived by Western record labels. If it wasn't in Stern's African store it basically wasn't available. With the advent of blogging a treasure trove of old African vinyls and cassettes began to be uploaded on blogs like World Service. I discovered the music of Tanzanian band DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra on one of these blogs, along with numerous others by various other African orchestras. Among those songs the track 'Edita' stuck in my mind as it seemed to me to have 4 electric guitars by its majestic climax. It wasn't until several years later that I got fully hooked into DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra as their music became a bit more widely available on Youtube and Spotify. Formed in 1978, they appear to be still going and are one of Tanzania's most popular bands. Only a small part of their output is available though, so perhaps they are the next great African band that deserves a revival!
Western Jazz Band
Sometime in the late 90's I picked up the compilation CD 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa'. The album would be better titled 'A Few Of The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa', as the compilation only hints at the vast treasures to be found in the huge range of African music styles. There are indeed some really beautiful songs on the album though, particularly the track 'Rosa' by the Western Jazz Band from Tanzania. Honorable mention goes to Orchestra Super Mazembe and the great opening track "Kasongo".
D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz
Another group on that CD is the Kenyan Band Shirati Jazz, led by the late Tanzanian Daniel O. Misiani. On the back of their tracks on that album I bought their album 'Benga Blast' in Sterns. That album is a great introduction to their 'Benga' music style, which is a bit more stripped down compared to the big Congolese, Tanzanian and Malian orchestras. Something I particularly like about the Benga style is that it sometimes gets pared back with the solo guitar dropping out and the rhythm guitar coming to the fore. This shows how the rhythm guitar lines are often as intricate as the solo lines, just lower down the neck of the guitar. Shirati Jazz seem to be the best known Kenyan/Tanzanian band and Misiani was, by all accounts, a very important musician in the history of African music. He passed away in 2006.
Indestructible Beat of Soweto
My list wouldn't be complete without this seminal 1985 compilation of South African music that paved the way for Paul Simon's 'Graceland', featuring, as it does, some of the musicians that are on 'Graceland'. The most famous such group Ladysmith Black Mambazo don't have any guitarists, just singers. So for guitar inspiration I'd recommend the acoustic guitar-driven tracks by Udokotela Shange Namajaha and the infectious Township Jive of Amaswazi Emvelo. Also listen to "Joyce No.2" by Johnson Mkhalali to sample the Township Jive style that Paul Simon based his song "Gumboots" on.
I got 'The Indestructible Beat of Soweto' on tape many years ago, but have to admit I haven't listened to it much since I nearly wore it out in the 90's! I enjoy the South African music I've heard, however I haven't delved much deeper into South African music than this compilation. I did, nonetheless, compose a Township Jive-influenced piece called 'Quilty Township Jive' as part of my Irish Memory Orchestra piece 'The Clare Concerto'. I wrote it in honour of our South African conductor Bjorn Bantock.
This is just a sampling of the music in my collection from Africa. I've a particularly big selection of Franco's albums and if you enjoy the sound of Franco et le TPOK Jazz I recommend starting with the albums 'En Colere Vol.1 & 2' and the 4 volume set "Le Quart De Siecle". Then, for a different side of Franco try 'Missile' and 'Benediction' with Michelino.
Other artists worth checking out include Bembeya Jazz, Les Ambassadeurs, Baaba Maal, Ntesa Dalienst, Josky Kiambakutu, Papa Noel, Orchestra Baobab, Ntesa Dalienst, Bhundu Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Four Brothers, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Viva La Musica, Pepe Kalle and Empire Bakuba, John Chibadura and The Tembo Brothers, King Sunny Ade, Orchestra Veve and Mose Fan Fan, a former OK Jazz guitarist who I enjoyed seeing play in Whelan's many years ago!
There's also Kanda Bongo Man, an artist popular in the West, who isn't taken too seriously in his native DR Congo, but he has some great guitarists including Diblo Dibala and a man called Rigo Star!
I also really enjoy the music of Nigeria's Fela Kuti, I haven't included it here because I'm doing a separate funk guitar playlist later which Fela's music is more suited to.
Ah, the 90's, remember those days? Remember the big music stars. No? Well, here's who you couldn't get away from if you turned on the radio or Top of the Pops in the 90's - The Spice Girls, Boyzone, Take That, Westlife, Steps, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, The Backstreet Boys, S Club 7, Five, Oasis, Bon Jovi, Puff Daddy, Will Smith and Bryan Adams. It was a decade filled with bad cover versions, over-ornamented white "soul" singers, cheesy boy/girl bands, commercial rap, cloying rock ballads and retro culture. I was a teenager between 1990 and 1996 and I despaired at the music I was hearing on the radio. I'll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted in the 90's - better music!
There was of course an alternative music culture that produced some good music, but by and large the 1990's were a strange time for pop/rock music, especially guitar-based music. Aside from Grunge there weren't too many guitar-based musical developments. Though I enjoyed Grunge for a while it was a brief trend that never stuck with me. Grunge was huge but now it seems a distant memory, most Grunge bands seem to have been forgotten about, perhaps rightly so.
The real 90's musical revolutions were in electronic music with Rave, Jungle, Electronica, Trip-Hop and Hip Hop. I took solace in some artists from those genres like Goldie, Missy Elliot, Bjørk and Massive Attack, but guitar music they were not! So for my rock/pop guitar fixes in the 90's, I was discovering music from previous decades.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of innovation in guitar music was because there was a big trend of 'retro' music, especially referencing the 1960's. As the decade went on the 60's revival was replaced by the 70's revival and there was even an attempt at an 80's revival as the 90's came to an end!
All that is a long way of explaining how my 90's guitar hero playlists revolve around guitarists more associated with the 60's, 70's and 80's. Here's a Youtube and Spotify playlist of some of the music I was listening to and learning from then, followed by my thoughts on each guitarist.
No guitar hero list would be complete without the greatest rock guitarist of them all. The 60's revival of the 90's brought a trend of releasing 'remastered' classic albums. Jimi Hendrix's music had a great renaissance then, especially after they produced a video for his cover of Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower'. The invention in his guitar playing was inspiring and I immersed myself in learning his music then. His diversity as a player is brilliantly illustrated in tracks like 'Castles Made of Sand' and 'The Wind Cries Mary'. His rhythm guitar playing was as inventive as his famed solos. The true rock guitar hero. Nothing more needs to be said!
The Police (Andy Summers)
It was through listening to The Police in the 90's that I really transformed as a listener and musician. Andy Summers is probably the most important influence to me for that reason, as it was his guitar playing that really expanded my musical horizons. He played extended chords like no one else in pop or rock did. It all sounded so simple, but then you'd try to play it and your fingers would get sore because they had to stretch across more frets than any other music you'd played! My fingers stretched out to be quite long mainly because I learnt how to play Andy Summers' add9 chords from Message in a Bottle, Every Breath You Take and perhaps my favourite Police riff De Do Do Do. Some of The Police's best tracks weren't singles, so they aren't as well known. 'Secret Journey' and 'When the World is Running Down' feature some of Summers' finest textured playing. I composed my first classical guitar piece when listening to The Police. I called it Homage to Andy Summers as it used a lot of add9 chords. It's now called 'Elegy for Joan' in memory of my late Mum. Summers' isn't just a huge influence on me, his influence is basically heard across the entire pop/rock history since the late 70's! He could do more with one unusual chord and an effects pedal than most can do with all the guitar tricks in the box.
The Doors (Robbie Krieger)
The 60's revival brought The Doors back into fashion in a big way, so much so that there was a big Hollywood movie about them. I was buying CDs by then and so I got all The Doors CDs. Of course Jim Morrison was an enthralling lead singer, but it was the understated and hugely versatile Robbie Krieger that really peaked my interest. He would move from screaming blues solos like in 'Peace Frog', to jazzy sitar-like playing as on 'Indian Summer' and Spanish guitar, like 'Spanish Caravan'.
Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon)
Simon and Garfunkel's music was always in the house, however as I matured as a guitarist I began to understand what a great guitarist Paul Simon is, so I started learning a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs. They are great songs to learn fingerstyle guitar and are a bit of a bridge to classical and jazz guitar. 'So Long Frank Lloyd Wright' is a strangely beautiful song sung by Art Garfunkel to Paul Simon's gorgeous nylon string guitar part. This song introduced me to the Brazilian style of Bossa Nova which I'd grow to love. Simon's version of Davy Graham's guitar instrumental 'Anji' also introduced me to the world of solo folk guitar playing, which ultimately led me into traditional Irish music. 'Punky's Dilemma' has jazzy strums using major 7th chords, which became my favourite type of chords.
When you start exploring 60's folk songwriters like Paul Simon it isn't long before you discover Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. Though the most famous Joni album is 'Blue', the album that really captured me was 'Hejira', a sprawling jazz-influenced album about life on the road with a cast of wonderful musicians including guitarist Larry Carlton and legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. It is also a great showcase of Joni's inventive guitar playing. She uses numerous alternative guitar tunings to sculpt beautiful accompaniment to her poetic lyrics. A true musical genius.
Neil Young plays harmonica on the 'Hejira' track 'Furry Sings the Blues'. In the 90's he had a big comeback and became a guitar hero to a new generation. His legendary MTV Unplugged set is perhaps the most memorable edition of Unplugged, I bought the tape when it came out in 1993. Unplugged introduced an almost forgotten 70's star to the 90's generation and he was labelled the Godfather of Grunge. The Unplugged album doesn't explain why he got this name, rather it's his work with his band Crazy Horse, with whom he played extended heavy rock jams, some featuring really epic guitar solos, like 'Down by the River', 'Cortez the Killer' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand'. Down by the River is notable for Young's 'one note solos', where he keeps playing the same note over and over before doing the same with another note. Minimalist rock guitar god!
Pink Floyd (Dave Gilmour)
In 1994 Pink Floyd made a comeback with the album 'The Division Bell'. I'd been listening to them a bit before the Division Bell came out, having been introduced to the glories of their remastered back catalog of great albums like Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Meddle and Animals. Dave Gilmour's guitar playing on these records is some of the best rock guitar there is, so he was a huge influence to me then. I never got to see Pink Floyd live, but I did see their legendary Live 8 reunion live on TV in 2005 and their performance of 'Comfortably Numb' brought a nostalgic tear to my eyes! The epic song 'Dogs' has incredible guitar playing throughout.
It's hard to believe it now, but in the late 70's and 80's The Beatles were not a trendy band at all, they were seen as a relic of the bygone hippie era that the punks, goths and metal-heads were railing against. So, as a child, I didn't hear them much on the radio and I knew a lot more about the individual member's solo work than the band. Then The Beatles had a major revival in the 90's thanks to a host of 'new' bands ripping them off (hello Oasis!) and a huge marketing campaign around their remastered 'Anthology'. It was impossible to avoid The Beatles at this point, so I began seriously listening to their music. Hearing the albums 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', 'Revolver', 'The White Album' and 'Abbey Road' made me and a lot of my generation realise they were one of the greatest of all pop/rock bands! Some of their non-album singles are among their best work, especially 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on which John, Paul and George each play different guitar lines. It was the 2000s before I got into their US equivalent, The Beach Boys, so they're not in my Retro 90's playlist.
Yes (Steve Howe)
Another 60's/70's band to get a 90's revival was the Progressive Rock band 'Yes'. I was drawn into Yes' music by their virtuoso guitarist Steve Howe. I'd known their hit 80's song 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' but it was really through the publicity around their so-so 1991 comeback album 'Union' that I began to explore their back catalog. At their best Yes produced really uplifting music which had a great balance between pop hooks and virtuoso musicianship. At their worst they were self-indulgent. The main Yes album I listened to in the 90's was the compilation "Classic Yes" which has the best tracks from their 70's heyday. Howe's guitar playing is tremendous throughout this compilation, as is Jon Anderson's distinctive singing. The epic 10 minute "And You and I" is a great showcase of their talents, moving stage by stage from a mysterious 12-string acoustic guitar intro to a folky pop song, to a psychedelic bit, a synth-orchestra interlude, a majestic vocal climax, another folky bit, some bluesy guitar, strange synth noodling from Rick Wakeman, a harmony vocal bit, another synth-orchestra bit and finally returning to gentle folkiness at the end. Genre-jumping at its finest!
The Clash (Mick Jones)
Another band to get a 90's revival were 'The Clash'. Their revival was mainly down to 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' being used for a famous Levi jeans TV ad. My sister was a big fan of the band in the 80's, but I didn't really listen to them then. With their 90's revival I started listening to them and I began to really appreciate their diversity, they weren't just another punk band. They brought in influences from Reggae, Funk and Disco to develop into the best of the Punk bands. My favourite song of theirs is 'Straight to Hell', which has strange textures including some beautifully subtle guitar lines from Mick Jones. 'London Calling' and 'Rock the Casbah' are two other classics I like that were on MTV a lot in the 90's. Jones is kind of an anti-guitar hero as he doesn't do flashy guitar solos, but his guitar playing with The Clash was just perfect for what they were doing.
Addendum - Why No 90's Guitar Heroes? Where's Kurt Cobain and Jonny Greenwood?
So in this playlist of my "90's" rock guitar heroes, none of them are artists who first broke through in the 90's. To me that's a reflection of the fact that the 90's weren't a great time for guitar music. In fact, I remember one of the key aesthetics of 90's rock music was a reaction against the very concept of a rock guitar solo. Accomplished guitar playing wasn't cool anymore! Take for example thisBest of 1993 edition of the old MTV Indie music show 120 minutes - There's a lot of guitar playing on it, but most of it is pretty basic stuff which I find uninteresting. By far the most interesting musician there is Björk, and she doesn't use a guitar! That was MTV's idea of the best alternative music of 1993. Most of those bands are forgotten now, to me it was a pretty dull time for guitar music. Some people love this era though and that's fine by me, it's just not my idea of good guitar music.
The fact that Kurt Cobain is often cited as the main guitar hero of the 90's says a lot about the state of guitar rock then. I was a Nirvana fan briefly, but I got bored by them pretty quickly and though his influence on the 90's music scene is undeniable, the truth is Kurt Cobain was a pretty average guitar player and most of the things he did had already been done by The Pixies and other '80's bands (Just listen to "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" for proof!).
The closest person to a 90's rock guitar hero I'd have would be Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. I enjoyed their big album 'OK Computer", and would have learnt some of the songs, but it wouldn't be honest of me to list Greenwood or any other 90's rock guitarist as a major influence on me.
I'd also give an honourable mention to Graham Coxon from Blur. In the mid-90's the Blur V. Oasis battle was unavoidable. I'd be firmly on the side of Blur as their music is far more creative, thanks partly to Coxon's angular guitar playing. Saying that though, I saw them at a Belgian festival called Rock Werchter a few years ago and I found their music hadn't dated very well. The same is true of 'OK Computer'. Music that seemed fresh to me in the mid-90's now sounds very stale! It's like a less interesting version of The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
The 90's weren't all bad, there was some very inventive electronic dance music and hip-hop, but it wouldn't be until the late 2000's when some new guitar bands would emerge to peak my interest and bring me back to rock music. Due to this my playlists over the next few weeks move to other genres because the late 90's and early-mid 2000s were a time when I moved away from pop and rock music and focused my attention on classical, trad, jazz and African music styles.
When I was 12 I saw Iron Maiden on Top of the Pops and thus began an obsession with Heavy Metal that lasted most of my teenage years. I don't listen to it much anymore, however I credit my Heavy Metal guitar heroes for pushing me to develop my guitar skills and opening a door into classical, folk and jazz guitar. Some of the below tracks have hints of those genres. I've deliberately picked some pieces which show the mellow side of metal, and also some thunderingly heavy tracks. The playlist demonstrates how bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer and Metallica prepared me for some of the big powerful orchestral works that I came to love. Stravinsky, Bruckner, Holst and Shostakovich have moments that sound just like heavy metal to me. Just sample some of these symphonic masterpieces, before you delve into my heavy metal playlist!
Bruckner - Symphony No.9 'Scherzo' (1894) - Pounding Metal Power Chords in the 19th Century!
Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring 'Dance of the Adolescents' (1913) Russian Metal!
Holst - The Planets Suite i. Mars (1916) - The First Wave of British Heavy Metal!
Shostakovich - Symphony No.11 (1957) - Heavy Metal Riff Extravaganza in Movement 2!
Now, on to my playlists - The Youtube Playlist tracks are described below, The Spotify playlist has a lot more pieces on it, just to give a wide overview of the variety that can be found in the heavy metal genre.
Iron Maiden - Infinite Dreams (live)
Iron Maiden were the first metal band to really grab my attention when I saw them play 'Infinite Dreams' on Top of the Pops when I was 12. The song was epic, the twin guitars of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray were straight out of the Thin Lizzy playbook and singer Bruce Dickinson a fantastic showman. I'd actually heard Iron Maiden before that without knowing, as their song 'Phantom of the Opera' was on a famous Lucozade Ad with Olympic athlete Daley Thompson. My Dad hated heavy metal, but even he liked that music!
Black Sabbath - Planet Caravan
Black Sabbath are the originators of Heavy Metal. Tony Iommi's guitar playing was the definition of heavy. Yet he could be mellow too, such as this otherworldly song, which even has a jazz guitar solo. These kind of mellow metal moments opened my ears to classical music, folk and jazz. I finally got to see Black Sabbath at an Austrian festival in 2015, they were by far the oldest band there, yet also the heaviest, they made some of the younger speed demons sound pathetic!
Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
Led Zeppelin aren't strictly Heavy Metal, but they hugely influenced the genre and their famous 'Immigrant Song' is definitely heavy metal. Despite this heavy edge they are the band that really opened my mind to acoustic music. Initially drawn in by the raw power of Jimmy Page's guitar, John Bonham's drums, John Paul Jones' bass and Robert Plant's vocals, I soon became obsessed with their largely acoustic third album. It was through this album that I began to learn about alternate tunings, like the Open-G tuning used in 'That's the Way'. I use Open-G to this day when backing Irish trad music. Possibly my favourite Led Zep song though is 'Ramble On' a song about 'The Lord of the Rings'. It shows the versatility of Jimmy Page, who plays folky acoustic guitar, melodic electric harmonies and heavy power chords.
AC/DC - Back in Black
AC/DC are one of the few bands who cross-over between pop/rock music fans and metal fans. They are heavy, yet also write pretty conventional 'boy wants girl' rock n'roll songs. In Angus Young they have a charismatic lead guitarist who is worshipped by bedroom guitarists the world over. I used to be one of them and learnt how to play all the classic AC/DC songs, including their biggest hits 'Thunderstruck' and 'Back in Black'.
Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads - Diary of a Madman
When Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath he discovered an unusual guitar virtuoso, Randy Rhoads. He was an unconventional metal guitarist at the time because he studied classical guitar. Apparently he would seek out classical guitar teachers in every town when he was on the road. The intro to 'Diary of a Madman' is hugely influenced by a classical guitar etude composed byLeo Brouwer. I learnt it as a teenager without knowing this, only discovering the fact years later when studying Brouwer's music. Lots of Metal guitarists since Rhoads followed his example and studied classical guitar, thus spawning the sub-genre 'Neo-Classical Metal'!
Guns N'Roses - Welcome to the Jungle
The late 80's were probably the high-point of heavy metal, especially when Guns N'Roses burst onto the scene with an almost punk-like attitude. They were different to any other Metal band, more about sex, drugs and rock n'roll than the fantasy and literary driven world of Iron Maiden and their like. Slash and Izzy Stradlin were a formidable guitar partnership and I still admire the way Stradlin plays off of Slash's epic leads on the album 'Appetite for Destruction'. They also did mellow acoustic ballads too, like 'Patience', which every bedroom guitarist in 1989 learnt!
Metallica - One
Another seminal Top of the Pops moment for me in 1989 was seeing the video for Metallica's 'One'. The song is a bit of a rock cliché now, but back then it was really ground-breaking. The mix between mellow, almost classical guitar lines and extremely heavy music paved the way for the Grunge revolution that would soon follow. I spent hours playing the guitar lines of Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield from then until my mid-teens. Other Metallica songs that have this mix of classical mellowness and thrash metal power include 'Battery', 'Fade to Black', 'Welcome Home - Sanitarium'' and 'To Live is to Die' which begins with an Early classical music intro, before getting very heavy indeed.
Joe Satriani - Flying in a Blue Dream
By 1990 I was fully immersed in epic metal guitar solos. I was getting Rock Guitar magazines and teaching myself all the riffs from guitar tabs. It was in these magazines I heard about Joe Satriani, then I saw him on MTV and his guitar playing blew me away. His 'Flying in a Blue Dream' album was a constant in my life back then, I had the guitar TAB book. The title track is one of the best rock instrumentals for driving down the highway. He makes beautiful use of controlled feedback here. He could rock hard but also play classical-influenced mellow pieces in his virtuoso 'finger-tapping' style, such as 'Midnight', 'Days at the Beach' and 'The Forgotten Part 1'.
Megadeth - Hangar 18
Megadeth were the next band to listen to after anyone discovered Metallica, because frontman Dave Mustaine used to be in Metallica. Their 1990 album Rust in Peace was a firm favourite of mine for a couple of years and their hit single Hangar 18 sees Mustaine and Marty Friedman playing riff after riff of metal guitar heaven! Funny story about Megadeth I heard back in the day. They played in Dun Laoghaire's Top Hat Theatre in the 80's, an audience member was badly injured when he did a stage-dive at the end of the show when everyone was leaving, no one was there to catch him!
Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss
It doesn't get much heavier than Slayer and so I guess it was natural that by the time I hit puberty and full-on teen angst at 13 I would seek out the heaviest of metal bands. When I saw 'Seasons in the Abyss' on MTV I was transfixed by the awesome power of it, and the haunting clean guitar arpeggios, straight out of Flamenco! Many years later I brought my teenage half-sister to a heavy metal festival in Austria as she had become a metal fan too. Slayer were there and they momentarily brought me back to my 13-year old self, the power of their performance was astounding!
I hope this playlist and blogpost goes some way to explaining how a heavy metal teenager could become a trad and classical guitarist and composer. I'll end with an excerpt from my 2nd String Quartet 'The Cranning', which is meant to sound like Metallica played with violins, viola and cello!
This year is turning into the year of the guitar for me. Most of the music I'll be working on this year heavily involves the instrument that brought me into music and inspired me to begin composing. In my current role as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Musician in Residence I'm composing a guitar ensemble piece to record with my good friend Ciaran Swift and his students of the Guitar Training Centre in Dún Laoghaire.
As part of the residency I'm sharing a Youtube & Spotify playlist once a week featuring music that inspired me since I first picked up the guitar. The playlists each have a different theme, from childhood pop/rock favourites to classical, jazz, trad, African, Funk, Indie music and my Heavy Metal teenage years! There are some different tracks on the Spotify and Youtube playlists to lend variety and because some tracks on Youtube aren't on Spotify! I start with my childhood guitar heroes.
The Stranglers - Golden Brown
This is the first song I remember hearing as a young child that really caught my attention. I heard it on the car radio and wondered what it was. It took me a while to find out, maybe a few years, we didn't have the internet back then! When I finally tracked down a tape of The Stranglers I played this song over and over and quickly learnt Hugh Cornwell's beautiful, jazzy guitar solo. I also learnt to transfer the main harpsichord part onto guitar. My first transcription!
Dire Straits - Single Handed Sailor/Follow Me Home
Mark Knopfler was my first guitar hero. My Dad liked Dire Straits, so I heard classics like 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Romeo and Juliet'. In 1985, when I was 8, they released the 'Brothers in Arms' album and 'Money for Nothing' propelled Knopfler to superstardom. The album that really stuck with me is 'Communique', which I got on cassette then. It's one of their least known albums, but I love the dual guitar playing, like on 'Single-Handed Sailor' and the hypnotic 'Follow Me Home'.
Paul McCartney (with Dave Gilmour) - No More Lonely Nights
When I was a child Paul McCartney was huge. He was, in my mind at least, bigger than The Beatles, because the only thing I knew of the Beatles was the records in my Mum's vinyl collection that rarely got played. It wasn't until my late teens that I 'discovered' the magic of The Beatles. I loved Paul McCartney's music as a kid and remember when 'No More Lonely Nights' was on Top of the Pops. The guitar solo really stood out to me. I think then I thought it was Paul McCartney but several years later found out it was Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd.
Kate Bush (with Dave Gilmour) - Running up that Hill (live)/Love and Anger
Kate Bush was an amazing artist for a young child to behold in the 80's. Her videos for Cloudbusting and Running Up That Hill were like nothing else. Then I saw her play the track live on TV, little knowing that the brilliant guitarist was the same guy playing with Paul McCartney. Gilmour doesn't play on the album version though, but he does add his distinctive guitar to her song 'Love and Anger' from 1989's 'Sensual World' album. I also unknowingly saw Gilmour playing with Bryan Ferry during Live Aid. Of course then there were also Pink Floyd songs on the radio like 'Another Brick in the Wall' and 'Learning to Fly'. Looking back I can see Gilmour's guitar sound was embedded in my mind long before I knew who he was!
Eric Clapton - White Room (live)/Behind the Mask
Another of my Dad's favourites, I became a big Clapton fan too, though I rarely listen to him anymore. I remember hearing 'Behind the Mask' on the radio when I was a kid and I also remember his Live Aid set with the Cream classic 'White Room'. My Dad brought me to Wembley Stadium to see Clapton in a double-header with Elton John in 1992. 15-year-old me didn't like Elton John's music so I was pretty bored by his set, but when Clapton came on I was transfixed. Funnily enough, nowadays I'm more likely to listen to something from Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road than any Clapton though!
Thin Lizzy - Still in Love with You/Jailbreak (live)
One day my parents brought me to a ballet performance that my sister was in. I had no interest in going, but all that changed when word got around that Phil Lynott was there. My Mum brought me up to meet him, I'll never forget that moment, he had such a kind, generous smile and deeply penetrating eyes. Not long after that we were listening to the radio and heard the terrible news that he'd died. That was my first experience of someone I'd met dying. I listened again and again to Thin Lizzy's 'Live and Dangerous Album' after that. 'Still in Love with You' is a song I used to skip as a child, as an adult though I just love the song and the brilliant dual guitar playing of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson.
Queen - One Vision (live) - Bohemian Rhapsody/Radio Gaga (at Live Aid)
It's hard to underplay the impact Live Aid had on me and so many others. It was an incredible event that my 8-year-old brain cells still remember vividly. Queen's set stole the show of course and I begged my parents to get me their next album 'Live Magic' when it came out. Brian May's guitar playing is so powerful on this live album it surely gave me an ear for the heavier side of rock music that I'd turn to in a few years. I also loved 'Radio Ga Ga' and the Live Aid version is glorious.
Paul Simon - Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes/Under African Skies
My parents both loved Simon and Garfunkel, my Dad's party-piece was singing 'The Boxer'. When Paul Simon made a big comeback in 1986 with his Graceland album it united my family's musical taste for one rare moment! It's difficult to explain to people who weren't alive then how new it was to hear and see a White American singing with amazing musicians from Apartheid-era South Africa. Simon almost single-handedly opened up the world to African music. Years later I would delve deep into the numerous guitar styles that spring from Africa. Graceland was my first taste of those chiming guitars.
Run DMC with Aerosmith - Walk This Way
Hip-hop was quite a fresh, new thing in the mid-80's and Run DMC were the biggest hip-hop group of their day, thanks mainly to this huge hit with Aerosmith. They practically invented a new genre with this mix of rock guitars and rap. This song made me simultaneously get interested in Rap and Heavy Metal and I bought tapes by them both. You Be Illin'!
Fleetwood Mac - Big Love
Fleetwood Mac were another of my Dad's favourites and I would have liked hearing the great guitar solo inThe Chain as a child, without knowing who the guitarist was. Then in 1987, when I was 10, they made a big comeback with the Tango in the Night Album and the wonderfully weird single 'Big Love'. The guitar playing on this track is incredible. In later years I'd really learn to appreciate the talents of Lindsey Buckingham, perhaps the most underrated guitarist in rock music. I've seen him live with Fleetwood Mac twice, he's an astounding performer, as his live solo version of'Big Love' testifies to.
It's been quite a while since I updated this blog page. I thought it'd be good to share some guitar videos I've recorded at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. I call these Dave Flynn's Lockdown Tunes - They are a mix of Irish trad, brazilian music and original compositions and improvisations I recorded over the last month or so. I hope you find some joy from this playlist. Stay safe and well friends.
The greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century passed away, aged 102, on Friday 31st May 2019. His name was Paddy Fahey.
He didn't compose classical music, he composed Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes. Composers of traditional/folk music are rarely acknowledged as 'great' composers like their classical counterparts are. However, the genius of a 'folk' composer like Fahey is beautifully summed up by this quote about folk tunes from the iconic Hungarian composer Bela Bartók;
“In their small way, they are as perfect as the grandest masterpieces of musical art. They are, indeed, classical models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed in all its freshness and shapeliness – in short, in the very best possible way, in the briefest possible form and with the simplest of means.”
Fahey's compositions are of the highest level in Irish folk music, they are thus among the grandest masterpieces of Irish musical art. Therefore, shouldn't he be acknowledged as one of Ireland's greatest ever composers, regardless of genre?
I'd love to see Fahey recognised as a national treasure. Unfortunately Ireland has never really treasured its instrumental composers, be they composers of classical, traditional or jazz music. As an Irish composer, Paddy Fahey means as much to me as Yeats and Joyce mean to Irish writers. Fahey is one of my heroes. I know I'm not alone in that.
Fahey's music is played by practically anyone who has played Irish music over the past 50 years, whether they know it or not. His tunes are ubiquitous in Irish trad sessions, they have been recorded by nearly all the greatest Irish trad musicians of the past 50 years. His music has quietly seeped its way into the annals of Irish folk music without any fanfare from the man himself.
In a world when self-promotion is necessary to most careers in music, Fahey's case is quite extraordinary. He never sought publicity or fame, never pushed his music commercially. He just played it among friends, friends shared it with other friends and within 50 years or so it has become played all over the world by thousands of musicians, of all ages.
If he were a classical composer there would be statues to him, paintings in national galleries, commemorative stamps etc. Yet, as I write this, there is nothing in the major national media outlets about his passing, other than a small notice, in the Irish language, placed obscurely on the website of our national broadcaster RTÉ.
However, I doubt Fahey would be bothered by this. He was a humble man who rarely appeared in public, never made a commercial recording, never published his compositions and didn't even give names to his dozens of jigs, reels and hornpipes. They're all simply known as 'Paddy Fahey's' (sometimes misspelt as Fahy's).
I don't have a personal connection to him, I never met him, but his passing is, to me, the single biggest loss to Irish music since the blind harpist/composer Turlough O'Carolan died in 1738. So I am in deep mourning for the great man, his legacy and beautiful music.
Paddy Fahey and me
I would like to share a few thoughts on how Paddy Fahey's music has profoundly influenced my work.
I first noticed Fahey's music through Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill's classic album 'The Lonesome Touch'. It begins with this, perhaps Fahey's best known reel.
From the outset you can hear the beautiful melodic sweep of Fahey's music. It moves quickly from the lowest note on the fiddle, the open G string, up two octaves to the G on the E string and back down again. The tune meanders effortlessly to its perfect conclusion, like a river that knows the exact best route to the ocean. However this tune only scratches the surface of Fahey's melodic gifts.
The second Fahey tune on 'The Lonesome Touch' is what really drew me into the magic of Fahey's music.
(It is the second tune in the video below, starting at 1'09")
There is an indescribable quality to this, and indeed most other Fahey tunes. Some say it's haunting, or otherworldly, or melancholic. Perhaps 'The Lonesome Touch' is the most apt way to describe it. Fahey's tunes work best played by a lonesome fiddler.
It was another lonesome fiddler whose playing of Fahey's music fully convinced me of Fahey's sublime genius. Breda Keville comes from the same area of Ireland Fahey was from, East Galway. On her album 'The Hop Down' she plays Fahey's music in a gorgeously authentic way. Her approach to pacing, phrasing, ornamentations and pitching are quite different to how most violinists play, even within Irish traditional music.
To a classical musician who doesn't understand Irish folk music it might seem 'out of tune' at first, but every note here is perfectly pitched and articulated according to the mystical East Galway style. It's the 'in-between' notes, bends and ornaments that give it such an otherworldly quality.
For this reason it's pretty much impossible to play Fahey's music authentically on an instrument which doesn't have the flexibility to 'bend' notes like this. Typically that would rule my instrument, the guitar, out. Nevertheless, I became so enamoured with Fahey's music that I was compelled to learn his music and adapt it for the guitar.
I went on a mission to find as many Fahey tunes as I could. That drew me to recordings by the Kane sisters of Letterfrack, who recorded many of Fahey's tunes. They even played with Fahey on what may be his only televised appearance, and only national recognition, when he was named the first ever TG4 'Composer of the Year' in 2001.
Then, I heard through the trad grapevine that there were 'field' recordings of Fahey out there, including a CD of him playing many of his own compositions. These recordings were made by Maria Holohan for a Masters Thesis she did at the University of Limerick in the 1990's - 'The tune compositions of Paddy Fahey'.
The thesis contains 60 of Fahey's tunes notated and recorded. Each one is a gem and Fahey's playing of them is a revelation. He sounds unique. I have read there are now over 100 Fahey tunes. Indeed, some of the tunes I found on recordings are not in the thesis. One such tune is this gorgeous reel in F, which Matt Molloy recorded as a 'hidden' track at the end of 'Little Musgrave' from the classic Planxty album 'The Woman I Loved So Well'. (The tune starts at 9'40")
With all this info to hand, a decade ago, I arranged and recorded 20 Paddy Fahey tunes and released them on the album 'Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar', alongside music by other great Irish tune composers like Tommy Peoples, Charlie Lennon and Liz Carroll.
Soon after, I thought it'd be fantastic to have a collection of 'The Complete Works of Paddy Fahey'. For years I'd considered trying to initiate such a project by visiting him to seek his blessing. Alas, I never plucked up the courage to meet him, I didn't want to bother him at his home. I felt a meeting would happen if it was meant to happen, but it was never meant to happen. I didn't get to meet my Irish composing hero, but I nearly did on two occasions.
Around 2006 I found out about a night in his honour being held in Craughwell, East Galway. So I booked myself into a B&B, took a 2 hour, 2 bus journey to get there and promptly arrived on time to a near empty hall. At 7.30pm, when the concert was scheduled to start, the compére, Mattie Joe Sheamus, announced to the small crowd that unfortunately Fahey wasn't able to make it (hence the small crowd). I was thwarted in my first attempt to meet the great man.
Then, in 2012, came a golden opportunity to finally shake Fahey's hand, when he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Cooley-Collins Festival in Gort. There, Martin Hayes spoke eloquently about Fahey's music, comparing him to Beethoven by playing his famous G reel right after the main melody from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Martin explained how he saw Fahey's melodies to be as good, if not better, than Beethovens. He convincingly suggested if Fahey was brought up in 18th Century Germany he would likely have become a great composer of symphonies and concertos, such was his gift for melody.
Following this, the legendary Paddy Fahey received a standing ovation from the large crowd as he went over to Martin to accept his award. I took a photo of that moment where the two long-haired fiddle legends shook hands. A large queue of people soon formed to join Martin in shaking Fahey's hand and thank him for his great legacy. Yet, something prevented me from joining the queue.
Of course I regret not ever meeting him, but I don't regret not going up to shake his hand that night. The queue looked quite overwhelming, and it probably was for Fahey, who was quite frail at the time. It just wasn't the right situation for me to meet my hero. As it turns out, there was never a right situation.
Instead, I paid tribute to him the best way I know how. I composed a tune in his honour called 'Fahey in Feakle'. I placed it in my orchestral work 'The Clare Concerto'. Martin Hayes aptly led this tune during the premiere of 'The Clare Concerto'.
That premiere was one of the highlights of my life. Of course it wouldn't have been possible without Fahey's influence. In that piece I tried to show what it might be like if composers like Fahey were orchestral composers., blending a modern style of Irish tune composing with a modern style of orchestration.
I've never orchestrated any of Fahey's tunes though, I started one once but decided it'd be best to leave them as they were. They don't need a big orchestration, they stand alone as perfectly formed mini-symphonies and no one sounds better playing them than Fahey himself.
Due to the elusive nature of the man and his music, it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince anyone outside of the Irish traditional music world that Fahey was the greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century. He was never invited to join the so-called 'elite' government-approved body of Irish artists 'Aosdána', yet his body of work and influence outstrips most of those within Aosdána.
Most classical composers I know would balk at the idea that a composer of jigs and reels could be considered a 'great' composer on a par with a classical composer. However, that is their loss, they'll never truly understand what Bartók meant when he praised folk music composers so highly.
Paddy Fahey was the personification of perfection in Irish music. Every note he composed was perfectly placed, there was nothing superfluous and nothing needs to be added to it. This is how classical musicians often describe Mozart's music.
So, perhaps a way of getting Fahey the household recognition he deserves is to say he was the Mozart of Irish music. Eventually, as he becomes the household name he deserves to be, there'll be no need to call him the Irish Mozart. He'll just be known as Paddy Fahey, the greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century.
Dave Flynn, 1st June 2019
P.S. Listen to this rare archival compilation of the great man himself and judge for yourself
One of my proudest achievements is producing the album Pouric Songs with my band D.F.F. A new version of the album has just been released. It's re-mastered, re-ordered and re-edited. Below I share the story of Pouric Songs to celebrate the release and explain the re-issue.
The 1990's Roots of Pouric Songs
Long before I composed orchestral music or Irish trad tunes I wrote and sang indie pop songs. I cut my teeth at Dave Murphy's legendary International Bar songwriter nights in the 1990's and early 2000's. Regulars at those nights included Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey, Ann Scott, Declan O'Rourke, Gemma Hayes, Mundy, Roesy and Paddy Casey.
Such was the status of Dave Murphy's Night, you'd never know who might turn up. I'll never forget the nights Christy Moore and Paul Brady turned up out of the blue to join the songwriters queue and try out some new songs, sans mic, in front of the intimate hushed crowd.
There was a great democracy about the night. It didn't matter if you were famous, if you produced a great performance of a good song you'd get as good an ovation as anyone. It was a brilliant way of testing new songs and learning stage-craft. Those were halcyon days for Irish songwriting.
Enter the lyricist
Dave Murphy's International Bar nights are where I debuted many new songs, including some I wrote with Pádraic O'Beirn. I met Pádraic at a songwriters week organised by IMRO in 2000. That week was an incredible coming together of songwriters. In the daytime we'd collaborate with other songwriters. Each night there'd be open mic followed by house parties where the guitar was passed around. About half-way through the week I found myself sitting opposite Pádraic at lunch. We immediately hit it off and Pádraic asked me if I'd look at some of his lyrics. I'd never set another person's lyrics to music before but I thought I'd give his a quick look over to see if they inspired me.
Within a couple of minutes of scanning through his lyric collection I stumbled across a beautiful, poetic lyric called Lullaby. The rhythm of the song matched perfectly with an instrumental in 5/8 time I'd recently composed. Within a short space of time Lullaby was finished, soon after that I'd set another lyric, Woodlands,. We debuted the songs that night and we knew we'd stumbled onto something special. With Pádraic's lyrics collection I'd found a goldmine of inspiration and eventually I'd set 11 of his existent lyrics to music. Within a couple of years I'd set 11 of his lyrics. Pádraic's lyrics lent themselves to eclectic music, from folky-dream pop (Beauty Becomes You, Stone Walls), jazz-pop (Woodlands, Harvest Do) and energetic Afro-pop (Mad for You, Phantom Moves). With Pádraic's lyrics collection I'd found a goldmine of inspiration. I just needed to find the perfect band to play it.
The Magnificent Seven
The path to forming D.F.F. was a bit like Yul Brynner's search for the Magnificent Seven. It gradually unfolded over time as I met various musicians with different skill sets.
In 2000 I put together a band with musicians who played with some of the great 90's Dublin songwriters. It included future D.F.F. members Ciarán Swift, Cion O'Callaghan, Aidan Dunphy and bassist Brian O'Toole. They were big session players in Dublin's 90's music scene who'd collectively played with Mundy, Paddy Casey, Fionn Regan, Declan O'Rourke, Roesy and others. A bit like a 90's Dublin version of the famous 'Wrecking Crew', the house band for Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. We recorded demos and did a few gigs but nothing really came of it as my college commitments took over. A decade later I reformed the band, with a couple of star reinforcements.
From Sweden to the Congo
There were other songwriter nights in Dublin in the late 90's including Ken Burke's open mic in Molloy's of Christchurch. One day Ken offered me a slot in support to called Damien Rice, who was starting out as a solo artist after leaving Juniper. It was there I met his then cellist, Vyvienne Long. After my set she came up to me and told me she liked my songs and if I ever needed a cellist to give her a call. Soon after Damien became a huge success and Vyvienne was touring the world.
A decade later I met Vyvienne again at the Secret Festival in Sweden. The festival brought musicians from across Europe together to collaborate in a kind of 'Eurovision meets Big Brother' experiment! We were cooped up in a house together for a week before playing three gigs at secret locations on the island of Öland. We all played on one of each other's songs. I chose Stone Walls. It was there I realised Vyvienne's voice and cello would work brilliantly on all of Pádraic's songs. Soon after that I reminded her of the offer she made a decade ago. Now free from touring commitments with Damien Rice, she happily joined my band.
Around 2009 I met the amazing guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, who had come to live in Ireland from the Congo. Several of the songs I'd written with Pádraic were influenced by Congolese guitar playing, so I asked Niwel would he like to jam on them with me. I visited his home, we jammed, we clicked, it was magic. Niwel is the greatest guitarist I know, he can play anything! Soon afterwards Niwel joined Cion, Maírtin Tourish and I to perform some of Pádraic's songs at Africa Day in Dublin's Iveagh Gardens. That sowed another seed for the album to come.
The final piece of the search for the Magnificent D.F.F. 7 came into place when Vyvienne asked me to support her on an Irish tour. Cion joined me on those gigs. Vyvienne's bassist at the time was Dan Bodwell, who I'd played with before in an Irish Composer's Collective concert. There was something about how Dan's double bass and Vyvienne's cello and voice blended that convinced me Dan was the man to be D.F.F.'s bassist. Finally, after 11 years of searching for the perfect band D.F.F. was assembled in 2011.
Recording in an un-Real World
In 2012 we got together to begin rehearsing the songs in Dublin. It wasn't long before the band really clicked and we were producing some great music together. Then we travelled to Peter Gabriel's astonishing Real World Studios to lay down most of what become Pouric Songs.
Recording in Real World was a sublime experience. I've never been in a studio like it before or since. The engineer Patrick Philips helped get a great vibe going and he loved the music. Real World is a hub of creativity. At times we shared the dinner room with Kaiser Chiefs and Simple Minds guitarist Charlie Burchill who were preparing new material in Real World's songwriting studios. It was an elusively tempting peek into the wonderful world of successful rock stars.
After five glorious days in Real World we had most of the album tracks down. We followed the Real World sessions in 2013 with a few days recording in Grouse Lodge and Sun Studios, I was honoured that Dave Murphy agreed to do some backing vocals in Sun Studios. (You can hear Dave's low bass voice in the 'Freaky Funk' section at the end of Beautiful Freaks Like Us. He's also on The Mad Magician, Phantom Moves and Quartz). I returned to Real Word to mix the album with Patrick. Then it was mastered by Fergal Davis, cover/booklet designed by my sister Fran, the CD was manufactured and distributed around Ireland and digital stores. It took 15 years from the first song being composed to the album release, it was well worth the wait though!
The President Calls
When it was released in 2014 we got some great reviews across Irish publications (including Hot Press, The Sunday Times, The Irish Times), we featured on RTE's TV Show The Works and even made it into the tabloids with an interview for The Irish Mirror. An Irish tour and festival appearances followed. We seemed to be on the up and up when we got invited to play for President Michael D. Higgins at his summer garden party. At first I thought the invite email from the President's office was a hoax, but a quick phone call confirmed it was a genuine invite.
D.F.F. all looked set to be a great success, but somehow in the end, it wasn't. Despite all the acclaim and publicity mainstream radio wouldn't play Pouric Songs. Producer after producer said no to what we thought was a radio-friendly single Mad for You or the funky follow-up Beautiful Freaks Like Us. Without that radio support Pouric Songs faded away into obscurity. It didn't hit the zeitgeist. It was a critical success but commercial failure. Disheartened by it all I left D.F.F. aside.
The Return of the Magnificent Seven
Earlier this year I orchestrated two of Pádraic's songs for The Irish Memory Orchestra. This caused me to listen back to Pouric Songs a few times. It made me think it deserved another chance to be heard. I thought maybe the reason it didn't catch on was the track order and the length of some of the songs. So I experimented a bit to find a better track order and edit some songs
So that's how we've got to this new 2018 re-issue. The original release still stands but maybe this new version is a more accessible starting point, maybe it's better as a shorter album. Time will tell.
I hope radio producers, broadcasters, press, bloggers and listeners will give it another chance. You don't need to take my word for how good the record is, these press quotes speak for themselves
'A true melting pot of music, DFF is a new supergroup marking the point where everything from chamber pop and Irish trad to the influence of Congolese "guitar sorcerer" Franco converge in glorious sound' - Hot Press
'The band's purposeful debut album zings with vibrance and originality' - The Sunday Times
'Sophisticated yet instantly accessible, the enchanting Pouric Songs is surely one of the finest pop debuts to come out of Ireland in many a moon. In times when the world often seems to have gone truly mad, D.F.F.'s rainbow music is a joyous balm' - All About Jazz
Pouric Songs (2018 version) is out now on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and all the other main digital platforms. The original Pouric Songs is still available on CD and download through Bandcamp. Take your pick!
p.s. A while ago I removed all my albums from digital services as I didn't like the deal I was getting through my old distributor. The deal with Symphonic is better than what I'd had. Most people just aren't buying CD's anymore so, despite my misgivings about streaming I've figured it's better for people to hear the albums than not. So over the next while my albums will re-appear online. Pouric Songs is the first of the re-issues. Thanks for reading.