Recently, I started looking into the connections between musical preferences and personality types. In the early and middle parts of the 20th century, there were some questionable and unfortunate attempts in the world of substance abuse treatment facilities to use an addict’s musical preferences to predict his personality type and subsequent treatment options. They tried to correlate musical preferences such as tempo, key, pitch, etc., with personality traits such as extroverted, introverted, judging, feeling, etc., and although they were giving it a valiant effort, they were clearly reaching for straws. As I combed through this mostly discredited research, I kept thinking of Southern culture as a whole and wondered if there might be some characteristics that permeated both Southern music and Southern culture in the same way that yeast permeates bread dough. Are there things unique to Southern culture that are reflected in Southern music, and vice versa?
Thanks in significant part to my colleague and fellow musician/Southern historian Alan Harrelson, I was able to recognize two magic ingredients in Southern music and Southern culture – evangelical spirituality and a love of the outdoors. Although the lyrics may not themselves preach, Southern music of nearly all styles is distinctive for its electrifying brand of presentation and performance, and this is something Yankee culture simply does not have. It’s not just raw electricity – it’s spiritual and evangelical, and there’s always a touch of the revival meeting in Southern music. It’s something that may also be referred to as “soul.” Southern music has it, and Yankee music does not. Additionally, Southern music frequently embraces the outdoors with specific references to fields, hills, crops, trees, flowers, skies, weather, animals, etc., and the music itself paints that picture even without words. Yankees tend to favor songs about cities, streets, armies, and soldiers. I’m not saying Yankee culture didn’t include spirituality and the outdoors in their music, but I am saying that Southerners did it much better, and made it more iconic.
Another important aspect of Southern music is an affinity for making musical instruments sound like a human voice. Clearly, this is not a uniquely Southern thing, as cultures all over the world seek to accomplish this effect as well, but among American music, it is a defining sound of many iconic Southern styles, particularly Country music and the Blues. First of all, there are obviously some musical instruments that have very little chance of sounding like a human voice, such as the drums and other non-pitched percussion. However, among the pitched instruments, the mechanical quality they possess that make them more likely to sound human is the ability to “bend” a pitch. This is something the human voice does easily and effortlessly, but instruments like the piano or accordion can never achieve. Some woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet, saxophone, and harmonica, are quite effective at bending pitches, and are frequently used for voice imitation, and the trombone is the most obvious brass instrument capable of bending pitches. But it’s the string instrument family that offers the most possibilities for imitating a human voice. Fretless stringed instruments, such as the violin, viola, and ‘cello, have been used for centuries by composers and performers as the perfect vehicle for voice imitation. Fretted instruments, such as the guitar and banjo, are limited by the frets, but not limited by the ability to bend the string within the fret. And the obvious work-around for any fretted guitar is to simply play it with a slide, which is a metal or glass tube-shaped object placed on the strings above the fretboard and moved around to change pitches. Since the slide does not press down on the frets, it is not limited to exact pitches within the frets, and the pitch is allowed to “slide” all over the place to sound remarkably like a human voice. Therefore, based on the brief description given above, the most frequent styles of Southern music to imitate a human voice are Country music and the Blues, and the most frequent instruments of choice to accomplish this within Country and Blues are slide guitar, bent-string acoustic/electric guitar, fiddle, and harmonica. Any other Southern style that attempts this feat, such as Rock ‘n Roll, is usually drawing from its Blues and Country origins to do so.
One of the greatest things about music is that it is accessible to the illiterate. It is the most dominant art form for the masses, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that music is a performance art. Anybody and everybody can participate – even if you can’t play an instrument, at least you can sing along. The non-performers in the audience feel as much a part of the show as the performers on stage. With visual art, on the other hand, the uneducated and untalented consumers quickly learn that they are not welcome until they become more sophisticated and snobbier. The same goes for literature to a great degree – there are “the classics” and then there’s basic formula fiction. I once joined a student book club at my college, and in our first meeting we were all asked to name our favorite authors. I heard people say Zora Neale Hurston, Anais Nin, Langston Hughes, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. When it was my turn, I said, “Stephen King,” and I was never invited back to another meeting.
But music is different. Oh sure, there are snobby areas of music – cough cough jazz and classical cough cough – but for the most part, music is wide open for everybody, and you don’t need a single note’s worth of training to revel in it. In fact, music has quite a unique appeal specifically for the unsophisticated, and it is the only art form I know where its leaders at any given time can be totally illiterate. Some of the greatest musicians to ever live couldn’t read a single note of music. Have you ever heard of an author that couldn’t read?
As a trained musician, I have a deep understanding of particular songs, musicians, and styles. However, I also know that people with absolutely no training at all still love and enjoy it. Why is that? How does that work? What is it about certain music and musicians that appeal to people so well? And why don’t people need musical training to like it? Unfortunately, I think most people probably just nod their heads and profess their love of certain musicians without knowing exactly what it is they’re supposed to be listening to. Everybody else says it’s great, so just shut up and agree. Recently, for example, I read an online article about Southern guitarist Duane Allman, and the article tried to explain his greatness in convincing a new generation to give him a try. It was a great idea, but a poor effort lost in vague generalities. The article said his music was “soaring” and “mournful” but it didn’t explain what all of that meant. WHY and WHERE was it soaring? WHICH notes were the ones that were mournful? WHAT particular songs are good, representative examples of all that soaring mournfulness? If you can’t point to some specific, iconic passages in Duane Allman’s music and explain them in simple terms, what good is it?
Therefore, that’s what I want to do. I’d like to explain to non-musicians what makes a particular musician “great” in terms that the untrained and unsophisticated will be able to follow, and I might as well start with good old Duane Allman.
First of all, could Duane Allman read music? I have seen it written in several sources that Duane could not read nor write music, and although I’ve never spoken to anyone that knew him personally or worked with him professionally, I have my doubts about this. There is an old joke among musicians that goes as follows: “How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him.” As a guitarist myself, I understand that joke better than anyone else. Many great guitarists simply cannot read single lines of music in its basic, standard, treble clef or bass clef form, as would a trumpet player, and they’re a little bit embarrassed about it. However, guitarists are taught to read chord symbols, which come from a method of writing a lot of musical notes in shorthand “codes,” and this method goes all the way back to the Baroque era of music (J.S. Bach and the figured bass). By mastering chord symbols, guitarists instinctively learn deeper relationships between melody, harmony, and chord progressions without having to learn to read the notes on a staff, and they rely on their ears much more than on their eyes to understand and play music. Since Duane worked extensively at FAME Studios in Alabama prior to forming The Allman Brothers Band, he would HAD to have known chord symbols just to keep up with the other musicians, engineers, and producers in the building. Also, session musicians employed by the studios typically converse in a unique gumbo of chord symbols and music theory called the Nashville Number System, which can lay out an entire song in just a few simple numbers and symbols. For example, a vocalist in the studio could request that the musicians play a particular song in a different, higher key in order for her to take full advantage of her powerful voice, and using Nashville Numbers, they can all instantly transpose the song – changing every note and every chord – within seconds. Tell me again how this doesn’t count as “reading music.” The Nashville Number System is versatile enough to bridge the gap between musicians who know a lot about reading notes on a staff and those who don’t know the first thing about it – they can all read Nashville Numbers regardless of their training, and I strongly suspect Duane Allman could as well.
Secondly, was Duane’s technique so unique and difficult that no one else could possibly play it? Absolutely not. He was no Eddie Van Halen, that’s for sure, spawning cults of followers trying to decipher his impossibly hot licks. Duane started playing at age 14 and died at age 24, so he only played for ten years. In fact, I’ve heard plenty of guitarists play Duane’s solos with perfect precision – but not perfect “feel.” That’s the key to Duane Allman, and that’s what set him apart from all of those who came before him. Indulge me a little bit, and think of the simple act of smiling. Everyone who’s not paralyzed can do it. We all use the exact same facial muscles to retract our lips and expose our teeth in order to produce a smile, but have you ever noticed that some people have a smile that is just absolutely gorgeous? That was Duane Allman on guitar – he used the same strings and frets available to everyone, but somehow, he could make that guitar talk and sing like no one else. He used rises and falls in pitch and volume and “bent notes” to give the impression of actual spoken language. Although it’s clearly easier to bend notes using a slide on the strings, Duane had an uncanny precision of doing it without the slide as well. When Duane Allman played guitar, it was like a singer speaking through the strings, and that’s not easy to do. Once, a guitarist told me that Duane simultaneously played slide like a black man and bent notes like a country star. I couldn’t have summed it up any better than that, and I invite you to listen for both in these following musical examples.
I will focus on three specific songs recorded by Duane, and narrow my focus to the specific guitar solos within those songs that I believe will help explain Duane Allman to anyone, regardless of their place on the music theory ladder.
“Hey Jude,” recorded by Wilson Pickett
As the legend goes, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett spent their studio break times at FAME Studios in the early autumn of 1968 playing around with their own, unique cover version of this Beatles single that had only been released a few weeks earlier. The playing and jamming eventually grew into a full arrangement with rhythm section and horns, and it was finally recorded in November, 1968. One of the two producers on the recording was Tom Dowd – please remember that name.
The song begins with the usual ballad cover-version stylings you might expect from the late 60’s, but then a funny thing happens in the ending anthem section of the song. Instead of chanting “na na na nananana nananana, Hey Jude” as performed by The Beatles, Wilson Pickett suddenly unleashes an unearthly scream at 2:43, and he and Duane Allman become two evangelical preachers in the pulpit for the final 80 seconds. Wilson takes it home with his voice and Duane gives it all he’s got with his guitar. They complement each other. They compete with each other. And the listener is in for a treat of a wild ride. Wilson will start a phrase and Duane will finish it, as you can hear the first time Wilson sings the words “Hey Jude” at 2:54, and Duane picks up on the phrase and extends it. In the original Beatles version, McCartney transforms the word “Jude” into “Ju-die Ju-die Ju-die Ju-die,” but Duane extends it into three syllables, playing musical triplets as if to sing “Ju-di-ly Ju-di-ly Ju-di-lu Ju-di-ly.” He repeats this triplet figure at 3:26 and again at 3:58. An example of Duane’s gift for making a guitar sound like a human voice occurs at 3:11, 3:24, and 3:34. Anyone who has attended an evangelical service will recognize the soaring spirituality swapped back and forth between Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman as the song fades out way too soon. As mentioned before, they are listening to each other and responding to each other, and at the same time competing with each other for your attention. This was the solo that put Duane Allman on the map.
“Layla,” recorded by Derek and the Dominoes
I have seen it written that the above version of “Hey Jude” was the first true Southern Rock song ever recorded, and it certainly caught the attention of Eric Clapton, who immediately contacted Duane about a recording project he was putting together called Derek and the Dominoes. The two guitar legends got along famously as soon as they met, but they would unfortunately collaborate on only one album – “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” The sessions for “Layla” were recorded in Miami at Criteria Studios in September, 1970, and the producer was Tom Dowd (remember that name?). It is remarkable to me that such an epic guitar legend like Eric Clapton would turn over so much of the soloing on his most signature song to someone else, but that’s exactly what he did on “Layla,” and it’s loaded with Duane Allman’s iconic slide guitar. In particular, focus on Duane’s 58-second solo that begins after the third verse and refrain. To me, this solo is an extension of Wilson Pickett’s vocals from “Hey Jude,” and it absolutely screams like a human voice. At 0:09, we can hear those iconic Duane Allman vocal/guitar inflections culminating in an almost off-pitch high note. The next fifteen seconds definitely sound like a preacher repeating the same catch-phrase over and over, as all of Duane’s licks return to the same note every time. And then, the real magic hits at 0:35. This short, simple guitar phrase is breath-taking in its vocal inflection, and you can almost hear actual words coming out of the speaker. Then, it climaxes on the highest sustained note of the entire solo at 0:45 and slides down and fades away for the next several seconds. I feel like I need a towel at this point. Good grief, y’all, that’s not even fair.
For more listening pleasure, Duane is all over this double album, and it’s easy to pick him out. Typically, Duane was panned left and Eric Clapton was panned right, so if you listen to the left stereo channel isolated, you can effortlessly tell that it’s Duane Allman. Plus, Duane played his familiar Gibson Les Paul and Eric Clapton played his Fender Stratocaster, and this album is like an educational primer on the uniquely different sounds produced by each guitar. My second-favorite song on this album is their cover of the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing,” and all of the solos on that recording are Duane Allman.
“Blue Sky,” recorded by The Allman Brothers Band
There are dozens of iconic Duane Allman moments from Allman Brothers Band songs that I could choose which sound similar to the two examples above, so I wanted to go in a different direction for my third choice – the Dickey Betts song “Blue Sky” from the Allman Brothers Band’s “Eat a Peach” album. Incidentally, I have three albums framed and hanging on the wall of my home office – “Sgt. Pepper,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way the Way I Love You,” and “Eat a Peach.” This album represents the last songs recorded by Duane in the studio before his death, and gives me a framework for where his playing would have been headed if he had lived. The studio tracks were recorded in 1971 down at Criteria Studios in Miami with Tom Dowd as producer (sound familiar?). Although the song is considered to be an “acoustic” song, Duane and Dickey swap electrified solos, with Duane soloing first at 1:10 and Dickey joining him at 2:28 and then taking over completely at 2:36. Just as with Derek and the Dominoes, Tom Dowd pans Duane’s guitar to the left stereo channel. Although the song is about Dickey Betts’ girlfriend, it has a bucolic vibe that nicely connects with Duane’s country stylings on this song. All of his rhythmic strumming and fills throughout the song are pure country music through and through, especially recognizable by all the bent notes at 0:20 and 0:40. The solo that begins at 1:10 is punctuated by LOTS of pentatonic runs. “Pentatonic” literally means “five notes” and it is similar to a major scale without the half steps. The black keys on a piano are all pentatonic, and the standard tuning on a guitar allows a player to play endless pentatonic runs without ever needing to move his hand position. When Duane Allman played with The Allman Brothers Band, his pentatonic runs became iconic, and he and Dickey perfected an amazing sound of playing the runs simultaneously in harmony with each other. In “Blue Sky,” you can hear an example of this at the end of Duane’s solo when Dickey joins him at 2:28. A longer sample of this same idea would be the second time through the melody in the song “Hot ‘Lanta.” If there was ever an iconic Allman Brothers sound, it would be this pentatonic harmony mirror-imaging of Duane and Dickey’s solo guitars.
One of Duane’s greatest assets as a soloist was using an economy of ideas – when he found something that worked, he stuck with it. Instead of playing a hundred ideas blasted all over the place as with someone like Eddie Van Halen, Duane would find two or three things (at most) that he liked and keep returning to them often. A classical composer like Mozart would call this “theme and variation.” I call it “finding a thread and unraveling a universe,” and no one was better at it than Duane Allman. How many different times during his solo in “Blue Sky” do you hear the opening notes repeated with slight variations? I count six times in about 25 seconds. At 1:36, a new pattern is added to the original one, and Duane then begins to alternate between the two of them for a while. Do you see how this works? The final pattern begins at 2:05, and this ultimately takes him into the merge with Dickey. Three relatively simple ideas are milked for all they’re worth for about 75 seconds. That is genius.
And I could go on and on. Any fans of Duane and The Allman Brothers would immediately think, “Well, what about…..?” There’s no way to approach something like this without leaving out something else that is equally crucial. But then again, that’s the challenge for the listener, isn’t it? Take some of the ideas I’ve presented here and go listen on your own to some other things by Duane, and see what you hear. Focus on that left stereo channel, because that’s usually where you’ll find him. Listen for the evangelical preaching that is screaming out in his slide guitar. Listen for the refreshing country air in his bent notes on standard guitar. For starters, you might want to try “Little Martha” off of “Eat a Peach” that was recorded all-acoustic in the studio with Duane and Dickey. The country guitar sound clearly speaks with the unique inflections provided by Duane, and when the inflections and rhythms change at 1:14, there is no mistaking the human voice within the strings. And while you’re at it, try “One Way Out” off of “Eat a Peach” that was recorded live at the Fillmore East. I’m almost positive that I can hear an audience member exhale an audible gasp after Duane’s short slide guitar solo that begins at 3:13, and I dare you to listen to that solo without having your whole face melted off.