Duck Baker-Modern Fingerstyle for the Ages

I’m pretty much obsessed with guitar technique, especially fingerstyle, so I was excited to get a chance to hear the legendary Duck Baker perform and catch one of his teaching workshops.

Duck Baker jumped on the instrumental guitar circuit in the early 1970s, at a time when the glow was still warm on the 1960s heyday of the fingerstyle renaissance. That was the era when the still living fingerstyle masters of the early 20th century crossed paths with a new generation of players. These–mostly white–players were fascinated to have discovered this tradition that had nearly died out and were determined to launch it firmly into the future. Baker arrived on the scene as a young man and quickly sponged up as much as he could from the older revivalists like Dave Van Ronk in the US and Davey Graham in the UK, meeting and playing gigs with them. Ultimately, Baker helped move the style forward by enlivening traditional tunes through creative, virtuosic arrangements, and by pushing it beyond traditional and folk repertoires into Jazz.

Baker has put out many albums, playing across a number of styles including Ragtime, Celtic and Jazz. His first album ”There’s Something For Everyone in America” was recorded in 1975 for Kicking Mule records, and was re-released on CD in 2009. That year also saw the release of two other CDs of older recordings, some never released before and a new CD with his latest band called “Waltz Lesson“. The wide variety of guitar method books and instructional videos he has authored is pretty much unparalleled in breadth of unique content. His DVD “Classic American Folk Blues” would have something of interest to every guitarist, while “Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar: Improvisation” is that rare resource for advanced players.

And when we’re talking Duck Baker, were talking advanced–advanced music and technique, but also advanced listeners and students. Baker is trafficking not only in music for connoisseurs–as far as the purity of his Celtic work and the headiness of his Jazz playing–but also in an area of guitar technique few guitarists ever aspire to. With his connection to traditional music, he still has a foot firmly in Jazz. This puts him a rarefied arena, especially since few Jazz guitarists ever delve into trad, and few really apply fingerstyle to Jazz in the way Baker does. At the performance I attended at guitarist Stevie Coyle’s house, Duck ran through a repertoire of Jazz compositions. On Monk’s ‘Round Midnight‘, the effect of his technique is very different than that of a more standard ‘chord melody‘ style arrangement. More like what would happen if an old Folk Blues player attempted more complex chord charts and chord inversions than what it would sound like if a Jazz guy suddenly started fingerpicking. In Duck’s music, the bass lines move more like in fingerpicking arrangements, there’s a feel of a unity of counterpoint lines that is different from standard Jazz guitar techniques where the solo instrument often leaves parts out to leave room for other players. And also because the technique needed to include them is so difficult, making improvisation that much more hairy. Yet Baker does it, re-harmonizing changes and lines, pretty much effortlessly, improvising from a seeming bottomless bag of ideas, straddling Jazz and fingerstyle without becoming too sugary or veering into Chet Atkins territory. Improvisation is another area where Duck Baker stands apart. Let’s face it, because creating arrangements for fingerpinking means working out the mechanics of fingerings, sometimes to a T, we often are playing ‘memorized’ pieces, and happy if we can add some variation and extemporaneous ad-libbing. But Baker is so fluent that he can play these multi-part improvised passages and let himself go, be in the moment and take the risk with his solo, knowing his fingers will find the way to keep more than one voice going at a time. This ability has found him combined on recordings with an impressive list of artists, such as the recent release of his sessions with saxophonist John Zorn.

I was impressed by how far he has developed this technique, and humbled by his encyclopedic knowledge of Jazz. He repeatedly played tunes I’d never heard, by composers I was unaware of, along with little antidotes about them and the tunes. He played a nylon string guitar on these jazz numbers, and this was the one thing that stuck in my craw, mostly because I am such a devotee of the steel string–though I love the sound of nylon on Flamenco, Classical and Latin music. When I questioned him about this it was clear that he felt the nylon was key to the sound he wants for his Jazz playing. Yet his right hand technique is especially suited to the steel string, and when he switched to the house flat-top for bluesier and folkier songs, he really made Stevie’s beautiful Thompson guitar ring out.

After the show, we hung out for a bit and heard some of Duck’s opinions on guitar and guitarists as well as on the state of the world. I particularly enjoyed his affectionate reminiscences on some great players who have gone on, particularly Graham and Van Ronk, who he seems to hold in particularly high esteem. Dave Van Ronk is significant because of his early arrangements of Scott Joplin Ragtime pieces
for guitar, the first guitar treatments of their kind–arrangements Baker respects, pointing out that even while they are ‘folked down’ in terms of the positions Van Ronk used, they were still light years ahead of anything any one was trying to do in fingerstyle (outside of Jazz) at the time. Davey Graham is considered the father of modern fingerstyle in Europe and credited with either inventing or at least popularizing DADGAD tuning. Interestingly, Baker sees DADGAD in a critical light, pointing out that most players in that and other open tunings rarely get to the point of being able to play in different keys in a given tuning. In addition, he indicated that in his opinion DADGAD for accompaniment in Celtic music has become formulaic and dumbed down. He mentioned Pierre Bensusan as someone who has treated DADGAD as a compete tuning with multiple keys, but for Baker, standard tuning is the domain of serious guitar music, since it is the one best suited for one to create a truly personal voice on guitar

I got a chance to get more into Baker’s technique at his teaching workshop and learned more about how he uses the thumb on his fretting hand to achieve the effects he gets. In the next post, I’ll give you some of the insights I gained on Duck Baker’s ‘Thumbs of Fury‘.

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