Garrin Benfield – Unbound

I’ve known San Francisco based singer-songwriter Garrin Benfield for some time. In the mid ‘oughties’ (this century has turned out sucky for decade names so far,) we were booked on the same bill at a local SF acoustic music showcase night. At the end of the evening, Garrin and I jumped onstage for an impromptu jam. The experience was to play with someone extremely talented at improv, but who listened and adapted to other players. I was impressed. After a subsequent showcase night, we ended up back at Garrin’s with another player. The three of us amused friends (until they fell asleep) trading songs until dawn. At that point I realized Garrin was the real deal–a musician who loves to play, no matter the circumstances, and who had plenty of energy for making music,  simply for the pleasure of doing it.

GarrinBenfield -acoustic guitarTo say Garrin is extremely talented is not an exaggeration. His songwriting is top-notch, both from a composition and a lyrical viewpoint.  His songs are intimate, revelatory and moving. No BS here–Garrin cares too much to fake it. His voice is flawless, sweet and rich, not too sugary, and always moving, as Garrin wears the emotion of the song vulnerably; caught up in his music, he’s truly moved by what he’s conveying. With three studio albums and a live CD to his credit, there’s plenty of evidence of his songwriting and vocal skills. But a big part of the Garrin Benfield story is his guitar technique. Most singer-songwriters are happy to provide an interesting guitar part as back up to a song, but Garrin enriches the mix by adding improvisational riffs and a sense of taking risks in the moment as the mood strikes him. Beyond the arrangements of his guitar parts, which are always virtuosic, he extends his pieces into ad-libbed solo ‘jams’, often with the aid of a looper. He has an uncanny ability (and the pedal board to enable it) that allows him to change the sound, EQ, reverb and delay of his instrument from moment to moment, creating rhythm tracks, powerful bass lines, rocking percussion parts and then launching into stratospheric lead improvisations that leave audiences slack-jawed. Using a Sunrise pick-up in his Martin dreadnought, he can pull-off these guitar heroics without a guitar amp, going from warm, chunky wooden sounds to screaming lead sustain and feedback. All this allows him to play solo in places like loud bars and large festival stages, such as the prestigious High Sierra Festival in Quincy, CA.

Garrin and I rode down to the annual Folk Alliance Region West (FAR-West) conference in Irvine together last November. While there, I took video of several Fingerstyle Guitarists. I have presented them together in a half-hour videoFingerstyle at FARwest 2009“. Although Garrin specializes in fancy work with the flatpick, I knew him to be a solid fingerpicker, and asked for the song ‘Unbound’ specifically. You can view the results in this page or on the MokaiMusic YouTube channel.

I think ‘Unbound‘ is an excellent introduction to Garrin’s music. The overall effect of his singing, playing and the evocative mood of the lyrics create a spell-binding experience. I heard him play this piece several times over the weekend (including the time when I thought I was recording and I wasn’t,) and each time he threw himself into the song as deeply. I also think this is a textbook example of how to arrange an original song for fingerstyle. He uses the guitar to support and underscore the melody and the mood, not really calling attention to the guitar part to leave the vocal forefront. As a bass player, Garrin knows how much movement to put in the bass line. His alternating bass is smooth and even, with a slight lilt, gently driving the song. The sliding chord riffs on 5ths and 3rds on the middle strings give the song that open feeling, and embellish the story nicely. It’s interesting to compare the use of these partial chord positions to how the same ones are used on Shaun Cromwell‘s piece, also in drop D tuning and posted on my YouTube page from the same series of videos. Really shows you how much individual technique and artistic choices changes how the same fingerings sound.

In creating an interesting guitar accompaniment to a song, especially for solo performance, there’s a bit of a balancing act between how much you should do and how much you might want to do. Most will have to forgo some of the more difficult single-string runs Garrin adds. That stuff can distract from the song if it’s not pulled off. In Garrin’s case, he slides it in there so gracefully, you almost don’t realize how technically difficult it is, and it ends up enhancing rather than detracting. But there’s also plenty of places where he just lets the song be carried by his rhythmic pulse.

Late breaking update: just saw Garrin give a triumphant headline performance to a packed house at Yoshi’s in SF. He started off his set with this tune, and held people mesmerized. Garrin is a touring musician who gets around, so check his schedule to see if he’s showing up in your area.

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