Acoustic Guitar Interview, June 2010

Acoustic Guitar Magazine, June, 2010
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Profile: Scott Ainslie
By Doug Young

Like his music, Scott Ainslie is a study in contrasts.

A soft-spoken gentleman offstage, his performances use an aggressive, bluesy playing style to support his powerful voice. Both a music historian and modern-day bluesman, Ainslie can channel Robert Johnson with the best, and his own compositions seem to convey a deep appreciation of tradition and a sense of cultural roots.

His songs can be hauntingly beautiful or gritty and brash, but they are always thought provoking, whether he’s interpreting traditional tunes or contemplating current social and political issues through his compositions.

A thoughtful scholar and schooled musician, Ainslie has recorded five albums including his latest, Thunder’s Mouth, which features originals and songs by Son House, J.B. Lenoir, and others. He is also the author of a book, Robert Johnson: At the Crossroads, and a DVD lesson about Robert Johnson’s guitar techniques.

I talked to Ainslie about his approach to arranging, including the use of tension and contrast, while exploring his version of the traditional tune “Wayfaring Stranger,” which he arranged for his first album, Jealous of the Moon.

A lot of the tunes you perform seem to have some deep meaning and htetory behind them. Where did the song “Wayfaring Stranger” come from?

The song was often performed in an upbeat “glee club” sort of way, which never made any sense to me.

The words were taken down in 1759 by a slaveholder in Tidewater, Virginia. It [came from] a form of worship from West Africa – you shuffle around in a circle and sing until you’ve taken a step away from the suffering of this plane. This guy witnessed bis slaves doing it, and he copied down the words they were singing: ‘Tm going to meet my brother,” and so on. We heard it from the Carter Family, but it’s actually a dark, dark song with early African roots.

What tuning are you using to get the dark modal sound in your arrangement?

The derivation of the tuning [E B E E B E] was Stephen Stills’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and also his “4 + 20.” John Hurt used a similar tuning for “Pay Day.”

I always liked the drama of “4 + 20.” Having learned that at the age of 16, I started fishing around and inverted some of the shapes. And I started moving shapes around – that’s how all the cool guitar parts get built! Then you go back and explain to yourself theoretically what you’ve done – theory generally follows practice.

So I had [Example I].

And if you skip over two strings, you have octaves [Example 2].

You get this hint of 12-string. With no thirds it can get really dark and interesting.

You play “Wayfaring Stranger” with a slide?

I usually play it with a slide. There’s something ancient about the high part [the song’s intro riff, which also accompanies the vocal on the verse; see “Lick of the Month” on page 20] .

Then you come to the chorus, and you need a C. This is the chord I wound up playing there [Example 3].

This is really dissonant! But it turns out that when you sing the third above it, it works. And I come down to the V chord, and then a IV chord. What I love about this is the contrast and the texture. This incredible chord of noise adds so much tension, and it’s so messy. Then I come back to the really delicate part.

Do you use string muting to control the tone during the slide part?

Yes, and people make their deals with this devil in different ways. For example, if I wanted an inside string, I’d mute everything else. Here [Example 4], my ring finger is damping the first string, and the back of my thumb is killing everything else [except the second string]. So only one string makes noise.

What’s the goal of the contrasting parts in “Wayfaring Stranger”?

When I look for a guitar part, I’m doing what artists all over the world do. We have texture, line, density, tone, and color. Dancers, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors – we’re all dealing with the same raw material, and we’re trying to tickle the brain stem. We’re trying to get to the emotional part of your brain. This is rooted in traditional blues, where noise is part of the signal.

In Africa, they put bands of metal on the drums, and they put rings of metal in the bands. They nail bottle caps around the edge, but they don’t nail them all the way in, so when you hit the drum, you don’t get “boom,” you get “boom-shh-shhshh.”

For me, that’s the sound of the effort it takes to live on this plane.

We’re not in heaven yet. Now, I love that heavenly stuff, and that’s a contrast I use. I use it on this tune, where you’ve got the heavenly part with lots of control, and then you get the mess! All those things have different emotions – it’s what makes things interesting.

When you go from the dissonant chords back to the intro, I get tense and then relax.

“Thank God he’s not going to play that chord again!” [Laughs.]

When I build a guitar part, I’m looking for those kinds of contrasts.

When I sing, I’m looking for that as well. Even a sad song is not sad all the way through. There may be some anger; there may be some joy that sets up the sad part so it hits you. I’m looking for where those emotions are in the accompaniment, too, and how to push people to the outer extremes.

So, it’s like writing a soundtrack for a movie. It’s very much like that. I think of it like a movie trailer. I want songwriters to not tell me how they’re feeling. I want them to describe the situation and let me have the feeling.

This is a blues thing; the image does the work. If I say, “My girlfriend left me last night,” it’s so direct as to be almost impolite. So you might say, instead, “I woke up this morning, and her things were gone,” and that’s desperately personal.

It gives you the same information, but it carries with it the images that put you in front of an empty closet. You get to put the information into your own life.


Scott Ainslie

Born in Rochester NY in 1952, Scott Ainslie has been playing music on something since he was three years old. A guitarist since 1967 with powerful appreciation for and apprenticeships with elder black and white musicians in different musical traditions, Ainslie carries a portion of them forward in his own traditional blues performances and songwriting.

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