Yale Arts Calendar

In the age of Youtube, guitar has taken on the appearance of a simple instrument.

Grab a six string, download a tuning app, watch a video and sacrifice the skin on the tips of your fingers until a tougher hide callouses over and endows you with the strength to shred. As someone with no musical talent, I’m willing to admit that it may require more than that, but nonetheless, it seems to many a more approachable instrument than something like a cello or flute. And for that, it may lack the much-needed prestige to be appealing to high-brow audiences.

Yet Benjamin Verdery finds no difficulty in conveying the grace of the guitar.

On Tuesday night in the Office of International Students and Scholars, Verdery performed at the fourth installation of American Guitar. This series featured speakers who discussed and performed various facets of American music’s eclectic history. For Tuesday’s session, Verdery walked the audience through artists who influenced his own career.

Verdery began the night with the performance of two of his own songs, “Prelude” and “Wedding Dance.” I lack much background in classical guitar, but his songs sounded unlike anything else I’ve heard. He created streams of noise from plucked strings which then converged into fluid and full strumming. This pattern drew us into the performance. It felt like he lay a trail before us, weaving gently while constantly moving forward. His song didn’t need the heartbroken musings of any singer-songwriters; it possessed a voice of its own.

After this, Verdery began his tour of musical inspiration. He began with a clip of “The Beatles,” the group who first hypnotized him with guitar in 1963. Then came “Walk Don’t Run,” by “The Venture,” a 1950s band from (my and America’s beloved) Tacoma, Washington. Thus commenced Verdery’s casual pedagogy of the night.

His eyes and volume would grow as his sense of wonder diffused into the audience with every word. He spoke with rapture about “The Venture’s” contributions as the great “surf music” band, the distortion of Link Wray, and the open tuning of Joni Mitchell and Keola Beamer. His tone almost seemed urgent, as though his one desire was to convey the importance of these artists’ music — as though he was talking beyond the room of forty to every music-listener in the world.

He described how a solo of Neil Young’s “destroyed” him when it first came out and how a song of Jimi Hendrix’s “still brings me to tears.” He gazed as intently as anybody else at the Youtube clips he played for the audience. His hands moved automatically into a pantomime strumming. Occasionally this failed to satiate him and he would take out his guitar to play along for a few bars.

I found myself so engaged that during a bathroom trip midevent, I was tempted not to wash my hands so as to return to the event sooner. Yes, I was almost prepared to pay the price of germs for the sake of more American guitar education.

Verdery ended with another one of his original pieces and time for questions. One audience member brought up something that had also struck me: What has happened to guitar music in the past twenty years?

Not to be misunderstood, I have no issue with the acoustic songs I jam to. But the history Verdery showed us exhibited such a different character than the present musical mainstream.

Verdery explained that he saw a shift away from the emphasis on guitar solos. Prince, he noted, cared intensely about virtuoso, but it definitely bears less importance for music today.

Verdery’s habit of running his hand through his long hair and the sound of his slightly hoarse voice reminded me a bit of the musicians he showed us. He looked like an old rock star, he sounded like an old rock star, and he had the energy of a rock star. Classical guitar can still rock.

Tommy Martin tommy.martin@yale.edu