explain John Fahey to me, please.

People love John Fahey - the guy’s a legend in learned music circles and among critics. There are multiple boxed sets of his ephemera, and every few years when some new unreleased recordings are unearthed, people freak out.

Whenever I’ve listened to his music, it just sounds like super-typical acoustic guitar music that could be being played by any front porch pickin’-and-grinnin’ guy in West Virginia. Don’t get me wrong, his music is great for what it is - it’s very pretty and engaging, emotional while still technically impressive - but it’s still “just some guy fingerpicking an acoustic guitar.”

So what’s the deal with Fahey - why is he such a cult figure with devoted fanatics? Further, why do so many of his fans seem to be people that are into more experimental music, such as those that read the Wire and listen to John Zorn and so on? Fahey’s music doesn’t strike me as being anything other than completely traditional guitar music without a hint of experimentation. Where’s the intellectual angle?

I was a big Fahey fan, back when I could play guitar (I fried my left wrist about eight years ago). I still am a fan, I guess. I loved that sound, I loved all those funky old tunes like In Christ There is No East Or West and I loved it when he tuned his guitar to produce that droning roar (can’t remember which tunes right now - Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain, maybe – can’t remember).

Plus, I could play lots of his stuff – he wasn’t huge on technique. I loved Fahey and I loved Kottke, but there were maybe three Kottke tunes I could sort of wrap my hands around, whereas I could play a dozen Fahey tunes.

Also, he brought lots of old stuff back to the fore. He travelled around, supposedly, in the 50s and 60s, hanging out with friends of Charlie Patton and various old blues and finger-pickin’ guys, learned a lot of their songs and always seemed to give them credit for inventing “his” sound. He supposedly also did a lot to encourage guys like Kottke.

On top of that, to people with a certain, I don’t know, rebellious nature, maybe, he was kind of a hero. He played solo acoustic guitar, and old-timey stuff at that, when everyone else was getting into electric, and putting together super groups, and filling stadiums, and worshipping the glam and the glitz. He topped that off with a certain self-styled academic approach to music and life. He did a masters or doctorate in mythology, if I recall correctly, and wrote his thesis on the mythology surrounding the old blues players. He coined amusing terms (or popularized them) such as KoonaKlastier Konfectionary (music store), and just went out of his way to be a bit of a disruptive, snarky, contrary ass. He disliked Chet Atkins, for example, because Chet played way too many notes.

His writing style (I mean prose, here, not music) was humorous, full of bizarre creatures and whatnot. He was amusing and different (and pretty pretentious, I must say). Still, he inspired me. I wrote about half a dozen pickin’ tunes (really simple things) and I did so by following advice in one of his books.

As far as I know, he later got heavily into electronic and experimental music, and got as far off the beaten path as he could. I’d stopped following him by then, so I can’t say much about his work and life at that point.

Of course, today there are about a million finger pickers who would blow him off a stage. But he was never more than mildly interested in technique. That was kind of rare, I guess, and still is, if the machine-gun guitar heroes I see on YouTube are anything to go by.

He is generally credited with introducing the steel string guitar as a solo instrument, but his influence goes beyond that. The Wiki article is informative.


What Contrapuntal said. At that time most traditional guitarists were playing classical (nylon string) guitars. Fahey made it acceptable and - considering that in this day-and-age people play steel string over nylon - downright trendy to use steel strings.

I obviously didn’t know Fahey, but I think he was the kind of guy who would have been outraged to hear that he introduced steel string guitar as a solo instrument. His whole thrust was that at best, he re-introduced it. A host of people, most of them African American, had played hard-driving, syncopated steel-string guitar music that made people want to get up and dance and have fun, and they did it way before John Fahey. All he did was fall in love with that music and play it himself, usually trying to give credit where credit was due.

Of course, Fahey was opinionated and cantankerous and had a wild imagination. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were outraged and secretly pleased to hear how he’d introduced steel strings to the world. Read The Best of John Fahey (1959-1977) to get an idea what he thought about the origins of the music he played.

Yeah, he had that rare combination of music I enjoyed listening to and could actually play.

I was very much a novice fingerstyle player and when I first got to NYC and was unemployed so I spent at least six hours a day going through The Best Of John Fahey 1959-1977 album and it’s companion book of expertly written tablature and Fahey’s oddball musings. I was a great way to learn a lot of stuff really fast and it made me comfortable with alternate tunings to the point where I could listen to Bert Jansch’s (another reasonably accessible guitarist) stuff and figure out a tuning that would allow me to play it so much easier.

Man, I still read that book and listen to the album even though I don’t play anymore. I just read an article from the NY Times about Fahey’s later career, and learned that he got pretty out there, incorporating all sorts of industrial and traffic and train noises into his music. Apparently, he was just as much of a contrarian and all-round pita at the end of his career as he was in the beginning. Seems he was also a world-class drunk. A musician who drank – fancy that!