For me, one of the few guitarists to whom this accolade genuinely applies, without a trace of irony, is the late Derek Bailey. The Sheffield-born guitarist’s remarkable development from fairly conventional session musician to idiosyncratic, textured forms of new improvised music is a great example of an artist’s will to self-creation.
His approach was often seen as being wilfully difficult or abstract, and I’ve heard that a lot of people find his total rejection of melody, rhythm and song structure irritating or cold.
But deep in the guts of his fractured, wonky playing style lies a real sense of joy and genuine love for the natural sounds of the guitar. Rather than utilising electronics or effects, Bailey revelled in the pure earthy tones of the wooden body, the steel strings rattling against the neck, the scratching of fingers across the fretboard and the resonances and echoes of the instrument’s internal structure.
His gestures are little surprises to be unravelled both by the audience and by Bailey himself: You can actually hear him listening as he plays, immersing himself in every unexpected texture.
Later in his career, Bailey developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in his right hand. Rather than opting for risky surgery, he instead decided to react to the illness. To “find a way around it” as he says himself in the intro to his 2000 album ‘Carpal Tunnel’. His decision to change the shape of his art to fit the changes in his own body is a wonderfully playful and poignant example of creative honesty.
Unfortunately, his illness later developed into Motor Neurone disease, of which he died in the Winter of 2005 aged 75.
Whenever I feel bored by the guitar, or stuck in a bit of a rut, listening to Derek Bailey wakes me up, shakes me about and gives me a refreshing slap in the face. His music reminds me of just how endless an instrument the guitar can be. You won’t hear much of Derek Bailey’s brittle abstractions in my music, but I try to keep his spirit of invention and freedom in my head and fingers whenever I embark on a new musical journey.
Thanks for listening and for making it all matter!