Resits: F is for “Fred Frith: Hello Music” from “Guitar Solos”

Yes, this is how I would like to say hello. A big jumble of sounds, familiar, strangely alien. And best of all, in and out quick. No time for “exploratory” gestures. You have to know what you’re doing and do it. A “jazzy” (yes, for once, that’s the right word) riff bent at the edges, warped in the middle, and all the happier for it. Why doesn’t everyone say hello like this? Why doesn’t everyone play the guitar like this?

When you put your fingers on a guitar, learn your first chord, you put one hand on the fretboard to mark the notes, the other hand sounds the strings. This is “strumming”, what everyone does, what happens to guitars at parties. This is rightly held in high regard, universally loved and ubiquitously successful.

But there’s a whole other side, the strings behind the fingers marking the notes, that doesn’t get heard. Frith liberates this by amplifying both sides of his guitar. There are now two notes for every one, creating a strange, blurred musical image. It’s “out of tune”. For reference, “out of tune” refers to the huge world of music outside that of the Western canon (and now some within it). Music that is “out of tune” can enable us to hear the individual parts more as autonomous agents, like a crowd of people in a conversation with different accents, or different coloured clothes. An awkward blend. It’s how John Cage might have sounded if he’d liked jazz.

I like it. It swings. Duke Ellington, brace yourself, had a band that played out of tune. They moved the sound around, tuning was part of expression…loud and soft, sharp and flat. Rhythm holds it all together, dictates the choice of notes and how they move (and where to).

I’ve got an old kid’s guitar, too small for “real” music on big hands, hanging on the wall. From time to time I take it down, put my fingers on it and play. Not like the guitar, but like Fred Frith. It’s like rolling around in a bath of foam footballs, in that incompetence is as rewarding as perfectionism. At first, anyway. Every sound is a new discovery, fresh chaos.

Frith finds a tight knit logic in this untamed, clanging universe and, whilst appearing to skid from side to side throughout, brings the whole thing to an emergency stop with surprising inevitability. In and out. Total time: one minute, thirty one seconds.