Justin Adams celebrated this past St. Patrick's Day quaffing stout and playing traditional Irish songs with sometime boss Sinead O'Connor. Not that he actually knew the repertoire, mind you. "I just followed the other guitarists' fingers," he laughs.
Adams, who appeared on O'Connor's Gospel Oak EP and accompanied her on several tours, has made a career of finger watching. Whether playing with O'Connor, Algerian Rai singer Abdel Ali Slimani, Senegalese great Baaba Maal, or bassist Jah Wobble (in the influential Invaders of the Heart), Adams' forays into global music are based on watching and listening rather than formal study.
"When I was a kid, I lived in Jordan and Egypt, and I was entranced by the drummers," says the thirty-something Adams, currently a member of the band Ghostland. "When I was around ten, I bought darbouka drums and learned how to play belly-dance rhythms."
Next, the transplanted Londoner picked up on punk--in particular P.I.L. guitarist Keith Levene--then took to dub reggae sides by Lee "Scratch" Perry and the African sounds of Nigerian Fela Kuti. Merging these influences with a bit of James Brown guitarist Jimmy Nolen, Adams draws unusual sounds from his strings that often suggest Turkish saz and oud, an African banjo, or a Middle Eastern violin. "I hear things very percussively," he says, "and I try to be economical--especially when playing rhythm. I'm always listening for what beat really needs emphasizing, like they do in reggae."
He also strives to cop the essence of specific instruments. "An oud player plays all the sixteenth notes on a single string using a plectrum and up- and downstrokes," Adams explains. "If I'm trying to do something oud-like on the guitar, I'll use that technique with my right hand. Then, by hammering and damping with my left hand, I can clip the notes a bit for a funkier sound, and turn it into a James Brown thing. For a saz-like sound, I might use the open-G string as a drone and play melodies on …