Johnson, Orville, Acoustic Guitar
The fingerstyle biues guitarist discusses alternate tunings and what fuels her offbeat compositions.
Internationally known singer and guitarist Mary Flower is highly regarded for her mastery of Piedmont blues, a syncopated, ragtime-influenced fingerpicking style that originated in the early 20th century in the southeastern United States. She uses the Piedmont style as a starting point for her quirky origina/ compositions, which have earned awards for her performances at the National Finger Style Guitar championships in Winfield, Kansas, in 2000 and 2003. Flower also has a distinctive style of lap-slide playing that utilizes the sweet tone of a 1950's Gibson acoustic Hawaiian guitar.
Although she recently relocated to Portland, Oregon, Flower spent the early years of her career in Colorado, where she was a member of the Mother Folkers, a group that included many of Denver's top female artists. She has recorded seven solo albums, the most recent of which, Bridges (Yellow Dog Records), features a mix of her original tunes with blues classics from Bessie Smith and Big Bill Broonzy, with guest appearances by Tim O'Brien, Tony Furtado, and Rebecca Kilgore. She teaches at many workshops and seminars, provides online lessons forjamplay.com, and has released several instructional DVDs, including A Crash Course in Open Tunings for Guitar and Blues Guitar Arrangements for the Intermediate Player on Homespun Tapes.
I sat down with Flower in Seattle, Washington, recently to talk about her approach to writing guitar pieces, her favorite alternate tunings, and how she uses dissonant intervals in her guitar works.
Some of your tunes have a ragtime-era sound. What makes that sound happen for you?
The funky notes that seem to be colliding, but stií make sense somehow. The use of dissonance is a common thread; the element of surprise, the happy stuff, the humor using some of the same elements the old guys might have used. I don't know how many new ideas there are. Some of the old-sounding licks seem to be rattling around in there. If I recognize it, though, I won't use it. You have to always inspect your stuff closely for that because the last thing you want to hear is, "Oh that sounds like John Hurt's 'Candy Man,' " or whatever.
How do you get a new tune started?
I'm always looking for something that catches my attention, something that makes me want to keep playing it over and over again without saying, 'Tve heard that before." If I write something and it doesn't last for more than a couple of months, then it's gone. It has to keep my attention.
A lot of your songs use alternate tunings. Can you show us one of your favorites?
This is one of my favorite open tunings DGDGBE. It's the Bo Carter Urning. The chords are easily accessible and you can use positions you already know from standard tuning. It enables you to have the open bass notes available while you move chords up the neck. I've written three or four things I really like in it. This one starts with a circusy lick [Example I]. Then it uses octaves on the fourth and sixth strings to walk the bass into the song.
Another one in that tuning is called the "Hudson River Rag." It has an opening lick that spans the whole neck [Example 2]. …