Why inside the note? It’s a question I’ve asked myself numerous times before actually putting this site together. It basically comes down to the fact that guitars and music have been a major part of my life for 50 years and I love talking and writing about them. From watching The Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show, to launching my own line of custom built guitars in 2010, to playing my ’59 Les Paul reissue earlier today, guitars and the music I make with them are always with me.
I grew up in Dallas, TX, where I attended Thomas Jefferson High School located in what was then considered the North part of the city. The early seventies was a very difficult time in Dallas, where as a student I was introduced to court ordered desegregation my sophomore year. That was less than ten years following the tragic assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas – an event that earned Dallas the infamous title of the “city of hate.”
There’s no getting around the fact that back then Dallas had a lot of issues, and race was a big one. Lost in all of the hoopla of the Dallas Cowboy’s first Super Bowl win, and the Washington Senators move to Arlington to become the Texas Rangers, was a toxic atmosphere born from the combination of fear and intolerance, which made the desegregation of public schools a challenging, often painful experience for all students.
This lead to “white flight” to the suburbs, along with the exodus of children to every private school in the area. Then there were the kids that were actually bused. Hardly anyone took the time to consider the amount of time they were spending on buses every single day, being sent from their neighborhoods to the “other side of town.” Many of us found out a lot about our selves during that time, and it often made you feel uncomfortable when a darker side of yourself manifested itself as people chose sides.
But at the very same time lost in all of Dallas’ troubles was a thriving music scene, with blues resting at the very heart of it all. Mother Blues was the club we all heard about and T-Bone Walker, Lightning Hopkins, Freddie King, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughn, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Robert Johnson, Bugs Henderson, and John Nitzinger, were just some of the musicians we knew had lived and played in Dallas.
And as it often does, music finds a way to bring folks together and sometimes even bring about a little healing. In the midst of the turbulent atmosphere at TJ, I discovered a hidden treasure in the form of a family of musicians who would change my very perception of the music I would listen to and would want to play. It was during my sophomore year I was introduced to the King family – specifically Wanda and Freddie King, Jr. Yep, the offspring of the one and only Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball. Talent obviously ran in the family and Wanda and Freddie, Jr. put together a little combo called Operation Soul, and man was it an operation. As a female blues and soul singer, Wanda could bring it! And standing next to her on stage was her little brother, the spitting image of their dad, laying down the groove with his sunburst Gibson 335 bass.
One of the coolest things I remember happening at school was Freddie King playing a concert for the students for a measly 25-cent cover charge. What I had forgotten about that concert until I spoke with Wanda this past week, was that Freddie did that show to help pay for new uniforms for the football team.
One of the changes born from the desegregation efforts at TJ was the need to change the mascot, which in itself was a very volatile issue. TJ’s mascot had been the Rebels since the school’s beginnings; and the fight song was “Dixie”. This was obviously offensive to the African American students being bused in, and frankly had nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson, nor the American Revolutionary War. After a very tense debate and student body vote, Patriots was adopted as the new mascot.
Of course, this meant new uniforms, uniforms that had to be paid for by the players’ families. In those days there were no big name athletic apparel companies eagerly supplying uniforms to schools. Enter Freddie King and his offer to play a benefit to help pay for uniforms for the kids that simply could not afford them. As I mentioned, music often will find a way to bring folks together.
Buy why “inside the note”? The term actually comes from a conversation I had with the aforementioned Freddie King back in 1974 in Austin.
It was funny, moving to Austin and soon learning what a huge deal Freddie was to everyone involved in the blues scene here. In 1971, he recorded the first major live album ever made in Austin at the old Armadillo World Headquarters. He was a frequent performer at the Armadillo, returning periodically for fundraisers to keep the place open, often billed as “Freddie King Birthday Week.” There would often be notable surprise guests showing up to play with him during those benefits, which made them legendary. As a result, the Armadillo became referred to as “the house that Freddie King built.” Not bad for an old run down National Guard armory.
As a newly recruited writer for the Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper, I soon learned through my research efforts how Freddie had influenced a number of great players such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jerry Garcia. In fact Clapton was quoted as saying, “l was interested in white rock ‘n’ rollers until l heard Freddie King. Then l was over the moon.”
Did Freddie have an influence on me as a player? My answer is…eventually. At that time I was enamored with guitar players who could play really fast. Alvin Lee at Woodstock playing “I’m Going Home” was the closest thing to lightning in a bottle I had every heard. Chicago’s Terry Kath and Toy Caldwell with the Marshall Tucker Band fueled that interest with their dynamic playing styles.
I mentioned those guys to Freddie when we talked and he said to me, “Yeah, those guys are fast. But let me ask you something. Have you ever heard me or BB (King) play?”
“Of course”, I respectfully replied.
Freddie then asked me, “Have you noticed how the crowd goes crazy when he plays that one note, that note that says ‘I’m BB King’?”
“Yes”, I answered.
“Do you know why that lick gets them going?” he continued. “It’s because he’s getting inside the note. It’s the essence of what he is saying as a guitar player. He doesn’t have to say anything else – it’s all there. These hot shots that play fast, they’re not getting inside the note. They play all around it, up and down and all around, but never really get inside the note. You’ve got to slow down and get inside the note. Tell folks what you’re feeling. When you do that they’ll let you know they hear and feel you. That’s what BB does; that’s why I do; that’s what every bluesman does. You’ve got to get inside the note, or it don’t mean nothing.”
So I guess you would imagine I was mesmerized from my audience with Freddie and the knowledge he bestowed upon me. Taking those words of wisdom and immediately applying them to my playing, right? Wrong! Oh, it was extremely cool talking with him, and I did take notes. But I wanted to play fast. Fast was cool to me back then. Al Dimeola, Alan Holdsworth and others were going and blowing. That’s what I liked, at that time.
Freddie probably looked at me while I was walking out of the room and said, “that fool doesn’t get it. He still wants to play all of that fast stuff.”
That was the last time I saw Freddie. He tragically died in 1976, just 42 years old. It took a while for the lessons he had shared with me to sink it, but they eventually did. I thought about that conversation with him and about Wanda and Freddie, Jr. when I saw her give the acceptance speech on behalf of her dad at his enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Freddie, Jr. was sadly absent, as he too died at a very young age.
There was something about Freddie’s sage advice that found it’s way deeper into my thinking. I started to see how getting inside the note applied to other areas of my life. This has become even clearer to me in the last five years – the absolute need to cut through all of the noise and distractions to get to the essence of what you are doing, as a player or in anything you choose to do in life.
So that is what this blog will be about. Getting to the essence of life – getting inside the note. I would like to share these thoughts I have about guitars, music, and life as I go forward. No earth shattering discoveries here. Maybe just a slightly different perspective. We all look at life through our own lenses, and the view is always unique. I hope you will join me, and share your thoughts as we look for new ways to get inside the note.