Hole Notes with Dale Turner: The Unusual Tunings and Techniques of Steel-String Legend John Fahey

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As the American folk-music revival gained steam in the late Fifties and early Sixties, John Fahey stuck out like a sore thumb. He played solo steel-string acoustic guitar music that melded influences like Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók—composers known for dissonant, unsettling sounds—with blues artists like Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson.

To this, Fahey added unusual open tunings (open D minor, open G minor) and a dose of occasionally cringe-inducing humor by employing faux-musicology speak in his albums’ liner notes and mythologizing his fictional guitar inspiration, Blind Joe Death. The result was a style he dubbed American Primitivism.

Let’s examine some signature techniques and tunings culled from of the late guitarist’s earliest albums, the first of which was recently added to the United States National Recording Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” effort.

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Dale Turner

A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"