By Gerald Burris
Last time I talked a little about Peter Buck and some elementary aspects of his style and tone. One of my goals for these columns was to bring some attention to Athens’ current and lesser-known—at least compared to Buck—musicians and the styles in which they play, but I also thought it was important to begin from the beginning, so to speak, with the players that made Athens’ music scene what it is today. And so this second column is devoted to another historically significant Athens guitarist, the late Randy Bewley of Pylon.
Pylon’s overall sound might be simply (and perhaps lazily) described as angular. The angular sound comes from late-’70s British post-punk (Gang of Four, Wire) and its mid-2000s revival (Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys) and consists of mostly minor-key—think “dark” sounding—chord progressions and harsh, separated, and distinct—staccato, in musical parlance—guitar notes.
Now if you know anything at all about the origins of Pylon, you probably know that the band’s members were UGA art students who had little to no formal musical training prior to their forming. (Drummer Curtis Crowe was the exception.) Well, Bewley was so inexperienced that for a time he was unaware that he was playing with his guitar tuned incorrectly. The band’s bassist Michael Lachowski described the process: “Randy thought he had tuned the strings correctly and by the time that he found out it wasn’t the proper tuning for a guitar, he was too accustomed to his tuning and/or realized that it was part of his sound.”
Traditionally, a guitar is tuned, from the lowest-tone string to the highest: E, A, D, G, B, E; Bewley’s was tuned: A, D, G, C, E, E. There have been a few guitarists that purposely arranged their guitar’s tuning so that strummed chords and finger-picked arpeggios can be played mostly with open strings—Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam are examples—but it’s a relatively recent practice. And Bewley’s minimalist style, in which he disproportionately played single note licks, and rarely if ever played full six-note chord arrangements, wouldn’t have been helped with that style of alternate tuning.
The main purpose of the traditional tuning arrangement is that it allows a guitarist to play two full octaves worth of notes without having to move his hand to the left or right. The interval from one string to the next is either four or five frets, and the interval from one fret to the next is a half-step, a half-step being the smallest interval between differentiated notes, including flats and sharps. (All the keys on a piano, whether ebony or ivory, are a half-step apart.) So a guitarist can play up to five frets on a single string before needing to shift to the next string, and can just perfectly cover those five frets with four fingers. Changing the tuning even slightly means there’s going to be either gaps or overlaps in notes as they cross strings. Those gaps and overlaps are going to create awkward and often interesting licks and riffs; your ear’s going to hear one note and your brain will think it knows what’s coming next, and it’s going to be wrong. There’s no better example of this than the first 40 seconds of “Precaution” from Gyrate.
Another crucial aspect of Bewley’s playing is the interplay he had with Lachowski. In the band’s early days, before they had a drummer or singer, the two engaged in long jam sessions, where one played a repeating groove for several minutes while the other experimented with accompanying riffs. That practice certainly contributed to the stark independence between guitar and bass parts in their songs. (So often, bassists, even experienced ones, just double the guitarist’s parts in a lower register.) The two often played counterpoint, one going up the scale and the other down, or vice versa, as if they were the left and right hand in a Bach invention. “Volume”, also from Gyrate, best encapsulates that interplay.
There probably wouldn’t be an Athens scene, at least not one like we’re accustomed to today, without R.E.M. and Pylon. The many great musicians in our town that have benefited from the attention Buck, Bewley, and their band-mates have brought over the last three decades or so are the guys I’ll be focusing on starting with my next column. As always, if you have any questions or feedback, or recommendations for future Don’t Fret subjects, you can leave a comment here or on AMJ’s Facebook page, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Gerald Burris