For the first two segments of Don’t Fret, I talked about a couple of guys–Peter Buck and Randy Bewley–without whom an Athens music scene might not exist. The success of early Athens bands like R.E.M. and Pylon inspired other local musicians to start bands, and brought attention to bands that already existed. The spotlight on our town also enticed bands from outside Athens to relocate here, and the guy I’m going to talk about today is a great example.
Walker Howle is the guitarist for Dead Confederate, a band that started out in the slightly less metropolitan city of Augusta and moved here before their full length debut Wrecking Ball received enough attention to land them a late night spot performing on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’ Brien” and a Billboard charting single in “The Rat.” Although Hardy Morris’ hoarse growl and distorted power chords have earned the band apt comparisons to a certain 1990s Seattle grunge act, many of their (in my opinion) best songs contain noticeably sparse arrangements and a distinctly ungrungelike dreamy shoegaze aesthetic, largely on the back of Howle’s terrific slidework.
Howle’s playing is remarkable in its utter simplicity. Great musicians always make their work sound easier than it really is, but Howle’s licks truly aren’t at all technically difficult to play. Anyone that has played guitar for even a few months has enough skill to replicate Howle’s work. Yet no other guitarist in town sounds as good or contributes as much character to their band’s style.
“It Was a Rose” is a prime example of what Howle has to offer. The song is played at an extremely slow tempo, around 76 beats per minute, with an unobtrusive rhythm section built around softly strummed chords from Morris and a steady tom beat by either Jason Scarboro or the guy who plays the “Tomohawk Chop” drum at Braves games. Howle provides some early flavor with a few volume swells, a trick that involves the striking of a note with the volume knob at zero, followed by a slow fade up. The licks are played incredibly slowly; sometimes Howle takes four beats to slide over one half-step, or one guitar fret. Then, halfway into the song, he jumps into a chaotic freakout that sounds like Duane Allman’s reply if the Devil had challenged him for his soul instead of Charlie Daniels.
In “Yer Circus,” Howle’s slide doubles Morris’ vocal line so perfectly that it could almost be mistaken for an extra layer of reverb. In the final seconds, a few faint Howle slides can be heard as the rest of the song fades to a close. “Yer Circus” demonstrates Howle’s greatest strength: knowing when not to play, or at least when to hold back. In “The News Underneath,” Howle again adopts an understate approach, playing counterpoint to Morris’ vocal lines, while incredibly never seeming to repeat a lick over the song’s seven-plus minute run time.
One of the original purposes for this column was to bring knowledge and insight into the craft of guitar-playing to nonmusicians. If I can editorialize for just a moment, Walker Howle (like Randy Bewley before him) should be a model to anyone who has wanted to learn to play an instrument but thought they didn’t possess the musical aptitude. That’s not to say Howle doesn’t have prodigious talent–he certainly does–but his playing is a case in point that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to make great music. It may sound cliché, but sometimes less really is more.
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