Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - SOUND AND SCOTTY MOORE'S AMAZING BRAIN, Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days Column

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

There is an old question, probably made up by some physics teacher to make his students think, that asks: When a tree falls in the forest and there are no ears present to hear it, does it make a sound? Or, if Scotty Moore put his famous Echosonic amplifier in the middle of the forest, using a mile-long guitar lead so he wouldn't be able to hear the amplifier, then hired a small army to search the wood and remove everything with ears, would the amplifier still make a sound? No. Sound occurs in the brain... it is the brain's interpretations of waves in the air, which are similar to the waves from a stone tossed into water. Until the waves touch something that can detect and identify them, they are just ripples in the air. The air around the amplifier, espcially in front of the speaker, would be writhing with all manner of complex waves, and might even shatter crystal, but it isn't sound until it is detected by an ear and called sound by a brain.

Think for a bit about the sounds you hear every day; almost every waking minute you are hearing something, even if it's just your own heavy breathing, and most minutes you are hearing many sounds... traffic, talking, dogs barking, leaves in the wind, insects buzzing. The brain sorts them out, identifies them, notifies you of those that are important... sudden, loud sounds can mean danger... and tells you which can be ignored. It also tells you the approximate direction of the source of the sound, and occasionally some bits of information about it... the man next door is talking; sounds as if he has a cold; he has a black beard; I wonder when he's going to return my lawnmower... oh, there's the train, it must be two o'clock, and so on. Consider how amazing it is that the brain can process all these sounds, check your memories for related information, keep your body operating, allow you to write a letter, watch a teevy show and eat a sandwich, all at the same time.

When Scotty plays the guitar, his brain is directing his fingers to press the strings at certain points and pluck them. The movement of the metal strings causes disturbances in a magnetic field which surrounds the guitar's pickups, including an electric current in the pickup's coil of wire. The current travels through the guitar lead to the amplifier, which makes it stronger and sends it to the coil of wire in the speaker, causing the flexible speaker cone to move forward and back, making waves in the air which cause Scotty's eardrum to vibrate, sending the signals to his brain, which interprets them and tells him rather his fingers are hitting the right notes. This all happens with every note he plays, and the process is completed before he plays the next note.

When Scotty is playing with a band, his brain also has to co-ordinate his rhythm with the other musicians, making sure his notes fit within the boundries of the beat. If he hits a wrong note, sometimes the brain will immediately change the next few notes to a pattern which will make the "wrong" note sound right. I don't think I've ever heard Scotty hit a wrong note, but then I've only heard him play in person a couple of times. Of course there is that solo in 'Too Much' where he lost his way and wandered around for several notes, but he eventually found the way back and managed to end it on what sounds to me like the right spot, and another "classic" Scotty Moore solo took a spot in musical history. I wonder what he intended to play? It's quite possible that he had nothing in mind, and intended to just let his fingers go wherever they wanted, as many musicians do.

And I haven't (to this point) said anything at all about the discussion Scotty's brain has with itself before each note or group of notes, called "licks" by most pickers. It has to decide rather the "licks" might be offensive to anyone in the neighbourhood. All the while, his brain also has to think about the next song, how long before the show is over, maybe the promoter has skipped out with the money, severe abdominal cramps from yesterday's extra-hot chili con carne and can he hold it 'til the show is over, the sore finger that got caught in the car door, a sinus infection, a headache and about four hours sleep in the past week. That's besides controlling his breathing, heart rate, digestion, temperature, blood circulation and all the other things his body requires to stay alive. Now, don't start thinking too hard about what's going on in your brain while you're plaing the guitar or you might get brain cramps and not be able to play at all.

I don't think I've ever heard Scotty sing, but if he decides to become a singer as well as a guitar player, his brain will almost be doing double-duty. The processing by the brain is slightly different for singers than for guitar players, but if one does both at the same time, the brain has to sort the signals out and give the proper instructions to the fingers as well as to the lungs, vocal cords, throat muscles, diaphragm muscles, tongue and mouth. The human mind can only give full attention to one thing at a time, but the brain can put some things, usually repetitive things like heartbeats, breathing, digestion and blood circulation on a sort of "automatic pilot", and can be trained to do the same with music. When I'm playing 'Honey Bun' on the piano, I think of my boogie-woogieing left hand only occasionally; most of my attention is on either my voice or my right hand, and I only give the left hand a fraction of a second's thought every few beats, but it keeps on playing. While I am singing, both hands are generally on "automatic", but I will often put the voice on "automatic" for a few beats so I can give full attention to the right hand for a few notes. With practice, many musicians can eventually learn to shift full attention from one hand to the other so fast that the brain can process both signals as one.

When I was on the road in the '70s, we played many of the same songs every night. We were pretty much playing "hit" arrangements then, and I learned that after I played a song the same way several times, I could put everything, even the solos, on "automatic pilot" and think about some thing else while playing. While playing a club in Monroe, Louisiana, in the mid-'60s, the bass player and I actually read comic books on stage while we were playing. The organ had a flat top, and we spread a comic book out on it. We only did this on the dull nights.

However simple you play, your brain and your fingers have to be trained, to some degree. The more proper training they get, the more complex you can play. What it all boils down to is practice. Your brain can't turn you into a great musician if you won't co-operate.

In the early '60s, The Ventures did an instrumental called 'Walk, Don't Run'. My guitar player insisted he couldn't play it, and apparently didn't want to learn, so I decided I would learn it, though I had played no lead guitar to speak of before. I sat down with the guitar and the record and learned the song in an hour or so, then I had to play it over and over about twenty times until my brain and fingers were trained well enough to play it smoothly and accurately. I still play it occasionally. I did the same with Floyd Cramer's 'Last Date'. I put the record player on one end of the piano stool and worked it out on the piano line by line until I got it right, then played it until I could do it almost without thinking about it. Of course, learning to play a song the way someone else plays it involves different brain circuits than creating solos no one has ever played before.

I'd like (what guitar player wouldn't??) to browse around in Scotty's brain for a few days and read his files. There are so many stories recorded there that will never be told, and so many more "classic" guitar solos that we will never hear. You know without doubt that in his mind he has created some incredible solos from time to time over the years that were never recorded, and most were never even played on a guitar, except in his thoughts. Perhaps before he moves to Hawaii, science will come up with a gadget that will store the entire contents of his memory on computer disks, complete with sound and pictures. Now that I think about it, I can't think of anybody in his right mind who would want his life's memories recorded in detail for the whole universe to see. I sure wouldn't, and I'll bet Scotty wouldn't either. Scotty, if there are any stories you've never told, you can send them to me and I'll say they came from "an authoritative source that wishes to remain anonymous", like the newspapers and television reporters do.

Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

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