TOM WILLIAMS (Academy of Contemporary Music (Surrey), UK)


Abstract: Notions of aesthetic ‘purity’, tradition, nostalgia and identity are at the core of how traditionalists ascribe identity and authenticity to jazz guitar. To talk about the development of the electric guitar without discussing distortion is impossible and yet discourse rarely places emphasis on the developing use of effects and technology in jazz guitar culture specifically. While often met with disdain from traditionalists, distortion is now one of many devices which have enabled traditional notions of performative/compositional devices to be expanded, extending the creative possibilities for jazz guitar improvisers and composers. 

This paper will explore the changing landscape of jazz guitar as viewed through the prism of distortion, production and wider notions of the emergence of a post-modern jazz ‘guitarscape’ more aligned with the progressive, which embraces technology, and by extension distortion, as part of its identity. A reimagined history will be built into a narrative across the development of jazz guitar to demonstrate the many ways distortion has been used both as an aesthetic effect and as a creative tool in and of itself, how creatives may adopt such practices, and finally how embracing a modernist approach is crucial in enabling the progressive and developmental elements which define jazz guitar culture today.

Bio: Dr. Tom Williams is a jazz guitarist, lecturer and musicologist specialising in improvisation, cognition, jazz and pedagogy. His PhD Strategy in Contemporary Jazz Improvisation; (University of Surrey, UK 2017) created a detailed cognitive and contextual model of how expert level improvisers develop and use their craft in the moment of performance. Tom is a senior lecturer at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, Surrey;

4 thoughts on “TOM WILLIAMS (Academy of Contemporary Music (Surrey), UK)”

  1. Enjoyed this a lot Tom. I like the way you weave the sonic/musicological with the social and cultural-historical. I did a thing ages ago about press treatments of early rock’n’roll and ‘distortion’ or ‘distorted’ (eg as in ‘noisy distorted trash’) came up a bit — an umbrella term sometimes meaning added delay or reverb, or twangy guitars, or hiccup vocals, or all of those at once. Some of the newspaper critics here (in Australia) were working jazz musicians, and they were really agitated by Gene Vincent in particular (but Carl Perkins got the OK because he had blues cred!). I think they felt it was all a bit impolite, like distortion somehow equated to bad manners. But listening to you talking about those post-rock jazz players, I wondered whether unarguable virtuosity bought jazz players some degree of license with critics — the way jazzer opinion-havers back in the day often approved of Hendrix and the more elaborate types of rock. Distortion with three chord strictly pentatonic very non-U. Spoke to a now deceased muso here who successfully covered west coast jump R&B hits way back in the late 40s — he loved that music, and did respectful covers, was an icon among pre-r’n’r Sydney youth. But when he first heard John Lee Hooker aand Muddy Waters he hated it — one chord! Really liked your point about Miles’s role making dirty guitar acceptable. Listening back, often surprisingly raw and twangy guitar — very down home.

  2. I also enjoyed this a lot – although I’m not sure whether I should have been stnading up and saying “I’m sorry I’m going to have to stop you there – perhaps you can continue this over coffee” when you got past 22 minutes (mine is 24!). I think that the conversion of the guitar into a lead instrument and the importance of amplifier and pedal technology and brass-envy is a really interesting cultural phenomenon – I only found out quite recently from a PhD student that the early Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone was initially marketed as a tool for brass synthesis.
    I don’t really have a question as such, but there is one lurking in my muddled thoughts somewhere. When I give a talk to my Record Production masters students on distortion, I use a typology of disintegration, energisation, distillation and transformation (and by distillation I mean the creation of a simplified or schematic version of something more complex or rich) – and that goes beyond the verbal usage common with guitarists but encompasses EQ, filtering and guitar synths. There’s an interesting distinction between the first two categories that relates to the narratives of virtuosity in jazz versus rebellion in rock which relates to perceived authenticity. Maybe that’s a sort of question for you – so while there may be some grey areas between those categories in my typology, do you see that as a valid distinction in jazz? And do you think that choices made by both guitarists and audiences in jazz reflect the types of authenticity that this distinction encourages – between the sound of something broken and the sound of something energised?

  3. Thanks Tom for your really interesting paper. You’ve put a huge survey into a 20 min paper (though, with the length of 32 min, it feels like a guitarist who has taken a few extra choruses on the jam session, while others wait in the wings). In all seriousness, though, I do like the idea of appendix though, and it’s a great topic with a lot there. I was kept on my toes.
    I am a fan of our “associative approach” (5:00) which seems a productive way to divide your corpus and the use of Jenkins to discuss new and old media does also seem a productive way forward. Timbral transformations do seem particularly effective with someone like Pat Metheny who really proves this point. I was wondering if you were planning on doing any ‘close reading’ of tracks to show your points?–again, Metheny would work well, but I also wonder if this can be translated over to keyboardists–Return to Forever comes to mind, or even the prog of Rick Wakeman? Though visually we often have keyboardists playing multiple keyboards on stage, and perhaps a guitarist choosing to play less guitars with more effects and pedals involved.
    Thanks for sharing an interesting project!

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