Ry Cooder: The Six-String King of Roots Music
Guitarist Ry Cooder is the living link between Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Captain Beefheart, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Mavis Staples, film maker Wim Wenders, Ali Farke Toure, Randy Newman, Little Feat and the Buena Vista Social Club. Since the 1960s, Cooder has kept a relatively low profile while remaining relentlessly busy and profoundly affecting the soundtrack of informed popular culture. And every inch of the way he’s maintained an extraordinarily high level of artistry and excellence.
Armed with a vocabulary gleaned from the masters of country blues and burnished by his own approach to bare-finger picking and slide guitar, Cooder burst onto the ’60s rock scene as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, helping to develop the music that gelled as the album Trout Mask Replica in 1969. During the same time he was also a session player in his native Los Angeles, contributing to the Rolling Stones’ classic Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. He plays slide on the latter’s eerie “Sister Morphine.” Keith Richards has credited Cooder with fully enlightening him to the potential of open G tuning. That makes Cooder a fundamental building block for Richards' signature style. Cooder also played slide on his first film soundtrack in the same period, Performance, which starred Mick Jagger.
Cooder’s atmospheric slide playing — imagine the lonely ghost of Skip James high on reverb — has more resonance and character than the average bear’s because he tends to fan his glass slide over held notes, rather than just shaking it back and forth. In subsequent decades he’s become something of an American counterpart to Ennio Morricone, creating enduring and atmospheric soundtracks for exceptional films using his slide and the bristling vintage tone he seemingly can pull from any amp. His film composing work include 1980’s The Long Riders, 1982’s The Border, 1985’s Paris, Texas, 1986’s Crossroads, 1993’s Trespass and 1997’s The End of Violence. All of those soundtracks are worth acquiring.
Parallel to that, he embarked on a solo career that’s based in blues but has embraced county, rock ‘n’ roll, folk and world. His initial albums under his own name revealed the depth of his influences, re-imagining tracks by obscure bluesmen like Joe Callicott and Washington Phillips, revered figures like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, and inventive contemporaries like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. Among his best solo recordings are 1974’s Paradise and Lunch, 1982’s The Slide Area and 2005’s Chavez Ravine. The latter — the beautiful, sad and brilliantly arranged tale of the destruction of a Mexican-American community by Los Angeles’ city fathers in order to build a stadium for the Dodgers — was also Cooder’s first protest album, with I, Flathead, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and last year’s timely Election Special following in its tracks.
But since the early ’90s, Cooder is best known and most revered for his work in the world music arena, starting with his 1994 collaboration with Indian slide guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt titled A Meeting By The River. The next year Talking Timbuktu, which paired Cooder with Mali’s Ali Farka Touré, made the latter an international guitar star.
Cooder’s voracious appetite for the sounds of foreign cultures led him and film maker Wim Wenders to Cuba to make 1977’s Buena Vista Social Club movie and Grammy-winning album. Both are essential for any serious music fan or player. They provide a glimpse into the artistic soul through the songs and the stories of the historic Cuban musicians who star. One of those musicians, guitarist Miguel Galbán, re-joined Cooder in 2003 for the delightful six-string fantasia Mambo Sinuendo, which won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental. If you’re a guitarist committed to melody, musical wit and sharp interplay, this is also an essential disc.
When it comes to slide, in addition to fanning his held notes another hallmark of Cooder’s playing is that he never overdoes volume. He favors the kind of mellow break up amps like Supro Thunderbolts and Gibson GA-40s produce, and takes care to control the harmonic colors they produce naturally. He is also extremely precise. Every note he chooses to play is clearly articulated. And he prefers thick, heavy slides, which he perceives as assisting him in achieving solid tones. He also tends to favor open tunings, from the basics — open G, D and E — to D-minor and other more exotic flavors, like the slack key tunings of Hawaiian traditional players.
As you’d guess, Cooder uses a wide variety of electric and acoustic guitars, from the funky — Silvertones and Gyatones — to a sublime three-P-90-equipped Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster. According to the "Everything About Ry Cooder" website, a Gibson Roy Smeck model from the 1930s is among his favorite acoustic guitars, and he plays a Gibson J-200 in Buena Vista Social Club. Among his favorite mandolins is a Gibson F-12.