Six String Shamanism | Midwood Guitar Studio
Posted by Robinson Earle on Jul 15th 2020
People begin playing the guitar for many reasons. Some crave stardom, some the attention of the opposite sex. Some just regard it as a constructive past-time; a way to round out their skill-set, something to do at parties. From my experience as a musician and teacher, however, the ones who excel at the instrument are the ones who truly need it. They need it to focus their overactive mind, they need it to express pent-up anger and frustration, they need to identify with something deeper than language permits. As beginners, they’re easy to spot. They’re the ones who don’t mind the challenge, who relish playing simple pieces. From them, it’s like drinking water for the first time after a lifetime of thirst.
Why the guitar? It’s portable, versatile, and approachable. It also doesn’t come with a manual and a codified learning system the way that band and orchestra instruments do. There are lots of ways to play a guitar, and many great artists have garnered acclaim by approaching it from entirely new angles. It’s the sonic equivalent of a thick piece of paper and a full set of colored pencils. It’s okay to make mistakes on it. Listening to someone learn to “oil paint” on a violin is much more taxing on the ear than a fumbled D chord.
Whether guitar playing becomes an implicitly spiritual practice, or merely a desirable catharsis, it is important to remember this: that which heals you has the potential to heal others. The archaic and mysterious “shaman” figure is a wounded healer. He or she begins by traveling to the “spirit” world to heal their own sickness. Once this is done, they serve their community by embarking on similar journeys for the benefit of others. This is why we need not be musicians to enjoy music; why a certain combination of notes can elicit tears from someone who knows nothing of their provenance.
When I think of a Rock & Roll shaman, the first artist who comes to mind is Jimi Hendrix. In his relatively short career, Hendrix was able to tap into and sonify the explosive youthful energy of the hippie era. He did much more than offer a reflection of the status quo, however. Hendrix did battle with the dark forces of his day. His rendition of the American national anthem at Woodstock was an attempt to exorcise the demons of hypocrisy locked within the stars and stripes. A former soldier himself, Hendrix transformed his guitar into a “Machine Gun” that he aimed at the gods of war. His incalculable influence and positive effect on American music and culture is worthy of the highest veneration.
Before Hendrix, the most Shamanic instrumentalist that comes to mind his John Coltrane. Though he played the saxophone, he continues to prove a profound influence on spiritually-minded guitarists. John McLaughlin, Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Tisziji Munoz, and Carlos Santana have all cited Coltrane as a major influence. Anyone who’s heard his technical mastery and read the poem on the back of “A Love Supreme” knows what I’m talking about, but this quote of his summarizes his shamanic intentions nicely: “I would like to bring people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.”
In these times of sickness, panic, and isolation we can use music to heal ourselves and others. We can journey into the deepest recesses of our imaginations and return with compositions that bring peace. It is an ideal moment in history to deeply concern ourselves with the well-being of others, and to use our guitars to try and carve out some shafts of light in the darkness. Writing music that enhances everyday existence is its own reward. It’s no coincidence that we refer to the careful grouping of musical notes as “harmony”. In our small way, we purify the world when we shiver our six strings.