By: Brad Conroy
There are many familiar names in the guitar hero category, and each player has brought something new to the guitar world in terms of technique, sound and style. These are the players who have been credited as inspirations to the next generation of great players, who in turn push the boundaries that their heroes have established.
Often the mainstream neglects players that are truly worthy of guitar hero status. Maybe because they aren’t as commercially successful and don’t have the same exposure to such a broad range of listeners that Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton have.
Acoustic guitarist and composer Michael Hedges is one of these truly exceptional and innovative players, and he perhaps made the most significant advancement in guitar technique in the late 20th century.
Hedges completely redefined acoustic guitar technique with his groundbreaking use of percussive tapping, classical right hand finger style, left and right hand tapping, ”whacka whacka” strumming, use of alternate tunings, and his compositions are so beautiful that the listener doesn’t even realize how incredibly difficult they are to play.
Hedges grew up in Enid Oklahoma where he played various instruments until he eventually decided to dedicate himself to the study of flute and guitar. After High School, Hedges went on to Phillips University in Enid to study classical guitar and composition with E.J. Ulrich, who Hedges credits for having a profound impact on his life.
After graduating from Phillips University he enrolled in the world-renowned Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore Maryland, where he studied classical guitar with none other than legendary guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer as well as Ray Chester, and was in school at the same time with such classical guitar luminaries as David Starobin and Manuel Barrueaco to name a few.
Hedges earned his degree in musical composition, and said that he has always felt that he was more of a composer, and that the guitar was just his outlet for musical expression.
Hedges also studied electronic music at Stanford University’s renowned electronic music department and he has been quoted as saying:
“I went to the school of modern 20th century composition. I listened to Leo Kottke, Martin Carthy, and John Martyn, but my head was headed more towards Stravinsky, Varese, Webern, and a lot of experimental composers like Morton Feldman.”
One night while playing in Palo Alto, co-founder of the esteemed Windham Hill record label Will Ackerman heard Hedges performing and in a later interview had this to say about that experience:
“Michael tore my head off. It was like watching the guitar being reinvented.”
In 1997 Hedges died in a car accident, but he was able to record almost eight complete albums and was nominated for a Grammy Award twice with his 1984 album Aerial Boundaries, and the 1990’s Taproot before he passed away.
Within his recordings, Hedges was able to completely redefine the concept of how to play an acoustic guitar. He collaborated extensively with his musical compadre Michael Manring, who is one of the finest and innovative bass players around.
Within Hedges discography you will hear him make extensive use of percussive guitar sounds, harmonics, vocal singing, tapping, and so many more elements that truly secure him as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.
Hedges performed on a wide range of instruments, but the most note worthy are his1971 Martin D-28 guitar (nicknamed “Barbara”) which has a combination of a Sunrise S-1 magnetic pickup and FRAP contact pickup under the treble strings, a custom 1980s Takamine guitar with his name on the headstock, a1920s Dyer harp guitar which is configured with a FRAP/autoharp pickup combo and reconfigured with Sunrise S-1 and two Barcus Berry magnetic pickups for the sub-basses (glued straight to the body), and his Steve Klein electric harp guitar with a Trans-Trem bridge.
Michael Hedges truly did re-invent the acoustic guitar in the early ‘80’s with his landmark album, Aerial Boundaries, and players today are still trying to pick up on what he was already doing thirty years ago.
His guitar playing is so inspiring and his compositions are so beautiful it is no wonder why so many note worthy performers like acoustic guitarists Andy Mckee, and Kaki King who performed his piece “Ritual Fire Dance” for the 2007 movie August Rush, and classical guitarist Andrew York are still so obviously influenced by the Hedges style.
There will be many performers for a very long time that will continue to pay homage to one of the most inspiring, innovative, creative, and extraordinary guitarist to ever live, the late Michael Hedges.
“I feel I can always hear his heart when he plays. He respected my playing too, and that simply thrills me.” – Pete Townshend
“Michael was unique. His music transcends genre and trend. It’s truly musical, fun and enlightening.” – Steve Vai
“His playing has a feel and timbre all its own – technically brilliant, but always organic and true.” – Joe Satriani
“One of the most brilliant musicians in America.” – David Crosby
“I considered him to be a genius and when he died I lost a great friend.” – Graham Nash
Click to Visit the Michael Hedges Collection at Amazon.com