Captain Beefheart Issues His “Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing”

If you do not believe in Cap­tain Beef­heart, I doubt the 1974 Old Grey Whis­tle Test appear­ance above will con­vert you. If you are a Beef­heart believ­er, you know. And if you don’t know where you stand on Beef­heart, get to know this wild-eyed rock and roll shaman, poet, blues­man, painter, and child­hood friend of Frank Zap­pa. (Start with his fair­ly straight­for­ward take on Delta blues and six­ties garage rock, 1967’s Safe as Milk.)

Beefheart’s Mag­ic Band, a shift­ing col­lec­tion of musi­cians that ini­tial­ly includ­ed Ry Cood­er (who served as some­thing of a musi­cal direc­tor) cre­at­ed some of the most warped music of the last few decades, much of it very rec­og­niz­ably blues-based and much of it (such as the freak outs on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Repli­ca) occu­py­ing a space all its own—a space that only exists, real­ly, in Cap­tain Beefheart’s head and heart. While Beef­heart acquired a rep­u­ta­tion as an uncom­pro­mis­ing, and sin­gu­lar­ly demand­ing, employ­er of musi­cians, speak­ing as a musi­cian, there are few oth­ers that I wish I’d had the chance to play with in their hey­day.

Despite his demon­i­cal­ly inspired weird­ness and sto­ried dif­fi­cul­ty, what attract­ed musi­cians to Beef­heart was his abil­i­ty to push con­cepts so far beyond the bounds of intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty so as to make insan­i­ty make per­fect sense. Take, for exam­ple, his list of instruc­tions, or rather “com­mand­ments,” issued to Moris Tep­per when the gui­tarist joined Beefheart’s band in 1976. This is not an obnox­ious prac­ti­cal joke—it is the tech­nique of a Zen mas­ter, dis­ori­ent­ing his stu­dent with non­sen­si­cal truths mixed in with some very prac­ti­cal advice. Which one is which is for the stu­dent to decide.

Cap­tain Beefheart’s “Ten Com­mand­ments of Gui­tar Play­ing”

1. Lis­ten to the birds

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know every­thing about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hum­ming­birds. They fly real­ly fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going any­where.

2. Your gui­tar is not real­ly a gui­tar.

Your gui­tar is a divin­ing rod. Use it to find spir­its in the oth­er world and bring them over. A gui­tar is also a fish­ing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Prac­tice in front of a bush.

Wait until the moon is out, then go out­side, eat a mul­ti-grained bread and play your gui­tar to a bush. If the bush does­n’t shake, eat anoth­er piece of bread.

4. Walk with the dev­il.

Old Delta blues play­ers referred to gui­tar ampli­fiers as the “dev­il box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal oppor­tu­ni­ty employ­er in terms of who you’re brin­ing over from the oth­er side. Elec­tric­i­ty attracts dev­ils and demons. Oth­er instru­ments attract oth­er spir­its. An acoustic gui­tar attracts Casper. A man­dolin attracts Wendy. But an elec­tric gui­tar attracts Beelze­bub.

5. If you’re guilty of think­ing, you’re out.

If your brain is part of the process, you’re miss­ing it. You should play like a drown­ing man, strug­gling to reach shore. If you can trap that feel­ing, then you have some­thing that is fur bear­ing.

6. Nev­er point your gui­tar at any­one.

Your instru­ment has more clout than light­ning. Just hit a big chord then run out­side to hear it. But make sure you are not stand­ing in an open field.

7. Always car­ry a church key.

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musi­cian who played in the fifties on a home­made instru­ment. His song “I Need a Hun­dred Dol­lars” is warm pie. Anoth­er key to the church is Hubert Sum­lin, Howl­in’ Wolf’s gui­tar play­er. He just stands there like the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty — mak­ing you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instru­ment.

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your gui­tar in a dark place.

When you’re not play­ing your gui­tar, cov­er it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your gui­tar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You got­ta have a hood for your engine.

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pres­sure cook­er. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

If any of the above leads you to think you need to know more about Beef­heart, then watch the doc­u­men­tary above, intro­duced and nar­rat­ed by the leg­endary tastemak­er John Peel, a true Beef­heart believ­er if one there ever was.

Via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Young Frank Zap­pa Plays the Bicy­cle on The Steve Allen Show (1963)

Frank Zap­pa Reads NSFW Pas­sage From William Bur­roughs’ Naked Lunch (1978)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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