Gwenifer Raymond On The Art Of Primitive Guitar

A dive into her points of inspiration...

To hear Gwenifer Raymond perform is to be swept up into near-orchestral tapestries of noise.

It's remarkable, then, to step back and fully realise that those cyclones of melody are being generated by one person, and one instrument.

Predominantly a guitarist – although she's also a noted banjo player – Gwenifer Raymond is a phenomenal instrumentalist, someone who is able to blend different traditions and techniques into a highly personal landscape.

Releasing two albums along the way, Gwenifer Raymond is one of this country's most-noted guitarists working in a so-called Primitive Style.

Ahead of her set at EFG London Jazz Festival this weekend, the Welsh-born, Brighton-based artist breaks down what Primitive Guitar actually entails – and why it's moniker belies the open-ended, highly complex artistry underneath.

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The first player I ever heard that could be inarguably categorized as ‘Primitive Guitar’ was John Fahey – inarguable because, as a man at a loss for a genre, he came up with the term ‘American Primitive’ to describe his own instrumental fingerstyle compositions. Prior to this he’d been regarded as a ‘jazz guitarist’, but the term ‘primitive’ seemed to apply more accurately given his strong influences from pre-war blues and Appalachian folk music and how that could tie in more generally to the art primitivism movement.

I entered the world of Primitive Guitar on a tangent from youth playing in punk and grunge bands. Alongside this healthy appreciation of a racket I was also brought up with the records of Dylan, Young, The Velvet Underground etc blaring through the house. At some point I discovered that a common influence that threaded through these seemingly disparate musics were the early American blues players. I bought a bunch of cheap compilation CDs, and from about one verse into Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me’ I was a goner.

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Having taken up the acoustic guitar for a few years I became especially obsessed with the alternating thumb technique popular with country blues pickers of the pre-war period. Being very impatient at learning other people’s songs and having a vocal talent in the category of ‘burning sack of caterwauling cats’, I had resigned myself to composing solo fingerstyle blues guitar instrumentals. I didn’t know that was a thing that might interest other people until another Cardiff guitar player played me my first Fahey record. It was at that point I became ‘American Primitive’.

More recently the term ‘American Primitive’ has become increasingly contentious due to the problematic connotations the word ‘Primitive’ may have in the context of predominantly black and/or poor musicians. It seems quite reductive to describe the sophisticated and adept finger-dancing of blues players like Blind Boy Fuller as ‘primitive’. It also limits the scope of the associated guitar soli movement to ‘Americana’, whereas in reality it draws influence from pretty much every nation imaginable (and some unimaginable – just to make matters even more complicated psychedelic also has a strong presence in a lot of Primitive Guitar music). That said, we all need a section on the record shelves, and the differentiation between primitive and folk art often seems mostly driven by whatever’s popular at the time. So I find myself quite happy to ascribe my own through-line from punk-rock to psychedelic-blues-jazz as a Primitive journey of the guitar.

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My first album ‘You Never Were Much Of A Dancer’ is definitely an American Primitive record in that it is very heavily drawn from the traditions of American blues and folk music. However, I think my second (most recent) album, ‘Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain’ is a departure from the strict Americana labelling. I’d been listening to more avant-garde works while I was writing it, which somehow put me in mind of the strange land and folklore of my childhood in the south Wales valleys. Dark forest misted in low sun, breath in the air and wild roots grabbing at my feet. From that pervasive landscape I think I formed something a little more my own; a Welsh Primitive sound.

On that I’m going to leave with a list of four guitarists that influenced me, in the order that I first heard them. Within each of them is a mish-mash of what in my opinion define the four humours of great guitar: Minimalism, racket, dissonance and scandalously catchy hooks.

Joey Santiago

Blind Boy Fuller

John Fahey

Master Wilburm Burchette

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Catch Gwenifer Raymond at Kings Place, London on November 12th as part of EFG London Jazz Festival // full ticket information.

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