Friday, April 3, 2009

Covering a Classic: Sleepwalk

When musicians cover another musical composition or "song", it can be seen as respectful recognition of the creativity of the original piece or as an opportunity to showcase talent in a pre-formatted way. Or perhaps both. Santo and Johnny's classic instrumental, Sleepwalk, which hit number one in the summer of 1959 is a classic duet that followed a tradition of guitar duets like Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, featuring the console or pedal steel guitar and a traditional guitar. Sleepwalk is a melodic number that has an ethereal, dreamlike quality to it and hence is aptly named. The fact that so many great, contemporary guitarists have covered it only helps to assure it a very special niche in the annals of American Roots music.

The variety of covers of Sleepwalk share little in common other than adherence to the basic chord structures of the tune. Amos Garret has a very nifty instructional on how to approach the song through coordinated bends to simulate Santo's steel guitar. One very interesting acoustic take was by legend Chet Atkins with Leo Kotke, recorded live. Chet provides the structure while Kotke's slide work captures the steel guitar quality of the original. Together with an ensemble, jazz fusion master Larry Carlton has a sweet take on Sleepwalk based on single and bended notes to capture the melody and interplay between steel and six string guitar.

Brian Setzer's solo interpretation here is well conceived and does capture very well the tone and stylistics of 1950's guitar, punctuated by some clean jazz like runs to complement the melody. Instrumental wizard Joe Satriani also has a very tasty and clean version of this piece on his album Strange Beautiful Music (2002), heard here. Beautiful close.

Of all the covers of "Sleepwalk" I have listened to, Danny Gatton's is by far the most elaborate - some might claim to excess- and technically intricate with layers of complexity on display. As one guitar teacher on youtube writes: "I'm teaching my partner - a violinist - to play this on guitar so we listened to the various versions from S&J to Chet Atkins and - at the risk of repeating myself - have to say that this guy (Gatton) makes em all sound like Bert Weedon." Danny's take, recorded live, is certainly improvisational, in fact I doubt he ever played this tune quite the same way. One of Danny's advantages is his familiarity with the song, he was probably covering it since its release in 1959. In the introduction Gatton uses a variety of techniques: extreme bends and to simulate Santos' steel guitar, nice high low dynamics, and a harmonically rich melody and chord sequence. Gatton's solo in Sleepwalk uses the framework of the song to showcase some of his vaunted techniques, and the 40 second ending is a gem in itself.

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