Nels Cline: Improvisation Analysis

An analysis of the improvisational techniques used by Nels Cline from Wilco

"Nels Cline truly represents the future of the instrument as a deep and meaningful means of musical evolution, and listening to him joyfully subvert every cliche and hackneyed riff will change your life, or, at least, your relationship to the guitar."

     (1) Jazz - Music originating in New Orleans around the
                      beginning of the 20th century and provisatory, 
                      virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic
                      idiom ranging from  simple diatonicism
                      through chromaticism to atonality.
    (2) Jazz - A style of dance music, popular especially in
                      the 1920's arranged for a large band and marked
                      by some of the features of jazz. violent bodily motions
                     and gestures.
     "For years I have given myself whiplash from playing guitar."
                            -  Ashes of American Flags DVD
Self-taught at the age of 12 and initially obsessed with rock'n'roll, it would be none other than Jimi Hendrix who would seal Cline's fate as a gain-spewing maverick jazz-cat. "'When Are You Experienced' came out, it looked incredibly cool, but we had bought records based on how cool they looked before and they weren't always great. But then I heard 'Manic-Depression' on AM radio - which was really amazing considering 'Purple Haze' was supposed to be the single at that time - and that was the moment I decided I was going to be guitar forever. It was just the most magical moment."
Louis Armstrong once said, "Musicians don't retire; they stop when there's no more music in them." At the age of 55, Cline has performed on over 150 albums of jazz, pop, rock, country, and experimental pop music genres.While some may say he has past his prime and his creativity is running dry, it wasn't until 2004 that he joined the grammy-award winning band Wilco with which he has recorded two critically acclaimed albums. Cline also continues to tour with his own trio, "The Nels Cline Singers" with which he has recreated a blissfully modern rendition of John Coltrane's classic "Interstellar Space". In addition, Cline has performed with muralist Norton Wisdom in a cross-platform artistic display entitled "Staind Radiance" in which music and the visual arts are sensually entwined. 
Conflict is a central element to Jazz music - expressed harmonically, melodically, and timbrally. In the case of Nels Cline, this conflict is even more deep rooted, the unpreventable conflict of time; The virtuous task of staying fresh, new, and innovative as the ground underneath shifts and permutates. Luckily, innovation is at the core of Cline's outlook on music. He has played his guitar with everything from egg whisks, springs, bottlenecks and portable fans, to electronic microphone toys and electric drink mixers. He has made use of instruments which turn beams of light into sound. To concisely paraphrase his playing during a Wilco show, "Nels Clines guitar playing blow-torched everything in its path." - The Chicago Tribune. If ever the spirit of jazz was evoked in a guitarist, and if ever a guitarist was capable of bearing such a discording spirit, it is Nels Cline.
 Impossible Germany
Solo    2:42 - 6:05
The "Impossible Germany" solo is one of Nels Cline's greatest stylistic exhibitions. It is in the key of ADorian when transcribed straight from the album version, but as can be seen during improvisation, additional "step" notes are added, making it in the A Dorian bebop scale, which screams "Jazz". This solo draws heavily on the B (supertonic) as can be seen in the early measures as Nels playfully flirts with this note, quickly hitting the root and hammering down on the supertonic for a considerable expanse of oscillating time. Expanses of oscillating time are a recurring theme in this solo as can be seen in practically all measures via the violent wiggle of the tremolo arm. As opposed to simply droning, these notes vibrate with an obscure intensity that can be accredited to the Fender Jazzmaster floating tremolo system. Cline's phrasing in this solo draws heavily on the whimsical and jovial melodicism of TomVerlaine from Television, using quick hammer-ons, slides, and distinctly placed trills to cut through the simplicity of the rhythm section. The extreme wiggle movement utilized in the tremolo arm can also be accredited to the influence of Tom Verlaine.

Much of Cline's unconventional phrasing is the byproduct of the mechanism of Verlaine's progression as a guitarist, "I never played guitar along with records, so I never learned all the speed licks everybody gravitates to when starting out. I know 19-year-old guitarists who can play Danny Gatton solos note-for-note, they don't really know what notes they're playing, but they do them flawlessly." What occurs between 5:16-5:45 is in my opinion, guitar playing at its finest. As far as I'm concerned, there is no sight more beautiful than to see a musician sacrifice one hundred percent of their physicality for the sake of producing a sound. His agony can be felt. It can be seen in his face. This is the technique that has been known to give Nels whiplash.In the first measures on page 4, Jeff Tweedy plays a riff primarily based in G major making use of some dissonant notes while Pat Sansone plays a similar riff, harmonizing Tweedy's G notes with E, forging a 6th harmony, fulfilling the definition of polyphonic ensemble playing in jazz. At this time it appears Nels switches to fill the breaks with passages based on the 12th fret position emphasizing this contrast of E minor and G major.
TONE: Fender Jazzmaster / Boss CS-3 Compressor

Maggot Brain
Stylistically, this rendition of "Maggot Brain" originally written by Eddie Hazel of "Funkadelic", exploits many of Nels Cline's trademark effects as well as showcases his swift precision in articulating slightly deviated pentatonic runs. The throbbing sound at approximately 2:22 can be accredited to the Electro-Harmonix Pulsar on a very extreme setting. His Sonic Youth noise aesthetic is reflected in moments such as at 2:38 where he introduces harmonic-like dirtiness to droning notes by scraping the strings behind the bridge. As can be seen from 2:38 - 3:00 Nels dabbles around the 12th fret E position with meticulous precision and speed and terminates in definitive unison bends, contrasting decisive notes with screaming beat frequencies. Moments such as 3:18 reflect Nels's command over "noise", allowing notes to drone long enough just to induce feedback, a technique which can be traced back to Jimi Hendrix. Very subtle use of the Digitech Whammy pedal can be heard around 3:50 as Nels engages it briefly to sweep a texture of noise below his immediate harmonic climate. At around 4:33 it can be heard that Nels disengages the Zvex Fuzz Factory before embarking on some hammer-on passages using the volume control as a pick to differentiate each note, a technique that has been used by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. It also becomes very apparent at this moment that Nels must be doing some toggling of the Digitech Whammy in order to reach that "hyperspeed" sound which can be heard at 5:16, although using a kill-switch type maneuver has been known to cause the Zvex Fuzz Factory to achieve a similar sound.
Minor scale and extensively using the bend from flatted seventh (D) to root (E) to establish much of its lead also included only one guitar following an Em - D - Bm - C arpeggiated pattern, while this version features Mike Watts establishing this as a bass line instead.
TONE: Fender Jazzmaster / Zvex Fuzz Factory, Digitech Whammy, Electro-Harmonix Pulsar

One of the more beautiful tones Nels Cline achieves is the slide guitar / violin sound which can be heard throughout most of "Via Chicago". After much experimentation, it appears to me that the key to achieving this tone is by use of the Boss CS-3 Compressor, the Boss Volume pedal, as well as the Digitech digital delay. The notes are picked while the Boss Volume pedal is rolled back, and using the tremolo arm as well as slowly engaging the volume pedal creates this "bowing" effect. Throughout moments such as 3:25-3:45 Nels can be seen using various tools such as egg whisks and springs to scratch and slide them up and down the strings to simulate this "windy city" effect which is associated with Chicago.
TONE: Fender Jazzmaster / Boss CS-3 Compressor, Boss Volume Pedal, Digitech Digital Delay, Egg Whisks, Springs

Solid Sound Stompbox Station
While not directly relating to the improvisational style of Nels Cline, he created a very interesting for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary art, along with fellow bandmate Glenn Kotche. Nels placed all of his effect pedals in a circular chain connected to various amplifiers at the center with a constant current of sound. Spectators were allowed to go from effect to effect and manipulate the various parameters and hear the change in the tones first-hand. Education on various guitar effects and the techniques by which to produce interesting sounds has always been a priority of 
Nels Cline. He can be seen demonstrating and explaining every main effect applied to the electric guitar on The Art of the Stompbox, a DVD produced by the Museum of Making Music.
"Nels Cline." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Web. 8 May. 2011.
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