Depending on your age and interests, you probably have a different idea of what that means. If you’re a baby boomer, maybe you think Jimmy Page is it. If you’re younger, maybe it’s Buckethead or Slash. If you’re 18 and just discovering alternative rock, maybe it’s Thurston Moore. The term’s so fluid it can be applied to anyone.
So trust me when I tell you Sonny Sharrock is a guitar hero.
Maybe the name rings a bell, but probably not. After all, Sharrock’s been dead now for nearly 20 years. And even in his lifetime, he wasn’t very prolific, recording a little over a dozen albums under his own name. He’s probably best known for the free jazz group Last Exit, who recorded some of the loudest, most uncompromising jazz of the past 40 years (for example: this live performance of Destination Out). It’s admittedly a lot for almost anyone to take in.
But as a solo act, Sharrock’s music was usually more straightforward, more footed in the traditional sounds of jazz and blues, albeit one who shreds like a demon, playing his Les Paul like a man possessed. Sharrock once said he considered himself a saxophone player who played a guitar. It’s an unique approach and you can hear the influence of reed players like John Coltrane in his frenzied, frantic style of soloing. Small wonder he influenced noisemakers like the previously mentioned Moore and his band Sonic Youth, (who once recorded a tribute to Sharrock).
Still interested? Good because I’ve got a great introduction to Sharrock’s music for you: his soundtrack to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, a long out of print and highly overlooked gem, bursting with fantastic playing.
It’s a short EP, a hair over 15 minutes long and lasting all of six songs. Less than that, actually: couple of them are different variations of the same theme. But even in this compact set, it’s a one of the wildest guitar albums in my music collection. These songs have the feeling of a loose jam session and Sharrock’s soloing is as ragged as it is frantic. They’re also an easy way to get a taste for his style of playing.
It opens with “Hit Single”, the one-time theme song to Space Ghost. Over a simple blues progression, Sharrock bangs out a spacey-sounding lead way up in the neck of his guitar, repeating a simple riff to keep the entire thing grounded. The same chord progression is repeated on Cinnamon Ghost, but after some riffing, Sharrock goes wild, slipping and sliding up and down his Les Paul. His guitar squeals, squawks and is likely pushing his overdriven amp to its breaking point. This is a great example of his improvisational style: no two performances of Sharrock’s playing were the same.
Next is the free jazz-inspired “Out to Launch”, four improvised minutes of cacophonic guitar shredding and pounding drumming. The shorter “Fear of a Ghost Planet ‘s” is also up the same alley, as is “Rocket #99”, where Sharrock’s all but rips the humbuckers out of his guitar, lurching wildly back and forth at a blistering pace. He’s well matched here by the late drummer Lance Carter, who doesn’t just keep up with him but pushes his solos along in these improvised tracks.
Finally, there’s “Ghost Planet National Anthem”, probably the most structured thing here. For once, his playing actually sounds like something familiar: over Carter’s pounding drumming, Sharrock twists and turns before the two of them settle on a riff, with vocalist Alfreda Gerald moaning in the background. This is the one I remember Space Ghost playing when they did a tribute to Sharrock shortly after his death.
If you want a hard copy of this, good luck. It’s completely out of print and has been for years. It was a small-run CD, not even released on a proper label and, I assume, was used for promotional purposes. Now that Adult Swim has a music section, hopefully it’ll see a reissue. But until then, your best bet is to listen to it online. One easy way comes via the kind soul who uploaded the whole album to YouTube a while back.
If you’re into free jazz, experimental music, or hearing the outer limits of guitar playing, this album is a must. Same goes if you’ve never heard Sharrock’s playing: there’s nobody quite like him out there. Listen with your headphones on: you’re going to want to play this one loud.