Don Van Vliet, better known as singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and all-round guitar impresario Captain Beefheart, is widely credited for having a major influence on the genres of punk, new wave and experimental rock. His no-holds-barred approach made him one of the iconic men of rock and his performance, eccentric and intrinsic as it was, became the stuff of legend. It gave him more license than most to dictate the importance of the guitar to us all.
Blending an uncompromising mixture of searing blues, free jazz and riotous rock riffs in his own avant-garde style, Beefheart’s wide vocal range and downright absurd vocal performances made him the type of musician that Tom Waits, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, The Clash and more have all studied and admired through the years of their musical creation. He is a foundational stone in the genre and one whose opinion should be listened to at all times. When he’s talking about playing guitar — something he changed forever — his words are as solid as gold.
Beefheart is almost as well known for being far too often overlooked as an influential figure as he is his songs and performances. At least when you ask some of the music industry’s biggest voices, they’ll all credit the Captain’s inspiration to their own music. John Peel once said: “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it’s Beefheart… I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I’ll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week.”
Beefheart was described as an “iconic counterculture hero” who, armed with his Magic Band, ripped up the rulebook of music and did things their own way, at their own speed and with their own style. “A psychedelic shaman who frequently bullied his musicians and sometimes alarmed his fans, Don somehow remained one of rock’s great innocents,” Peel would further say of the mercurial musical madman.
While Beefheart would never claim commercial or mainstream success, his legacy on alternative music continues to establish itself in the root of all old and new. His iconic albums such as Trout Mask Replica will, as Peel points out, forever inspire those who are looking to forge a career on the outskirts of the musical norms.
Given his avant-garde style and cult following, Beefheart would attract musicians from around the world who were looking to learn from his stance. When Moris Tepper was accepted by the man himself to join his Magic Band in 1976, Beefheart issues a list of instructions or ‘commandments’ as guidance.
As the working guidelines for joining his band, the below should be taken with the utmost seriousness then chewed up and spat out, just as he would have wanted.
Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar:
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 bringing 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.”