Just as Jimi Hendrix revolutionised the electric guitar via his broad imagination and bold execution, Michael Hedges had a similar impact on acoustic guitarists with his ground-breaking technique, changing how the acoustic guitar is played and perceived by many.
Hedges creatively employed harmonics and picking techniques to create the impression of multiple guitars playing simultaneously, and has influenced many of the “new wave” of percussive acoustic guitarists. Although he reputedly detested being pigeonholed into a genre or style, Hedges was a self-described “violent acoustic” player.
Born in Sacramento, California, in 1953, Hedges was accomplished enough to gain entry into the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland; he also obtained a degree in classical composition after studying classical guitar at Stanford University in the Bay Area. His professional career began while performing in nearby Palo Alto when he was spotted by Windham Hill label founder Will Ackerman, who quickly signed him to a contract; Hedges’ debut LP, Breakfast In The Field, appeared in 1981 and quickly caught on with guitar aficionados.
Some of the pioneering approaches he helped bring to the acoustic guitar in a very modern context was his use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonic slaps, alternate tunings, and the incorporation of percussive elements which would latterly influence many generations of guitar players. Furthermore, Hedges pulled bass lines, lead lines, moving chords and percussion parts simultaneously out of just one guitar (live these were dubbed his “man-band” performances), using a custom-made double neck guitar. As a guitar player, Hedges was a master. Nevertheless, the music he composed was lush, visceral, and deceptively playful (he humorously inserted the lick from the classic Iron Butterfly track ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ into an otherwise straightforward song).
Over the following couple of years, Hedges’ reputation expanded as his two-handed tapping style of soloing became increasingly polished. His second album Aerial Boundaries is considered by many to be his finest as it sonically seems unbelievable that so much glorious music is pouring out of just Hedges and one guitar – his playing on that album is haunting, eloquent, yet delivered with the force of a madman. Although his technique has been analysed by many, it should be noted that his compositional brilliance came to the fore on Aerial Boundaries. Many consider the album, with its inventiveness and hypnotic nature, to be one of the very finest acoustic albums ever made. Despite exploiting electronics in places with Aerial Boundaries, Hedges made it clear that all the sounds originated from the humble acoustic guitar.
Hedges followed Aerial Boundaries with Watching My Life Go By – his first recording to feature himself on vocals as well as guitar duties after two instrumental albums. Hedges as a singer-songwriter was less successful than previous incarnations and Watching My Life Go By was palpably more reserved than his prior output – but Hedges sought to grow as an artist, which is always a risk.
Next up, he released Live On The Double Planet in 1987, featuring a couple of songs performed on the harp guitar, and the album, culled from some choice live shows, only served to highlight the incredible use of Hedges’ right-hand technique, maintaining immaculate timekeeping as sole accompaniment to his strong vocal work and splendid soloing. 1990’s Taproot is another excellent display of both Hedges’ technique and compositional gifts, but Taproot also contains inherent emotional appeal. The record was Hedges’ last for several years, until he came back in 1994 with The Road To Return, where his sound was altered somewhat as his vocals were now ubiquitous and in addition to acoustic guitar, he played flute, drums, synthesizer, harmonica, and electric guitar. Of course, when a musician of such stature steps out of his comfort zone, many hardcore fans feel less than enthusiastic, but Hedges was always pushing his own limits despite his fans’ expectations.
1996’s Oracle proved to be a return to predominantly acoustic-based performances gaining him a posthumous Grammy Award for Best New Age Album in 1998. Sadly, the record was the last to be issued during Hedges’ lifetime. On December 2, 1997, his body was found near the wreckage of his car accident just outside of Mendocino, California. Hedges was just 43 at the time of his death, and during his career he worked with a variety of artists such as Jerry Garcia, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Cure, and Beautiful South. Posthumous releases followed his passing, as Hedges was a prolific musician both live and in the studio.
Ultimately, Hedges exceptional music stands up over time remaining incredibly well-regarded and an inspiration to anyone who picks up an acoustic guitar wishing to challenge the traditional conventions of the instrument.