Singer, songwriter, guitarist
“Michael Hedges is one of the most brilliant VI singer-songwriters I have ever encountered,” declared David Crosby, of Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fame, in the Windham Hill Records Catalog and Occasional. “I haven’t been this excited about an up-and-coming talent since Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. He is also probably the reigning king of the acoustic guitar.” In a profile of Hedges for Frets, Mark Hanson and Phil Hood further defined his impact and standing: “A powerful rhythmic player, with the touch and sensitivity of a classical guitarist, Hedges is causing a major rethinking of the solo steel-string guitar’s capabilities. . . The fact that his first three albums were recorded live’ is a testament to his considerable talents as a composer and an innovator in guitar technique.”
Born on New Year’s Eve, 1953, in Enid, Oklahoma, Hedges began his musical studies very early in life, playing piano at four years old. His influences, however, were far from the traditional classic orientation. As Hedges told Jonathan Rowe of the Christian Science Monitor, “I’m the guy who grew up in the Midwest, and all I knew was pop music.” Inspired by popular music figures such as the Beatles and Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tuli, Hedges followed the piano with studies on the flute, guitar, cello, and clarinet. Musical education in a more formal setting came at Phillips University in Oklahoma, where he studied flute and composition; during summers at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan; and later at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where Hedges initially began studying classical guitar and electronic music. But his interest in steel-string guitar (he played it in bars at night while studying at the conservatory during the day) prevented him from devoting sufficient time to the classical guitar. Hedges subsequently switched majors, earning his degree in composition. He then traveled to California, where he studied at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research and Musical Acoustics.
Leading a double life again—studying during the day and performing in bars and cafes at night—led to his discovery and eventual signing by Windham Hill founder and guitarist William Ackerman. On the videocassette Windham Hill in Concert, Ackerman explained that while seeing Hedges perform at the Varsity Theater in Palo Alto, “Michael did to me what he does to everyone, just sort of tore my head off watching the guitar being reinvented.”
Hedges’s first album on the Windham Hill label, Breakfast in the Field (1981), brought immediate praise from fellow guitarists. Guitar Player contributor Dan Forte quoted guitar great Larry Coryell: “I heard Michael Hedges’s record, and I fell down. Couldn’t believe it.” What Coryell and others were astonished by was Hedges’s playing technique. As Forte described it: “Michael employs full-chord hammer-ons and pull-offs (sometimes using both hands), artificial harmonics, two-hand tapping techniques, and utterly unorthodox tunings.” The resulting sound was both percussive and lyric. Other guitarists, most notably jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, use this technique of tapping the neck of the guitar with both hands, but not to the same compositional end as Hedges. Whereas others might employ the hammer-on technique on one string at a time, producing a straight melody line, Hedges will hammer-on two or three strings, giving a more chordal effect. Kevin Lynch, writing for down beat, defined the difference: “His harmonic sense is more vertical than linear. Hedges considers each string for its sonic possibilities, to be isolated and juxtaposed as an electronic composer might. That means re-tuning strings, introducing new musical relationships.” Hedges explained his approach to Hanson and Hood: “I try to add one note that is a little more colorful. That’s kind of my crusade, I guess. I just want to hear new voicings.”
Aerial Boundaries (1984), Hedges’s follow-up album,
Born December 31, 1953, in Enid, Oklahoma; son of Thayne and Ruth Hedges; married, wife’s name Mindy Rosenfeld Hedges. Education: attended Phillips University, the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, and the Stanford University Center for Computer Research and Musical Acoustics; earned degree in composition, Peabody Institute.
As a member of the Windham Hill fraternity, has appeared in concert as a solo act and with other members, such as Liz Story, Will Ackerman, and Montreux. Has toured on a shared billing with Leo Kottke and opened for Suzanne Vega.
Awards: Grammy Award nomination for Aerial Boundaries (1984), for best engineered recording—non-classical.
Addresses: Record Company —Windham Hill Records, P.O. Box 9388, Stanford, CA 94305.
introduced not only new techniques and voicings but an entire package that Forte labeled “a landmark acoustic guitar effort.” According to Rowe, the ethereal title cut “has become a Hedges standard, like Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ Snippets appear as filler on National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered,’ and on TV ads.” One track from the album that has attracted considerable attention is “Spare Change.” Originally recorded with pianist Liz Story and bassist Michael Manring for An Evening with Windham Hill Live, Hedges this time constructed the entire piece note by note using tape techniques. Michael Tucker, of Jazz Journal International, called the piece “an uncommonly moving experience” with its “processed, eerie rifts and tempo changes.”
Hedges was unable to maintain such commercial and critical success with his third album and vocal debut, Watching My Life Go By (1985), which also featured him on flute, synthesizer, and acoustic and electric basses. Even with the aid of acclaimed jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who gave Hedges vocal lessons and provided his trademark chants on one track, the album was not received well. While one reviewer for Variety called Hedges’s lyrics “flaccid,” others, such as Rowe, saw positive signs: “His singing does not equal his guitar work, especially when he’s in his jazzy Joni Mitchell mode,” but “what he lacks in vocal ability, he makes up in sheer sincerity and conviction.” And on his live release, Live on the Double Planet (1987), Rowe believed Hedges captured “his urgency much better than the earlier release.” Other projects by Hedges include the original musical score for the popular television special “Santabear’s First Christmas” and the solo composition “Because It’s There” for the sound track of a Japanese production on the life of explorer and mountain climber Naomi Uemura. Employing his classical training, Hedges transcribed, arranged, and performed J. S. Bach’s “Prelude to Cello Suite #1 in G Major” on harp guitar (a rare, hybrid instrument with six guitar strings on a bottom neck and five bass strings on a top) for inclusion on the Windham Hill artists’ compilation A Winter’s Solstice II. And on David Crosby’s 1989 release, Oh Yes I Can, Hedges arranged and played guitar on one cut, and played guitar and provided background vocals on another.
Even though Hedges’s vocal outings have garnered mixed reviews, his guitar technique, compositional abilities, and concert performances continue to impress and amaze. A concert reviewer for Variety admitted that “Hedges’s acoustic instrumentais are taking modality into ranges that, when successful, represent abstract impressionism in the aural realm.” And Lynch, upon seeing Hedges perform, defined the duality that has marked Hedges’s life since his academic years: “Inside him a rock and roller wrestled with a conservatory-trained musician—and out came strong, innovative music.”
Breakfast in the Field, Windham Hill, 1981.
Aerial Boundaries, Windham Hill, 1984.
Watching My Life Go By, Open Air, 1985.
Santabear’s First Christmas, Windham Hill, 1986.
Live on the Double Planet, Windham Hill, 1987.
Also provided compositions and performances for the following Windham Hill releases: “Spare Change” (accompanied by Liz Story and Michael Manring) for An Evening with Windham Hill Live, 1983; “Because It’s There,” “Aurora/Nevermore” (introduction by Philip Aaberg), and “Requiem for a Mountain Climber” (by Philip Aaberg, with Michael Hedges and William Ackerman) for The Shape of the Land, 1986; “Prelude to Cello Suite #1 in G Major” (by J. S. Bach, arranged by Michael Hedges) for A Winter’s Solstice II, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 1987.
down beat, November 1985.
Frets, November 1986.
Guitar Player, February 1985.
Jazz Journal International, October 1986.
Variety, February 17, 1988.
Windham Hill Records Catalog and Occasional, summer 1989.
Windham Hill in Concert, production of Windham Hill Productions, Inc. and Laserdisc Corporation, 1986.
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