Vintage Guitar - September 2018 - Open - 105

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Country Joe and the Fish, featuring Barry Melton (far left) and David Cohen (second from left)

GONE FISHIN'
By Dan Forte

Photo by Paul Kagan, courtesy of Country Joe and the Fish.

I

t's ironic that Country Joe and the Fish are
probably best known for their "Give me an
F" cheer. Truth is, they were one of the most
ambitious, adventurous, and political bands of
the psychedelic '60s.
As illustrated by their first two Vanguard
albums, reissued in the deluxe vinyl box Wave
Of Electrical Sound, they could straddle R&B,
like "Love," and the aural equivalent of an acid
trip in "Bass Strings."
To commemorate this criminally underrated
band, I interviewed lead guitarist Barry Melton
and guitarist/keyboardist David Bennett Cohen (who uses his full name to avoid confusion
with L.A. session player David Cohen).
Who were your early guitar influences?

Melton: I grew up in Brooklyn and started
guitar at five. My first teacher was Charles
D'Aleo, a classical violinist in his 70s or 80s
in the early '50s. My training was musical
theory and how to sight-read. He taught
me classical intonation on the guitar, and I
incorporated that sensibility into my playing. My parents moved to Los Angeles in 1955,
when I was eight. My second and last teacher
was Milton Norman, a session guitarist who
played with Kay Kyser's big band. Milton
taught me about chords.

Cohen: I took piano lessons from age
seven to 12. I really didn't like it, and
when I discovered the guitar at 13, it was a
love affair. My guitar influences were Doc
Watson, Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary
Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Mrs. Etta
Baker, and many others. Then there were
my contemporaries like Paul Prestopino,
Dave Van Ronk, Danny Kalb, and Roy
Berkeley. I learned how to tune a guitar
from Tom Paley.
A lot of San Francisco psychedelic
figures, like Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry
Garcia, were electrified folkies.

Melton: I played folk music in the late
'50s and early '60s because it was the thing
to do, but I had a history with the guitar
that preceded that. My parents were kind
of far-left, politically, and they had tons of
musical friends. I remember Paul Robeson
as a family friend from childhood in New
York, and Wally Hille, who edited The
People's Song Book, was a musical presence
in Los Angeles. Woody Guthrie had been a
neighbor in Brooklyn, and when he moved
to L.A. toward the end of his life, my dad
had contact with him. And during the folkfestival era, I followed old bluesmen and
songsters around, like Mance Lipscomb,

September 2018

105

VINTAGE GUITAR

Bukka White, Jesse Fuller, and Reverend
Gary Davis. So, in some sense, you could say
I became an electrified folkie.
Cohen: In 1965, a girlfriend took me to see
the Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and
Help! back to back, and they changed my life,
I have to say. Until then, I had disdained rock
and roll and was only playing acoustic folk
music. After that, however, I determined to
go to California and become a rock star. To
this day, friends remind me of my plan. So
yes, I came from folk music and bought an
electric guitar, and that was it. Of course, it
was easy, because it seemed that everyone
in the Bay Area was doing the same. I think
what made the music unique was that there
were others who came from rock and roll
and even some from classical music. We were
making it up as we went. A very exciting and
creative time, indeed!
On "Section 43," were you using Indian
modes and scales, or just improvising according to what suited the song and mood?

Melton: I was using Middle Eastern scales,
although it's not quite possible to approach
the 17-note scale on the guitar as it's presently
configured. I was also quite familiar with
the 22-note Indian scale, which, like the
Middle Eastern scale, is possible to emulate
on our very Western guitar - but not really
possible to play authentically. I first heard Ali
Akbar Khan play at World Pacific Studios
while recording in the early '60s and became
conscious of Ravi Shankar's work around
the same time.
Cohen: As far as mixing scales, none of
us were really sophisticated enough to say
what a Lydian scale was. We just made it up.
What gear did you use on the first two
albums?

Melton: I still play an SG when playing
electrically. The only pedal I used on the
first couple of albums was the tremolo that
came with my Fender Twin Reverb, and some
kind of distortion pedal on "Eastern Jam."
I've never used pedals much because every
device one adds to the circuit increases the
chances of technological failure.
Cohen: My guitar all through that time
was a beautiful blond Gibson ES-345, usually played through a Fender Twin Reverb
- always my first choice as long as I didn't
have to carry it (laughs). I have to say that
Country Joe was the only one who used me
properly, letting me play whatever I thought
was best for the song.
© 2018 Dan Forte; all rights reserved.


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