Guitarist Hedges defied boundaries Appreciation: Peabody-trained musician was at home with Bartok or Young.

December 05, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Michael Hedges was a most unlikely guitar hero.

In an age when popular music is dominated by electric guitar, Hedges preferred the acoustic instrument, staying unplugged for most of his career. Nor did he have the kind of roots expected of a guitar god. A product of the composition program at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, Hedges was more likely to credit Bela Bartok than Jeff Beck as being a central influence on his playing.

And even though he never had the name recognition of an Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, Hedges -- who died at 43 in a car accident over the weekend -- was a giant among guitarists.

"He was a player's player," says Chris Gill, senior editor at Guitar World. "Even though he got lumped in with the Windham Hill new age thing, [Hedges] had an intensity and drive that earned him a lot of respect with rock players. [Guitar virtuoso] Steve Vai is a good example of someone who really looked up to him and viewed him as a peer."

California State Police found Hedges' body in his wrecked 1986 BMW Tuesday morning. Officials said he had been driving on Route 128, about 100 miles northwest of San Francisco, and skidded off the road sometime over the weekend.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., Hedges grew up in Enid, Okla. He studied music at the University of Oklahoma, then attended the Peabody Conservatory, earning a degree in composition in 1980.

Hedges' Peabody pursuits found him studying such modernists as Edgar Varese, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. As a guitarist, though, he grew up a rock-and-roll kid. "I was playing Led Zeppelin and just trying to be as heavy as I could be," he told The Sun in 1988. "Then, when I was in high school, I really got into Crosby, Stills and Nash, and that Joni Mitchell tune-your-guitar-differently [thing]."

By the time he got to the Peabody, his influences had broadened to include jazz musicians, particularly guitarist Pat Metheny and bassist Eberhard Weber. But what Baltimoreans knew him for was playing Neil Young songs at local bars like Buffalo Nickels on Belair Road and the Horse You Came In On in Fells Point.

"I would play four or five Neil Young songs in a row," he remembered. "I had the hair and the flannel shirt to match. I would break into one of my guitar solos and then play a Beatles song. Then I'd go back to school and study 20th-century music during the day. That's what I was doing, pretty much, for four or five years."

Along the way, Hedges developed his unique guitar style. Unlike most guitarists, who fret with the left hand on the guitar neck while strumming or picking the strings with the right, Hedges would often place both hands on the neck, tapping the strings as if he were playing piano.

Later, he expanded his palette with an instrument called the harp guitar, which augmented the guitar's six strings with five bass strings. Add in the percussive techniques he sometimes applied, and Hedges could make a guitar solo sound like an entire combo.

That was why he was so revered by other guitarists, says Gill. "He attacked the acoustic guitar with the panache and flair of a Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen," he says. "He wasn't satisfied to sit within the boundaries that players before him had [established]."

Hedges, however, tended to play down his technique. "Actually, I don't think I'm that much of an innovator," he said in 1988. "I'm just a composer who picked up the guitar and chose not to abide by the hard-and-fast classical rules."

Despite his modesty, Hedges created a sensation when his first album, "Breakfast in the Field," was released in 1981. Although the album had been released on the new age-oriented Windham Hill label, Hedges' playing was so edgy and audacious that even rock musicians sat up and took notice.

Hedges recorded four additional albums for the label: "Aerial Boundaries" (1984), a concert recording called "Live on the Double Planet" (1987), "Taproot" (1990), and "Oracle" (1996). His final recording, a track titled "Java Man," is to be on an anthology titled "The Sounds of Wood and Steel," scheduled for release on Jan. 27.

Even though Hedges hadn't lived in Baltimore since graduating from the Peabody, he had a "fanatic" following here, says Don Wehner of Upfront Productions.

Wehner says part of the appeal was that Hedges was so personable, mixing with the crowd after his shows. "You see this in country music, but you don't often find pop artists meeting people and talking to people and signing autographs," says Wehner.

Hedges' last local appearance was Nov. 22 at the Gordon Center XTC -- the next-to-last show he ever played. "The show at the Gordon Center sold out a week in advance, and I probably could have done double," says Wehner.

Hedges had been married twice and is survived by two sons, Mischa, 11, and Jasper, 13. Unfortunately, says Wehner, "Michael did not have an insurance policy." A fund, "Children of Michael Hedges," has been established; donations may be sent in care of the Bank of America, 228 Main St., Fort Bragg, Calif. 95437.

Hear Hedges

To hear some of Michael Hedges' recordings, call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6168.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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