The New York Times’ obituary for rockabilly singer Hasil Adkins (who passed away on August 26, 2005), included a paragraph that sounded rather familiar:
Starting in the mid-50’s, Mr. Adkins recorded hundreds of songs at home in rural West Virginia, accompanying himself on all the instruments. He played as a one-man band because, he later said, as a child he had heard Hank Williams and others on the radio and had assumed that the one named musician in the band played all the instruments himself.
Specifically, it was reminiscent of a story told many times before in varying versions, about some hotshot guitarist who proudly showed off that he’d finally managed to duplicate a tricky guitar riff he’d heard on a record, only to be greeted with laughter as his bandmates informed him that the part he’d mastered was actually recorded using two guitars.
A little searching turned up an example of the legend, this one about former Eagle (and solo artist) Joe Walsh:
He was a devout eclectic, majoring in an odd conglomeration of courses — electronics, music theory and welding — and supplementing his conventional training with intensive, self-imposed extracurricular studies of Beatles songs. He knew them all and became a local legend by performing the dual-guitar harmony riff in “And Your Bird Can Sing” from the Revolver album on a single guitar. Actually, he didn’t realize it wasn’t one guitar and found a way to “make it work” — a typical Joe Walsh philosophy in music and in life.
Another version of this tale is told about legendary jazz guitarist Lenny Breau:
Breau was clearly reinventing jazz guitar — and gaining a reputation among musicians throughout North America. The mythmaking had begun. One of the earliest legends surrounding Breau was that he had recreated Les Paul’s 1952 recording of “Tiger Rag” without realizing that Paul achieved his multi-layered sound through early experiments with overdubbing multiple guitar tracks. The self-effacing Breau later discounted the story, saying he knew Paul had overdubbed the parts — as if that diminished the fact he’d still managed to single-handedly duplicate the sound of several guitars.
A reverse version of this legend comes from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who described his thoughts when bandmate Brian Jones introduced him to records featuring blues artist extraordinaire Robert Johnson:
“He put it on, and it was just — you know — outstanding stuff. When I first heard it, I said to Brian, Who’s that?’ ‘Robert Johnson.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?’ Because I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.”
A couple of similar tales relate other ways in which musicians uniquely adapted their styles to duplicate sounds produced by means beyond their understanding. The first one has to do with guitarist Robbie Robertson (formerly of The Band):
“Listen sometime to the sliding technique that Robbie uses. I don’t remember where I read this, but in an interview with him I remember him saying that as a kid listening to the late night radio show, he didn’t realize that slide guitar was played with a slide; so he adapted a technique of his own to create that effect of sliding up the string.”
The second tale stars bluegrass mandolinist John Duffey:
[Duffey,] known for his work with the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, was one of many players under the spell of Bill Monroe’s music as a teenager in the 1940s-50s. And, like so many of his contemporaries, he learned a lot about how to play the mandolin from Monroe’s classic 1940s recordings. The thing he found most challenging was how Monroe managed to sing lead and play very elaborate, syncopated, counter-melodies as backup simultaneously, as he’d heard on records like “Sweetheart You’ve Done Me Wrong” and “When You Are Lonely” [not knowing that Lester Flatt was actually singing lead, while Monroe played behind him].
As he told a interviewer Dix Bruce: “We only had 78’s, and they were kind of hard to slow down. I learned a trick off of him that he wasn’t really doing. I didn’t know it was Lester Flatt singing the lead, and I would hear this mandolin playing going on while this guy was singing. I guessed you had to be able to do that. I used to stand in front of a mirror, and look, and sing a song, and make my hands independent of what I was singing. Every once in a while I still do it just for amusement. Bill and I did a workshop together up in Carlisle, Ontario, five or six years ago I guess, and I told him, ‘You know I learned something off of you, and I bet you can’t do it.’ I told him the story of not knowing it was Lester singing. I sang a song and picked along behind, and he just grinned.”
All of these stories, true or not, echo a common theme found in other legends such as “The Unsolvable Math Problem“: that when people are free to pursue goals unfettered by presumed limitations on what they can accomplish, they just may manage some extraordinary feats through the combined application of native talent and hard work.