Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy are gone, but Rochester guitarist Ben Gateno is reviving their music. He’s spent a lot of quality time with the scratchy records that 1920s era guitarists like these left behind.
Gateno has also produced two books of country blues and ragtime instrumental transcriptions and three full-length video lessons to help other musicians learn to play like these lost masters.
“There’s a lot of mystique around the acoustic blues,” says Gateno. “This is old music. Most of the recordings exist only on very scratched 78s. Many of its greatest practitioners died or otherwise disappeared before they could appear on film or make higher-quality recordings.
Gateno says that for anyone interested in this music, it’s important that people are willing to put in the work to decipher how these master musicians played. “It … helps keep the music alive,” he says.
The focus of Gateno’s transcription work is centered around virtuoso guitar instrumentation. Gateno says film of guitarists like Lonnie Johnson, who played those songs, doesn’t exist. “I get a lot of satisfaction from being one of the few people who tried to understand him and show others what it would have looked like when he was doing those numbers.”
The classic rock band Van Halen was Gateno’s entry point into the world of guitar when he was 13 years old. A few years later, he became interested in the classical guitar.
He eventually earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Minnesota State University Mankato and an MFA and PhD in Music Performance from the Eastman School of Music. He later studied music at the Koninklijke Conservatorium in Brussels, Belgium.
Gateno plays electric guitar with the country band Luke Hendrickson & The Crop Circles and also plays solo gigs in the area. He will perform a solo concert for the Rochester Music Guild on Feb. 24 at Zumbro Lutheran Church, 624 Third Ave. SW.
The foray into transcribing the music of 1920s guitarists began when Gateno checked out a book by Stefan Grossman from the Rochester Public Library. “After that, it was just like going deep into any other style of music – reading about it and getting suggestions for other artists, looking at records in the record store, talking to others and going to online forums,” he says.
Grossman, a noted finger guitarist who had been on many recordings with groups such as 1964’s Even Dozen Jug Band, developed a strong devotion to guitar instruction and pooled his educational materials under a company called Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. The workshop included lessons from famous performers such as Chet Atkins.
“I came onto Stephan Grossmann’s radar when I attended a workshop he was giving in Yorkshire, England in 2018,” Gattenot says. “He really liked my game. Then I posted a video of me playing a crazy Lonnie Johnson tune in an acoustic blues band on Facebook and he contacted me.”
Gateno traveled to Los Angeles to create instructional videos for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I love to travel and see new places, and the guitar is a great excuse to go there.”
The process of creating transcriptions and how-to videos is one that Gateno enjoys.
“This is a great opportunity to dive deep into the playing of legendary acoustic blues guitarists,” says Gateno. “It requires a lot of problem solving and creative thinking. It’s also a great excuse to sit for hours with a guitar.
To date, Gateno has published two books of transcripts. The volumes are called “Legendary Finger Guitar Solos” and “Playing with Strings”. The books contain transcriptions of songs such as “You Got to Reap What You Sow” by Tampa Red and “Cherry” by Scrapper Blackwell.
Gateno’s instructional volumes and videos can be found on his website www.bengateno.com. He says he is in the process of creating new transcriptions for future videos.
“Lessons and transcriptions are great, but the most valuable information can be gained by spending quality time listening to the masters,” says Gateno. “Original music is most important.”
Learn more about local guitarist Ben Gateno and his instructional volumes of transcriptions and videos at bengateno.com.
If you’re interested in learning more about how some of the music of 1920s guitarists like Son House and Skip James was rediscovered in the 1960s, Ben Gatteno recommends the documentary Two Trains Runnin’: The Search for America’s Musical Past’. You can find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqhHGFzEgDs.