Picture a guitar hero. What do you see?
Maybe there’s flowing hair shaking before arena-sized crowds, a few technicolor scarves and Eddie Van Halen-esque spotlight posturing. Or maybe it’s a crowd of gone-too-soon ghosts in Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Duane Allman. But what you don’t immediately imagine is a lanky, cerebral and unfailingly humble 58-year-old in Wilco guitarist Nels Cline.
“Nels is like an incredible addition to that lineage of super-creative guitarists,” said drummer Billy Martin of the genre-skipping instrumental trio Medeski Martin & Wood.
Last month, the trio released a bewitching, all-improvised live album with Cline called “The Woodstock Sessions,” one of three recordings the recent Angeleno-turned-New Yorker is issuing this year. On the album, Cline’s shape-shifting guitar squiggles and roars as the foursome shifts from the interstellar interstates of Sun Ra to the groove-heavy fringe of fusion.
“It is [rare] because guitar can become such a cliched instrument,” Martin said. “It’s easy to get into those riffs that many guitarists fall back on without even knowing it. He has a way of just not getting into that cliched world and still has his language and way of expressing himself.”
At a time when the guitar is more marginalized than ever on the pop and the indie rock landscape, Cline is among the few at the vanguard of the instrument. In rock, Jack White, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and maybe Gary Clark Jr. have earned recent notice, but it’s primarily for the familiar paths they recall. You could make a case for Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and his turntable-like excursions, but it’s been years since that sound captured the imagination.
Jazz boasts a wealth of fleet-fingered virtuosos in beloved players like Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin, but Cline reaches beyond technical mastery into something more raw and expressive. His sound has more in common with the Americana-dusted ventures of Bill Frisell or the slippery tone of relative newcomer Mary Halvorson.
Whether Cline is convulsing through a solo that flirts with the edge of chaos alongside Wilco or his own expressive projects, including his all-instrumental trio the Nels Cline Singers, his relentlessly exploratory approach has become something of a signature at a time when many guitarists sound interchangeable.
Part of what makes Cline unique is an expansive view of his instrument. Along with electronic pedals that can loop, warp and otherwise mangle his sound, his toolbox includes more low-fi approaches, such as coiled springs, a chopstick and the occasional children’s toy.
“Utilizing these things, it’s just something ... I seem to have some ability to do,” said Cline. “I don’t think it was ever a design, it’s just something that seems to work. In some ways, I am trying to expand the expressive capabilities of a guitar, but it’s more about that than innovation or novelty.
“I think all I’m doing are just variations on what people have done before me,” Cline demurs. “I just do it my way – I guess I have to, I’m me.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Cline and his twin brother, Alex, fell under the spell of the West Coast jazz scene of the 1960s and ’70s at clubs such as Shelly Manne’s Manne-Hole in Hollywood and the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach. Alex gravitated toward the drums while Cline studied guitar, absorbing the influence of psychedelic-era standouts such as Hendrix and Robert Fripp.
In addition to teaming with Alex in the ’70s in the group Quartet Music, Cline performed with jazz luminaries that included Charlie Haden and Julius Hemphill. Over time, Cline became a leading light on the Los Angeles experimental music scene while exploring the more feral edges of noise-rock with the likes of Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore.
Cline’s career nourished a cultish if financially unsustainable following until Jeff Tweedy approached him about joining Wilco in 2004. Now in its 10th year, that partnership helped forge a reality Cline said he never expected.
“Nels has obviously this great ability to shred, but he has a remarkable ability to color, to shade,” Tweedy told the Los Angeles Times before the release of Wilco’s 2011 album, “The Whole Love.” “I know people don’t hear that as much, especially because a lot of time what Nels is doing doesn’t sound like a guitar. But that’s got to be one of the things that keeps him satisfied.”