Guitarist Marc Ribot continues to find beauty in the struggle

The influential and prolific musician will perform a solo concert at Mershon Auditorium at the Wexner Center on Sunday, Nov. 14

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Marc Ribot

In Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist, a collection of essays by Marc Ribot, released in August, the musician describes his relationship with the guitar as one of continuous struggle, writing, “I’m constantly forcing it to be something else: a saxophone, a scream, a cart rolling down a hill….”

Ribot said this struggle begins “in a very literal sense” with his physical approach to the instrument. 

“A lot of guitarists use thin strings that are very easy to bend, and have the guitar set up with the action as easy as possible, as low as possible, so that it’s easier to play the notes and bend them,” Ribot said by phone in early November. “And I’m not saying I have ridiculously high action or extremely heavy strings, but I tend to ask my guitar tech, who sets up my guitars for me, to have the action at a certain point where it’s not too easy. And I also like playing with strings that are heavier than what a rock guitarist would normally play, which makes me sound inept, in a way, but it also makes me sound more like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other guitarists I love, who were playing before Super Slinky strings were on the market.”

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For more than four decades, Ribot has embraced this musical struggle, carving out a remarkable solo career that includes more than 25 albums and ranges from Hope, the fiery July release from his avant-garde power trio Ceramic Dog, to more haunting efforts such as Silent Movies, from 2010, on which the guitarist composed scores for films both real and imagined. Along the way, Ribot also helped shape the sound on a slew of classic Tom Waits records, including Rain Dogs, from 1985, and 2004 long-player Real Gone, whose defining track, “Hoist that Rag,” centers the guitarist’s Latin-tinged playing, while simultaneously emerging as the go-to musical support for a host of similarly minded sonic explorers, including Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop and more.

In the course of these musical adventures, Ribot, who visits Mershon Auditorium at the Wexner Center for a concert on Sunday, Nov. 14, said he gradually stumbled into his voice as a guitarist, which he described as a product of his shortcomings rather than a collection of his attributes.

“I think voice is important, but I also think voice is what results in spite of myself,” Ribot said. “In other words, what a lot of people are calling my voice, because I sound a similar way across different records ... is really my limitations and my laziness. In my ideal world, if I work with another artist or singer, I don’t want to have a voice. I want the song to have a voice. And sometimes that can mean playing total distortion. Sometimes it can mean playing a banjo. Sometimes it can mean playing with tons of reverb. Sometimes it can mean playing dry as a bone. … My intent is to make compositions work. That’s all.”

Ribot said he has increasingly embraced this sense of creative freedom over time, with the musician noting that “the only advantage of being old” is the loss of fear that comes from having lived a life filled with mistakes. “So now,” he said, “I can relax."

Ribot’s music, conversely, remains as restless as ever, his latest release with Ceramic Dog, given the aspirational title Hope, both reflecting and commenting on the political and social upheaval of the last two years. Originally, the guitarist named the record Better Luck Next Time, a title that casts the album cover art — a drawing of planet Earth viewed from a great distance, nearly consumed by the vast darkness of the surrounding galaxy — in a much more negative light, making a last-minute adjustment after voters booted Donald Trump from office and the potential of a vaccine emerged, signaling a possible end to the coronavirus pandemic. "I guess I didn't want to bum people out more than everybody already was," Ribot said, and laughed.

While Hope is, at times, an angry record (witness the sharply acidic “The Activist”), it’s also an overwhelmingly joyful experience, reflecting the sense of exuberance Ribot felt at once again being able to exist in a space with bandmates Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily following the long, creatively dry months lived in isolation.

“I imagine some people answer the question of how they spent the time [in isolation] by saying, ‘Oh, it was actually great. With all of my time alone I got to finish my symphony, and I wrote three novels, and I practiced all day and now I’m a better guitarist than I ever was,’ and I decided pretty early on in this thing that when I met people like that I was going to stab them instantly in the eye, and I suggest everybody else do the same,” Ribot said. “I was out of work most of that time, and I’m getting back to it now, but musicians were more than 60 percent unemployed, which is more than twice the rate of the Great Depression. So there are many layers of trauma to this thing that will be many years unfolding, if we ever get to a position of security enough to allow healing to take place. It’s terrible to be shut down like that. It’s not a vacation, having everything canceled and not knowing what to do about it. So, yeah, I survived it and eventually managed to get some stuff done, but mostly I hid behind that couch and tried not to cry, just like everyone else.”

Gradually, however, Ribot has emerged from this pandemic-driven downturn, returning to an instrument that continues to find ways to surprise him many decades after he first picked it up. Most recently, while visiting a remote pecan farm where he worked on recording sessions with an unnamed musician — “I don’t think the artist wants to publicize they were recording because it was a little bit behind the record company’s back,” Ribot said — the guitarist said he was pleasantly caught off-guard by the tone he uncovered in pairing a 1961 Gibson with a particular 1958 amplifier he'd long associated with musician Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a combination which has left him feeling energized for weeks.

“I’ve been looking for this funky sound that I always identified with Telecasters and Fender guitars, and here it was in a Gibson,” said Ribot, who described the discovery as one that has now positioned him “on the edge of a big change." "My first real guitar was a Gibson Melody Maker, so there was also an element of psychological regression, in a way, which can be fun. The reasons why you might want to regress might not be fun, but regressing itself can be."