In covering the half-century long career of Contemporary Christian music (CCM) pioneer and acclaimed guitar virtuoso Phil Keaggy, Parts One through Four of this series focused on his huge catalog of solo work and his power trio, Glass Harp, from the late 1960s to the present. This final installment will feature his collaborations with other artists, and an assessment of the regard in which Keaggy is held by his peers. Additionally, we will have an overview of his versions of cover songs, and the groundbreaking techniques he has developed for playing the guitar, which have spawned countless emulators.
The More the Merrier
Phil Keaggy has enjoyed collaborating with others from very early on in his solo career to the present day. Over the span of 50-plus years, he has amassed a significant catalog of collaborative recordings that differ from his solo work, in that Keaggy’s massive talent allows him to modify his guitar playing to suit different musical genres and artists, while challenging his compositional and songwriting skills.
One of his earliest collaborative releases is 1977’s How The West Was Won (Live). As guest lead guitarist for A Band Called David, Phil Keaggy and the band played a supporting role behind Christian singing trio 2nd Chapter of Acts for a triple-live LP release. The record’s highlight is Keaggy’s solo spotlight section, with multiple harmonies supplied by 2nd Chapter of Acts on such favorite Keaggy gems as “Time,” “Your Love Broke Through,” “What a Day,” and others.
Keaggy offers fierce clean guitar solo lines, volume swells and faux violin bowing, and his use of an envelope filter (an effects unit that emulates a wah wah pedal), channels Jerry Garcia’s Grateful Dead tones. When he switches to his distorted rock mode, he cuts loose with Allman Brothers-type call and response solo exchanges with keyboardist Richard Souther (on “Rejoice”), simultaneous scat singing guitar lines à-la George Benson, and wailing wah-wah solos reminiscent of Eric Clapton, especially on this tour-de-force version of “Time.”
In an interview republished on 2nd Chapter of Acts website, Keaggy explained the wildly enthusiastic response to “Time” on the live album:
“I think about the audiences that were going to Christian concerts in the ’70s; many of them very conservative, many of them coming to concerts having never been exposed to rock, [and they] must have had the thought, “how can I really enjoy this and the Lord? Do I have the freedom to really listen to this and support this sort of thing?
But I think what happened is because they saw we were all so very sincere about our faith in sharing our love for Jesus that it kind of softened, took the edge off of what was rock and roll, you know. Because face it, “Hey Whatcha Say,” “Time,” “Just the Same” and some of these other songs were really kicking tunes. I think it was all balanced out, because [of] the context of the whole show, which was really a ministry, not just a show; it was really a giving out of our hearts and souls to people. It was a very special time.”
These comments also give a 1970s-era perspective on just how groundbreaking an artist Keaggy was at the time in bringing rock music (with all of its sex and drugs baggage as perpetuated by peers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones) to traditional and hymn-based Christian audiences who would be resistant to such a connotation, while at the time still trying to reconcile the wafer-thin demarcation line between gospel and R&B. Keaggy’s songs were not the folky, hippie-influenced “Jesus Music” of the late 1960s, although a handful of songs like “What A Day” contained some of those elements. The contrast between the show tune and Southern gospel-influenced vocals of 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Keaggy’s hard rock with jazz fusion and McCartney-esque singing, is indicative of how iconoclastic Keaggy was during that time.
Within the CCM arena, Keaggy has recorded several records with longtime friend Randy Stonehill, Illuminations with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul, ambient music with Tony Gerber, several instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, garage rock with Keaggy, Blazier & Lunn, acoustic guitar duets with Christie Lenee, recordings with songwriter Katie Peltier, and dozens of others. Some of the standouts are as follows:
While Stonehill was a co-author of Keaggy’s 1976 “Your Love Broke Through” single, he and Keaggy first collaborated directly in 1984, writing and performing “Who Will Save The Children?” together for Stonehill’s, Celebrate This Heartbeat album. They would tour together in 1989 as The Keaggy/Stonehill Band and Stonehill also returned the favor by co-writing and singing on the title track of Keaggy’s 1988 breakout album, Sunday’s Child.
Keaggy would again contribute to Stonehill’s recordings, appearing on his Edge of the World (2002). A 2005 live concert album, Together Live! featured Keaggy and Stonehill playing acoustic guitars, with Keaggy utilizing some of his unparalleled looping techniques to flesh out the sparse instrumentation. Keaggy performs extended versions of “The True Believers” and “Salvation Army Band,” and the two join together on “Sunday’s Child” and duet on “Who Will Save the Children,” which has since become the theme song for the children’s relief ministry Compassion International.
In 2009, they collaborated together on an entire studio album, Mystery Highway. With Stonehill’s Elvis-tinged rock and roll and Beatles-pop roots, Keaggy’s bluesy rock side comes out with joyful abandon on songs like “Rockin’ In a Hard Place” and “Picture Postcard Perfect Day,” plus an updated reprise of “Sunday’s Child.”
Stonehill’s hilarious rap song “Rockman,” the ZZ-Top influenced “Irresistible Future,” and the Albert King-meets-Cream tribute, “Dreamspeak,” also highlight Mystery Highway. A reformed Keaggy-Stonehill Band featuring Glass Harp’s John Sferra and Dan Pecchio would subsequently tour to promote the record.
Phil Keaggy’s influence on the next wave of Contemporary Christian music artists cannot be understated. In a comparable way to when B.B. King or Muddy Waters collaborated with Eric Clapton or Johnny Winter, the musical bond transcends generations. His collaboration with Out of The Grey’s guitar texturalist Scott Dente and singer-songwriter Wes King on Invention (1997) was well received and critically acclaimed among CCM reviewers. Containing mostly a mix of instrumentals like “53 Days In June” and “Budapest Control,” as well as three-part harmonies evoking the Byrds on “Watch My Back,” and a revamped “River of Life,” Invention draws on musical and percussion themes running from Middle Eastern to the Ventures, and complex acoustic textures from Keaggy’s Beyond Nature and Acoustic Sketches oeuvre, with electric guitar solos layered on top.
In terms of instrumental guitar prowess and staying power among Keaggy’s peers in CCM, Rex Paul Schnelle is perhaps his only rival. An accomplished songwriter and highly skilled musician with 3,000 recording credits to his name with producer Dann Huff, guitar legend Eric Johnson and others, Rex Paul’s combination of chops, singing and Nashville production sheen made their 2019 duo album Illumination an eagerly anticipated event.
Illumination was produced by Rex Paul as a collaborative vehicle for writing new songs, as well as an opportunity to trade blistering guitar solos on re-recordings of classic Keaggy material. In their interview with Worship Musician magazine, Keaggy commented about Rex Paul’s songs:
“I’m honored he [Rex] asked me to sing many of them and add my lyrical contribution. The back-and-forth guitar solos we shared and the new songs he brought to the table sparked the idea to revisit a few of my old songs.”
The Respect of His Peers
Keaggy’s guitar prowess has long been held in high regard by both his sacred and secular music peers, and he has actually done a considerable amount of secular collaboration and session work in addition to his own prolific output.
Muriel Anderson is an internationally acclaimed fingerpicking and classical acoustic guitarist, lauded by Chet Atkins and others for her skills. Jazz guitar tapping stylist Stanley Jordan, whose pianistic approach to jazz guitar playing uses two-handed tapping on the fretboard, has forged a formidable reputation in music circles. (Although it had been done before by Jordan and others, Eddie Van Halen’s heavy metal version of tapping popularized the technique.) Anderson and Jordan joined with Phil Keaggy to record a free improvisation record that would become Uncut Gems. The record also included Keaggy’s “Corazon de Fuego,” “Tennessee Morning,” and Anderson’s “Owl Psalm.”
Keaggy recalled the making of Precious Gems (Uncut Gems with added tracks) on his Bandcamp page:
“I believe it was back in 2002; my good friend and guitarist extraordinaire Muriel Anderson let me know that her friend Stanley Jordan was coming to our town and asked if I would like to meet and possibly play and record something together. I said, enthusiastically yes, and we met up at my place, hooked up mics and DIs [DI stands for direct input, a means of running an instrument directly into a PA, mixing console or computer interface – Ed.] for guitars and proceeded to create right on the spot.
I’ve never heard or seen a talent quite like Stanley! Just to watch and listen to his style is beyond description. His fingers literally dance upon the fretboard and he has a musical vocabulary that is full of depth and dedication!
I was still using ADAT machines at the time. All went down very nicely! We had good musical conversation with our guitars and our styles were quite complementary one to the other. Some of the tunes wound up on a project called ‘Uncut Gems.’
Years went by and as I was reflecting on those days, I revisited the recording tracks we did and was delighted to hear us playing together again, as it were!
With Muriel’s beautiful classical and fingerstyle and Stanley’s unique gift, I’m excited to finally release these moments of inspiration for you to hear, along with some bonus tracks as well.
The Bucket List, a 2019 release featuring Keaggy on guitar, Tony Levin on bass and Jerry Marotta on drums, is power trio prog rock hearkening back to Keaggy’s Glass Harp days, but with a greater sense of mutual admiration, akin to when Duane Allman joined Eric Clapton and his Derek and the Dominos band for the Layla album sessions. The range of material is broad, and also includes acoustic jams like “Stella Luna,” slide/ambient mellow grooves on “Blue Hawaii,” and jazz rock with “Midland Crisis.”
While Keaggy has contributed to the records of fellow Christian rockers Rick Derringer, Mark Farner (ex-Grand Funk Railroad), and Greg Martin (ex-Kentucky Headhunters), one of his more surprising guest appearances was on the Remember album by The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz.
Keaggy has cited his solo on the Harry Nilsson penned title track “Remember” as among his personal favorites. Keaggy also played electric, acoustic and classical guitar on the record, as well as Ebow [a hand-held sustaining device for electric guitar – Ed.], and even arranged some of the other album songs.
Fellow Midwestern guitar idol Ted Nugent is another Keaggy admirer and was once quoted as saying he thought that Keaggy “could have saved the world with his guitar.”
While Keaggy’s vast catalog of songs has been devoted primarily to original praise and worship music, he has recorded and released secular cover songs over the years, such as Paul McCartney’s, “Motor of Love” and Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” Performing as a solo acoustic artist prompted him to release Acoustic Cafe, which included versions of the Everly Bros.’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and fan favorite “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles. Perhaps one of the more underrated renditions was his version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
While he is a devastatingly facile electric guitarist, one of the reasons Phil Keaggy inspires such awe among guitarists from all music genres is because of his pioneering of new techniques in playing the acoustic guitar, particularly in the use of capos and looper pedals [a device that records and plays back loops of phrases that are played into it – Ed.].
A capo is a clamp that goes around the neck of a guitar and can be moved up and down the frets. A bar goes across the strings. This raises the pitch of the open strings so that the guitar can be played in a higher key while retaining the chord shapes and fingerings of a guitar played without a capo. This is especially helpful when a song requires the “ringing” sound of open strings, which would be impossible to play in certain keys without the use of a capo.
Phil Keaggy was the first guitarist to popularize the use of partial and multiple capos (partial capos only go across certain strings, not all of them) to effectively place the guitar into open tunings previously impossible with a single capo, thus allowing him to finger and voice ordinarily physically impossible chords and textures.
Originally credited to King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, the use of live analog tape loops (dubbed “Frippertronics”) for guitar self-accompaniment has come a long way since Fripp’s 1973 No Pussyfooting record with Brian Eno. Thanks to digital technology, looping can now be had in the form of a digital looper pedal.
Artists such as Ed Sheeran, Beck and KT Tunstall, among others, have popularized the use of looper pedals. However, Phil Keaggy was the first to utilize early looping pedals in performance, decades before their current popularity, and took the techniques of looping to such a level of sophistication that he is in demand to teach them at music workshops and seminars. He is largely responsible for putting the DigiTech JamMan pedal, one of the first available commercial units, on the map.
From an interview in Crosswalk.com in 1999:
“Chet Atkins introduced me to the JamMan, and he said, “Phil, it looks like this thing was made just for you.” It really improved my sense of rhythm. So there you have it. It’s a fairly simple setup. I can carry the JamMan and the compressor [effects unit] right on the plane. I check my Olson [guitar] in a Calton case, and I’m having special cases made for my Langejans [guitars] as well.”
2011’s Live From Kegworth Studios is an excellent showcase for the live concert experience of Keaggy’s solo acoustic looping expertise. It demonstrates the breadth and depth of how far the pedal can be used in a live context to create music on the fly, and was recorded at Keaggy’s home studio without overdubs.
For Acoustic Sketches 3, Keaggy mentioned that it was recorded using a Pigtronix Infinity looper. This split-screen video shows how Keaggy uses the looper to layer complex musical passages while adding more on top to create a guitar orchestral arrangement.
Well into his 70s, Phil Keaggy shows little sign of slowing down and continues to turn out gorgeous electric and acoustic guitar records. He is also rumored to be working on new tracks with Christian metal band P.O.D. Due to space considerations, this article series, though extensive, has omitted mention of roughly 30 percent of Keaggy’s catalog. At the current rate, I might have to do a Part Six before the next presidential election!
Header image from philkeaggy.com, photo by Randi Anglin.