Michael Kiwanuka

I try not to play fast and loose with the word I’m about to use, but I feel it’s warranted here… the sound of Michael Kiwanuka’s guitar in the video above is perfect.

His voice is silky and wonderful, his dynamics are divine, but the way his acoustic guitar sounds may as well be a template for luthiers, sound engineers and guitarists the world over. It’s the unbroken shell you pocket to memorialize a day at the beach. It’s the drive to work that doesn’t involve a single yellow or red light. It’s Goldilocks‘ third bowl of porridge.

I can’t decide whether it’s fitting or disrespectfully ironic that I’m making this claim about a cover of a song by Jimi Hendrix. On one hand, it makes total sense that the greatest guitar player of all time — the deity that lesser guitar deities worship themselves — would write music that brings out the best in his instrument. But Hendrix is where he is in the holy order because of his electric guitar work. Aside from footage in his eponymous documentary and the beautiful cover art that graces its soundtrack, I never really think about Hendrix holding an acoustic guitar.

With all due respect, I think much of the credit for the perfection seen and heard above should be divvied up between three parties:

  • Martin Guitars — Best I can tell from some dogged interweb research (guitar nerd message boards are not for the faint of heart), Kiwanuka is playing a Martin D-18VS, a model that’s now discontinued. Hard to believe, given how stunning it is, both to look at and to hear. It’s a dreadnought-style guitar, meaning that its body is on the bigger side, which would account for how pleasing and full the low-end notes are, even when Kiwanuka plucks them lightly. While I couldn’t find the D-18VS on Martin’s site, I highly recommend taking a stroll through their “inactive” models gallery. It’s a breathtaking history lesson, with signature guitars designed for/by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Elvis. Really cool.
  • The Blind Club — The people who produced the video work as the music arm of an English production company called Left Eye Blind Productions. They used 3 microphones — one for the guitar, one for the vocals and another for ambient sound — and the results are… well… perfect, in my opinion. You can hear everything well, from whispered lyrics to the tiny, squeaking sound that results from Kiwanuka running his fingers up and down the strings. I also think it’s worth noting that the understated setup and white background cause the guitar to jump out visually. Had my eye not been drawn to Kiwanuka’s Martin, we might not be having this conversation right now.
  • Michael Kiwanuka — From gentle finger-picking to heavier strumming, Kiwanuka uses the entire dynamic range to bring the emotive beauty of Hendrix’s composition to life. His rendition is fairly straightforward — just small flourishes here and there — which I love, because at its heart, “Waterfall” (also known as “May This Be Love”) is an extremely simple song. Hendrix dressed it up considerably, but when stripped down to its skivvies, the verses consist of just two/maybe three simple chords. Someone could theoretically play a passable version of the verses after their first guitar lesson. It’s a neat illustration of how, for truly brilliant people, complexity and simplicity flow through one another in ways that we can’t always see unless we view their works from a different angle.

Hats off to everyone involved. This performance is a gem, and I’ll likely be comparing acoustic guitar sounds to the one in this video for the rest of my life. Watch above or listen below to experience perfection for yourself.

Michael Kiwanuka — “Waterfall” (Jimi Hendrix cover) [Soundcloud/YouTube]

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