Captain Beefheart’s “Ten Commandments for Guitar Playing”

By on May 31, 2015

Have a look at this promo video for Captain Beefheart’s “Ice Cream for Crow,” which was shot on location in the Mojave Desert near Lancaster, California on August 7, 1982, and then keep in mind it was later rejected by MTV for being “too weird,” but it is now in the Permanent Film and Video Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

One of the guitarists in the band, Moris Tepper, joined Beefheart’s Magic Band back in 1976, and stayed with the band until Beefheart retired, in 1982. At some point, most likely near the beginning of his employ, Beefheart had given him his personal “Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing”:

1. Listen to the birds.

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar.

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush.

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil.

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out.

If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

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Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, with the guitarist Jeff Moris Tepper in 1980. Photo by Ebet Roberts.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone.

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key.

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument.

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place.

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine.

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow

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This is the promo photo from the “Ice Cream For Crow” video shoot, August 7, 1982, by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. It was directed by Don Van Vliet (with much uncredited assistance from producer Ken Schreiber), with cinematography by Daniel Pearl (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The video was still a pretty uncommon promotional tool at the time, but Van Vliet did not want to do a promotional tour, so agreeing to make the video left him free to do what he really wanted to do at the time, which was painting.

The Magic Band playing on this track was:
Don Van Vliet: (1st overdub) vocals, harmonica (2nd overdub) harmonica
Jeff Moris Tepper: guitar and slide guitar (left channel)
Gary Lucas: guitar and slide guitar (right channel)
Richard Midnight Hatsize Snyder: bass
Cliff R. Martinez: Drums, shake bouquet

After the release of the album Ice Cream For Crow, Van Vliet abandoned making music and focused on his art, and by 1985, his work was being shown in the most prestigious galleries of Soho. He also published a book of poetry and drawings.

This is a reproduction of an original painting done by artist Kylie Harris, inspired by Beefheart’s “10 Commandments.” It is a one of a kind. You are looking at a matted print that will measure 28″x 17″. Go here for more details.

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About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.
  • abraba

    The “rules” are humorous and poetic, but the fact is that Van Vliet couldn’t even play the guitar, and he disrespected many of the amazingly great guitarists that were in his group over the years, withholding earnings from them and impugning their abilities when they left his band after being mistreated. Despite the amazing musical work he left behind, he was probably better off quitting and doing solitary painting because he sure couldn’t work with other musicians without being a manipulative dictator.