The Long Lineage of One-Man Bands

Jaws around the globe hit the floor when Ed Sheeran started playing stadiums as a solo act. Mostly he used just his Martin acoustic with Fishman pickups and his Chewie II Monsta Looper custom pedalboard, which enabled the ginger Godzilla of gadgetry to loop his guitar and voice and to add effects that made him sound more like an orchestra than one bloke with one box.

While Sheeran's achievements have been astounding, and despite whatever legions of his devotees might think, he did not invent the concept of the one-man band. Delving back to the 13th century, there are records of street musicians who simultaneously played a three-holed flute and a drum. By the early 19th century, versatile individuals were knocking up an entertaining racket using fiddles, panpipes, a bass drum, and a tambourine.

A blind London-based street musician, his name lost in the mists of antiquity, told the social researcher Henry Mayhew in 1850 that the unreliability of the members of his first band led him to invent a wheeled cart to which he fixed 14 bells.

"I had hammers fixed on a rail, so as each bell had its particular hammer," he explained. "These hammers were connected with cords to a pedal, acting with a spring to bring itself up. So, by playing the pedals with my feet, I had full command of the bells, and made them accompany the violin, so that I could give any tune almost with the power of a band."

One-man band Fate Norris performing in Dalton, Georgia

American musicians, too, were fascinated by the possibilities of creating machines which could make one man sound like an entire group. Fate Norris of Dalton, Georgia, was described in a 1927 newspaper feature as "the one-man wonder, who plays six individual instruments in an individual band. … Mr. Norris has in his band two guitars, bells, bass fiddle, fiddle, and mouth harp or kazoo."

Norris contrived his magnificent gizmo out of soapboxes, planks, pegs, pedals, strings, and kneepads surmounted by a large cogwheel, at which he sat bowing his fiddle with his kazoo clenched between his teeth.

As the 20th century proceeded, further homemade contraptions such as the fotdella and the piatar or pitarbajo ushered in the extraordinary musicians we now think of as classic one-man bands. Blues singer and songwriter Jesse Fuller, best known for his much loved "San Francisco Blues," tinkered the fotdella together in the early '50s to introduce more variety into his solo performances.

Fuller's fotdella looked like an upright bass with six strings, which were struck by hammers that he operated by using his right foot to manipulate pedals. His left foot, meanwhile, pumped a clattery hi-hat cymbal and, as if this wasn't hard enough while picking his guitar, he also played a harmonica and a kazoo which were strapped round his neck on a wire frame. His ragtime-y bass lines fell somewhat short of virtuosity, but the dexterity required to co-ordinate Fuller's various instruments has rarely been matched before or since.

Jesse Fuller playing guitar, kazoo, harmonica and "fotdella" bass on his "San Francisco Blues"

Country music instrumentalist Joe Barrick, a well-known figure around Oklahoma in the '50s, invented his bizarre piatarbajo, which cannibalised aspects of piano, guitar, bass, and banjo, all mounted in a rack, which he operated with his feet to provide solid rhythmic backing. The 14 footpedals also gave Joe access to a snare drum and a tambourine for additional percussive impact. Meanwhile, he kept his hands busy delivering rudimentary melodies on his double-neck guitar and mandolin, while also singing or playing harmonica.

Joe Barrick playing his "piatarbajo"

Another popular innovation for aspiring one-man bands at this time was to mount a big bass drum on their backs, played by means of beaters attached to their elbows, but the wire-frame harmonica holder was even more widely adopted by '60s folk music stars, from Bob Dylan to Donovan.

Even jazzers, including the blind innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk, explored the possibilities of playing multiple instruments throughout the '60s. Kirk would ascend the stage with three saxophones around his neck (and sometimes a flute or two). He could play a melody line on one sax with a simultaneous accompaniment on another while adding percussion on a cymbal at his feet. He was also known to make use of gongs, alarm clocks, sirens, and lengths of garden hose.

The folk boom led to a new popularity for busking, and the sight of one musician playing guitar and harmonica was fairly common. It was probably inevitable that one of them would hit the big time.

Don Partridge's one-man band setup on his album cover
for I've Got Something For You

The lucky man was Don Partridge who, inspired by Jesse Fuller, started working as a one-man band. He won a contract with Columbia Records in 1968, which resulted in no fewer than three British hit singles. Partridge strummed energetically on a 12-string while banging a big bass drum on his back through cords attached to his feet, embellished with tambourine jangles attached to his elbow, and taking the occasional solo on kazoo or harmonica.

The next step was to use the rapidly advancing technology of the late 20th century to create virtual one-man bands. In 1970, folk singer John Martyn started running his acoustic guitar's pickup through a fuzzbox, a phase shifter, and an Echoplex tape delay to create a multi-layered, looped sound that can now be seen as a predecessor of Ed Sheeran's style. Robert Fripp's Frippertonics analogue delay system, first employed in 1972, enabled him to create multi-layered guitar compositions through an ingenious configuration of looped tape running between a pair of reel-to-reel audio recorders.

From this point, electronics replaced mechanical marvels as the chosen means to create a one-man band. The range of sounds and the number of instruments that could be used by just one player became vastly greater than was hitherto possible, but what was largely lost was the ability to reproduce the results live. The one-man band, for a while, became a studio-bound phenomenon. The zenith of this approach came with the multi-platinum Tubular Bells, in 1973, which used the overdubbing potential of a contemporary recording studio to turn the 19-year-old Mike Oldfield into a veritable guitar orchestra.

I have a fond memory of seeing the German electronic composer Klaus Schulze at his concert in the London Planetarium in 1977, during which he built up sequenced parts on his array of synthesizers—and then walked off the stage leaving the machines to play by themselves. Just a few years later, Thomas Dolby was scoring hit singles by releasing electronic pop songs and promoting them live by playing solo electronic concerts.

Klaus Schulze (Live, 1977)

The leap from Dolby to Ed Sheeran has taken almost 40 years. But in essence there's little difference between them. Dolby was considered avant-garde by pop standards, and the sounds he made were cutting edge at that time. Perhaps Sheeran's greatest achievement has been to humanise the machinery that makes his performances possible, and sell this to an audience who've become increasingly familiar with electronically generated sounds. Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston may have scored a huge hit with "It Takes Two" in 1966, but the simple truth is that, really, it has only ever taken one.

About the Author: Johnny Black is a music journalist and author of over 40 years experience, having written for Q, Mojo, Smash Hits, and many others. He is a former head of press at Polydor Records and the keeper of the vast music dates archive www.musicdayz.com. He lives in Devizes, England.


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