The minimalism of Sean Angus Watson

Sean Angus Watson is a guitarist who releases his music on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. I just recently discovered him. His songs are dreamy, lush, simple, and intimate. His playing is superb. His guitar tones are eminently listenable—utterly divine.

With regard to classification, I think you might hear the influence of legato jazz and blues guitarists like Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, or Robben Ford. Watson verges at times on neo-soul or "guitar-&-B."

Here is his take on one of my favorite songs, Gymnopédie no. 1, showing Watson's admiration of minimalist Erik Satie:

I want to argue that this is musical minimalism at its finest. Consider first how Watson plays. Clean, not overly distorted or complicated by a number of effects. No warbling, swirling, echoing, oscillating, crunching—none of those things that guitarists love to do to their guitar sounds.

Consider his phrasing: Watson prefers long, legato, almost vocal guitar lines to the sweep-picking or the blues riffing or the detuned chug-chugging you might hear from other popular guitarists. His guitar is a voice. You can almost hear words in the lines that he plays.

Consider Watson's use of a looped rhythm and chords. He doesn't need a band—that's minimalism! he's his own bassist, accompanist, and drummer. Consider also his choice of chords as well. Despite playing solo, he prefers stripped chords, two-note intervals, over fuller chords. This creates sonic space within his arrangements.

Consider the 'feeling' his playing conveys. The reverb effect is a deep hall, giving us that alone in an empty room feel. His choice is to predominantly play softly, like a whisper. There's emotion behind it: Loneliness, fear, a swell of exhilaration, a resolution…

His chord choices are airy and dreamlike, again, due in part to the intervals that he plays. His rhythm ambles, it isn't forward-marching or stampeding. There's a feeling that we're leisurely tumbling, floating along in song. It's not a driving or cutting rhythm; the feeling is that we're not going anywhere hastily.

Lastly, Sean Angus Watson is a minimalist with regard to gear: To record the video, Watson uses a single camera and lens (Sony A7s with a Rokinon 85mm) from a single angle. He uses a single guitar: a 2003 Gibson SG Special Faded, a relatively inexpensive guitar at that.

Ask any guitarist: What guitar should I buy to play jazz? No one—not a single guitarist out there—would tell you to buy a Gibson SG. That's a screaming hard rock guitar. Yet, under Watson's fingers it sounds glorious.

By his own admission, Watson rarely ever uses the bridge pickup on his guitar, favoring the neck pickup instead. For you non-guitar gear geeks, this produces a warmer, softer, bass-ier, bluesier tone. His pickups: a Gibson Angus Young humbucker in the bridge (again, rarely used) and a Seymour Duncan Hot P90 in the neck.

The Hot P90 has an enormous dynamic range from clean to gritty, with a bump in the midrange that lends itself to tonal presence. And that's important; the greater the variety of sounds you can get out of your guitar, the fewer guitars you'll want or need.

Touring for two years, I learned that carrying one dynamic guitar trumps having to bring and maintain several different guitars for several different sounds out on the road. With the higher gain P90 pickup, Watson's guitar certainly has the versatility to let rip or roll back and clean up without losing top-end, brilliance, or presence.

Lastly with regard to gear, Watson only uses a TC Electronic Ditto x2 into a Presonus AudioBox USB: 2x2, with reverb and compression applied in his DAW. What's this mean? well, it means he uses about ten or fifteen fewer pieces of gear than the average guitarist!

It also means that he didn't spend hundreds of dollars on an amp. And it means he has greater mobility with his equipment—he can set up and record anywhere. Recording into a DAW means that he doesn't wake his neighbors when playing late at night as well.

Every choice Sean Angus Watson makes throughout his cover songs, his original songs, and his improvisations, it's all minimalistic. It's all simple. It's all intentional. From the tone, to phrasing, to chord choice, to tempo, to the gear that he plays, Sean Angus Watson is a musician with vision and intention and simplicity—a musician I have come to admire.