06/05/2007 12:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sandy Bull: Re-Inventions

Rumor has it that, some midnight in 1964, Sandy Bull handed his electric guitar to his friend Bob Dylan and suggested he try it. A year later, as we all know.....

Legend? Probably. But if there were any musician alive who had the authority to influence Dylan's musicianship at the time he was the biggest solo star in the world, it was Sandy Bull -- a musician you have very likely never heard of.

Re-Inventions, a collection pulled together from his Vanguard recordings, tells you all you need to know. Starting in 1962, when he was 21, Bull single-handedly reinvented what guitar music could be -- and, in the process, demonstrated how much astonishingly beautiful, endlessly different music a single guitarist could play.

World music? Before it existed, Sandy Bull was playing the oud. Extended cuts? The first song of his first record -- made when he was just 21 -- was 22 minutes long. Psychedelic bending of notes? From the music they recorded, it sure sounds like everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jerry Garcia went to school on Sandy Bull.

His range was boundless: He was a gifted interpreter of Chuck Berry, Bach, fourteenth-century ballades, salsa, samba, and Indian, African and Middle Eastern music. He was accomplished on oud, sarod, six-string bass, pedal steel banjo. He was not only the ultimate eclectic -- he was probably the greatest musician you'll discover (or re-discover) this year.

Who was Sandy Bull (1941-2001)?

At 18, he'd mastered guitar and banjo, so he headed to Paris for a season as a street musician. In the Algerian section, he heard people playing Middle Eastern instruments; that sent him on to Beirut to get an instrument of his own. Along the way, he met Hamza El Din, the greatest oud player on the planet: "He blew me away. There was something very subtle about it, the closest thing to simplicity you could get, all this complexity within a very simple framework."

It would have been easy for Bull to find a groove -- raga rock, say -- and milk it. He never did. For one thing, his imagination was too vast; his fascination was with the variety of music in the world and the ways it fit together. For another, he was the ultimate solo act; whenever possible, he played alone, and, except for Billy Higgins on drums, he recorded alone as well.

So this CD is a rich display of his global education. After the long raga-like piece, there's a samba. Then he plays the best-known meloldy from "Carmina Burana" -- on five-string banjo. A gospel tune shines on his Fender Stratocaster. He plays two guitars on Chuck Berry's " Memphis , Tennessee ," turning that rocking hit into a rumbling male meditation. A medieval ballade inspired by Guillaume de Machaut, played on banjo and guitar instead of lute. And a final rhythmic drone.

This is great background music. Inspired "dinner music." But it's even better as music you listen to late at night: candle burning, incense lit. Sound too hippie for you? Try it. Before you know it, you'll be transported. These days, not much music can do that.

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