Before I start with this article I want to tell you a little secret: I am a mediocre guitar-player. Wether I can tap with ten fingers nor I can play Sweep-arpeggios or even combine both. So everything I write here could be born out of pure selfish envy. I also want to excuse in advance for some controversial opinions about your personal guitar-hero.
I realized it, when I listened closely to one of the latest albums of Sepultura, the classic brazilian Trash-Metal band. It’s called “A-Lex” and is a fine album. But every time, when their guitar-player Andreas Kisser packs out one of the very typical, very technical, very fast KerryKingRandomNotesSpeedSqueals, which were contained in too many Metal-songs from the 80s and 90s, I feel bored to death. The difference between old-fashioned note-rush and a more modern approach became even more obvious for me, when Mr.Kisser passes the classic guitar-solo and instead of it creates more arranged melodic instrumental parts, which sound contemporary. Afterwards it crystallized in my mind:
THE GUITAR SOLO IS DEAD
Though I have started this article with the genre of Metal, where the Guitar-solo is still present, I want to take a more general look on the aggregation state of the guitar-spot in a song. In todays music you can observe, that less and less songs contain guitar-solos. Without any statistics I argue, that todays Alternative Rock and Rock-songs doesn’t contain guitar-solos, mostly for the reason, that the songs are concentrated to its essence, optimized to keep the attention of a potential listener for the short span of a radio-spin. Of course there are genres, where you can still enjoy (or suffer of) extended solo-madness, but all of them are part of a niche-market. I want to name Metal, Progressive Rock, Jazz (of course) and Fusion.
So what’s the difference between today and the famous classic Rock-era, when giants like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others walked over the earth? Well first in the classic period of Rockmusic Guitar-solos were omni-present for the masses. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and others got radio-airplay and though they are still played they are not anymore a part of the actual music-scene. Back in those days bands were the leaders of the youth-culture, an expression of protest and life-style, just think on The Who and the Mod-movement. Therefore young rascals grabbed a guitar not because they wanted to be a virtuoso on the instrument. They grabbed the guitar because they followed their idols. And the idols were set on their throne because of their attitude and lifestyle, not just because they were brilliant and innovative players. Looking on the actual scene it’s hard to find guitar-heroes, which are idols of the masses. Who is setting marks so innovative as Jimi Hendrix or David Gilmour? Therefore I want to group famous soloists of the electric guitar. The picture below shows famous guitar-players, which I want to put in a drawer called “The golden era”. All of these heroes developed a unique voice on the instrument and played their Riffs and solos for the sake of a band and a song and even if they are more showcasing their talent as a soloist like Jimi Hendrix in “Red house” or Brian May in the showstopper “Brighton Rock” it is the exception and not the rule.
The golden era
I argue, that there is a tendency today to separate virtuosity from songwriting. Back in the days the guitar-heroes were always a part of a strong and influential band. Today the modern guitar-hero is focused on the guitar and to show off his technical capability. While until the infamous 80s to the early 90s strong guitarists were still integrated in strong bands (think on Metallica, Guns’n Roses) latest with the appearance of virtuosos like Yngwie Malmsteen , Joe Satriani and Steve Vai the guitar-player was sold as a guitar-star and not as a part of a great band with individual talents on all positions. Looking back we have to accuse Mike Varney and his notorious label Shrapnel records and the devil himself, Yngwie, for setting this unhealthy trend. Of course there were Van Halen and Randy Rhoads before, but good old Eddie was still part of a band and played for the sake of the song and not to satisfy egomania. But it was the first step to the fall, because I think Van Halen was never a part of four equally talented musicians. Going another step back in history I would also accuse Richie Blackmore, especially when Deep Purple played live, for unnecessary soloing and an undemocratic attitude (It’s not a wonder, that Yngwie Malmsteen names Blackmore as his most important influence and that Blackmore is called “Shred Guitarist Pioneer“). And also during the seventies three Jazzrock-players raised and influenced the following generation of Rock-guitarists: John McLaughlin, Al di Meola and Allan Holdsworth. If you ask Vai, Satriani and others about their idols you will often hear those names. Going back further we stumble upon Jeff Beck, who always stood in the shadow of the other english Blues-guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Green because of one reason: His career seems always to focus on his guitar-skills. However going up from little Yngwie, who degrades his band to poor background actors, we find his majesty Steve Vai, master-teacher Joe Satriani, and “Drillerkiller” Paul Gilbert, all influenced by Yngwie. All those heroes shine with technical innovations on the guitar and not so much with band-democracy and song-writing. And nobody wonders, that all the new guitar-heroes have chosen their own name for their career. Therefore I call the first group “The transition-phase” and the second “The grave-diggers”.
The grave diggers
From all “Grave diggers” Yngwie Malmsteen had probably the most influence and set new standards regarding the command of the instrument and technical innovation. He also developed a very unique tone on his first albums created with the classic Stratocaster/Marshall combination. Listening to Satriani, Vai, early Gilbert (meanwhile he is more recognisable) and millions of other well-known shredders (“modern high-gain tone”) it’s getting harder to recognise a personal tone, which differentiates one player from the other. Looking back it was very easy to distinguish Brain May from David Gilmour or Steve Howe only by their specific sound, but with the victory of modern high-gain amplifiers guitar-virtuosos become less and less unique regarding their guitar-sound. Meanwhile you ask yourself, why I have add Stevie Ray Vaughan to the blacklist. Well though his tone and style is very reminiscent of Hendrix he also sold virtuosity. I can admire every solo of him, but I really don’t care about the songs. It’s Blues-Rock, so what? And before we go on I also want to mention the album “Friday Night in San Francisco“, the notorious acoustic shred-fest of John McLaughlin, Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia as an example of pointless virtuosity, which infected millions of innocent, young musicians.
Mr.Satriani has even invented a guitar-battle called “G3“, which means, that three of the four heroes above, or some lesser known create a total overkill of guitar-stunts for the time of a whole concert. But even during the fall of the guitar-solo back in the nineties we got some good examples how to behave as a guitar-hero. Paul Gilbert had some success with “Mr. Big” focusing on songs and not pyro-technique and we got Slash, who might be the only late guitar-hero, who is integrated in a real band. But the Gunners just reanimated the old Classic Rock a la Aerosmith. Going away a bit from mass-appeal I want to name Tom Morello, Dimebag Darrell and Jack White as influential players within a great band. All were able to integrate their talent into a band and to serve a song. I call them “Working class heroes”.
Working class heroes
And today? Well there is still Jack White. And we observe a kind of Blues-Revival with artists like Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer, who inspire young people to start playing guitar. The boys admire them, while the girls are looking up to Taylor Swift and start with an acoustic guitar. They look and play all more polished than the old dirty Rock-stars of the sixties and seventies.
The polished idols of today
On Youtube and in some Progressive Rock and Metal bands there has grown up a new generation of highly skilled players, which seem to absorb everything, what was discovered and developed before. Look at players like Guthrie Govan as a good example. He can do everything at once: Eleven-finger-tapping, fluidest legato, machine-gun picking and can switch immediately between every style from country-picking to avantgarde-Jazz. I admit, that I love to admire these guys on Youtube, but hey, would I listen to songs of them without a video? Is the playing the same impressive, if you can not combine it with a visual proof of the unbelievable coordination and economic command of the instrument? Is the overkill of different techniques musically planned or just pointless? Regarding Guthrie I can vote for a “Musically planned”, because he is one of the most musical players of this younger generation and he has founded a democratic band of equally (Sic) talented musicians, but there are myriads of others. Without judging the music of any of them I want to name Tosin Abasi, John Petrucci (He was the first of the new generation of the IcanDoAll-guitarists), Michael Romeo (focused on neo-classical) and less known Buckethead, Bumblefoot and Matthias IA Eklundh as representatives of this young generation. Looking for a unique style I highly recommend Matthias IA Eklundh and his use of harmonics and phrasing. Also Tosin Abasi, one of the most popular advertisers for eight-string guitars, is very recognizable with his advanced hybrid-picking style.
I can play it all
And while there is a market for “shredding”, the right term for this kind of guitar-playing, it has shifted the guitar-solo from an integral part of a song to a circus-attraction. And there are other reasons: The modern radio is not allowing additional time for well thought-out solos and the listeners attention-span is shorter and more focused on singing. So today the guitar-solo is pushed into a separate genre and is more and more divided from a song. There is one audience for songs and another one for guitar-shredding, but the combination is getting lost. Therefore Dan Dorney, guitarist of the band “The Hunna” is chosen by the well-known musician’s site Musicradar as the best new guitarist in the world right now.
Is there a guitar-solo? Is the guitar a present element of the song or the video? Dan is praised here for “intricate, dynamic riffs and experimentation with guitar-effects”. Astonishing, right?
The best new guitarist in the world today
What separates the old idols from the modern omnipotent virtuosos? Besides flashy finger-action, which we could also observe on Jimmy Page and Richie Blackmore, many old idols had developed a very own unique style and a signature-sound. Queen’s Brian May build his guitar from an old chimney and forced Vox-amps with a booster to produce an unheard tone, which made him unmistakable. Jimi Hendrix stomped accidentally on his Wah in combination with a Fuzz-pedal and wrote guitar-history. Why they all could develop something new? Because in the 60s and 70s resources and knowledge for learning rock guitar were pretty limited. In the 60s you had to listen to records and to try to understand by ear what is going on. Today you can buy books, watch videos online and because of the raised technical command of the instrument there are many common instructions how to play “the right way” and “to sound (imitate) the right way”. How could a young player develop an own voice, if he is flooded with instructions and restrictions? You have to hold the pick this way etc. How would anybody discover such wonderful little eccentricities like playing with a coin (Brian May) or playing with feedback (Jimi Hendrix). The modern player sounds more and more uniform and exchangeable like a POD-preset. The lack of real idols and a decreasing interest in the electric guitar might be also one reason for the declining sales of the big guitar manufacturers.
The Solo as the extension of the vocals
Looking at classic guitar-solos like the one in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Stairway to heaven” or “Comfortable numb” they all shine with melodic strength. If you watch videos on Youtube, which want to show you the way to the ultimate guitar-solo, they sometimes recommend to sing lines and next to try to realize these lines on the guitar to achieve remarkable and recognizable melodies. In the best case the guitar-solo has the same melodic quality as the vocal-line and becomes an equivalent of the lead-singer. Have you ever experienced to sing a guitar-solo in a group of drunken people? Would drunken people be able to accompany a guitar-solo consisting of ultra-fast Sweep-arpeggios?
On the other hand I have also mercy with the modern guitar-player. Today most audiences (even in the Punk-genre) expect highly polished skills and if you are in a genre like Progressive Rock or Metal you are condemned to come up with inhuman perfection and precision. And it’s also hard to play anything today (especially within a solo), which can still impress the young generation of the I-Can-Do-All-At-Once-And-Faster-Than-You-musicians. Just take a look on how older stars like Kirk Hammett or Kerry King are now criticized on Youtube totally neglecting their position in history and their value for the development of the electric guitar. Twenty years ago Hammett was praised as the idol of a generation. In 2017 young arrogant kids think his tone-material is boring, because he is not using some Jazz-scales in Metal like other hipsters and sticks with the old Blues-Pentatonic freshed up with some chromatic spices. But you have to look at him from the perspective of the middle-eighties, when Metallica and their style were ground-breaking. Today you can only impress, if you mix at minimum ten different playing techniques in one solo and go flawlessly through chord-changes as hard as “Giant steps”. But the modern player just mashes up ingredients, which were all there before and often creates something, which is just inconsistent.
But what can I do, if I want to be unique and original?
In my humble opinion the technical development of playing-skills on the electric guitar is at the end of a blind alley. I could not imagine any player better than Guthrie Govan or John Petrucci and I don’t believe, that anybody could become influential anymore because of the sheer command of the instrument. What the guitar-world needs is a reduction or better concentration on less skills. I would advice a player to concentrate on unique trademarks and not to try to master all available techniques. You could use just one little part of the endless possibilities on the electric guitar, but you could make it your trademark. I want to give a little example:
A Halftone-bend is a very simple and often used technique, not very stressing, and can even be done on the lower strings without breaking a finger. So this is nothing interesting as long as it happens one or two times in a solo. But imagine you would use it a lot, maybe twenty half-tone bends in a solo. And you stick to the halftone-bends and you decide never again to use any other bend:
Voila, you have established a trademark in your playing
A trademark can even be a non-guitar action, Remember Pete Townshend? He became famous for playing the guitar with waving arms like a windmill, destroying guitars on stage and for being one of the first, who created cacophonic noises with feedback. See, he became influential and famous, though his trademarks have nothing to do with skills. But also a more skilled player (Don’t get me wrong, Pete is a fantastic player) can establish a trademark. Eddie Van Halen is the synonym for tapping. Yngwie introduced the harmonic minor scale (after Blackmore and Rhoads) as a major trademark. Mr.Vai is known for Whammy-bar-eccentrics. Holdsworth built his whole career on legato. Regarding tone most of these players can also be easily identified (except Vai maybe). Malmsteen’s slightly distorted tone on the Neck-PU of a Stratocaster, Van Halen’s highly desired “Brown sound”, Rhoads fat doubled tone. Often it’s a highly unique approach to the use of the instrument in combination with a new way to record (Rhoads) or to amplify (Van Halen).
Regarding tone-material you could look for a fresh method. The bad message is, that everything was done before, from the traditional Blues-scale to own scales, which are developed by a guitar-player and can also become a trademark of his style. The Hip-scale of Paul Gibert comes to mind. Since in my opinion everything was done already with technique the choice of tone-material could be an area, which is still not explored totally. What’s about wide intervals, bitonality, dodecaphonic or random methods? You could also hone your phrasing to unusual madness: Keep phrases extremely short (something Ron Jarzombek is known for), or just play without any pauses through the whole solo-spot. Play with very long developments and note-values and separate yourself from the common speed. Arrangement is another point often overlooked by guitar-players. Pre-arrange multitrack guitar-orchestras and use a more modern approach as Brian May. One of the most expressive tools on the guitar is the kind of vibrato. Develop a unique kind of finger-vibrato, maybe out of rhythm, or create a vibrato in another way. One of Steve Vai’s trademarks is to use the Whammy-bar the other way round.
Often solos seem to be a foreign object in a song, it seems like the band says: “Hey, we are a Rockband and now it’s time for the solo”, but the solo has nothing in common with the rest of the song. A musical approach to a guitar-solo could be to improvise with motifs of the song, this could be a motif of the vocal-line or the chorus. But the solo can also function as a contrast to the rest of the song.
I wanted to provoke some thoughts about soloing. At last you will do what you feel, but please don’t combine sweep-arpeggios with Tapping …
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