Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative and exciting moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: Genesis guitarist and solo artist extraordinaire, Steve Hackett
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
SH: If it’s nylon classical, it’s the self sufficiency. If it’s electric, it’s the excitement that it produces.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
SH: Sometimes a poetic title is all the lyrics you need to make the dream complete.
GT: What do you embrace or avoid?
SH: It’s important not to fall back on technique too much. A great melody should be enough in itself. I try to tailor the tone to fit the phrase and the line.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant?
SH: An instrumental doesn’t need to be limited by the same constrictions as a vocal work. I prefer not to get stuck with formulae. I like instrumentals to go off the map at times.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
SH: The electric guitar is basically another voice. It can sound like a woman’s voice with the right amount of sustain, feedback and effect. But then some vocalists inform musical ideas. The power of Mario Lanza’s voice is an influence on my guitar playing when I hold really long notes with my Fernandes guitar.
GT: How do you start writing one?
SH: I sometimes start off with an acoustic melody, which I can arrange to fit the electric guitar, as we did many times with early Genesis melodies.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
SH: The melody needs to be able to haunt me. I often capitulate to subject matter in the way Oscar Wilde so perceptively described – a certain amount of surrendering in order to be honest rather than trying to be fashionable.
GT: Many songs feature a solo that starts low and slow, and finishes high and fast. Is this useful?
SH: A climbing melody will often sound more and more emotional. I’m as influenced by the soaring strings of Rachmaninov as by a Les Paul and a Marshall on full stun.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
SH: I find a continuously changing tone is best. While in my early days I tended to play in one tone, I now allow the music to take me to areas I might have previously rejected.
GT: Favourite keys or tempos?
SH: I’m mostly known for slow solos but I also love the thrill of impossibly high-speed work. All keys that have open strings are interesting but the best thing is to write in unfamiliar keys such as F# to get the best out of the pianist.
GT: Are minor or major keys easier?
SH: I find all keys equally difficult if you want to truly inspire and surprise yourself.
GT: Any favourite modes?
SH: Like all guitarists, the Dorian scale is perfect for firing off salvos that are none too careful but are thrilling. But I do enjoy Eastern sounding scales. There is a very interesting Bartok scale which
E-G-Ab-B-C-C#-Eb. comprises: This sounds marvellously exotic and few people will know what the hell you’re doing if you employ it!
GT: And key modulations?
SH: That can sound either very natural or really contrived. It’s fantastic when it works.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently than on a vocal song?
SH: I’ve come to realise that the humble triangle is just as important in an orchestral work as everything else. There is no such thing as the backing group for me.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
SH: Vocal harmonies can be incredibly moving. It’s what drove The Beatles on to world fame. Harmony guitar work can be really beautiful. I have a Boss Harmonist pedal, which does great three-part harmonies and works very well for recording or live work. Sometimes I add a 5th harmony to the straight 3rds from my Digitech Whammy pedal, which sounds more like the brass arrangements by William Walton than rock guitar. It’s perfect for heroic-sounding chords.
GT: Name three guitar instrumentals have inspired you.
SH: 1. Apache by the Shadows and The Ventures. A great melody, both romantic and descriptive. 2. Jigsaw Puzzle Blues by Fleetwood Mac, written by Danny Kirwan. This is in the style of blues guitar but with the influence of Django. 3. Concerto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. A famous guitar piece that really captures the spirit of Spain. The melodies perfectly bridge the gap between flamenco and classical work. For me it’s both melancholic and uplifting. During the slow movement the rising fast arpeggio section sounds like the music from a thousand fountains...
GT: What are you up to: gigs, tours?
SH: There’s The Total Experience Live In Liverpool Digipak – solo numbers plus Genesis classics and documentary. And The Charisma Years – eight vinyl plus 12" EP box set; and Deluxe CD/5.1 DVD sets of Please Don’t Touch, Spectral Mornings and Defector…
it’s imPortant not to fall BacK on technique. a great melody should Be enough in itself
Steve Hackett with his modified Les Paul Goldtop