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: top session musician, touring and recording artist and GIT tutor, Allen Hinds
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
AH: My whole life the ‘sound’ of stringed instruments has struck a nerve. Guitar is such an emotional and nuanced instrument; so much can be said with the turn of a phrase or the smallest inflection.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
AH: To me, it’s a bit like reading a book as opposed to seeing the movie. You really have to use a sensibility, an antenna inside that creates images that maybe you don’t depend on when a song has vocals. I totally understand the challenges of pulling off a melody on guitar. Ballads are crucial to focus on the melodies and, just like a voice, the guitar can conjure up so much emotion. It has a wider range, and there are just so many effects and sounds to choose from.
GT: What do you embrace or avoid?
AH: I gave up trying to ‘out-shred’ anyone long ago. Too many players get caught in the shredding quagmire. It can be exciting for a minute, but in the long run it’s much less interesting. And because there are so many palates of sound out there it’s easy to lose sight of what you originally intended. We all know smart people who command attention by speaking thoughtfully and often softly. We lean in closer to listen, as opposed to being hammered over the head with information.
GT: Do you like to stick to a typical song structure?
AH: It’s art. You wouldn’t tell Picasso his paintings didn’t look right because they didn’t look like Norman Rockwell’s. Same with music. There are always examples of following the normal ‘form’ of traditional songs, but some of the best stuff is the unpredictable.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
AH: Very, I always tell my students to approach a solo like it’s a melody he or she is creating for my song. As soon as my students begin singing along with themselves and internalising, their solos improve immediately. And when I play ballads I am always singing along.
GT: Is there a typical approach?
AH: Anything can spawn an idea for a song; a drum groove, a phrase you happen to discover while warming up. Anything, really.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
AH: Connecting and feeling the audience. It’s hard to describe. Maybe it’s a bit of a sixth sense, but I strive to get to that ‘zone’. Music can be very powerful. David Sancious used to talk about this: how do you get there? Concentration? Meditation? Tequila? (laughs).
GT: Many songs feature a solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this structure useful for instrumentals?
AH: You want it to tell a story, so that would make sense a lot of the time. But look at Van Halen’s solo on Beat It, or Allan Holdsworth’s solos on Metal Fatigue; sometimes it’s effective to come blazing out of the gate. It depends on the song.
GT: What type of tone do you like?
AH: The more vocal the better – not too compressed, not too distorted, but singing, where you can hear all the little subtleties your fingers are doing.
GT: Favourite keys or tempos?
AH: I tend to write in guitar keys, but on my next CD I purposely
Eb tuned town to or D. But generally no favourites. I like 6/8 grooves, but it all depends on the groove, the song, the chords.
GT: Are minor or major keys easier?
AH: It all depends on the melody, and the mood you want to convey.
GT: Any favourite modes?
AH: I grew up hearing Clapton, Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Freddie King, so the Blues scale, or the Mixolydian combined with Dorian. And later, all the stuff in between, a la Scofield, Mike Brecker, Holdsworth, etc.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
AH: I figure if I am bored in one key, so the listener may also be, but if there are too many changes, the listener will also get bored. So I try to keep myself interested first, whether that means changes or not. But I worked hard on playing over chords when I was younger. And I still play around with real book songs like Fee-Fi-Fo Fum, Giant Steps or Falling Grace.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently on an instrumental?
AH: No, they have to support the melody and vibe of the song first.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
AH: It’s good practise to do when learning any song – get inside the song structure by harmonising. Having said that it drives me crazy when people sing harmonies to a Beatles melody that wasn’t there originally!
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
AH: Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, by Jeff Beck; Flashes, by Ry Cooder; Little Martha, by Duane Allman; Lafayette Railroad, by Little Feat. Any of the Joe Pass Pablo series. I loved the Steve Morse solo pieces. Lenny Breau. Ted Green. Allen has two new albums out; one with his trio, Wonderland, called Just Get In and his latest solo album, Fly South.
i gave up trying to ‘out-shred’ anyone long ago. too many players get caught in the shred quagmire
Allen looking at home in his recording studio