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: speed rock phenomenon, Rusty Cooley.
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
RC: The first instrumental stuff I heard was Yngwie, and the intensity just blew me away. But it’s not always about that. I listen to certain guitarists for certain things based on my mood. Satriani writes some of the best modal progressions that I’ve ever heard – he really knows how to put the chords together to pull the most from each mode’s tonalities. I’m also a huge fan of instrumental music in general; (country fiddle player) Mark O’Connor’s Midnight On The Water is some of the greatest playing I have ever heard.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
RC: Van Halen said it best when he said: “If you told Beethoven a song wasn’t a song without a singer, he would have punched you in the mouth.” So it’s all about the mood; there’s certain music that can help you meditate, drive 100 miles per hour, or provide inspiration. I think they both can be equally fulfilling.
GT: What do you embrace or avoid (rhythms, harmony, etc?)
RC: I avoid writing around a guitar lick. I start with the foundation; if the structure and chords can’t stand on their own I scratch it. I usually write as if someone were going to sing over it, or I ask myself, ‘Would I be bored playing just the rhythm guitar parts?’.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant?
RC: The thing I kept reminding myself when writing my album was that this is my music, do whatever you want. As the composer there are no rules. Something I have wanted to do is write a tune where no part is ever repeated; it’s a constant forward motion.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
RC: That’s something I’ve been very interested in lately. I think it’s very beneficial. I recently discovered that Nadia wasn’t written by Jeff Beck (written by Nitin Sawney) and when I heard the original version with the female singer (Niki Wells) I was blown away and then again at how well Jeff was able to emulate her vibrato and melodies on the guitar.
GT: How do you start writing one; is there a typical approach?
RC: It all starts with the chord progression or riff, which can be inspired from hearing something new, to learning a new chord or scale and exploring the tonality.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
RC: Most importantly, I want to do my best to nail it. But at the same time I like to put on a show. I’m not one usually to just stand there and play in one spot unless I have a horrible soundman and not a good mix in my monitors.
GT: Many songs have a solo that starts low and slow but finishes high and fast. Is this structure useful for instrumental writing?
RC: No, I let the music dictate where I go; I try not to use formulas.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
RC: I like my tone to be very tight and track well on the low end, so it doesn’t get muddy. Good sustain helps, and some delay for the leads.
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
RC: I usually write in the lower end of the seven-string so things tend to be in B, C, C#, D or even E and that could be in any mode. Tempos are usually pretty quick.
GT: Minor or major keys?
RC: I have spent years exploring the vast sounds you can get out of both.
GT: Any favourite modes?
RC: I love the Phrygian tonality; Phrygian Minor, Major, Dominant and Spanish Phrygian, as well as Pentatonics based around that mode and Diminished Half-Whole, Lydian Major and Dominant. But I love so many different sounds.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
RC: Sure, I think that’s cool as it keeps things interesting; and I like to utilise different modes or parallel modes or modal interchange.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently than on a vocal song?
RC: Simple: if the song can’t stand on its own without guitar melodies or vocals, it’s not good enough.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
RC: I think it’s great as long as you can play it live, but that might mean you have to have a second guitarist, keyboardist or a harmoniser.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
RC: Black Star by Yngwie; YRO by Racer X; and Mabel’s Fatal Fable by Jason Becker. My three biggest influences when I was growing up.
satriani Knows how to put the chords together to pull the most from each mode’s tonalities
Rusty Cooley and his sevenstring assault