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: renowned multi-instrumentalist
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
MK: I’m not certain that I have a specific preference for a given instrument to be the lead voice. I certainly enjoy making instrumentals that are keyboardbased. But I absolutely express myself differently on a guitar than I do a keyboard – undoubtedly there are details of articulation, attack and timbre that are only readily available to me on a guitar. And there are emotional aspects to the sound of a guitar, which are very similar to the human voice, so it’s really appealing on that front as well. It’s like a drug to me.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal can’t?
MK: The ability to impose one’s own meaning on the song, rather than having a meaning dictated by lyrics. The mind can wander a lot farther without a singer banging away about something or another.
GT: Any tendencies you aim to embrace or avoid?
MK: I’m never conscious about doing that, other than embracing things that sound good to me, and avoiding things that don’t!
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
MK: Anything to keep a song from sounding too monolithic, inflexible or inhuman is a good thing; and vocal phrasing, when applied to the guitar, strikes a really nice balance in the ear. It feels familiar and relatable, but intriguing because it’s applied to a different sound.
GT: Is there a typical approach or inspiration for you?
MK: On my new album, Scambot 2 there’s an instrumental called Freezer Burn that began just as a feeling of organ-dominated open space. I started with a very slow-moving chord progression over a wide-open old-school Pink Floyd type beat. I listened to that for months while imagining what sort of thing might go on top of it, and at one point thought it might end up with lyrics. But then I got a strong feeling that guitar should take the lead and I recorded three different improvised guitar tracks reacting to the chord progression. Then I ruthlessly edited each of those guitar tracks down to the phrases I really liked, and listened to that for a while, before I finally recorded a lead guitar track that combined the best phrases into one performance. In contrast is a song like Egg Zooming on Sluggo!, which was entirely scored out on paper before a note was recorded; or Pitch Pipe on You Must Be This Tall, where I had a feeling for a specific kind of crazy guitar melody, and wrote it on the spot with engineer Mike Harris recording phrases as I was writing them, playing only to a click track. By the time I was done writing the entire four-minute melody, I had the whole lead guitar track recorded; then I wrote chords, bassline and drum track to accompany the guitar melody. Almost every instrumental track has its own peculiar origin story.
GT: Many songs feature a solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this structure useful for instrumental writing?
MK: I would never limit myself to that. I would never turn my nose up at a track that starts in an attentiongetting frenzy, then settles down into a more contemplative vibe.
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
MK: No, not really.
GT: Do you find minor or major keys easier to write in?
MK: I’ve never tried to work out the percentage in my catalogue, but I think it’s probably pretty well equally divided between the two. Probably what I really love is to transition smoothly from one to the other, because I’m fascinated by the emotions elicited by different harmonic climates.
GT: Any favourite modes?
MK: I never think modally. I wasn’t trained that way and it just never occurs to me. I’m about melody and harmony and I’m happy to follow the muse wherever it goes, and step in and out of different modes at will.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
MK: All the time. I often find it difficult to say what key a song is in, because it’ll often shift radically from one section to the next.
GT: Do you view the band in a different way than on a vocal song?
MK: You can get away with being busier when there’s no lyrics. I probably allow things to get a bit more freaky than on vocal tracks. But it completely depends on the song. There are acoustic instrumentals on Wooden Smoke and Wing Beat Fantastic that are so delicate, all the instruments really need to be carefully controlled or else the whole point of the song would be completely capsized.
GT: Harmonising melodies?
MK: That’s my playground. I love it. The endless possibilities, the literally limitless choice of chords which could potentially accompany any given note – that’s heaven to me. If I could make a living only harmonising melodies I would!
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
MK: Spider Of Destiny – Frank Zappa, The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution – Frank Zappa, Diamond Dust – Jeff Beck.
THE LITERALLY LIMITLESS CHOICE OF CHORDS THAT COULD ACCOMPANY ANY GIVEN NOTE, IS HEAVEN TO ME
Mike Keneally: musicality at its very best