Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: guitarist with Canadian rock band Triumph, and solo instrumentalist Rik Emmett
GT: What is it about instrumentals that appeals to you?
RE: The guitar tone, coupled with its range and flexibility to sing, or cry. It can work in ways like a human voice, but also like a sax, or a violin.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
RE: They can tell stories that are poetic and lyrical, but that aren’t as ‘specific’ as words. Instrumentals remain a bit more impressionistic, metaphorical: they suggest and imply, but don’t dictate content.
GT: Any tendencies that you aim to embrace or avoid?
RE: I want to embrace the phrasing of my guitar’s tone. I want to avoid playing that doesn’t advance the qualities of the composition that surrounds the melody.
GT: Is a typical song structure always applicable?
RE: No. Sometimes ‘form’ has its own logic, its own sense of direction. Symphonies are instrumental, so sometimes a ‘through’ composition is providing its own road map.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
RE: Totally. As is studying great sax players - people that have to breathe to make music. Guitarists’ phrasing often lacks the humanity of breathing, to its own detriment.
GT: How do you start writing one?
RE: Sometimes a snippet of melody gets the process going: sometimes a longer theme. Sometimes a chord progression suggests something. I always tell my songwriting students: music is made up of melody, rhythm and harmony. The thing that reigns supreme is rhythm. Good melody has good rhythmic bones: good harmony complements the rhythmic structure. Time, feel, groove: get your little idea to ‘sit’ in the right pocket, and the engine will get you moving, and keep you grooving.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
RE: Every story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. My aim is to tell a good story: develop what I’ve started and finish properly.
GT: Many songs feature a solo that starts low and slow but finishes high and fast. Is this a useful structure?
RE: It’s one way that can work. But there are all kinds of ways to skin cats. That’s only one narrative arc.
GT: What guitar tone do you prefer?
RE: My ballpark is the one that started with Clapton in his Bluesbreakers period, or maybe Roy Buchanan in Messiah Will Come Again; evolved with Jimmy Page in Zeppelin 1-4; evolved with Jeff Beck in Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.
GT: Do you have favourite keys or tempos for instrumentals?
RE: I go with what the universe deals me. Some keys ‘sit’ better on the neck, but always the song leads me.
GT: Do you prefer Minor or Major?
RE: Maybe it’s harder to make Major key stuff seem like it’s deep and and meaningful. Minor key stuff starts out darker and deeper and moodier.
GT: Any favourite modes?
RE: Like most guitarists, my blues Pentatonics lead to Aeolian and Dorian. But I also have a tendency towards Mixolydian b9, b13.
GT: And modulations into new keys?
RE: Hard to beat modulations of a minor 3rd - a really bright lift.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently than on a vocal song?
RE: Nope. I follow what the song suggests it needs.
GT: And harmonising melodies?
RE: Harmony, to me, is landscape, setting, mood. Sometimes less is more: but sometimes more is exactly what the doctor ordered.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
RE: Europa, by Santana. Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, Jeff Beck. Two-way tie for third: Larry Carlton, Emotions Wound Us So, from Last Nite: Pat Metheny, If I Could, from First Circle.
Rik Emmett with his Beck-like Les Paul Standard in Ebony finish