Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their personal take on this iconic movement. This month: Canadian rock and fusion virtuoso,
GT: What is it about instrumentals that appeals to you?
NJ: I grew up in a very small town, and being the only musician in my family, I didn’t really have contact with a circle of people who played music. I listened to a lot of soundtracks and classical music and never really noticed the absence of vocals in the music. I think a combination of the music I was listening to, and the lack of musicians in my proximity, allowed me to consider writing music on my own where the guitar was the voice.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
NJ: When I listen to instrumental music, I find myself picturing scenes from my past. I get lost in the music and often times become very emotional or attached to the piece I’m listening to. It’s up to me to decide what the piece meant and what emotion is being conveyed. I think a good piece of instrumental music can transport the listener to a different time, place or world. It’s universal, too. I’ve travelled all over the world playing my instrumental music and everyone can understand what’s going on. There’s nothing to separate me from the listener.
GT: Any tendencies that you aim to embrace or avoid?
NJ: As a kid I listened to a lot of instrumental records and I found that a lot of them abandoned melody in favour of displaying technical proficiency. Both approaches are great, but for the type of player and listener I am, I’d prefer to hear a well crafted melody. After I’ve developed some melodies, I think about the arrangement and instrumentation. That’s when It really starts to get fun.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant for an instrumental?
NJ: It depends on the musician and what they’re trying to accomplish. I used to follow that quite closely. As I write more music, I feel a need to experiment more so that form is becoming less and less relevant for me. However, maybe once I exhaust my thirst for quirky arrangements, I’ll be right back to the tried and true form. I guess it all comes down to the quality of the content within the form. If it’s a poorly written piece of music, it doesn’t matter what the arrangement is.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
NJ: I think vocal and a guitar melodies are completely different concepts. A vocalist can sit on a handful of notes and get away with the limited melodic content because of the description and emotion in the vocals. You can tell when the vocalist is angry or sad or happy, by the way they’re singing the lyrics. The guitar doesn’t have the benefit of description, so composition needs to be approached from a different perspective.
GT: How do you start writing one?
NJ: Ideas tend to pop up when I’m just messing around on guitar or keyboard. If I ‘try’ to write, nothing comes out. I like to keep an open mind and let all sorts of styles seep into my songwriting. I love sci-fi, video games and comic books too. A lot of my older music was written with the idea that I was scoring a scene from a comic book. I used to get really inspired by that.
GT: What do you aim for when performing an instrumental?
NJ: Every instrument should ideally be supporting each other. Since my music is so simplistic from a technical stand point, it’s more important that all instruments lock together creating the bigger picture, rather than simply providing a backdrop for me to play a bunch of guitar solos.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
NJ: It depends on the piece of music and the production on it. If there’s a lot of acoustic guitar, piano and no distorted rhythm guitars, it might be an odd choice to use a lead tone saturated with a ton of gain. When I play the music live though, I opt for a mid-gain single-coil sound.
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
NJ: I seem to be writing a lot of music that happens to be slower in tempo at the moment. I don’t really have a favourite key to write in.
GT: Minor or Major?
NJ: I’ve always gravitated to Minor keys. I have written music with a more Major focus, but Minor definitely outweighs the Major.
GT: Favourite modes?
NJ: I think more about intervals. If a Minor chord needs a Major 6th, even though I’m thinking of it as Phrygian I’m going to throw the 6th in there. I’m more interested in the harmony and the intervals I’m using to develop a theme.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
NJ: I’m a huge fan of modulation. A modulation can be incredibly cool if done in a clever way. I feel it’s either going to be awesome, or horrific. There’s really no ‘in the middle’ result with a modulation. Haha!
GT: And harmonising melodies?
NJ: I grew up listening to a ton of instrumental music, so I heard my fair share of harmonised leads. I don’t really think it fits my music. I’ve tried it on a few tracks, but it came across as cheesy or just plain ridiculous sounding. I’m not sure I’ve recovered from the overexposure to it.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
NJ: Sleepwalk (Santo and Johnny et al), Scuttle Buttin’ (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Frankenstein (The Edgar Winter Group). The first time I heard those tracks, I felt like I was hearing music from a different dimension. I can only hope to write something as transcendent and iconic as those pieces one day.
I’ve tried [harmonising] on a few tracks BUT IT came across as cheesy or ridiculous sounding
Nick Johnston: more into melody than shredding