Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: slide guitarist extraordinaire Sonny Landreth.
GT: What is it about instrumentals that appeals to you?
SL: There is an abstract quality that I have always been drawn to wherein the listener is free to conjure up imagery as inspired by the emotions they experience from the music. Lyrics, though I love them dearly, literally spell out one story whereas a good instrumental can inspire imagery of many different stories and emotions in different listeners.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal can’t?
SL: There is something intangible and quite profound that resonates in a more individual and personnel way. Maybe people just attach a strong emotion to a melody or a series of chord changes that reminds them of something that is or was important to them.
GT: Any tendencies that you embrace or avoid – rhythms, harmony, playing approach, tones?
SL: Well, melody is paramount and it needs to come from an honest place and have integrity. That’s what makes a great instrumental so memorable. But of course, harmony and rhythm are super important too. Any approach to all of the above is valid so long as the end result is creative and has an element of surprise. One thing I try not to do is to repeat a theme too often. I don’t want to run it into the ground.
GT: Is a typical song structure – verse, chorus, middle eight - useful?
SL: That formula is undoubtedly tried and true and I do think it’s important to have both a good understanding of it and to be competent using it. I just think that it isn’t necessarily always the way to go. I like the unexpected.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
SL: There is potentially tremendous benefit to that. Learning to create a vocal-like quality with your instrument is a major step in achieving a sound that is your own.
GT: How do you start writing one?
SL: I honestly can’t explain it as music has always seemed to just come to me. I would suggest starting with a feeling about something that truly moves you and try to articulate that with a particular sound or tone and see where that takes you. Try to not get distracted by preconceived notions and just let it fly.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
SL: I strive to find my way to the top of my potential in that very moment. Otherwise it’s the same as a vocal performance in that I want the music to touch people and, for at least a while, forget about their troubles.
GT: Many vocal songs feature a solo that starts low and slow and finishes high and fast. Is this structure useful for instrumental writing?
SL: Yes, but I would say that building a solo is more about a dynamic shift in intensity and that doesn’t necessarily have to include playing fast at the end of it. One big note that truly says something, is worth more than a flurry of them that doesn’t really say anything or go anywhere.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
SL: I like a fatter tone in general but I’m always open to whatever sounds I think best serve the song. Like different colours on a palette to make a painting.
GT: Favourite keys or tempos?
SL: I like to relate keys to individual tunings like E and A for more tension and harmonics and I like the looser, slack key tunings like G and D for bluesier pieces. Tempos? I’m not partial to any particular one but I do like practising with a click or metronome. It’s a good discipline for developing a keen sense of them all.
GT: Do you find Minor or Major keys easier to write in?
SL: I’m not sure about easier but I have always gravitated towards the Minor keys. I love the moody vibe, it feels deeper, somehow.
GT: Favourite modes?
SL: There is something mysterious about Lydian that I never tire of.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
SL: Maybe it’s because of all those John Philip Sousa marches that I played on trumpet in my high school marching band, but I’m not a huge fan of modulating. It’s just been done so much for so long by so many that I usually prefer not to.
GT: Do you view the band differently than you would on a vocal song?
SL: No, because it’s not so different from the solo section of a song with lyrics. Still needs to be played with passion and with conviction.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
SL: It sure is potent when it expands the scope of a song like the Allman Brothers did, but not everyone has that kind of mojo. With us mortals, it can seem methodical and too thought out. But when it’s tasteful and soulful, it’s a grand thing.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
SL: I’ll go with some that started me on my path when I was barely a teenager. The Ventures’ version of Walk Don’t Run pushed me into the discovery of barre chords in standard tuning; Chet Atkins’ version of JD Loudermilk’s Windy And Warm for learning how to fingerpick; and Santo & Johnny’s Sleepwalk for its lyrical melancholy that was early slide-speak to me from a steel guitar in chordal tuning.
ONE BIG NOTE THAT SAYS SOMETHING IS WORTH MORE THAN A FLURRY OF THEM THAT DOESN’T GO ANYWHERE
Sonny Landreth playing his gorgeous cutaway resonator