Guitar instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. Today we meet: Living Colour, Yohimbe Brothers and Masque’s guitarist, Vernon Reid.
GT: What are the things about guitar instrumentals that appeal to you?
VR: I’ve always been intrigued with how so many different guitarists express themselves non verbally, from Link Wray’s Rumble to Hendrix’s Third Stone From The Sun, to Santana’s Song Of The Wind, To Metheny’s Unity Village.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal melody can’t?
VR: An instrumental becomes a very personal soundtrack to the movie of the listener’s life, and mood. The listener gets to direct the picture and choose whether or not to add their own dialogue.
GT: Any tendencies with instrumentals that you aim to embrace or avoid?
VR: I like to embrace the immediate moment, and avoid relying on the tried and true.
GT: Is a typical song structure verse, chorus, etc - always reliable for an instrumental?
VR: It can be helpful in the instrumental to create a song-like effect, but that is not the only way to approach their creation.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach for creating guitar melodies?
VR: I think that studying a vocalist’s approach can be very instructive in guiding a guitarist towards a more lyrical than technical approach to playing a melody.
GT: How do you start writing one; is there a typical approach or inspiration for you?
VR: A line of melody, a groove, a pleasing sequence of chords. Or a riff. It varies.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage for the duration of the instrumental?
VR: I aim not to trip!
GT: Many vocal songs feature a guitar solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this approach useful for instrumental writing, developing pace and dynamics?
VR: This structure is only useful if it doesn’t lead to a stultifying sameness of approach. It really depends on what the point of final expression is. If the point is to satisfy preexisting expectations, then it is very useful. If the point is to tell one’s own story through the instrumental, then maybe not.
GT: What type of guitar tones do you prefer for instrumentals?
VR: There is a wide variety of sounds that can apply depending on the composition, the groove and the mood you are trying to create.
GT: Do you have favourite keys or tempos in which to play or compose your music?
VR: My favourite keys change, depending on the style, like A or B flat for blues because they are placed right in the middle of the neck. A key or mode like A Mixolydian is fun in standard tuning because you can utilise the open strings. But I like all the keys. I‘m not key-ist! Same thing goes for tempos, it depends on the style. You do have to be careful with attaching yourself to a bpm because they can be deceiving. For example, a high-energy drum and bass in 180 can also be a laid back 90.
GT: Do you find minor or major keys preferable to write in?
VR: Minor keys if I’m feeling blue, and major keys if I’m feeling optimistic and happy.
GT: Any favourite modes?
VR: Yes: Mixolydian, Lydian, and Dorian, but I like all modes. I’m not mode-ist either!
GT: What about modulations into new keys?
VR: Modulations into new keys work well to build excitement or tension, and can also signal an exit from one mood to another.
GT: Do you view the backing band in a different way than you would on a vocal song?
VR: Playing with Living Colour is a very different experience than playing with my mostly instrumental groups, Masque or Yohimbe Brothers. Everything in Living Colour is in service to the song, lyrics and Cory’s vocals. Whereas playing in Masque, either I’m interpreting melody on guitar or Leion Gruenbaum is on keys. In Yohimbe Brothers I’m playing off DJ Logic.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
VR: It really depends on the context. They can work very well or be super cheesy.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals would you consider iconic, or have perhaps inspired your own playing or composing?
VR: Song Of The Wind by Carlos Santana from the album Caravanserai. I listened to that piece over and over again. My cassette is worn out. Then there’s Maggot Brain, featuring Eddie Hazel from Funkadelic. That song has almost a gospel kind of intensity; it builds and builds. And I’d add Third Stone From The Sun by Jimi Hendrix; it’s the ultimate rock and roll sci-fi tribute to the space program.
i liKe a or b for blues beCause they are plaCed right in the middle of the neCK... but i’m not Key-ist!
Living Colour’s latest album, Shade, is out now. For more on Living Colour, or on Vernon’s instrumental projects Masque and Yohimbe Brothers, follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
Vernon Reid: likes to avoid relying on the tried and true