Guitar instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: Brazilian-style, nylon-string master, session king and Sting’s right-hand man, Dominic Miller.
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals?
DM: Being a guitarist I would say there is no better instrument to interpret a solo piece, mainly because of the range in pitch and six-part polyphony. Some pianists might argue. Hi Jason Rebello!
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal song can’t?
DM: I think instrumentals can provide a more subliminal narrative, making for a more interactive dialogue with the listener. When I hear instrumentals I create my own stories and connect with the player and composer.
GT: Are there any tendencies that you aim to embrace or avoid, such as rhythms, harmony, playing approach, tones?
DM: Taking away all ego (which is hard for us lot), just tell the story and only shred if entirely necessary. Ask yourself if you’re making music for guitarists or for people who like music.
GT: Is a typical song structure (intro, verse, chorus, etc) always relevant for an instrumental?
DM: Absolutely! Following the ‘laws’ of songwriting form and structure always makes for a more rewarding experience all round. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great songwriters and these have been a huge influence on how I approach composition.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach for constructing guitar melodies?
DM: I definitely get a lot out of listening to different vocal styles, particularly listening out for phrasing, breath control, microphone technique, and ways of projecting a melody.
GT: How do you start writing one; is there a typical approach?
DM: Combination of inspiration, perspiration and luck. The key is recognising when you have a good idea, which is usually either a simple motif or relationship between two chords, and then
honouring it by doing the hard graft. I love that process which can be time-consuming, taking me on a huge journey and exploring all harmonic and melodic options. On a lucky day a piece kind of writes itself and you just take dictation. In the end I follow my instinct and personal taste.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
DM: I always ask myself if I’d sit through one of my gigs till the end. If I keep this in mind I make sure I don’t ‘leave the room’ by having a good pace with the show. I try not to be too serious while keeping it deep. Interacting with the audience helps, and I like to include a cover or two.
GT: Many vocal songs feature a guitar solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this useful for developing pace and dynamics in an instrumental?
I ask myself if i’d sit through one of my gigs to the end. i make sure i Don’t ‘leave the room’ by having good pace
DM: Hmmm. Tricky question. I think we have to go back to a previous question and focus on song form. Then if there’s a ‘solo’ within an instrumental piece handle with care.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
DM: That’s a very personal topic. My preference is acoustic guitars, mainly nylon. I get the sound that’s in my ears. It might not be to everyone’s taste but it is to mine.
GT: Do you have favourite keys or tempos, either to write or play in?
DM: Absolutely not. It’s all dependant on the composition. My default setting veers towards moody music so sometimes I like to get away from that and do some up-tempo riffing for the boys!
GT: The cliché is ‘major for happy, minor for sad’. Do you find minor or major keys easier to write in?
DM: Same as above. Actually, writing in a major key is very difficult especially if you want to write something deep (a good exercise). We do love our minor chords us guitarists. We need to lighten up a bit!
GT: Do you have any favourite modes in which to write or play?
DM: Modes, shmodes. Never studied modes. I just play what I hear. I’m not against the academic approach to music, which can serve you well. I’ve maybe just been too lazy to get that deeply into it.
GT: Modulations into new keys are either a great way to lift a piece, or a bit of a cliché. What’s your view?
DM: Now you’re talking! I love a good key change. Nothing more satisfying. I’m always looking for one in every piece. Sometimes they’re not needed but always worth a crack. My least favourite perhaps is going up a semitone, à la Barry Manilow.
GT: Do you view the band differently when fronting it as an instrumentalist, than when playing support on others’ songs?
DM: Not particularly. Same rules apply. Serve the music first.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies? Some have said it can sound corny...
DM: Good question. I think one should be careful here because re-harmonising is like saying I’ve got a better way of telling the story. Would I try to come up with a better melody on a Bach piece? I could try but methinks not.
GT: Can you give us three guitar instrumentals that you consider iconic, or have inspired you.
DM: Cavaquinho by Egberto Gismonti; Are You Going With Me by Pat Metheny; Diamond Dust by Jeff Beck.
Dominic’s new album Silent Night is out now. For more info on his tour dates and to buy CD and vinyl albums go to dominicmiller.com
Dominic: has played many a session on this old Strat
Here Dominic is playing his black K Yairi nylonstring electro