RE­DEFIN­ING THE ROCK GOD

THE NEW BREED OF ELEC­TRIC GUI­TAR HEROES

In Flight Magazine - - TOTALLY TASTY - { TEXT: KEN MUR­RAY: SE­NIOR LEC­TURER IN GUI­TAR, MEL­BOURNE CON­SER­VA­TO­RIUM OF MU­SIC, UNI­VER­SITY OF MEL­BOURNE / WWW.THE­CON­VER­SA­TION.COM | IMAGES © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM }

Is this true? I’d ar­gue we still have plenty, with artists such as Jack White and St Vin­cent lead­ing the pack. At the same time, the elec­tric gui­tar is evolv­ing as an in­stru­ment. It fea­tures in­creas­ingly in con­tem­po­rary art mu­sic en­sem­bles. But what makes a gui­tar hero? Let’s con­sider some of the maestros first.

THE GUI­TAR LEG­ENDS

One of the first and most en­dur­ing of th­ese was the late Chuck Berry, with his unique fu­sion of rhythm & blues and coun­try mu­sic.The Bea­tles and Rolling Stones cov­ered his songs. Many artists em­u­lated his show­man­ship and at­ti­tude.

The rock gui­tar solo fur­ther de­vel­oped in the 1960s and 70s as play­ers such as Jimi Hen­drix, Eric Clap­ton and Jeff Beck pi­o­neered a blues-based style of vir­tu­osic solo­ing.The elec­tric gui­tar played a key role in the panoply of rock gui­tar styles that de­vel­oped in the 1970s. How­ever, it has been many decades since the air­waves were ruled by the sounds of gui­tar gods like Jimmy Page,An­gusYoung or Ed­dieVan Halen.

1980s pop mu­sic em­braced syn­the­siz­ers, key­boards and new tech­nol­ogy such as the Fairlight com­puter. Rather than lim­it­ing the use of the elec­tric gui­tar, this shift led to a broad­en­ing of the sonic pal­ette, with in­no­va­tive gui­tarists

THE ELEC­TRIC GUI­TAR SYM­BOL­ISES RE­BEL­LION, FREE­DOM, EX­CESS AND YOUTH. BUT WITH THE CLAS­SIC ROCK PE­RIOD WELL BE­HIND US, IS IT IN DAN­GER OF BE­COM­ING A FADED RELIC? The Washington Post RE­CENTLY RE­PORTED ON DE­CLIN­ING SALES IN THE AMER­I­CAN ELEC­TRIC GUI­TAR IN­DUS­TRY, WITH SOME MAN­U­FAC­TUR­ERS EX­PRESS­ING CON­CERNS ABOUT ITS FU­TURE. ONE REA­SON FOR THIS WAS SAID TO BE A LACK OF CUR­RENT GUI­TAR HEROES.

adding tex­tu­ral depth and a new range of colours. In­flu­en­tial ex­po­nents of this play­ing style in­clude Johnny Marr of the Smiths, U2’s The Edge and Andy Sum­mers of The Po­lice. Their sub­tle mu­si­cian­ship ush­ered in a new type of gui­tar hero.

In the 1990s, the dom­i­nant sound of grunge bands such as Nir­vana, Soundgar­den and Pearl Jam was an elec­tric gui­tar, of­ten dis­torted. Grunge mu­si­cians val­ued the in­stru­ment more for tex­ture, vol­ume, en­ergy and tonal rough­ness than vir­tu­osic so­los.

Mean­while, English band Ra­dio­head was re­leas­ing gui­tar­dom­i­nated al­bums such as Pablo Honey (1993), The Bends (1995) and OK Com­puter (1997). Gui­tarists Johnny Green­wood and Ed O’Brien sup­plied mus­cu­lar riffs, am­bi­ent tex­tures, and blis­ter­ing so­los to th­ese three al­bums.They were at times rem­i­nis­cent of pro­gres­sive mu­si­cians such as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, while also draw­ing on the tex­tu­ral style of the 1980s.

On later Ra­dio­head songs, such as Op­ti­mistic, the gui­tar work is char­ac­ter­ized by a rhyth­mic yet rough and rel­a­tively “un­schooled” style of strum­ming. Green­wood and O’Brien’s role in the band ex­panded to in­clude ad­di­tional in­stru­ments, com­po­si­tion and ar­range­ment.

THE NEW ELEC­TRIC VIRTUOSOS

The early 2000s was char­ac­terised by a re­turn to the roots of pop­u­lar mu­sic forms, whether the blues, coun­try mu­sic, rock and roll, funk or Mo­town. There are many won­der­ful ex­po­nents of blues-based elec­tric-gui­tar play­ers ac­tive now – a short list would in­clude Gary Clark Ju­nior, Joe Bona­massa and Derek Trucks. Still, 21st cen­tury pop, in gen­eral, is not burst­ing with shred­ding elec­tric gui­tar vir­tu­osi, but rather song­writ­ers and mav­er­icks who use the in­stru­ment to cre­ate a per­sonal style.

Jack White, who sums up this ap­proach, might be our cen­tury’s most prom­i­nent elec­tric gui­tar hero. White com­bines a love of blues and coun­try mu­sic with a re­turn to sim­plic­ity in both record­ing and live per­for­mance. He also wrote one of the most fa­mous gui­tar riffs of the 2000s,“Seven Na­tion Army”.

Another strong con­tender for the role is An­nie Clark, aka St Vin­cent. A phe­nom­e­nally gifted singer, lyri­cist, elec­tric gui­tarist and per­former, St Vin­cent is an ad­ven­tur­ous and trailblazing mu­si­cian, em­brac­ing elec­tronic mu­sic, al­ter­na­tive sounds and el­e­ments of pro­gres­sive rock. Like White, St Vin­cent em­braces im­per­fec­tions, en­ergy and spon­tane­ity in her play­ing, which is a high­light of live per­for­mances. Like many pi­o­neer­ing pro­gres­sive rock artists (the Moody Blues, King Crim­son, Frank Zappa), she draws on as­pects of con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic and has writ­ten cham­ber mu­sic for the Amer­i­can en­sem­ble yMu­sic.

While sales of the elec­tric gui­tar may have stag­nated, in the past 20 years, the in­stru­ment has be­come in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial in con­tem­po­rary art mu­sic. One pi­o­neer here is the Amer­i­can gui­tarist and com­poser Steven Mackey. Prom­i­nent new mu­sic en­sem­bles such as Bang on a Can, the In­ter­na­tional Con­tem­po­rary En­sem­ble and Aus­tralia’s Eli­sion En­sem­ble have em­braced the elec­tric gui­tar. In fact, it has changed as­pects of how th­ese groups op­er­ate, due partly to am­pli­fi­ca­tion and bal­ance is­sues and the op­por­tu­nity to use elec­tronic ef­fects across all the in­stru­ments in an en­sem­ble.

There are many won­der­ful works for the elec­tric gui­tar, in­clud­ing mu­sic by Aus­tralian com­posers Ge­orge Lenz and An­drew Ford which were first per­formed by the Syd­ney-based new mu­sic spe­cial­ist Zane Banks. And in early June, two elec­tric gui­tar sym­phonies writ­ten by New York com­poser Glenn Branca had their Aus­tralian pre­miere. His use of drones, al­ter­na­tive tun­ings and mass elec­tric gui­tars has in­flu­enced both clas­si­cal and rock mu­si­cians. In my own work with the MCM en­sem­ble Three (trum­pet, trom­bone and gui­tar) I have found the elec­tric gui­tar a per­fect foil to the brass in­stru­ments.

GUI­TAR WOMEN AND SHREDDERS

There have been some great fe­male elec­tric gui­tar soloists, from the pi­o­neer­ing gospel blues of Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe to per­form­ers Nancy Wil­son (Heart), Joan Jett (The Ru­n­aways, Joan Jett and the Black­hearts) and Car­rie Brown­stein (Sleater-Kin­ney). Aus­tralian Adalita Srsen (Magic Dirt) has been a lead­ing gui­tarist for years and fel­low Aus­tralian Court­ney Bar­nett has achieved in­ter­na­tional fame with her un­der­stated elec­tric gui­tar ac­com­pa­ni­ment style.

A more solois­tic rock style is rep­re­sented in the work of Danielle Haim (Haim) and Donna Gran­tis from Prince’s band 3rd­eye Girl. Th­ese are all gui­tar heroes to in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion of per­form­ers.

Com­pared to the mu­sic of the 70s, gui­tar so­los are on the wane in main­stream rock and pop. But in the gen­res of heavy metal and pro­gres­sive rock, shred­ding (rapid, high en­ergy, vir­tu­osic play­ing) is still a val­ued form of ex­pres­sion. Many of th­ese “pro­gres­sive” gui­tarists work with gui­tar mak­ers, thereby en­cour­ag­ing de­sign­ers to come up with new prod­ucts (such as the seven-string elec­tric – now used by many metal gui­tarists – de­signed for play­ing low, heavy riffs). Vir­tu­oso gui­tarists Dave Mus­taine (Me­gadeath), Kirt Ham­met (Me­tal­lica) and John Petrucci (Dream Theatre) have been in­flu­enc­ing young shredders for decades.

In short, the elec­tric gui­tar is evolv­ing. A new breed of gui­tarists are pluck­ing, strum­ming, shred­ding, riff­ing, ex­per­i­ment­ing and am­pli­fy­ing their way into the fu­ture.

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