into the 90s
The Modern Guitarist

Into the 90s

Musical experts have been predicting the end of hard rock/heavy metal for at least two generations, yet its popularity hasn't decreased one iota. Whilst New-Age pop saturated the 80s -- in much the same way that rave/house music populates an increasingly vacuous 90s -- heavy rock, along with jazz and classical, are the mainstay of the 90s.

The same is true of guitar music. This sub-section of popular music has itself undergone several transformations, from the improvisational 70s, through the neo-classical 80s, to the blues dominated 90s. But the fact is irrefutable -- the guitar still has plenty to say, and lots of ways with which to say it. Unfortunately, certain rumours have arisen recently, leading to misleading proclamations like 'Shred Is Dead' and 'Speed Is Out' which simply pander to the idea that every few years one must predict the demise of the technique-based guitar player. Yet guitar music continues to flourish; 'progression' is the keyword of the new decade with musicians building strong musical constructions upon solid 80s foundations, expanding their knowledge, diversifying, formulating new styles and utilising them within the framework of original, intelligent expression.

In New Sounds (p.xi) John Schaefer states his description of so-called 'new-music': that falls into the grey areas between classical and rock, ethnic and jazz, Eastern and Western, electronic and acoustic.

One could extend this definition to cover guitar music in the 80s. Not only did that decade's diversity allow people to hear the music of the East (Marty Friedman, Tony Fredianelli), but also classical (Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore), fusion (Frank Gambale, Steve Morse) and jazz (Pat Metheny, John Scofield), all inserted into a rock format; all, in effect, borrowing from various genres, adapting the most suitable elements from each to create a 'new-music' of their own. And this isn't to mention exciting neo-blues players like Greg Howe and Richie Kotzen, and progressive virtuosos like Ron Jarzombec (Watchtower) and John Petrucci (Dream Theater).

Rarely does one musical generation stand in perfect isolation; players of the 90s borrow from their heroes of the 80s; likewise many 80s guitarists looked to the previous decade's 'innovators' for inspiration. The 70s was a time of experimentation and improvisation, at least for guitar players. Jazz-rock ensembles, like John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Gary Moore's Colosseum II incorporated the looser structure of 70s songs, resulting in endless keyboard/guitar duels with less emphasis the catchy hooks of mid-80s rock. These were the bands that influenced the next decade's guitar masters -- players who took on board the pertinent elements of that era and created styles of their own which if not new, were at least incisively presented.

Mike Varney (owner of the Shrapnel label, and arguably the godfather of modern guitar music) made the following comment in Guitar World, July 1987 (p.45):

'Hendrix was the guitar hero of the sixties. Van Halen was the guitar hero of the seventies. I'm going to make it my job to find the guitar hero for the eighties.'

He certainly made good on his word -- by the end of the decade, Varney's Shrapnel label was almost solely responsible for revitalising 70s instrumental music in an 80s rock setting; for supplanting outmoded musical concepts with talented and inventive young players who could update them. Varney introduced not one 'guitar hero' but many; for the guitar fan it was the cultural equivalent of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal revival being invoked in a purely six-stringed setting.

Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme) said of the guitar-playing eighties:

'The 80s were just so weird ... it was definitely an era where people were taking the guitar itself to some new place.' (Guitar World, May 1990 {p.62})

Which pretty much describes that trend-setting decade, its unrestrained experimentation and startling technical advances. The 80s, being the haven of talented individuals that it was, could hardly fail to produce another generation of similarly exciting musicians. Whether these are direct descendants of that decade's most prominent players, or whether they look to the 60s and 70s to formulate a style; whether they've been playing for years but have only recorded demos; or whether they choose make a completely original statement, today's players are more than up to the task of taking 'shred' into the next decade -- and beyond.

It's been an interesting decade. As well as generating several fine young guitarists, the 90s witnessed our best 80s exponents, players like George Lynch, Steve Vai and Allan Holdsworth, moving with (and against) the times, releasing continually intriguing product and honing song-writing/compositional skills alongside consummate technical ability. Players like these, old and new, will keep the flag of excellence snapping in the wind for a long time to come.

Alongside those who create are those that promote; for today's musicians to survive and prosper, there is a requirement for good specialist record labels and magazines. These are admirably met by institutions like Mark Varney's (brother of Mike Varney) Legato label -- now unfortunately defunct -- a company which encouraged diverse contributions from new and established guitarists. His Guitar on the Edge CD's included demo/album recordings, giving otherwise low profile players the chance to be heard by fans and fellow musicians. There are also knowledgeable and tolerant magazines, such as Guitar World, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Guitar Player, and British fanzine G-Force (also sadly defunct).

Yet despite such an active and continually expanding guitar scene, some still predict doomsday for instrumental music. In 1993 one leading guitar magazine devoted an entire feature to the perennial question: 'Is shred dead?' But just as the hard rock sector (that spawned many of today's guitarists) changes to absorb current trends and ideas, so the six-string community alters its persona to satisfy its audience. The neo-classical-dominated 80s was, for better or worse, replaced by a neo-blues revival in the 90s. Whether it will prosper is questionable; for many, the blues, however well up-dated, is a very unimaginative medium to work in. Also, this current trend lacks the freshness and ingenuity of incorporating complex classical ideas into a modern instrumental setting. Thank God then for players like Michael Romeo (Symphony X) and Timo Tolkki (Stratovarious) who will keep the classical flame burning as we enter the next millennium.

The most interesting of today's players utilise blues, rock, jazz, fusion, classical and other disparate styles to make challenging instrumental music. 'Shred' is just as unlikely to disappear from our lives in the next decade as it was in the last. As long as guitarists continue to learn from yesterday's masters and strive to build better creations with the tools of an increasingly expansive technical knowledge, instrumental guitar music will prosper for years to come.

Taken from The Modern Guitarist: A History of Rock Guitar Since the Seventies, Mad Matt Music Publishing 1995

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