the intro
The Modern Guitarist


Problems with Perception

Classical Music

Art Music Vs Popular

A Diversity of Styles

The Frustrated Life of the Soloist

The high music world does not have a monopoly of ... sophisticated musical skills ... Many guitarists in the world of pop and rock are, in their way, as great as our concert-hall heroes of the keyboard and masters of the flying staccato. (The Changing Face of Music, Hugo Cole {p.148})

Let's talk about dedication: it's something all the players in this book will know about first hand. Dedication. When I first made the decision to write a book about modern guitar players, the idea I had in mind was a comprehensive and informative study of the phenomenon (often referred to as 'shred'), its exponents and ramifications. Band biographies multiply in their hundreds, many written about the same bands and individuals. At no point had I ever come across a book-length work on modern guitarists and their contribution to the rock/fusion/thrash and metal scene. Unless one happens to buy the specialist guitar magazines there is little out there for the 'shred fans'; or indeed the merely curious. Hence this book.

However, this isn't the only reason for writing it. Another, perhaps more important one, is to celebrate talent and acknowledge hard work. In a world where this is often sadly resented, even denigrated, it's surely time that great musicians -- in this case guitarists -- were praised for what they have achieved as opposed to being criticised for that which they, apparently, have not. More to the point, this book may be viewed as a gathering together of talent under one umbrella; one which encompasses all styles of music and actively discourages the kind of in-fighting and egotism which can exist in the field. So let's congratulate virtue, put aside misinformed perception, and concentrate on what New-Age guitar playing is all about and how it's best served by its protagonists.

Problems with Perception

Perhaps the main problem is the jargon. The term 'technique', for example, is much abhorred by critics and rock fans alike. It is often used in hackneyed accusations, for example: '...a player with a great technique and no sensitivity or song-writing ability', and yet the dictionary definition of 'technique' is: 'skill required for mastery of (a) subject'. The point often missed (or dismissed) when discussing a technical player -- whether he/she be a guitarist or a clarinettist -- is that by possessing great skill a musician extends the range of possibility: the better one can play, the more varied and interesting will be the musical creation.

Guitar Player magazine, November 1990 (p.73), had the following to say in respect of the musical technician:

Purely technical playing devoid of musical content can become tedious in a short time ...Yet, when combined with imagination and taste, physical facility is an extremely powerful tool that many musicians spend endless hours attaining.

A knowledgeable player is just as relevant to the sphere of music he plays within as one less able but with, say, an unique style. Technical ability is a nebulous topic, to say the least. It's probable, that if, in the early 80s, one had asked either Yngwie Malmsteen or Marty Friedman why they 'played so fast', their initial response might well have been, 'What do you mean?'; which is simply to say that they achieved their individual styles through technique, and the question is therefore irrelevant. It's unlikely that such players consciously think 'fast'. Speed, in itself, is a natural progression from accuracy. It is this failure to comprehend basic principles that can hamstring one's appreciation from the outset.

This sort of misconception takes the form of throwaway phrases like: 'There's no feeling'; 'They play from the head, not the heart'. Thus, listeners who might, for example, hear one or two guitar tracks adopt the blissfully ignorant view of the populace at large. An example of this is the potential listener who may find him or herself put off by the elitism of classical music; its condescending exclusion of anybody other than the middle-class purist. One of the aims of this book is to avoid clique-iness and by doing so show that there's something for everyone in the crazy world of modern guitar playing.

Classical Music: Its Implications & Expression in Modern Rock Guitar

(i) The Origins

The late 60s/early 70s witnessed a variety of progressive bands making use of classical music in a rock setting -- bands like E.L.P. and King Crimson (see their 1969 release, In the Court of the Crimson King featuring Robert Fripp's experimental guitar work). The 80s, on the other hand, saw a displacement; punk, hard-core and New-Wave music replaced the previous decade's classical rock bands.* In the wider sense though, this was only a perceived view; within the sub-genre of guitar music a revival was underway: classical modes were being re-interpreted in a rock-based context. There was a sort of spill-over from the 70s; bands like Rainbow and Deep Purple appealed to newer musicians because, properly played, classical music has a tendency to translate well in a rock setting. Eighties players merely needed to update and re-define that sound.

Arguably the improvisational form that constitutes much of so-called 'rock' music does not allow much leeway with regards to tabulating its melodies; and in the same way, classical notation cannot express even the most undemanding blues or rock solos. However, in light of 80s classical rock experimentation -- so-called 'neo-classical' -- one might ask, 'What if, in a reversal of the above concept, blues/rock guitarists were to express classical notation?'. The neo-classical guitar player -- the notion in itself a paradox because of the combination of classical ideas with the chaos of rock music -- is at once a conformist (the music is complex, often strictly tabulated and carefully imagined at the writing stage) and at the same time unrestrained in his method of performance (which may be physically energetic and prone to improvisation).

(ii) The Arrival of Yngwie

A guitarist who demonstrates this principle in action is Yngwie Malmsteen. When this Swedish guitar player first appeared on the scene it was as if the guitar had been taught to speak a foreign language. It caused nothing short of sensation; an extremely proficient guitarist using classical ideas in a hard rock context. He may not have been the first to have done so. And the sound that was to make Malmsteen famous could hardly be termed original; players like Randy Rhoads and Ulrich Roth had previously dabbled with this form. But most people's initial experience of neo-classical guitar music was that of Yngwie himself. Indeed, to most guitarists and fans of that instrument, Yngwie is and always will be 'Mr. Classical'.

Interesting though this is, it hardly advances the question of why such a perennial kind of music -- classical -- could be simultaneously popularised and shunned by the record-buying public at large with the arrival of Yngwie Malmsteen.

Problems with Perception -- Part 2: Art Music Vs Popular

The problems inherent in appreciating modern guitar music have a parallel in the problems associated with classical music. Classical, being such a precise sort of music, is arguably ill-suited to hard rock, certainly up to the arrival of Malmsteen.

In Discovering Classical Music Ian Christians (p.2) lists three factors which exclude potential listeners of classical:

Firstly, 'The unattractive association of classical music with snob value.' Secondly, the fact that BBC Radio 3/Classic FM is usually only considered as suitable for serious music lovers, an obstacle in attracting a potential audience. Thirdly, he talks about, 'The past intellectual elitism of some in the classical music industry, who seemed to prefer that it was kept exclusive.'

In response it's possible to use our own -- hypothetical -- parallels:

The first instance, that of 'snob value', could be contrasted with the reluctance of critics to give serious consideration to neo-classical guitar music. After all, classical music, in any modernised form, has to undergo a breakdown of snobbery before it is accepted. But 80s classical guitar music was not, for the most part, the pretentious, often forced-sounding classical rock of certain 70s bands; it was more carefully constructed and taken more seriously by its creators.

The second instance might be seen, in reverse, as the reluctance of popular music stations to give air-play to rock and metal bands (let alone neo-classical guitar music). And thirdly, there are similarities between the self-possessiveness of some figures in the classical music industry with the often narrow-minded reluctance of modern guitarists to appeal to anyone but other guitarists. Thus a lack of players unwilling (or unable) to break from the clique in which they promote themselves and offer their services to a more commercial but less creatively satisfying band situation.

Whatever one thinks of the relevance of classical music in a rock context, such a fresh and exciting realisation as that effected by Yngwie and his contemporaries meant that -- in the 80s, at least -- neo-classical guitar was here to stay.

A Diversity of Styles

A lot of people get locked into thinking about music the same way: The classical-music listener who thinks music died with Brahms, the jazz buff who thinks music started with King Oliver, the rock fan who can't listen to anything without a beat -- they're all unwilling to hear anything but their own musical language. (New Sounds -- The Virgin Guide To New Music by John Schaefer {p.xiv})

Players (and fans) of guitar music are also unlikely to be receptive to, say, jazz or world music. There are those who live and die for one kind of guitar music but are not willing to try the wider spectrum that exists within guitar circles. In the same book, the author says: jazz, rock has long been open to external influences: Elements of jazz, ethnic, electronic, and classical music have been used, effectively or not, by rock musicians. (p.242)

Whilst Schaefer is talking about rock in general, the point is nevertheless relevant to rock guitar: that musician who experiments with Eastern scalar modes in a rock setting is no less pertinent than one who incorporates such popular forms as the blues and classical. As Eddie Van Halen once said (in Guitar World, February 1990 {p.59}):

'There're so many good players around -- I'm not in competition with them ... Music is such a personal thing. How can you say someone's better than someone else?'

The important consideration is whether a player is talented enough (or knowledgeable enough -- has he, for instance, studied Indian musical traditions or just 'messed about' with a sitar?) to pull it off.

Although a listener shouldn't be judgmental about one sort of guitarist and his music, neither should he have set opinions about an instrument's character. Whilst, for example, a horn can represent haunting music (e.g. a John Barry film score), romantic tunes can often be accomplished with horns too. In the same way, the guitar can communicate many things, from dynamics to fear, anger or beauty.

The Frustrated Life of the Soloist

Today's talented young players aim to fulfil three main objectives: (i) creative freedom and the ability to dictate terms; (ii) the cultivation of a recognisable style; (iii) plus, all anticipate (but are never assured of) fame and acceptance.

The life of the lead guitarist is an especially hard one. The unknown solo player may live in hope for many years; enter -- and often win -- talent contests and competitions; hone 'chops' and develop transferable skills; all with the aim of achieving that essential but elusive break.

*Although the point is largely ignored, the likes of Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore helped to popularise this form of music in the 80s with their near 'revolutionary' rock-based interpretation; in the 90s it would make a mainstream 'comeback' due to the work of violinist Nigel Kennedy, the film Amadeus (based on the life of Mozart) and the 1990 World Cup which re-introduced the aria 'Nessun Dorma' (Puccini) to a wide audience. It's interesting to debate whether certain modern guitar players helped precipitate this phenomenon before anyone else.

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

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