theory

Digging for Greatness: What Happened to the Era of Great Guitar Players?

It is well recognized that the days of gun-slinging guitar players such as Jimi Hendrix, and Leslie West are well over. The countless rock shows filled with the fluff and theatrics of burning guitars, four hour long guitar solos, and the ear-shattering volume of Marshall amplifiers three stories high have all retired, along with those who originally performed this way. However, what happened to The Greats?

No, we haven’t lost these awe-inspiring heroes of old such as Jimmy Page or Stevie Ray Vaughan to the sands of time, but where are the creative geniuses destined to follow in their footsteps? The answer is more complex than one might think. The qualities one must have to become a Great would follow along the lines of an innovator, a developer of a new approach, skillful in playing at any genre, speed, or creative setting, and has a tone all their own. A master in the same way that Picasso was a master artisan, pioneering the French impressionist period. Today, a bit if digging is needed to find anything close to players of this caliber.

To begin with the understanding of why such a strange phenomena of the extinction of Great has occurred, the musical equipment used by today’s industry must first be understood and scrutinized. Digital and easy to replicate equipment such as effect pedals, amplifiers, and other such tonal shaping tools have been glorified and over-exaggerated before being drafted into the newest versions of any major recording equipment/software. To get one’s hands on the tone of their “idols” is a matter of downloading an App, rather than slaving away in a hot garage over a single guitar, a single amplifier. Sure, this way is more comfortable, but what or where is the creativity?

Although such new technology is an absolute Godsend to those such as I who record and write on a weekly basis, it must work hand in hand with creativity and genius, in order to reproduce anything greater than what was created in the first place. That being said, the creative force which drives any musician worth his or her salt is diminished the moment the individual does not have to think for themselves; putting their brain on auto-pilot whilst software works out a melody for them. This in turn removes the ideas of music theory from them; not knowing why certain chord changes work together, or even why scales are made up in the manner in which they are laid out, only that because it sounds “right” to them, that it goes together. Now in a way, this is not a bad thing. After all, that is the basic institution of ear-training is it not? But something like a brilliant software like Garageband can have its limitations on the human psyche before the spirit of songwriting a skill starts to diminish.

The Greats of olde began learning to play guitar in a time when such recording and writing techniques were in their infancy. Reel-to-reel, 4-Track, and other such magnetic tape-based recording devices were primarily all there were to offer in a recording sense no matter your level of proficiency or fame. Not only were recording techniques shrewd by today’s standards, but the way these musicians learned to play is a giant determining factor to their greatness. Often growing up poor, many of The Greats grew up with nothing to do or play with, other than maybe a beat up old guitar. It probably didn’t play well, and it may not have even had strings, however these musicians at a young age began to innovate the way they played guitar based on the restrictions they had naturally placed upon themselves as young players.

Today, even cheap guitars can easily be made to play fantastically well, but as a teacher, I personally warn against having your guitars adjusted to playing too nicely for the first few years of learning. Otherwise you spoil your hands, giving them nothing to build resistance and muscle tone/memory upon. Of course, this is merely a way to familiarize oneself with making precision movements over the fretboard, etc under any playing circumstance, strengthening the hands and forcing one to spend copious amounts of time fine tuning one’s own personal technique. I’ve told many people who assume because they are buying breathtakingly expensive equipment who think they’ll have a perfect tone that “you’re doing it all backwards”. You struggle, fight it, learn it, bond with it. Spend thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars rather than thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours perfecting one’s own personal sound. After all, some of the most iconic music of the 20th century was written and recorded on surprisingly cheap and sometimes hard to play equipment.

The next aspect of said conundrum involves the discipline with playing at such a high level of expertise. The musicians which you see recording the most timeless music with the most elegant and complex styles are the ones who have absolutely dedicated their lives to the instrument, not surprisingly the song. Once one has mastered the instrument, and type of genre of music or complexity of song is remarkably achievable with a relatively small matter of practice in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of hours locked away in a quiet room repeating the mantra of scales and chordings, over and over again. in the same way that a Buddhist monk meditates to the point of Nirvana, a musician must play to the point of perfection on his instrument; until it has become little more than the extension of one’s body.

Glen Hansard's "Horse"

Of course in a world where we as a people are collectively more and more busy with our day to day lives, much of the time tha could have been spent is used for our careers, education, etc. This makes and effort of concentration and learning that much more difficult, with only a few finding the time between life and sleep to actually do any learning. This is why it is to one’s best advantage that he or she begins the process of learning guitar as early in life as possible, building a strong foundation to build with as the musician grows older, and more busy. As always with any art form-turned hobby, here are those who believe that playing twenty to thirty minutes a day, not to mention the same musical pieces and warm-ups will become exponentially better. This is sadly quite the opposite. If everyone was able to sit down on their lunch break and learn as such, there would be much fewer accounts and lawyers graduating with degrees, but rather touring to sold out theaters.

Dedication is, before anything else, the deciding factor on the proficiency of any given musician. Bar none.

This still is not all that is required of an individual to truly become one of The Greats. The quality and personality of one’s tone is crucial to being heard differently by an audience. The biggest problem I have seen in recent years is the crutch of the pedalboard. Guitarists in particular have be slowly increasing the size of their pedalboards for years, but what does that matter? That creates left-brained thinkers and innovators, right? Well yes and no. Yes to whosoever is using their effects not to drown out their mistakes or the fact that they are in all honesty, awful at guitar, but only to color the sound or palate, or use the effects to all together aid in the melody that he or her the musician has created. No to whosoever is using them, believes they are “pushing the boundaries”, but are doing nothing more than following the current trends of every other player with an Instagram or Flickr account. These pedalboards usually consist of a few low gain overdrives, a volume pedal (as if hand dynamics have gone extinct), a delay or two, and a reverb. Every last person sounds exactly the same as the others. Same guitars. Same amplifiers. No talent. No dedication. This is how musicians believe they are changing the way they approach music. They couldn’t be more wrong.

If you love effects as much has I do, use them properly. Use them for the reason they were invented to be used; to make one sound like no one else on the airwaves to date. Change the order of effects, use them for things that don’t make sense (like a Fuzz pedal for an overdrive). Yes, it will be experimental, and no, one will not always like what one hears, but if one can combine the quality of their musicianship with their drive to sound like oneself, one’s voice will be heard. I myself had a similar problem up until recently, when I realized this every problem. As most people who build equipment setups this way, my cleans were too squeaky, my drives too grainy, my guitar too thin, and my delay too “Edge-ish”. So I did the best thing there was for me to do. I removed my pedalboard, changed my amp settings, and adjusted my guitar. For 6 weeks I forced myself to play nothing other than the ideas that came out of my head, making me incredibly vulnerable.

I was vulnerable in a beautiful way. I began to experiment, and learn as if I had just picked up the guitar for the first time in years. I began learning Middle Eastern guitar techniques and Indian guitar, Japanese scales and South American chord voicings. I reinvented the wheel, and that is how a Great comes to fruition. I am not stating such things in order to brag and worship myself, but rather to inform that even I after fourteen years of playing, am learning at an alarming rate, and if I can, why can’t those stuck in this observational rut of being musically dead do exactly the same. The answer is they can. The problem is no one has told them so. But what is genius and divine inspiration if one has to be told to do so? It is nothing more than the catalyst for the same reason we have to problem with uninteresting players flooding the market for those who can actually play today. Everything they learn comes from somewhere else, not themselves.