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Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar

December 26, 2010

I’ve often criticised many modern bands not for lacking in instrumentality or musical skills, but in articulation. That is, I find it a disappointing trend that less bands display their musical virtuosity, not just through a lack of solos but also through general streamlining of songwriting. It’s wrong to compare every band to Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, where guitar and organ solos are prominent in many tracks, as rock music has undoubtedly evolved and to simply rehash the ideas of the past is no real form of creativity. Yet, despite some views of guitar solos as “wanking”, or as an illegitimate form of expression, musical ability is very much a part of rock music, and is not simply constricted to running lines on a lead instrument while the band plays time.

Musical ability doesn’t inherently refer to a supremely skilled musician. After all, isn’t the punk ethos based off destroying pretension? Isn’t rock music itself the ultimate testament to mind over matter, in which anyone who can play a few chords can write a song? Those who don’t have great chops aren’t necessarily lesser musicians – an overused but still relevant example is The Edge, who’s always been an interesting and solid guitarist, despite his minimalist tendencies and lack of technical chops. He discussed in the documentary It Might Get Loud, which is well worth seeing, how he likes to think before he plays, to pick up his instrument to explore new ideas.

Yet in my experience I’ve often been confused as to why bands with good players don’t loosen their playing slightly, and allow themselves to jam more collaboratively. Muse is a band I cite as possessing solid musicians – interesting bass lines from Chris, solid and occasionally creative (albeit at times repetitive) drumming from Dom and clearly skilled keyboards and guitar work from Matt. However, for their degrees of skill, it’s rare to hear moments in which their playing is differentiated from the work of some session hack – Knights of Cydonia for instance, has a few busy drum fills and some great guitar lines. But why then must so much of their other work be constrained by repetitive drum beats, bass lines and guitar riffs? I often wonder why bands, especially in concert, don’t play more material representing a solid set of musicians bouncing off each other with the level of familiarity and interplay they presumably have behind the scenes.  Why play that guitar solo the same way each night, when you can extend it for sixteen bars to create a stronger musical statement, one that takes its time to develop and lead into a strong climax? David Gilmour’s Comfortably Numb solo is a great example (see – he and other guitarists who played with Roger Waters always used the original as a framework (it was pieced together in the studio after all), not only extending it but improvising within it, so that it became one complete statement, wonderfully executed.

Similarly, how is Jack White’s self-avowed bluesman status affirmed by his refusal to play material beyond garage rock or traditional blues? How is it becoming a sell-out to use one’s ability to its greatest potential? Of course that’s not to claim that every musician should play ridiculously technical and progressive music – after all, simpler music affects us very strongly and is often very fun to play – why else have pop and rock been so popular over the last century? The point remains though, how did we ever come to this point in which truth merchants are only those who keep their music simpler? Why develop such a keen and cultivated understanding of music, particularly the blues in Jack White’s case, only to restrict it? Is he not limiting himself, and becoming a cliche like the supposed “white-blues” rock bands he tires of, the Led Zeppelins and AC/DC’s? By keeping to his very familiar formula, isn’t he just perpetuating the idea of blues as being a particular strain of this or that, and not the ever evolving and dynamic genre he claims it to be? Like any traditionalist, to continue in the same style is to sew the seeds of your own irrelevance.

I’m a fan of jazz, fusion, heavy metal, psychedelic and progressive rock. It’s understandable that I dig solos and extended pieces much more than many other people do, my brother shares this trait as do a fair few of my friends. But along with the ever-present danger of over-indulgence, that is, forgetting to actually write a song, there is the danger of under-indulgence, in seeking so hard to not conform to any mold that one actually begins to epitomise blandness.

Good musicians feel no compulsion to demonstrate their talents for arbitrary showcases of skill. They work their ability into their material. It’s no imperative, but it’s still disheartening to see good musicians not extend their instrumental talents into their recordings and performances. After all, we’re paying for your material, why not acknowledge that people think you’re good and would like to hear more of you?


From → Music

  1. kshizzle permalink

    i think that’s sometimes a problem. like say muse i think can expand on things, or at times play less heavily to allow other things to develop etc. they have sold themselves out a bit, but even their earlier stuff say origin of symmetry at times can be a bit repetitive or mechanical. but say radiohead, though jonny greenwod or ed o’brien easily have the ability, particularly jonny, they barely play any solos, instead preferring to make their layered textures and sounds which can be amazing. like listen to paranoid android (though it does have a solo) or maybe weird fishes or jigsaw falling into place. they already work so well, and even if a guitar solo could fit itself into both, it would probably distract from the musical texture they manage to build up and work so well.

    just my thoughts, i still think it’s an issue with a lot of bands.

    • Yeah Radiohead are less guilty of this – they could afford to play a little more but as you said, the textures on OK Computer are what make it such a great album, and to prog it up would probably destroy it.

      I wish Matt Bellamy would actually play better guitar solos, and just more of them. The solo in New Born is pretty disappointing honestly, there’s just too much of a trend of playing the lead line as the solo – which is what so many guitarists have done ever since Kurt Cobain did it in Smells Like Teen Spirit.

      This song is a good example of that, although I do like the solo more than others in the similar vein – it’s fine to use the lead line to begin the solo, but it’s just boring when it doesn’t go beyond it.

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