Friday, July 13, 2012

Talk About Rock

Let´s start with the name - this is very simple.  Rock and roll, like jazz, was a Negro (Black American English) term for sex, so in puritanical America, the music definitely had a transgressive edge.
Defining what rock is musically is relatively simple too.  Obviously, the main ingredient is the electric guitar, but to be precise, it´s the riff-based sound created by overdriving the valve amp into saturation. 
This overdriven guitar tone was achieved by turning the amp up full and letting the valves do their magic.  By driving the poweramp section of the amp (turning it up loud) a great crunchy tone was produced – AC/DC, for example - though it usually deafened everyone in the room!
The guitar sound makes a musical statement.  What that statement is, is debatable. For starters, power, rebellion, mass.
Rock music evolved from early players such as Chuck Berrry in the hands of 60s performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.  Guitarists like Eric Clapton discovered the beauty of driving a Marshall amp at full tilt.  Each of these artists was a musical innovator, taking their musical influences from blues, classical and jazz and inventing their own, unique sound.
Some early musical experiments were unsuccessful, however. Take the Kinks, for example,  who tore their speakers to make them distort, resulting, not in harmonic overdrive, but uneven, harsh distortion. 
The bands mentioned above created the template for what became Hard Rock in the 1970s, as some guitarists began driving their amps harder by using an overdrive pedal through their already overdriven valve (tube) amp. The music became more powerful, even more riff-orientated and the riffs more repetitive.

As I discovered reading British music papers like The New Musical Express and Sounds NME, the best rock bands were Journey, Kiss, Boston, Utopia, Angel, Rush, Rainbow, Van Halen, UFO, Styx, Starz, Angel, Whitesnake, Alice Cooper, Scorpions, Boston, Thin Lizzy, The Babys, Aerosmith, Montrose, Mott The Hoople, Foreigner, Rush, Sweet, building on the music of Ted Nugent, Free, Bad Company, Judas Priest.
In fact, NME covered the KISS 1980 British tour and crowned them the Kings of Rock.
Then Hard Rock mutated again. By the late 1970s, amp manufacturers realized that guitarists wanted a more overdriven / distorted tone and began to add more valves in the preamp section of the amp causing it to distort more at lower volumes.
The result was an unpleasant, fuzzy tone which became the sound of Heavy Metal. This fuzzy preamp distortion severely limits how the guitar responds to the player´s touch (though it can give single notes a singing, sustaining quality). Using dissonant, disjointed figures and chordal movements added to dropped tunings and double bass drum patterns, all played to the extreme with screeching vocals, the music began the decline into the aggressive, mechanical banging of today´s thrash, death and black metal.
These “genres” that lack the harmonically rich poweramp overdrive, musical substance, ebb and flow, feel, soul, or rock or roll, aren´t rock and roll.
And in my opinion, they aren´t music!
What do you think?

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Beginner´s Best Musical Tool

No, it´s not your guitar. It´s not your guitar mags.  It´s not scales or modes, great as they are. It´s not even music theory. What is this magical tool then, you´ll be asking?  And how am I supposed to be able to afford it?

The guitarist´s best tool!
Here´s the good news.
It´s cheap.
It´s widely available.
It´s the simple cotton bud.

Come again?

The cotton bud! 
Because the first thing a musician has to do is clean out his or her ears!

Your ears are essential for the simplest of reasons (the amazing Evelyn Glennie excepted).
If you can´t hear it, you can´t play it. 

But by "hearing" I mean every, single note.

I so got what it takes to rock!

Think of the many songs you can sing along to with ease.  Most people can do this.  But can you hear each individual note exactly as it was sung on the recording? Most people can´t.  If you can, keep it up, because it's the most important thing you´ll ever do in your musical life.

Let me explain.

Our ears are very limited when it comes to hearing multiple musical strands all at once. Our ears like to focus on the main thing, like the melody or the guitar solo. Everything else in the given piece of music becomes the background. 

Yet the background is every bit as important as the melody, sometimes even more so.

Imagine you´re sitting in a noisy pub having a conversation with a friend. People are shouting in the background, the jukebox is playing and maybe somebody´s practicing some impromptu cosmetic surgery with a broken bottle without the luxury of anaesthetic.

But you're focused on what you're friend is saying and the noise in the background just adds to the atmosphere.  If the pub was empty, you´d probably go somewhere else.  And if someone shouted your name (or “duck"!) you´d turn around to see who it was. Or duck.

No, I said you were a DUCKING duck,
clean your ears out, will you?

Now let's “put this to music” and see what's happening. The melody - your friend´s conversation - is the most prominent part of the music and the backing is the atmosphere.

Simply put, without the atmosphere, melody doesn't say very much. And if something in the music jumps out at you from the speakers (like “somebody phone the polis!") your ears decide that this is the most important thing.


Because it's louder and takes precedence over anything else in the music at that moment. That´s how your ears work and this is very unhelpful if you want to be a musician.

What d´ya mean, my arse is perfectly clean!

My advice is not to spend hours practicing scale shapes all over the fingerboard if you can't make music with the ones that you already know.

And guitar magazines, however helpful, usually condense a year´s study onto one page and give the impression you should learn it all in a week.  They also force feed the idea that the best technique is the fastest.  This is rubbish. Tone, vibrato, string bending and note choice are the most important factors in playing great guitar.

To be a musician, you have to hear everything. 

Hear,  I said!  Get yourself a packet of cotton buds, for chrissake´s!

You have to HEAR ALL THE SOUND.  So do the following:

  • Listen to as many great players as possible and absorb ALL their sounds
  • Hum guitar parts - licks, melodies, solos and fills, etc., as accurately as possible till you recognise ALL the kinds of sounds players make
  • Listen to how guitarists play notes then bend them, or make them wobble (vibrato)
  • Train your ears by listening until you can mimic ALL the sounds you hear

Do this and you´ll definitely be... a budding guitarist! 

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Jackson Rhoads Guitar

It´s a sad thing to discover a great talent after they´re dead.  This happened to me with Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne´s guitarist.  I remember the day - March 20th, 1982.  I was waiting for my bus home from work and reading Sounds magazine, a great source of information on hard rock.

There was an article on the guitarist´s death in a flying accident the previous day. (Won´t go into more detail, it feels wrong).  I´d heard many guitarists praise Randy's talent - not least Ozzy Osbourne.

Randy first came to attention in his own band Violet Foxes.  He then joined Quiet Riot and was hailed as a great guitarist.  He gave up teaching guitar at his mother, Delores´, music store, when Quiet Riot, already playing LA hotspots like Whiskey a Go Go and the Starwood Club, were signed to a Japanese label and released two albums. 

Randy wasn't your typical rocker.  Brought up  Catholic, he´s been described as “God-fearing”.  He didn't partake of the usual  rock 'n' roll lifestyle, preferring to seek out classical guitar tutors in whichever city he played in to learn more about his passion - classical guitar.

Finally, he auditioned for ex-Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne (definitely your typical rocker!) and got the job while he was warming up! Most Ozzy fans acknowledge that Randy saved Ozzy's career as he had hired one of the hottest rock guitarists on the planet, something the man himself has never forgotten, mentioning Randy to this day.

Not long before his tragic death, Randy hooked up with a then not-so-famous guitar builder named Grover Jackson to design a guitar nicknamed the Concord.  Randy used it on his final tour and further redesigns resulted in the Jackson Rhoads, also known as the Jackson Shark´s Fin.  At the time Grover was working for Wayne Charvel of Charvel Guitars and didn't want to put the Charvel logo on Randy's guitar.

So he put  his own name.  Jackson.

Sadly, Randy died before he got to play his very own  Jackson Rhoads guitar.

But the guitar lives on!

In the wake of this tragic loss, Grover asked KISS guitarist, Vinnie Vincent, to represent the guitar.  And so Vinnie became the first guitarist to bring this awesome guitar to the attention of the rock guitar fraternity.  He did the guitar great justice back in 1982, playing it with sheer ferocity and skill, and taking the instrument to its sonic limits.

The stunning gold Shark´s Fin.

The Jackson Rhoads is now an iconic design and Randy Rhoads has become an iconic figure in rock music.  Music magazines are still dissecting his work and giving credit to his pioneering, neoclassical rock musical abilities.

But back to me at the bus stop.  I caught the bus, went home and, though I wasn´t a fan of Osbourne, I bought some of his albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman.

Randy Rhoads instantly became one of my heroes.  (I´ve so many guitar heroes it´s ridiculous).  His solos ascended, then with a rapid flick of his Les Paul toggle, he caused a stuttering effect before descending again.  It was like a P41 Mustang hitting its ceiling, stalling, then diving back earthwards.

P41 Mustang

Then, in 1983 there was a snippet of KISS´s Creatures of the Night Tour on TV and I saw – or more exactly heard - Vinnie Vincent make some incredible sounds with a fantastic gold guitar.  It was a Jackson Rhoads Shark´s Fin, so radical back then that I started pestering McCormack´s music store in Glasgow  to get me one!

30th Anniversary reissue Shark´s Fin, updated with Floyd Rose tremelo with fine tuners. Only 30 created!

Well, they´d never heard of it. (And I suppose I´d have looked pretty pathetic with a Shark´s Fin guitar in the Prince Charlie pub in Westmuir Street, anyway). However, four years later Mr. McCormack was planning a trip to a music trade fair in Germany and I asked him to find out about Jackson guitars.

Scotland´s first Jackson Charvel

Next thing I know he has a Charvel (same company - long story, maybe for a future post) .......

....... the very first Jackson Charvel to arrive in Scotland.

And I got it!

I still have it - it's 27 years old now! 

My Charvel is so well-built it´ll probably outlive me.  

So while it was sad that I didn´t appreciate Randy Rhoads while he was still alive, I remember him now every time I strap on my Charvel.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fine Fifty Nine

Most guitar lovers covet the Gibson Les Paul 59, even if they don't use one.

Is it a better instrument than a 2012 Les Paul?


Let´s do a little potted guitar history here.

Les Paul was a genius, in everything from guitars to multitrack to delay and chorus. The Gibson Company have always claimed that the Les Paul guitar was mainly their idea, but this isn´t true. In the 40s they laughed at the mad inventor with the broomstick and only came after him when Leo Fender got in there first with the solid body guitar. Gibson even screwed up the bridge on the first Les Paul, giving the guitar an arched top like a violin, although Les Paul preferred a flat top. 

In the 50s the guitar was built using the best tonewoods, Bumble Bee capacitors, silkscreen logos, deep tenon joint right into the neck pickup cavity, flamed tops, and much more. Gibson´s policy was to cut trees down only so far, so that the wood wasn't too dense and the guitar would have better sustain, better natural tone, better dynamics, and better natural harmonics. Most of these had huge baseball bat necks that contributed to the tone – although in 1960 Les Pauls had thinner necks - laquer that cracked easily, paint that faded into a myriad of beautiful colours, pickups with many different amounts of winding (hot and not so hot) all of which made each guitar unique.

Yet, incredibly, by the 1980s no rock guitarist wanted a Les Paul! Everyone wanted a Charvel, Jackson or Kramer. Eddie Van Halen got incredible sounds from his bastardised Charvel with it's Floyd Rose whammy bar. The Les Polsfuss was totally out of fashion (though it could could kick the bejeesus out of all of the above with its beautiful blend of mahogany body, maple top and warm - yet brutal - Alnico pickups). Even when in the late 80s Slash of Guns ´n´ Roses seemed to be playing a Gibson and resurrecting the Les Paul, he was actually playing a bastardised guitar with a Gibson neck. The body was built by a great guitar luthier called Max who could build a better Les Paul than Gibson, using the best possible tone woods.

So how did this happen?

In the 70s the Gibson company evolved into Corporate Gibson and they began to use everything but the tree roots for their famed guitars. This made the guitars so heavy that guitarists started to suffer from the dreaded “Les Paul neck”. This encompasses a host of problems such as severe neck and shoulder pain and slouching over the guitar to alleviate the strain.

In short, skill and passion had been replaced by the greedy pursuit of profits and the quality suffered. The CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) router system and the plek system were introduced, replacing real instruments made by skilled instrument makers.

In my view, corporate is a disgusting word because wherever it appears there´s no beauty. So, predictably, Corporate Gibson sucks and quality is decreasing so fast that soon the mythical name of Gibson will stand for no more than crap. Mass factory built guitars are a complete rip off - what you now get from the Gibson Custom Shop (which is another story!) is closer to what you got from the Gibson factory floor in 1959. Bog standard, dense, hollowed out mahogany. Orville Gibson, a man who believed in quality to the extent of using fiddle back (flamed maple) on his guitars because he found it so beautiful on violin backs, would turn in his grave.

Now that Gibson have been taken to court for illegaly obtaining rosewood for their fingerboards, we now have baked maple instead. Gibson´s CEO, the profit-hungry Henry E. Juszkiewicz deserves to be taken and shaken. He has no love of guitars and no respect for the people who play them and is on record as saying that the higher the price, the more people – or fools - will believe they´re getting better quality. 

To this day, Slash uses, not Gibson Les Pauls, but the results of what's known as ghost building. Gibson permits an independent builder to put their logo on Slash's guitars. Slash endorses Gibson and everybody makes a fortune.

In conclusion, while I'm still a Les Paul lover and own a nice, cherry sunburst with a great, powerful rock tone, when it comes to playing, I sling on a Fender strat. Even though it has wider fret spacing, much weaker pickups and a higher action, I love it because it's really comfy around my neck and I can reach the higher register without being obstructed by a huge mortice and tenon joint. A contemporary Les Paul is still a great guitar with a great tone - but it´s not worth half its retail price.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Who Needs a Guitar Hero?

An interesting thing happened to me in the late seventies.  I was learning to play the guitar by listening to all the contemporary rock guitar greats to figure out what they were doing. As you can imagine, my bedroom wall was covered with posters of these giants of rock.

One day, in a record store, I came across a poster of a really striking guitarist.  Posing and pouting in a black catsuit, his long, blond hair flying about, he brandished a white Flying V.

I remember thinking, this guy´s either something special or a complete plonker!

Some time later I went to see a British band called UFO.  They had a guitarist called Paul Chapman, who I thought was really good.  I subsequently came across a UFO album in a bargain bin and bought it.  Chapman was really good, so I bought a second UFO album.

Yet as soon as the first, hypnotic solo kicked in… I could tell that it wasn't Paul Chapman!  This solo was like nothing I´d  heard before:-  the tone, the vibrato, the microtonal bends, all of it melodic and precise.  The guitar playing on that whole album was astonishing, so I checked the album cover and noticed this guy with long, blond hair ……. A bit of research later, I found out that the guitarist was, indeed, the poser with the Flying V.

He was none other than the great Michael Schenker, of course.

I have a framed picture of that poster on my wall, for two reasons.

One: because it connects me to the feelings I experienced when I first heard Obsession.  I still love it and it will always be my No.1 rock guitar album.

Two: because it makes me feel good!  When I listen to that album thirty odd years later, I´m taken back in time. 

Moral of the story.  The best thing to inspire any guitarist is a guitar hero.

If you don't have one,  find one!