Ahh, progressive rock. Never has there been a movement in contemporary music that was probably more hated by critics, real punks, and hipsters. My guess is that either they didn’t quite understand it, or were threatened by it, but progressive rock (and we are talking vintage here) influenced bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Dream Theater and every progressive metal band around today. While it is hard to understand in our 99-cent-singles world, that a single progressive rock song could be well over 20 minutes long (and not just be a jam over three chords), there is a lot to love guitar-wise, and music-wise from the genre famous for sequined capes, revolving stages, and Mellotrons.
This article mainly deals with some history of progressive rock (which could fill several blogs), as well as some of the great guitar sounds and the gear used to create them. I’ve tried to pick less common ones, so hopefully you can explore the music further. There is a lot to learn from each example.
In the late 60s a group of bands influenced by the Beatles and modern classical music started mixing expanded themes with superhuman musicianship. They took the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers-era psychedelia and mixed it with Stravinsky and a love of harmony, and out came progressive rock. An interesting side note to all of this, is that there was almost a total absence of American blues in this brand of rock music at least initially, which was strange in the era of Clapton, Beck, Page, Iommi and Blackmore. They used different instruments with this expanded vocabulary, and in some cases came up with some new vocabulary on our beloved instrument that the world hadn’t heard before.
Genesis: Firth of Fifth
Guitarist: Steve Hackett
Genesis was always a very English sounding band, in that it there is little or no American influence in their early music. Steve Hackett’s solo is in the middle of the tune, and worth waiting for. A Les Paul through a volume pedal, a fuzz box (most likely a Colorsound Supa Tone Bender) into a Hiwatt. Great sustain and melody while avoiding every cliché that existed in rock music for the time. Steve used to sit down while playing with Genesis until the mid-70s, and now he stands when he plays.
Yes: Sound Chaser
Guitarist: Steve Howe
There are a lot of great Steve Howe tones, but I picked my favorite: his modified 1955 Telecaster that sounds like 1000 rubber bands snapping at once. This is one of those ‘out there’ Yes tunes that sounds like the whole band is falling down the stairs. Steve’s style is interesting in that he embraces American jazz and country, and while he might not have invented new styles, he gets points here because he is so good at every existing style out there. From flamenco to classical, from Wes-style jazz to rockabilly, Steve has won more awards for guitar playing than everyone on this list combined. While famous for using a ’64 Gibson ES-175, he uses his Tele here. It has a Gibson PAF in the neck position, and he puts a slapback on it from an Echoplex Groupmaster into clean Fender Twins. A common Howe setup is a Maestro Fuzz Tone with a volume pedal. For a bonus, check out Chris Squire’s slippery bass tone here as well.
UK: In the Dead of Night
Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth
Allan, who I’d usually put squarely in the fusion camp, was in a rock band here. UK rose from the ashes of King Crimson, with a more modern sound and a slippery-sounding guitarist who went on not only to be one of the best, and fastest legato players in the world, but have a knowledge of chords approaching that of piano players. On this album, he was mostly a soloist, which is the role he was stuck in for most of the 70s. This has many elements of prog, like the 7/8 time signature and the melody that sounds just a little poppy. Allan’s tone is warm and sax-like, his soloing always unpredictable. Holdsworth is a relentless tinkerer, and his rig has evolved over time. He likes vintage output humbuckers, and currently uses a Custom Shop ’59 neck pickup in the bridge with two rows of screws. Read about it here.
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities
Guitarist: David Torn
While he probably wouldn’t consider himself a prog guitarist, here he is by default because of the company he is keeping. David Torn is one of the most inventive guitarists I have heard, and here a manipulated loop lays the rhythm for the drums to follow. They do, but at different tempos and speeds, yet they all groove. Then everything stops and Torn’s guitar sounds like a swamp monster devouring the rest of the band. At least that is what I hear, anyway. He is known for using Steinbergers, Kleins, & Teuffel guitars, and currently uses Fryette amps. His looping devices include Oberheim Echoplex, Electrix Repeater and an old Lexicon PCM42.
Trevor Rabin: Anerley Road
Guitarist: Trevor Rabin
While he has a prog pedigree for playing with Yes for years, he is currently one of the most in-demand soundtrack guys in Hollywood. Trevor has tons of new, inventive tones to choose from, but here I’m going with sheer quantity. This track from his newest solo album, Jacaranda, is full of almost every style you could think of. Instead of feeling cobbled together, it seriously rocks. His distorted solo tone is beautiful too, and his technique is clean and fast. He uses so many different guitars and sounds here (he is also a great pianist, drummer and bassist…oh yeah, singer and songwriter too), that there is nothing really left to do but just listen.
King Crimson: Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Pt 4
Guitarists: Robert Fripp & Adrian Belew
Wow, this one is full of some pretty serious playing. We can start with Fripp (who sits, mind you), whose every-other-note melody with Belew form the basis of most of the song. Fripp is one of the few guitarists in the world that literally invented several types of guitar playing. We hear his soundscaping at the beginning and end, and his CGDAEG tuning hitting notes most guitars don’t have. While older King Crimson has him playing a 59 Les Paul Custom through a fuzz box, volume pedal and HiWatts (familiar setup), here he is getting most of his tone from a Roland VG99 modeler. His rig is pretty extensive too, and slightly terrifying. He is now using either a Crimson Guitar or Tokai Les Paul copy.
Adrian Belew’s wild playing keeps up with Fripp, and we hear what he is known for: making a lot of beautiful noise during his unconventional solo at the end. His setup is pretty extensive too although now he uses an Axe-FX and his signature Parker guitar. I love the sheer joy he has in abusing his guitar.
For a bonus, check out Trey Gunn’s two Warr guitars. Touch-style instruments, he uses a fretted one for the beginning and switches to a fretless one at the end. These have a range bigger than both guitar and bass.
What about the future?
The idea of progressive rock has really been handed to the new generation of metal guitarists. Seymour Duncan has come out with two pickups aimed at progressive metal guitarists. The Pegasus is a bridge pickup available in 7 or 8-string versions, and is designed to be clear sounding no matter how much gain is used.
The Sentient model is a neck pickup designed to handle complex chords as well as tight sounding distorted rhythms. Both pickups are available with open coils, passive mount with metal covers and soapbar-style.