In Guitar, Context is Everything

What was such a big deal about the Beatles? Didn’t Les Paul play music my grandmother described as ‘old’? Isn’t Jimi Hendrix famous for playing ‘Silent Night’ at some festival in the 40’s or something? In music and guitar history, context means something. We might not think much of  Clarence White joining the Byrds, but country music today wouldn’t be the same. We might not think of Van Halen being a groundbreaking band, but a whole style of music and guitar playing came from them. We might not even have heard a single note of pioneering guitarists like Jeff Beck or John McLaughlin, but their explorations in blending jazz and rock still ripple through the instrumental guitar landscape today. This article will explore these as well as other examples of guitar and guitar players, and help us understand that today’s guitar playing didn’t just appear, but it climbed upon the shoulders of past pioneers.

Back in the Day

What’s the big deal with this guy?

Our favorite instrument has been at the forefront of popular music for the past 60 years or so (until recently). Compared to say, the much older violin, we have a lot of catching up to do. The guitar has been there through the dawn of jazz, the rural blues, country, the rise of electric blues into the beginnings of rock and roll. When we decide to undertake the act of learning to play the guitar, it is usually because of the music we are currently listening to. Our musical heroes inspire our choice of guitar, pickups, amp, pedals, and even the type of band we hope to form. Being a guitar teacher, I get asked a lot about the past’s musical heroes, but never in a way I expect. I had a 17 year old male student into progressive music ask me what the big deal was about Jimi Hendrix:

Didn’t he wear flowered clothes and play a Strat? I heard he was really good, but, you know, I figured out Purple Haze pretty quickly. It doesn’t sound that complex to me. Certainly he isn’t as good as (insert current guitar hero here). 

After I stopped laughing to myself, I had to explain that before Hendrix, the role of the guitarist in the band was different. A guitarist played chords to accompany the singer, with some solos in between the verses. Guitar tone was polite, and outside of Eric Clapton, true ‘guitar heroes’ didn’t exist as we know them today. Hendrix didn’t really play that fast, and his musical vocabulary wasn’t as sophisticated as someone like George Van Eps, but until he was the first player to shape every note he played with his very being on a mass scale. He was playing contemporary music for a young audience ready to accept it. He was using new tones playing a style of rhythm-based lead playing that didn’t exist outside of a few R&B groups. He dared to play is impressionistic version of the American national anthem at the biggest gathering of the counterculture at the end of the 1960’s. He left behind 3 studio albums that are full of guitar gems, the remnants of which are still present in contemporary guitar playing.

The Byrds and the Beatles

The B-Bender Master of the Telecaster.

To understand the Beatles’ impact on current songwriting and guitar playing, we have to understand where music was before they came along. Music was in a sad, sad place. Rock ‘n roll was thought of as just a fad. Doo-wop singing ruled the charts, and even Elvis had started losing popularity since joining the Army. Popular music was trying to figure out what was going to be the Next Big Thing, and then, the Beatles happened. They combined the energy of early rock ‘n roll, with close harmony vocals of doo-wop, added in genuine guitar riffs with a dose of fashion sense. It was just what the world needed at the time. In 7 short years, the Beatles transformed pop songwriting into an art form. Their melodies and guitar parts are still studied and practiced 60 years later, and no band since has inspired more people to pick up the guitar. Not Black Sabbath, nor Metallica, nor Van Halen. The Beatles’ music was deceptively clever, and set a bar for the role of guitar in pop music that still sits high today.

The Byrds, on the other hand, were a folk rock band from Los Angeles that added 12 string to lots of covers of Dylan tunes, but that isn’t why they are on this list. After their big success, and inspiring George Harrison to get a 12 string, they decided to go into a very different direction with the addition of country player, Clarence White. Their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo sounds like a quaint Americana album today, but in those days, no one ever heard of that term. The intersection of pop and country happened with this album, and set the tone for later bands like the Eagles and the alt-country of today. Clarence was an innovative player even by today’s standards, and when the pedal steel sounds he heard in his head weren’t available on his Telecaster, he helped create an invention that allowed him to bend his B string and E string without bending the other strings.

Les Did More

That doesn’t look like my Les Paul…

Les Paul created music in the 40’s and 50’s that sounds today that it might appear in a lavish Hollywood musical of the time. It is hard to relate to exactly the impact he has on every quick shred lick, or every new sound discovered on guitar since. Of course he is known (hopefully) as the guy who’s name is on one of the most famous guitars of all time. Les was also an entertainer, and an amazingly fast, and clean jazz guitarist. He virtually invented multitrack recording, and was a constant tinkerer, trying to get the sounds he heard in his head out of his guitars. Les also didn’t care much what people thought of his inventions, either. When he designed his signature Les Paul Recording and Personal models for Gibson, he designed them with special pickups that wouldn’t distort. He didn’t care that the music of the time (early 1970’s) was full of distorted, sustaining guitars. He had a vision and stuck to it. If you’ve ever recorded,  love to tinker with effects, experiment with different pickups, or play along with backing tracks, you probably owe something to Les.

It is all how you look at it…

Black Sabbath’s first album doesn’t sound heavy compared to today’s heavy bands. Ir
on Maiden’s
debut barely sounds like a metal album at all. Why does Led Zeppelin get so much praise? How about the Ramones, or the Police? Why do older people revere Pink Floyd and David Gilmour so much? In many cases, it was because they were the first. They did something that didn’t exist before they came around. Maybe it was by design, and maybe it was the sound created when those particular people got together, but in every case, these bands and guitarists were breaking new ground. Like inventors, they saw a need for something that didn’t exist. They heard a sound in their heads that they hadn’t heard before. We can learn from these innovators, and approach the new music we write, or our personal collection of effects and come up with something that didn’t exist before. Maybe in 40 years, someone will write an article about us.

Have you ever come up with a technique or sound you haven’t heard anyone do? Who are your favorite musical innovators?

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