Last modification: 01/19/08 19:26

Lead Guitar! (Part One)

Guitar, for me, means the late '70's thru the late 80's, beginning with Boston and ending with Yngwie's Rising Force. This was a veritable renaissance for electric guitar, as "Do you play lead?" was usually the first thing out of people's mouths when they heard you play electric. The second thing was "Can you play Eruption?" Sigh.

In 3rd or 4th grade, my school bus was a marginal affair, graced by a naked AM radio that was my main exposure to music in elementary. On the long, daily commutes we'd listen to KMBY, a Top-40 station that we all seemed to agree was the "official" thing to listen to. I didn't have any strong musical opinions then, although I did have a vague preference for the darker songs ("Witchy Woman" by the Eagles, "Fire On High" by ELO) over the poppy ones. They just seemed to hold up better under repeated listenings.

As a kid, I wasn't sure why the instrumental breaks were there. If it was a good break, the solo somehow echoed the spirit of the lyrics, allowing you to drift a little bit and paint a story in your imagination. I still think this is the mark of a good solo. 8)

Around 7th or 8th grade, the tastemakers in class were whispering about albums by bands I'd never heard of, like (prog-era) Journey, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper, and Led Zeppelin. How did they find out about this stuff? You didn't hear it on the radio, but it was being handed down from big brother to little sister like an oral tradition. It was different - it was complex, mysterious, and very grown up, like reading Tolkien after a steady diet of comic books. We'd spin records at school dances, and hire original bands when we could. Although disco was raging around this time, who was buying it? Not us, we'd were too busy dancing to "Four Sticks". Make no mistake, Bonham's groove was huge.

"How can you listen to that stuff? You can't dance to it."

That was the damning phrase I heard parroted around in the 70's. Disco wasn't about music; it was a shallow, schlocky mating call, a chance for girls to dress up and for adults to forget about Nixon and the Cold War. My friends didn't buy into it. We had headphones and air guitars, and we knew how to use 'em! (See: Almost Famous, Detroit Rock City, High Fidelity. Also see: "Disco Sucks.")

Van Halen turned the world upside down in 1978, but the revolution began for me with Boston's first album in '76. The harmonies! The vibrato! That huge, layered sound! My god, it was time to get serious about playing guitar. But where do you turn to for advice? And what is it with those solos? A few bar chords were no longer good enough to get by, and like a lot of kids all I had was a turntable, a used guitar and a not-so-golden ear.

By sophomore year of high school I'd realized that there was a huge gap between the title Rhythm guitarist and Lead guitarist, and with each passing year the bar was being raised higher and higher. Books and magazines started appearing, featuring accurate transcriptions for the first time along with college-level analyses of melody and technique. The guitarists of the day were all topping one another with each new album: Schenker, Van Halen, Rhoads, Lynch, Malmsteen. These guys were coaxing new sounds, new tricks, and higher levels of speed than had ever been heard before.

The weird had turned pro.

R&D was a big part of learning guitar, and for me that meant going to a lot of concerts. The best players always seemed to be an album or two ahead of the transcribers' ability to figure out what they were actually doing, so you simply had to go see the top players live. Slowing down your tape recorder was no longer enough - what the hell was Eddie doing on the intro to "Unchained?" How did Brad Gillis get that cricket-chirp on "Don't Tell Me You Love Me?" No, a good ear was no longer enough - you had to see this stuff. How disappointing it was, after baking all day in the California Desert to see Edward Van Halen at the 1983 US Festival, drunk, playing with his back to the audience.

I mean it. Whenever Eddie did some stunt-trick on guitar, the giant monitors would show a still-frame, or he'd be turned around with his back to the audience. That's how high the stakes had become - I can't let them steal my licks! This happened so often that the video feed must have been delayed by a few seconds the way radio stations do to bleep out profanities. Fortunately while this kind of technical secrecy didn't catch on, each and every one of us lived under the huge shadow that Van Halen cast. If you didn't copy Eddie, you weren't top dog. And if you did, you were a clone. Grr...

Plenty of rock interviews ask musicians why they started, and in true blue-collar fashion the answer is often "to get girls" or "it was better than the alternative" (jail). While true for some, I prefer Frank Zappa's realization that the path to being a good musician is too monastic to have much short-term impact on the opposite sex! A more practical outlook is to consider this: If you enjoy something passively, think how much more enjoyable it must be to actually do it. This enjoyment has kept be going for over two decades.

Although after all these years it's no longer shocking to play the kinds of runs that inspired listeners back in the 80's, it's still a lot of fun to do so. Few things can compare to the Zen-like creative state that comes with channeling a really good solo, and having the strength and confidence to back it up. This mastery is the reward for a lifetime of dedication to one's art, and it's why parents force evil music teachers on kids. Hell, it's difficult enough for adults to work toward a long-term payoff, when the immediate benefits are so small. How else can we explain the state of entertainment in today's short attention-span world?

Oh, yeah - I did learn to play Eruption in my junior year of high school, thanks to Steve Vai's transcription in Guitar Player magazine. It took 6 weeks of rote memorization and 6 weeks more of determined practice to be able to play recognizably, but that's how goes when you're just starting out. Of course, I didn't understand the meaning behind those notes for several more years, but that's another story!

(to be continued - someday)

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