During last weeks open hours, a student asked the zillion dollar question: what makes a great guitarist?
It was one that you’d think you hear more often than you do. Also, it was one who’s answer (to me) is tricky to pin down yet somehow blatantly obvious. It came after a long afternoon of watching videos of people nailing the fast part of the Sweet Child-O-Mine solo on youtube, many of them (including this guy) do it justice. We were talking about how meticulous all of these players had been in learning this solo note for note, especially the fast part which Slash himself would probably improvised. To learn something that fast, most people would need to slow it way down, memorize the notes, and then play it 8,000 times before reaching top speed. Now perhaps it was just my anti-G3 sentiments coming out, but I had to insert my opinion that the fast part was to me, the least interesting part of the solo. Slash was great not because he could play the fast part, but because he came up with the soaring melodic part before and after.
To me a great guitarist is one who develops a unique voice on the instrument. Something that makes you say either “woah, thats guitar?” or “woah, I know thats guitar, but I wish I would have thought to play it like that.” Naturally all of the players that embody these qualities have clearly spent a lot of time working on their guitar playing, and in doing so some of them develop amazing speed and technical ability. I like to think of those things as a by-product of the work it takes to really learn how to make the thing speak. Playing a blazing flurry of notes replicated from Slash may be impressive on YouTube, but doesn’t really tell people who YOU are as a guitarist, it mostly reminds them of how great Slash is.
Here are some of my current guitar heroes who I feel embody this idea and are perhaps under appreciated as axe-men and axe-women:
Rodrigo y Gabriela – An instrumental guitar duo combining flamenco with heavy metal? Why not? Somehow these two manage to make classical music accessible to a pop audience. Listen to their creative re-working of Stairway to Heaven, or the original Tamacun.
Annie Clark AKA St Vincent - Her guitar work on Cruel falls into the “thats guitar?” Catagory. From the faux trumpet-esque sounds on the chorus, to the layered wall of harmonized muted plucking towards the end, to the falling apart whammy pedal solo, this is one of those songs that just makes you wonder what the guitar can’t do.
Adam Jones of Tool - In a genre where the guitar playing is all about being the fastest loudest most bombastic thing out there, Jones takes another approach. His rhythmic riffing shelves shredding solos in favor of hypnotic repeated phrases, tribal chugging and otherworldly ambience. Jambi is a good example.