I got name-dropped on the podcast this week (#239), it all stemmed from a conversation that Brian, Alex and I were having over the weekend about the future of rock music. Then subsequently, the future of the guitar, and the guitar heroes of our youth. As Brian said, I was naming Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but unfortunately, my opinion was not expanded upon in the conversation properly, so I’m going to explain on here where I was coming from.
During my life I have seen 4 guitar related musical explosions that have directly affected the sales of guitars and guitar gear in general. Or course, I can only speak from my own observations, it’s probably different from your ‘angle’, whatever that may be!
The first one I remember was the late 1970’s (and I only really have a visual memory of this as I was young). We used to live in Greater London and one of the last memories I have of that area before we moved to Devon was seeing a full-on London Punk. Full Mohican haircut (is that moniker for a hairstyle appropriate these days? If it isn’t, I apologise for my ignorance) on top of the full Vivien Westwood style of clothing. At the time it scared me as I was only about 5, but, looking back at it now, I fully understand what was happening.
Punk came around due to the frustration of the music, the politics, modern culture and just about everything else. People needed an outlet, and that boiled up to the point of explosion and the extremes of these people became very famous. For us, it was the Sex Pistols who spearheaded this charge and at the time people thought “What the hell is that?”…
If you watch interviews with members of the movement discussing the musical aspect of this, it was frustration with music popular at the time and they need to push back against it. Just listen to John Lydon talk about the Eagles and you’ll understand where I am coming from. Subsequently (and most importantly, relevant this piece), legions of people picked up the guitar and joined in. This music was never on the radio, in fact, the major broadcasters of the day refused point blank to play any of the punk stuff. That is until it became SO big they couldn’t avoid it, even then it was only the parts that were the most commercialised, maybe one or two songs.
Fast forward a few years to the mid ’80s. Now, from the blues came rock and from punk came the attitudes of thrash. These attitudes were existing quite happily until that mad moment when the kids of the day first heard players like Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen and so on. Everyone who had been enjoying riffing out suddenly heard all the virtuoso music and thought “What the hell is that?”. This was, if I am being honest, the time when I looked at the guitar in a different light. I was already fully embedded in rock music, in particular NWOBHM, and loving all the widdlywiddlywiddly stuff, but those guys are responsible for more hours of me woodshedding than any other. With this, guitar sales shifted away from the Strat’s, Tele’s and Les Pauls and the pointy headstock era was born. Over here, that music was never on the radio.
The next one is a weird one, as for me it was a two-part instance that happened 4 years apart, but it came from the same attitude. Firstly, in 1988 Guns ‘N’ Roses exploded here, they were anti virtuoso and relied on that Les Paul into a Marshall tone… unlike the other bands they benefited from being played on the radio, well, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was. Here they weren’t really regarded as a rock band per se, because the first song they became known for opened with the lines “She's got a smile it seems to me, reminds me of childhood memories, where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky”. That didn’t really sit with those of us that were used to headbanging along to “Ace Of Spades”. They were considered to be pop rock which explains why the ‘Use Your Illusions’ albums outsold ‘Appetite for Destruction’ at the time (although now, the first album flattens those completely) – I remember hearing ‘Welcome To The Jungle” for the first time and thinking “What the hell is that?” Sales of guitars peeked again and Marshall got to join in the party, although stopping making the 800 series in favour of the 900’s might not have been the best move ever as something was missing from those amps.
The second part of this joint explosion, and the one I think was the most important in my lifetime, was in 1992 when Nirvana fully exploded. Which, like G’n’R, happened because of one song on the radio… Nirvana gave the impression (to me at least) to be coming from the same direction as punk did. As a direct response to the music of the day, the virtuoso players seemed to have forgotten about the riffs and the songs, the over production. The reason this one sticks in my mind so much is because I was working in a guitar shop when this happened. Over the space of a couple of months my customers went from “Dad Rock” types or “Big Hair Shredders” to young moody kids who wanted to strum the hell out of their guitars, stare at their feet, and think the entire world was against them. Because, well, they thought it was. Strat’s, Tele’s, Jag’s, Mustang’s and interesting guitar sales went off the charts… the Les Paul’s died on their arse, we could shift a few Epiphones, but Gibson’s… nope. For years I had confused looking parents talking to me while their kids glared at me through their hair and grunted in response when I tried to talk to them. However, when they got a guitar in their hands their faces lit up. All I could see in the faces of the parents was “What the hell is that?”
After that everything kind of flatlined again, until the radio picked up on Oasis and Blur. I’m not going to say much, but, (as someone working in a guitar store at that time) if I ever hear a kid play Wonderwall again I’m going to scream. So, net result, guitar sales spiked for a few years. I can directly relate this movement to when the 60’s guitar music thing happened, the fact that most Oasis songs appear to have a riff directly borrowed from that era further proves my point. Bizarrely, this appeared to bring up the sales of acoustic guitars more than electrics, but the raise happened across the board. There was no “What the hell is that?” moment though, unless you happened to see Liam Gallagher be interviewed without an interpreter.
So, where does this leave us now? The thing I find most interesting about it is that half of these movements happened without the support of radio in any way. One (albeit two bands) came from just one song being on the radio and the other was pure pop music, so radio play was inevitable. Punk was NEVER on the radio. 80’s rock (whether it be NWOBHM or the more extreme elements of it towards the end of the decade) was never on the radio… Actually, that’s not entirely true, “Soft Metal” or whatever it was called, often was. it was usually some disgusting “oh baby I love you” style song with heavy guitars in the chorus and a nice wailing solo, but the rest wasn’t.
All this leads me to the discussion Alex, Brian and I were having over the weekend which prompted the podcast and which has now prompted this piece. I was saying that “we need the next Nirvana to hit” (and I say this as someone who isn’t really a big fan of them) but did they ever promote sales in guitars to the ‘kidz’. Brian’s main argument is that “People don’t listen to the radio anymore, so there will never been another big guitar group”… However (over here at least) that never stopped the punks of the 70’s and the rockers of the ’80s. In fact, it was what made them. Being overlooked was what defined them.
What’s next? Who will be the next supergroup to explode sales of guitar gear? If you look at the way most of those bands came about, the ones that caused guitar sale peaks in my lifetime, it was because they were standing against something. Now, that may be a political stance but, at the core, mostly it was about the music. Right now, popular music (in my humble opinion) has never been so crap (yeah I know, I sound like my Father). Well, maybe the mid 90’s pure lollipop pop scene, but the jury is still out on that, time will tell.
Politics right now is at the most divisive I can ever remember it being, music is consumable. The music industry is churning out gallons of forgettable sewage and vacuous crap that does nothing more constructive than make the likes of Simon Cowell even more disgustingly rich than they already are. Instant fame is touted as the only answer, fame is handed to the lucky few, young impressionable kids on a plate on televised talent shows and most of them are instantly forgettable – and then forgotten. How many kids watch these talent show with a dream, not understanding the odds of even getting an audition for them? The internet affords us access to endless hours of new and great music, giving artists the impression that they have the chance to be bigger than The Beatles… but can they ever be? Of course they can’t. No one ever can be. But can a band come along that stands up against the drivel? Stands up against the politics? Stands up against the system and the ‘machine’ that runs everything?
It’s time we had another Nirvana, another Sex Pistols. It’s time for another band that can rise up and smash everything to pieces. Like Punk, 80’s rock and grunge, this explosion will NEVER happen on the radio. The radio is as much about music these days as MTV is. This explosion will happen from the internet. From an independent source as that is always where the life-changing music comes from. There are endless great bands out there at the moment, my daughter spends most of her free time these days working out “Panic! At The Disco” riffs on my guitars so the hope is there, but it’s not fully realised yet. What band is going to come along and speak to her fully like the Pistols and Nirvana did to people of her age at that time? I have no idea, but the world is begging for it.
We don’t need another guitar hero at all; the age of the guitar hero is dead. We need another Steve Jones. We need another Kurt Cobain. These were the anti-heroes that exploded guitar sales. We need someone to put a finger up to the industry and make a stand against it. The guitar itself is not dead (as Blake points out on the podcast, everyone is looking at Guitar Center and saying “Man, the guitar is dying” as their sales are going down) but are those people looking at the underground independent manufacturers that are thriving? No, they are not, because the media is only interested in reporting the companies that have shareholders to keep happy....
The one thing that is obvious to me is that what is actually dying, albeit slowly right now, is the corporation strong hold on the MI industry and music in general. The underground is rising, the next Sex Pistols or Nirvana are posed to maximise on the ambivalence of the general public and I hope that they will shake it to the core.
We need another “What the hell is that?” moment. We need another guitar anti-hero.
This past weekend was a bit of an anomaly for me. My wife was working two 12-hour shifts at the hospital, and my mother-in-law was keeping our two kids on Saturday, so I had a day pretty much to myself. Of course, there’s always something to do around the house like laundry, dishes, vacuuming, etc. but I decided to take the day and have a bit of fun. I loaded my Strat, Pantheon and vintage Twin head up and hit the road, off to visit a great friend of mine who lives two hours away. I had to get stuff done that day and couldn’t shuck everything I was doing, so I left the house at 6:30am and drove in the cold, wet rain up to the coast and proceeded to have a great time. Roxy and I have been Facebook friends for several years, and we’ve also traded and sold gear to the point it’s almost comical. I swear he’s got half of the stuff I’ve ever sold, and some of the gear I’ve even bought back from him and inevitably sold back. We jammed for about two hours and had an awesome time just hanging out and talking gear. He got to try my original ’68 Twin, and I got to try some of the amps he’d mentioned in our conversations (including a hand-built 20w from Bruce Egnater, his home-built amp, and one of the coolest little amps I’ve ever played in my life (more on that in a second). We messed with some pedals (including our Black Friday release) and just had a blast. It was great catching up, and it made me realize several things about myself and my gear choices.
First things first, I’ll discuss that amp I was talking about above. This was a 1-watt Marshall head and cab with a .25 watt switch on the back called the Offset. To be completely honest I’ve always sort of written off sub-20 watt amps as not being something that would ever tickle my fancy. I play into a clean platform almost exclusively, so the idea of such a low headroom amp seemed like a waste of time. I will be the first to admit that it was a stupid idea and that they are incredible. I plugged straight in and for only 1 watt and a single 10” speaker, it sounded MASSIVE. I was a bit shaken to my core because of it and I’ve pretty much been thinking about that amp constantly since then. I’m trying to work out a deal, as it’s a limited-edition amp and I WANT IT SO BAD. GAS hasn’t been quite this furious in a long time. It’s got extremely simple controls: Volume (Labeled Loudness) and Tone, then the Hi and Lo setting for the power scaling. That’s it. No frills. No FX loop, no drastic EQ changes. Simple and to the point. I REALLY liked it.
Enough about that epic little amp, onto more self-reflection and epiphanies (lol). Normally I’m one to pack up a big board and maybe bring a couple of guitars to a jam. Variety is the spice of life and all. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb and leaving my comfort zone by just taking a single pedal and a Strat that I’d only recently just modified with upgraded pickups and hadn’t taken it out for a jam yet. There was no real reason to worry, as it’s an American Pro strat that I had a guard wired-up from David Maue from Tonal Concept Pickups, where he had an original set of John Mayer Big Dippers that were wired in the neck and middle, and one of his custom PAF’s in the bridge. He put a push/pull pot in the bridge tone control to split the coil in the humbucker, and the other tone control allows me to use all 3 pickups together. As I said before, the only pedal I took was a Pantheon with a fresh 9v battery, and a TC Electronic headstock tuner for good measure. The greatest feeling was plugging into each amp and feeling confident in what I was doing. Admittedly my playing wasn’t perfect as I rarely get to practice much anymore (life, you know how it is), but overall there wasn’t a tone I felt I couldn’t achieve with that setup. Being totally honest it would have to be the fingers and the mind behind it to make that combo sound bad, but it was nice not having to hide behind a board like I’ve used as a safety net for so long. It did, however, dawn on me that with my lack of practice came the lack of remembering how to play most of the songs I used to know how to play. I’ve spent so much time noodling and learning riffs and just messing around that it was a bit disconcerting. Good thing is I know exactly what to work on, as I do want to get back to being able to play some covers like I used to. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was abundantly clear.
I guess the biggest thing I can take from all of this is that I’m thankful to have close friends who can talk gear, inspire GAS, and allow me to just be myself and play. It was nice having the guitar I had schemed over for so long and mess with to be just right turned out exactly how I wanted. That’s the first guitar where I sat down at the end of the day and had absolutely nothing to find wrong with it or a desire for it to do more. In the end, I will say that a lot of the tone comes from the hands, but having the right tools to translate what you’re putting out helps quite a bit and inspires confidence as well.
I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).
I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.
My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.
Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.
In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player.
Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!
Well, I’ve just one of the best weeks I can remember for a long time!
As you probably already know, I play in what bDub calls a “Dad-Rock” cover band and love every damn second of it. If I am honest, we are OK, we are tight and we always have good tone – we play the kind of music that would get us booted out of any US bar but over here, that kind of Americana/Blues/Country stuff is quite rare so we, at least around here, quite different to most other bands on the circuit. I’ve known all the guys I play with for almost 30 years and have been playing with them on and off for that time, although it was only a couple of years ago I fully joined them after the guitarist (the first guitar player I ever saw play live – albeit in a different band - in early 1988) unexpectedly had to quit the band after being there for 24 years. So… it’s not a serious musical adventure, it’s just some old friends who get on very well playing the kind of music they like to the best of their ability. The band, Dirty Money, is somewhat of an institution around these here parts. On Sunday we played in the afternoon, outside (in the last hurrah of the flailing UK summer) a lovely time was had by all – it was just a laid-back moment of loveliness that we all thoroughly enjoyed. I must admit, I like afternoon gigs as it means I’m home by 9 and can get a decent night’s sleep. 2am and I just don’t mix like we used too.
Then… Monday. Well, you may have read my last blog piece about it we saw the unbelievably perfect Joey Landreth. You can read about it here.
On Tuesday we were off again to see one of my favourite musicians, Mr Adrian Legg. Now, I have history with Adrian, I first saw him supporting Joe Satriani in March 1993 (the concert that provided the live track “Flying In A Blue Dream” for the album Time Machine) and for me, Adrian completely and utterly stole the show that night. You can picture it, lots of long-haired rock guitar god types all going to see ‘the master’ and in support is this wonderfully quietly spoken man with just an Ovation guitar. As he walked out we all kinda went “What the…?” but within the first 4 bars, the entire venue had their jaws on the floor in stunned disbelief what they were seeing. As we left the show that night, all around me all I could hear was talk about Adrian. I mean, everyone was blown away by Joe, but I’m pretty certain Adrian picked up a lot of fans that tour (he then went on to do a G3 tour with Joe and Vai) and I quietly just bought all his albums and retained my level of fandom over the years, I was delighted to connect with Adrian when the social media explosion happened and we often (and still do) talk about gear. He’s one of our artists in the most lovely way, he only uses stuff he likes that can make him sound incredible, and he still sound incredible - it’s so cool to see one of my favourite players sporting a Tumnus to make his acoustic guitar bite and growl in the perfect way. About an hour from us a small club run by a certain Mr and Mrs Quayle (who have a son you might be familiar with. Let’s just say… they created a Dual Fusion of their own), and they occasionally have some really good players performing so we go on up when we can. It was lovely to see Adrian again, not seen him for a couple of years and he honoured me by playing a request that I had asked for – “Mrs Jacks Last Stand” that is just one of the most beautiful pieces of solo guitar I can think of.
Adrian often tours the US, you can find tickets here. if you get the chance, you’d be mad not to go. It was a very, very, very special night for all concerned (this was the first time I could take Lisa with me so she was delighted to finally meet Adrian, Richard and Leslie - Tom’s Mum and Dad – in the flesh. You gotta love Leslie, she often starts a sentence with “Oh, I shouldn’t tell you this but there was this one time, when he younger, that Thomas…” and BOOM, there is my material for the next NAMM flight to wind him up!)
A couple of days followed that was just work and family stuff and then on Friday, we were off out again to see an exceptionally cool and fast-rising star named Kris Barras. Man. I wish you could have seen it. I’m not the biggest blues fan in the world, as a lot of it just gets repetitive after a while, but there are certain bands and players that take the mould and smash it to a million pieces, all the time retaining the core of what makes a great blues band. Kris, quite simply, is a phenomenal player. I was listening intently all night as I kept hear different styles flawlessly fall from his fingers… it was about halfway through I suddenly realised what was happening. Every time he changed guitars, his playing slightly changed with it – but not completely, just another version of him. I’ve never really seen that in a player before. You know what it’s like, when someone plays a different guitar they tend to be the exact same player just with a slightly different tone with a couple of specific tricks thrown in… but Kris was actually adapting his style and voicings to compliment his guitar which was a real mind bend for me. When he was on the Tele, some incredibly subtle yet perfectly placed country fills were coming out right alongside some more biting bluesy stuff, then when we went to the Strat, the attack changed, as did the note choice, as did the feel of his playing… same when he went to his HB equipped guitars (a PRS and Seth Baccus Nautilus) everything changed again… I think I could tell you what guitar he was playing ‘now’ (in a blindfold test) on any given gig not by the tone, but how he changes his playing. I really wish I could articulate this better as it’s probably reading like a nonsense but within his own unique style, I could hear Gary Moore, The Allmans, Brent Mason, Albert Lee, Skynyrd, Mr BB (The) King, JoBo, Derek Trucks, Clapton, Beck… the list is endless, but each of those influences came out, perfectly morphed into his own style, according to the instrument he was playing. Class.
Then, after seeing those three incredible players during the week, three players that are respectively either at the sitting at the top of their genre, or comfortable in the fact that they changed millions of players and can still shake them to this day or one that’s raising up so fast it’s hard to keep up with them… All these players inspire me to be the best I possibly can… on Saturday night, I took Lisa to see her favourite guitar player play live, fortunately for me, that actually is me… and that’s just about the best feeling in the world for this hapless romantic old fool.