Alien Instruments, part 2
I hate guitars & I love guitars
by Gary Gomes
By Gary Gomes Guitars are, for better or worse, the main instruments of expression in rock music--or have been for the past 65 years or so. Part of the reason for their popularity is relatively straightforward--they are, overall, relatively inexpensive. In addition, they were pretty easy to play if you weren't interested in playing very complicated music on them. C, F, and G. as well as E, A and B family chords are very easy to learn on guitar. Also, they are portable, relatively lightweight and can sound meaty if the amplifier is turned up a little. That is how they established a foothold; this interaction of the amplifier and guitar to create interesting sounds dates back, probably to Chicago Blues, but wherever electricity and electric guitars were probably encouraged exploration of sound. Electric guitar sustain and clarity can be heard in early form in places like Charlie Christian's "Solo Flight” in the early '40's, and everyone is familiar with Les Paul's pioneering work with overdubbing (as well as his pioneering work done with the solid body electric guitar), along with Rickenbacker (the frying pan guitar was one of the very first) and Leo Fender.
But the musicians were the ones who found the really unusual sounds. Ike Turner's "Rocket 99," among others, is an early example. But there is one thing that the electric guitar shared along with the synthesizer, which I discussed in the last issue/installment--the technology changed over time to accommodate musicians' needs. For instance, amplifiers in the '50's rarely topped 15-20 watts in power, and people like Leo Fender and Dick Dale actually used bigger amplifiers-clean sounding amplifiers--to up the power ante with amplifiers like the twin reverb, or the Showman (with one 15 inch speaker) and the Dual Showman (two 15 inch J.B. Lansing speakers). As a matter of record, although other amplifier makers were in business in the late '50's and early '60's, Fender dominated in the U.S. Vox in the UK was a serious competitor because of the ubiquitous presence of these products in the stage setup of the Beatles and virtually every other British invasion group. But Fender was known for power and clarity, and its original Bassman amplifier was the inspiration for early Marshall amplifiers and later, a modified Fender Princeton low wattage amplifier was the model for the original Mesa Boogie amplifiers. Fender and Ampeg (later) sought clarity in amplifier reproduction--they wanted a clean sound. Overdrive caused by overdriving tubes was not desirable to the makers, but was to the musicians. Jim Marshall and Mesa Boogie (among others) realized and capitalized on this defect that guitarist started to exploit. Apparently, the owner of Ampeg was horrified when he heard that musicians wanted fuzz boxes to make their amps sound distorted. It flew in the face of everything he believed.
The point is that electric guitars are not stand alone instruments. They sound good or bad depending on the equipment with which they are paired--the first pairing was with amplifiers, but it did not stop there either. By the mid to late 1960's, effects pedals were extraordinarily common devices for electric guitarists--fuzz boxes, wah wah pedals, overdrive, phasers, and the array of effects that Hendrix used (the Octavia, Arbiter Fuzz Face, and others) became part of the common lexicon of guitar playing. Robert Fripp and Steve Hackett both made pedal boards extensions of the instrument. Compression, a studio technique used to add punch to pop records by reducing the dynamic range of pop recordings, was also used to compress sound and make control of amplifier feedback easier. So this became a standard as well. There are literally dozens of companies that make guitar-market after pedals- some going for as much as $500 for one effect, like a rotating speaker pedal to emulate a Leslie speaker, as well as synthesizers.
Given the wide range of sound modification devices available to guitars, one would imagine they would be producing wild and unusual sounds--and that is true of some guitarists--but the vast majority of guitarists opt for a relatively narrow range of the palette of sonic potential available to them. A guitar with a synthesizer pedal sounds, well, like an unsteady synthesizer. Most of the potential sounds available on the guitar, at least based on available evidence, seem to have been exhausted in 1983 or thereabouts. Why this is true is something of a mystery--or maybe not.
Guitarists have been at the top of the food chain since rock was morphed from something earlier. Basically, most rock has been a guitar-based music for so much of its life, the idea of taking a guitar to new heights has been largely up to the guitarist's whim--or learned ability. Most guitarists are content to use several familiar flavorings as their template. The days of massive disruption along the lines of Clapton, Hendrix, Fripp, or even Van Halen (who did not invent tapping but popularized it) are largely over through assimilation.
Audiences also don't seem to seriously question what the guitarist does-or if the guitar is even necessary to form a powerful rock group. It has become axiomatic that distortion is usually necessary--I witnessed Adrian Belew get his biggest applause when he flipped his fuzz tone on, and Fripp was criticized by an otherwise intelligent man for playing without distortion during a League of Gentleman concert. The effect is more important than what is being played. Also, the glorification of players who play loudly but not well is annoying: Keith Richards, Neil Young and to a lesser extent, Lou Reed, come to mind. Mick Taylor allegedly quit the Rolling Stones because he was tired of playing in a band that couldn't tune its guitars; Duane Allman (who crapped all over the ending of "Layla" with random slide work) said Neil Young shouldn't be playing lead guitar. Reed gets a bit of a pass here, but not much. He developed his unique Ostrich style because he listened to Ornette Coleman, but Sonny Sharrock and later players bested him at it (Bern Nix, the Beefheart guitarists) as well as Gong's Daevyd Allen, who was a limited guitarist at best.
Although this essay could say plenty about limited technique getting undeserved praise (The Edge, anyone?), it is more about why is a guitar even necessary for a rock band? The answer is: It's not.
Many groups flourished without a guitar or with a very limited guitar presence: The Nice, Van der Graff Generator, the Crazy World of Arhur Brown, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity, Gary Numan, The United States of America, Soft Machine, Back Door, Etron Fou Leloublan, Magma (at times) among others. Why is the guitar necessary for rock success, especially when we have so many viable sonic substitutes now?
The answer? It is solely based on tradition. It is expected. The instrument of the rebel (as the electric guitar was once considered) has become... the instrument of conformity. Guitarists themselves sometimes function as technological luddites. The insistence that tube amps are better; the insistence on six string guitars (there are expansion to 7 and 8 string guitars now). The tyranny of tradition among guitarists even pervades the attitude towards other instruments. Bassists have a "function," drummers just keep a beat, and Al Kooper once stated he was forced to rent a Hammond because the guitarists in the band didn't like the sound of his digital, lightweight instruments.
Although there is great beauty in the playing of some guitarists and their utilization of style and technology, the vast majority of guitarists are imprisoned by history and expectation.
If anything stands in the way of musical advance, it is the electric guitarist, for that person has a kingdom and empire to maintain.
Also see the other parts of Alien Instrument series- Rise of the Synths and The Use of Weird Instruments
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