The Dismal state of local guitar playing

Warning: Please don’t read this if you are already great. This is for the guitar players who wish to become great some day. If you are already great my guess is reading it won’t do you a damn bit of good.

See my other blog piece Ten Tips For Being  A Great Guitar Player.

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When I first picked up a guitar all those years ago I was one of the few people I knew who considered such an endeavour.

Through grade school and high school I was one of a small handful of kids who knew the pleasures of feedback, fuzztone, wah wah, string bending, finger rolls…

When I got into the local Asbury Park area music scene, again I was one of a limited number of players who could actually keep one in tune.

But- such great guitarists they were: “Too Tall Tom” Dimock, Billy Hector, Rick Desarno, Lenny Molinari and on and on. Guitarists who set a high bar for newbies like myself.

None better than the great Billy Hector. But where are the future Billy Hectors?

None better than the great Billy Hector. But where are the future Billy Hectors?

I studied them and tried to be like them- learned how to do double stops by watching Billy Hector, learned how to get a smooth slide sound from Too Tall, how to build a fury like Ricky D.

As did others. It was a great time to be starting out. And a fantastic scene, documented in books in several languages by now.

Today it seems guitar players are everywhere. Especially here in the Asbury Park area. Acoustic guitarists. Electric guitarists. Rhythm players, lead players, blues belters. Guitarists who tap, guitarists who play with one hand. Guitarists who record their opening parts into “loops” and are able to switch off between rhythm and lead even while playing solo, without loss of any rhythm parts.

And yet….

And yet, I would say there are FEWER truly great guitarists around today than at any other time in my listening lifetime. Fewer real innovators, true, but those are always rare, and no, playing guitar with one hand or with your toes is not innovation, its acrobatics.

This assessment may shock some of the people who know me, because I try hard to be as supportive of the local music scene as I can be.

We have so many truly gifted songwriters, who move me and move all of us.

So many gifted singers, who have unique styles ranging from soulful to southern fried, country to urban, folksy to ballsy metal shouters.

So many gifted horn players. Keyboard players, though harder to find- we got ’em

Drummers, well there are a lot of really good ones around and some even phenomenally great.

Bass players are always hard to find and there are a few of those. Blues Harp players- Sandy Mack, Big Nancy Swarbrick and a host of others come to mind who will blow your mind.

But really great guitar players? They are incredibly rare.

Lead guitarists who can move me and take me to a higher place? Almost none. Rhythm guitarists who can rock like Keith Richards and make you want to shake your booty with their chunka chunka right hand? Nope. Improvisers who can start out in South America and take you around the world in a five minute solo? When have I heard that last?

MikeB

One of the most up and comingist area guitar players Mikey B- as of this writing he is 16 years old. But his kind is getting rarer and rarer.

Don’t get me wrong- there are a few great newer guitar players around. Mikey Butler comes to mind, not even out of high school yet, and not yet even developed in terms of style, but much farther along than most adult players. Matt O’ree, Pat Ruhe from Christina Martucci. And I like a really great rhythm player like Kevin Doucette, from 2 Reds and a Beard, really solid and heartfelt.

But nearly all of the guitarists who are doing anything interesting have been around since Asbury Park’s Golden Era. Almost no one from the past 30 years, and even one of the youngest, Matt O’ree, has been with us for a while now.

Billy Hector, Paul Whistler, Chuck Lambert, Gary Cavico- all of the really great guitarists are up there in years. Yes they still play their ASSES off. And may they continue to for many more years.

Why are their so few newer, up and coming guitarists? Despite the fact that there are more guitar players around now than ever before?

Well, some of you who would agree with this appraisal might have some ideas. Here are mine.

– There are so few younger guitarists on a national level. Most of the great players who perform are way up in years, with a few exceptions like Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, and Johnny Lang. It seems this is not just a local problem.

– For a long time in the 1990s, with the advent of the “Grunge” sound, virtuosity was actually frowned upon by many in the music world. So there were fewer and fewer role models, and fewer and fewer who aspired to true greatness.

Not that I have anything against a nice primitive sound-think early Stones and early Mott The Hoople. But Keith Richards and Mick Ralphs were also extremely influential and innovative, though there early work does have an extremely infectious “unpolished” feel to it.

– Too many guitarists have been badly taught.

I’m going to repeat that: too many guitarists have been badly taught.

Teaching involves not just the passing of knowledge, but the challenge to instill understanding and wisdom. Young guitarists learn scales, they learn chords, they even learn riffs, runs, songs, entire solos. But they never learn to connect with their hearts, and in turn, with the hear of their audience.

Instead they learn to play fast. They learn to play complicated chords. They learn to play OVER the band instead of with the band.

After a while, they get it into their heads, and into their habits, that music has to do with athletics: faster, higher, cleverer, more more more more more.

They spend the entire song looking at their hands, instead of looking into their hearts.

 

– They over-learn.

Jazz musicians say: “Learn everything there is to learn then forget all that shit and play.”

I would qualify that: Learn everything there is to learn about the music that is YOUR music or what you want your music to be, then forget all that shit and play.

I have a four year degree from Rutgers. I didn’t use 80% of what I was taught. But what I used I use every day, in every note I play.

I didn’t use all the counterpoint I was taught, all the Jazz theory. I can read and right half-decently and know my way around a keyboard.

But none of that is what I needed to play.

I needed to know everything about the music I wanted to play. I needed to know how Steve Cropper got that nasty sound on his recording of “Rock Me” by Otis Redding. How did Albert King get all those string bends in “Crosscut Saw”? (hint- he was left-handed). How did Robert Johnson manage to play bass and slide at the same time? How did Keith Richard and Chuck Berry get that deep “chunka chunka” sound on “Little Queenie”?

 

I have a suggestion for EVERY GUITAR PLAYER OUT THERE WHO HAS NEVER HEARD MILES DAVIS OR KING CURTIS.

Go out and buy their CDs, or download as much of their music as you can.

DON’T GO NEAR YOUR GUITAR!!!

Listen- listen to the way their horn connects with their heart. That is how Duane Allman got to be great. Its how every guitarist, and for that matter, every musician gets to be great. By being a great listener. Listen listen listen! Listen to the way they make their horns cry, scream, laugh, pout, whimper.

(I have a dirty little secret. Many guitarists don’t get their ideas from other guitarists. We get them from other musicians- horn and harmonica players especially. One of my favorite things to do when I am playing with a horn or blues harp player is to listen to their solo and steal some of their ideas. People don’t notice because when I apply them to the guitar they sound different.)

Then listen to Chet Atkins and Hendrix and Duane Allman, BB King, etc etc and you will see where THEY got it from.

And if there is any greatness in you IT WILL COME OUT. Have no fear.

After you’ve done NOTHING ELSE BUT LISTEN to these great artists, just forget all of it and play.

You won’t even have to think of them. Their music will be in you.

And if their is any great music in YOU, the world will know it.

And finally STOP PLAYING OVER THE VOCALIST! Or any other member of the band. The audience is not there to hear you, they are there to hear the band, and yours is just is to make the band sound great, not to make people think YOU are great.

But then again, if you were great you wouldn’t be reading this. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Well said Al, you are so right. I’ve been playing for over 25 years and though I think i can hang with anyone on a stage, I find myself thinking do i want to? Dynamics are a lost art these days and the lead ego ruins it totally. You write as well as you play Al, thanks! Keep it going

    Like

  2. What I’ve seen is a bunch of kids who only know one style of playing and who come to teachers wanting to learn songs, not styles or techniques. They have closed minds and thus do not develop into good guitarists because they don’t know how to reach beyond the songs they’ve learned. Maybe that comes with age, but I’m thinking that most of them will fall by the wayside long before developing technique, style, or any sort of originality. And yes, Miles Davis, for sure!!!

    Like

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