Guitar is Not NASCAR!
Everything moves so fast these days. The computer I am typing this on is already obsolete and I just bought it a few months ago! The internet lets us communicate with people on the other side of the world at the speed of light. Is it any wonder that our music is getting faster and faster?
Over the past few decades, we have seen the rise of some incredibly fast guitar pickers in most every style of music ... Dimebag Darrel Abbott, Buckethead, Rusty Cooley, Joe Stump, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, Greg Howe, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Frank Gambale, Brad Paisley, Michael Romeo, John Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Angelo Batio, Chris Impellitteri, Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, Alex Masi, The Great Kat, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Tony MacAlpine, Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammet, Dave Mustaine, Vernon Reid, Shawn Lane, John-5, Muhammed Suiçmez, Jeff Loomis, Lorn Leber, Francesco Fareri, Tiago Della Vega, Allan Holdsworth, George Bellas, Herman Li, Alexi Laiho, Victor Smolski, Steve Morse, Kerry King, Eric Johnson, Akira Takasaki, Timo Tolkki, Luca Turilli, Theodore Ziras, Bruce Bouillet, Ron Thal, Patrick Rondat, David T. Chastain to name a few.
Nothing wrong with that. Fast guitar playing can be very exciting. Developing the technique to play guitar at these blistering speeds requires talent, focus and dedication. We deserve to be duly impressed by these awesome technicians. My one concern is that we are beginning to see speed as the measure of a guitarists worth. The faster the player, the better the player and I think there are problems with this view.
Music is not NASCAR. It is an art form ... not a spectator sport.
Most people would agree that the most interesting thing about art is it's ability to connect with humans on an emotional level. Psychologists will tell you that we humans are 20% intellect and 80% emotion. The wonder of art is that it can speak to that greater proportion of our being. It conveys stories to us of love, hope and tragedy. It brings images into our imaginations in clear focus. It makes us feel other peoples experiences as if they were really happening to us. In that sense, it unites us and allows us to see into each others lives. We can share experiences with people we have never and will never meet.
I think there are only certain experiences and emotions that fast guitar playing can express ... chief among them might be tension, aggression, anger, fear, confusion, and maybe exhilaration. Notice that these are predominantly negative emotions. Since much of this experience happens on a sub conscious level, we may not even be truly aware of the effect that it has on our vision of the world around us. I'm suggesting that if all you listen to is thrash metal, could it be contributing to a more negative world view? Do you tend to think that the world sucks ... that the deck is stacked against you ... everyone is out to get you? I might suggest that you could benefit from a more emotionally balanced musical experience. It could deliver you a more accurate picture of the human condition. You might even learn to love life!
Some would say that art is a reflection of the world around us and I agree to an extent. But often, that picture is distorted by outside factors ... notably the presence of the marketplace. As I have said in many of my posts and articles, in our profit driven culture, art has become as much a commodity as it is an art form. That which gets promoted is that which will sell to the masses. I'm constantly surprised at how easy it is for us to focus on the darker side of life. This seems to create a climate where we respond to the negative emotions in music more than the positive. Negative music is easier to sell. The market becomes flooded with it. Soon it's all we know. It feeds into a self fulfilling downward spiral. Happy music is considered "wimpy". We surrender to the dark side of the force.
As I was doing research for this article, I happened upon this website inviting visitors to vote for the 10 best "shred" guitar players. There were plenty of respectful posts. Then one guy had the nerve to suggest that shredding wasn't all there was to guitar playing and ... OMG ... they tore him to shreds (no pun intended)! I've never seen worse profanity. This guy was a "M-%#*@% F-#$@!% piece of S-%#$ pussy and his mother was a F-%#$@ trash W-$#%@! bitch." ... on and on and on ... post after post after post.
Again, I think young males in particular too often confuse cynicism with wisdom. Going negative makes them think they're real men. These tough, hard shredders become role models railing against the evils of the modern world. They have the true perspective. They see the world for what it truly is and they're trying to save us all. They're the real heroes of modern society. Give me a "f-$#&%" break!
At times, I've done this exercise with some of my private students ... some poor doom-and-gloom kid. We're working on their 10th death metal song in a row. I'm just so sick of listening to all this negativity. I go "Hey. Come here a minute." We go to the front door of the studio. I open it. The sun is out. The birds are singing. Kids are playing next door. My neighbor waves to us. Wake up kid. This is the real world.
Yeah, yeah. I know. People are starving and dying all over the world. Government and big business is corrupt ... gangs, drugs, rape. I don't mean to suggest that these are trivial matters. They aren't. The nightly news inundates us with it. I would, however like to suggest that this is not the BIG picture. There is far more good and beauty in this world than darkness and a balanced, enlightened and mature survey of the world will show you that. Even in Syria, mothers laugh with their children and marvel at the beautiful sunset. I'm simply petitioning for us to return to an appreciation of more emotionally balanced art and music.
Now how about this. In many ways, playing guitar fast and negative is easier than playing slow! There ... I said it. I have found this to be absolutely true so many times. You have to choose your notes much more carefully when they hang in the air longer. When you're blowing off a huge string of notes at a million miles per hour, nobody can tell how well those notes really relate to the underlying chords and harmonic structure of the piece. A lot of these guys really can't play guitar slow and soulful. So are they really such great guitar players?
I remember a Keith Richards quote from years ago. He was talking about jazz guitar players specifically, but I think it can apply to Shredders as well. He said something like "They play so many notes because they just can't find the right one."
Half of these metal guys can't think as fast as they play anyway. Who could? If you listen carefully, you hear many of them just spitting out the same old tired guitar riffs over and over again. This isn't real improvisation. These are just finger patterns they have memorized. I call them "lick barfers". They're not creating new and original melodies when they solo. They're just barfing up some finger trick they learned reading the tab from an old Led Zeppelin tune!
Negative emotional music is easier to compose than happy music as well. In fact it's much easier. Try this experiment. Record yourself playing a string of totally random notes on your guitar. Now listen to it back. Do you feel that the melody you just created conveys a positive emotion or a negative emotion? It's almost always negative. It sounds like chaos and confusion. That's the easy stuff to portray. It's much more difficult to stay positive and keep your music from careening off into the darkness.
I've been known to say that the major triad (most folks would agree that they sound happy) is one of the towering achievements of the human race. Let's face it. Life is hard. We evolved in constant fear of starving, being eaten alive by larger predators, dying of plague or being burned as witches. It's a wonder that we ever managed to create art that accentuates those fleeting moments of joy and beauty. Don't turn away from these positive expressions. Allow them in to cleanse your soul, lighten your load and restore your faith in humanity.
There are so many awesome guitar players out there that explore the total range of human emotions ... not just the negative ones. There is music out there that can help you slow down ... relax and be at peace ... something you might appreciate more as you get older, have more and more responsibilities and seek more balance in your life.
-Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program