Monthly Archives: May 2013

Only Two Kinds of Instrumental Guitarists Get Known

I’m an instrumental guitarist. I admit it.

Is it embarrassing?  I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but the fact remains that the field of instrumental guitar music isn’t given much esteem. There are really only two kinds of us that anyone talks about:

  1. The big guys
  2. The ones who play insanely fast all the time

The Big Three

Musician Joe Satriani

Musician Joe Satriani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson. Those are the Big Three.

Sure, there are some others that are synonymous with the genre and also got their start in the 1980s when it was cool, like Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore, Marty Friedman (and Jason Becker), but let’s face it – the genre is largely known because of the Big Three, who gave it viability because – wait for it – they actually sold CDs of this stuff! Lots of them! Their songs were played on the radio, even MTV. And they still do tours, most notably the G3 tour, where Satch, Vai, and a guest perform three sets.

Everyone else? Not so much. Years ago Jason Becker admitted in an interview that, despite record label distribution, a high profile gig with David Lee Roth, and loads of magazine cover spots, plus charity functions for him after being diagnosed with ALS, his CDs simply don’t sell. I’ll be honest, I felt better hearing that, since mine don’t sell for squat either and I don’t have any of that!

English: Steve Vai in London in 2001

Steve Vai in London in 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you showed up after the arrival of grunge (via Nirvana) in 1991, you were DOA. In fact, since then, you’re still kind of screwed, as the art of lead guitar hasn’t really recovered in the all years since. I remember when bands were bashing all lead guitar in general as a sign of conceit, shallowness, and artificiality, as if it’s not a valid form of musical expression. They were rejecting the pressure to practice and know fancy scales, but that was overdoing it, methinks.

Since then, who gets known?

The Fast Guys

Then there are the guys who play a million notes per second, their technical skill being the only real reason people talk about their playing, but not their music.

“Shredding” was once a derogatory term for guitarists whose solos sounded like masturbation. You know, playing too fast all the time, throwing in all sorts of exotic scales, and performing every virtuoso trick as often as possible, from tapping to sweep arpeggios, usually without the slightest bit of musical taste. Their technique had machine-like precision, which, for me, robbed it of expression.

Since then, “shredding” has become a term used without condemnation, used to describe anyone with speed.

Still, if you want to get known as an instrumental guitarist these days, you need to have a high NPS. That’s “note per second”. Yes, there are people who actually take the time to count this for different guys and makes lists. Go ahead and google “notes per second guitar” and see what comes up. That’s embarrassing.

There are guys releasing CDs that I personally think are just awful, the songs full of nothing but fast lead playing over mindless backing tracks, and yet people talk about them enough that they get endorsements, magazine coverage, and other stuff.

Who is causing that with their attention?  Usually fellow guitarists. Is that who those CDs are for? Is that what the entire genre, except for the Big Three, has come to be? Insanely fast lead guitar all the time for other guitarists who care only for technical displays of virtuosity? When those people want to listen to something enjoyable, do they put on something else?

Everybody Else

If you’re an instrumental guitarist and focus on songs, melody, and feel over shredding, you aren’t likely to get talked about. And the days of getting instrumental guitar (I’m talking rock here) heard by lots of people are probably long gone. It’s not “marketable” and hasn’t been for over twenty years. A brief window from Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien album in 1987 to 1991 has closed.

For my CDs, sometimes people praise them and then write something like, “he’s not the fastest guy in the world but I’m surprised how much I like these songs.” And I just laugh and want to cry. Not about not being the fastest, but at the subject even coming up and then the admission that the music is actually enjoyable, apparently defying expectation. That says a lot. And it says nothing good – for music, this genre, or me personally.

So is it the fan base that has lost touch with something, the guitarists, or both?

Coda

"Keeping Pace" video

My video for “Keeping Pace” from NOW WEAPONIZED!


At times I’ve expressed my frustration to my wife, saying I should just put out a song like the NPS guys to get some attention I can’t otherwise get. And she replies, in effect, “Would that really make you feel better to appeal to people who care about that?” And the answer is no, so I don’t. Besides, I can’t practice that much without suffering a bout of narcolepsy.

In the end, you have to do what you believe in, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that if you give up doing something you love to do something you don’t, and you still don’t get the recognition or success you crave, now you’ve given it up for nothing.

I’m hoping for the best of both worlds soon – still doing my particular brand of instrumental guitar, and having a metal band (with vocals) called Z-Order that will hopefully release its debut album in 2013. Who knows? Maybe while doing something I love (Z-Order), I’ll inadvertently draw attention to something else I also love (instrumental guitar).

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Ranking The Big Four Guitarists – Jeff Hanneman is Third

Jeff Hanneman of Slayer

Jeff Hanneman of Slayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the untimely death of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman this week, we lost one of the most important metal guitarists ever, particularly among the “Big Four” – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax.  Just how important or valuable was Hanneman?  Here is my ranking of the guitarists in those bands (feel free to disagree in the comments).

  1. Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)
  2. James Hetfield (Metallica)
  3. Jeff Hanneman (Slayer)
  4. Kerry King (Slayer)
  5. Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
  6. Scott Ian (Anthrax)
  7. Other Megadeth and Anthrax guitarists

I place emphasis on writing because the music is always “it” – the reason a band is truly great.  If Metallica puts out a great album followed by a stinker, the band is still the same, the players just as good as before.  The difference is the songs.

The ranking isn’t about who is the best player, performer, or even writer, but who is the most valuable in terms of contributing to their band’s success as a guitarist (not spokesman, for example).  It’s also not about which band is biggest or most successful either.

Dave Mustaine

English: Dave Mustaine performing in 2011 at H...

English: Dave Mustaine performing in 2011 at Hartford, CT with Megadeth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picking Mustaine over Hetfield feels sort of wrong even to me, but I have my reasons.

First, he’s the main writer in Megadeth, but he also wrote important songs in Metallica during their formative period (first 2-3 albums) and he’s the only guy who has been a main creative force in two of the Big Four.  That alone is enough to make him the most important guitarist.

Secondly, Megadeth has been consistently good far longer than Metallica, who took a huge left turn at “cool” toward “lame” and seemed to even abandon being a metal band for a huge period.  And they’re still struggling to get back.  Megadeth has seldom strayed. When looking at their overall catalogue, Megadeth, and therefore Mustaine, have been more impressive, even though Metallica at its best is clearly better than anyone else at their best.  The problem is they haven’t been at their best since the black album, over twenty years ago.

As an added bonus, Dave plays lead guitar all the time, and quite well, maybe even the best.  Other bonuses, which don’t count here, include writing lyrics, singing, and being band spokesman, making him the most complete guy in any band.

James Hetfield

English: James Hetfield performing live with M...

English: James Hetfield performing live with Metallica at the O2 Arena in London, England on 15 September 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See above on why James Hetfield isn’t number one for songwriting, even though he’s arguably better (more widely appealing) at it when he’s “on”.  It’s just been a long time since he was, and it’s too bad.  No one could beat him otherwise.  At his best, he’s possibly the biggest talent in the big four.  His best stuff is better than Mustaine’s best stuff, but overall output is lower in quality.

He can’t compete as a lead guitarist and is the highest ranking non-lead player on the list.  His bonuses that don’t count here are writing lyrics and singing.

Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King

Slayer live at Hellfest 2007

Slayer live at Hellfest 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next two biggest writers are Jeff Hannaman and Kerry King of Slayer, whose music I (and probably many others) must be in the mood for, honestly, even though it’s often killer, and for that reason, I think the band, and therefore the guitarists, are farther down the ranking.

The two are nearly equals, but Hanneman wrote much more of the band’s songs before his death this week, and also wrote the biggest classics, his death dealing a big blow to the band.  He gets the edge over King, both of whom have written more than Hammett. Their solos are crazy in a good way that is all their own.  If Slayer were more mainstream in sound and approach, these guys might’ve given Mustaine and Hetfield a run for their money.

Kirk Hammett

Kirk Hammett — Vienna 2007

Kirk Hammett — Vienna 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a while there in the 1980s, Hammett was possibly king of lead guitar among the Big Four, but then he descended into criminal wah-wah abuse and hasn’t recovered.  As a riff writer, he writes less than all of the above and therefore can’t beat them for contribution.  His riffs are always incorporated, by Hetfield, into Hetfield’s songs, suggesting Kirk can’t write a song on his own, though maybe James just won’t let him. Either way, it knocks him down a peg. And as one of Metallica’s writers, he’s partly responsible for their decline.

Scott Ian

And then there’s Scott Ian of Anthrax, whose writing contributions are hard to pin down because the credits usually say the whole band wrote the songs.  That puts him in company with Hammett, in all likelihood, except he doesn’t play lead.  It’s rumored that drummer Charlie Benante writes most Anthrax music.

Everyone else

All other guitarists who’ve been in Anthrax or Megadeth either didn’t/don’t write at all, or very little, and were therefore mostly soloists having far less impact on the band.  Of those, Marty Friedman is arguably the best and could warrant a place above, but as someone who came along later, he wasn’t nearly as formative a player in the band.

Coda

"Moshkill" Video

My video for “Moshkill” from NOW WEAPONIZED!


No matter anyone’s opinion, the loss of Jeff Hanneman means one of the most important guitarists in modern metal history is now gone. It remains to be seen if Slayer can survive without him, and for how long, for unless Kerry King steps up and writes a lot more, or gets another guitarist to help with their signature and frankly irreplaceable sound, the band’s output is likely to drop considerably.

Jeff Hanneman should be a legend.  RIP.

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