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We guitarists are kind of bitches. Seriously—have you taken a look at what we say about each other online? Hell, even many of us who are secure or well-mannered enough to not let internet anonymity turn us into jerkwads are often still thinking jerky thoughts. But I guess that’s just how it is these days. I mean, it’s not like you don’t see that where guitar playing isn’t part of the picture—although it does seem that bassists are less prone to tearing each other down.
I guess it all comes down to the evolution of the whole “guitar god” thing. As with everything cool, someone (or in this case, a bunch of someones) blazes a trail, then comes the bandwagon effect, then inevitable burnout, formula forming, and the numbing, beating to death of what once ruled. Thus began the Post Guitar God era, which started anytime within the past 20 years … or hasn’t begun at all and never will, depending on your viewpoint.
But let’s face it, there’s a difference between what Django, Robert, Jimmy, Jimi, Eddie, Yngwie, and Morello (to cherry- pick a few) did and what we see now. Plain and simple, gone are the days of leaving a historic mark—of creating a singular voice widely differentiable from others—via the types of dexterity and musicality used by bona fide guitar heroes of yore.
Some would argue that a complete mental reset is necessary—that technique, “good tone,” and song structure are irrelevant and that we should just set aside preconceptions, shut the hell up, and listen with our hearts and more-open-than-normal minds. Many will say you’re never a true musician unless you master their vague (and completely un-rock-’n’-roll) checklist of B.S. about various combinations of dexterity, theory, and tone. Some will always be in the shredding camp, others will try to differentiate themselves with new combinations of technique and technology. Others will simply shake their heads and say, “It’s the song, stupid.”
I just wish everyone would chill a bit and respect each other—if not for our music, then just for our bloody status as upright walkers. (Yes, I’m an idealist. Let the mocking commence!) While I often somehow find myself in all of the mindsets above, I definitely tilt more toward the do-whatever- the-hell-you-want side. Guitarists are so often bashing each other’s technique without listening to nuance, dynamics, chord voicings, song structure, mood, and emotional effect. How many more players do we need who can melt a fretboard on YouTube? Isn’t there some middle ground between dexterity and willingness to flip the bird at convention? Isn’t true rebelliousness and defiance of norms what’s so sadly missing from music these days (or at least the music that tends to get widespread attention)?
Here’s what I know: There are hordes of guitarists—or, more importantly, passionate music makers—who never get respect from their 6-string peers at large for the stupid reasons listed above. But I’ll take a lot of these musicians over what certain stick-in-the-mud guitarists seem unable to get their fill of. Here are just a few of the guitarists I dig a whole hell of a lot. They don’t give a crap what other guitarists think of them, and they’ll never get much glory in the guitar-media universe.
Cody Votolato. Now involved with projects such as Jaguar Love and Waxwing, Votolato is best known for his explosive work with post-hardcore crazy-asses the Blood Brothers. Armed with a Strat and a cranked Orange amp, he electrified the Brothers’ dueling- Yosemite-Sam-on-crack vocal approach with bristling discordance, tight-as-hell rhythm insanity, and an ear toward making the band’s odd-timed rampages a cathartic thrill ride through punky, meth-addled Vaudeville. Must-hear tracks: “Burn, Piano Island, Burn,” “We Ride Skeletal Lightning”
Per Stålberg and David Fransson. Division of Laura Lee is probably the last band from Gothenburg, Sweden, you’re likely to hear about. Though they’re often lumped in with garage-rockers the Hives, Stålberg and Fransson—who favor a Fender Tele Deluxe and Ibanez Jet King, respectively— never get to that purposely annoying/attention-whore level. Their tunes are darker, brooding— a post-punk soundtrack for Let the Right One In (best vampire movie of the last 30 years, for the record). They’re not guitar heroes, but their tones and interplay is instantly identifiable. Must-hear tracks: “3 Guitars,” “Black City”
Sir Richard Bishop. This Sun City Girls experimentalist is adept at creating mesmerizingly ominous and/or beautiful soundscapes with an odd air of doom, mystery, and antiquity using everything from an acoustic to reverb-drenched electrics and lap steels. Must-hear tracks: “Hecate’s Dream,” “Ecstasies in the Open Air”
Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood, and Thom Yorke. Radiohead’s elusive 6-string trio isn’t exactly unheralded, but they’re often derided by guitarists proper. Their ability to warp guitars, vocals, and other instruments with pedals is only part of it, though. Greenwood’s unique voicings stem from being a bona fide classical composer, but he’s also committed to the avant. Perhaps the coolest thing about these guys is how willing they are to set down their guitars and pick up a new instrument that might take a song in a new direction. Must-hear tracks: “2+2=5,” “15 Step,” “Blow Out”
I could go on and on, but I’d rather ask you—who are your favorite new-order guitar heroes?