As long as the air has shaken with music, there have been voyagers, troublemakers, and mindbenders who have turned our notion of harmony, melody, and rhythm on its end. Though they may not have been rewarded for their daring in their time, such giants as Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, John Cage, and John Coltrane all mischievously toyed with convention. Using an orchestra, sax, piano— and even silence—they rearranged our expectations and ideas of what music can be.
If there was ever an instrument built to carry on that tradition, it’s the electric guitar. It’s a tool of a million textures and timbres and an instrument of the people. Affordable, easy to learn at an elementary level, and capable of inspiring creativity on a single string, the guitar is the perfect tool for musical revolution.
Yet somehow, amid the million-note flurries of virtuosity, hero imitation, and obsession over the instrument itself, it’s easy to lose sight of these most elegant aspects of the guitar’s potential. And lessons about cultivating an individual voice taught by geniuses from Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, John McLaughlin, and Nels Cline are often obscured in the stampede to retrace their steps.
Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop of Rangda are four contemporary players that steadfastly walk the path less trodden. Though their work often takes radical, noncommercial turns, they don’t play simply to upset the apple cart. They’re all uncommonly gifted musicians, reverent students, avid listeners, and prolific in the studio. And while they each appreciate technique in measures as a means to opening doors, they are much more interested in using the guitar to kick those doors down.
The music Ranaldo, Zinner, Chasny, and Bishop make may not always be the most accessible. But the way they live their own musical and creative lives—listening adventurously, tossing the rulebook, and probing the limits of what the guitar, effects, and amplifiers can do—can help you push yourself further, no matter what music you’re trying to make.
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