Popular music and mainstream tastes may be more fractured than ever, but the guitar continues to thrive.
As we soft launch into the new year, I’m not waiting for the requisite guitar obituary in the news. It’s not going to happen again anytime soon. Why? Because as far as the mainstream media is concerned, our beloved instrument is not only dead, it's irrelevant to the point of not even being an afterthought. When the New York Times published their most recent albums of the year list, there was barely a guitar-based recording to be found. Still, there is not only hope, but also cause for jubilation.
The crush of Covid has been good to the guitar industry. As I’ve written before, manufacturers and retailers have reported brisk 6-string sales. And like other builders, I have sold everything I can make. So, beyond the hoarding factor, that means there’s a new crop of players bubbling up, which should make its way onto the recording and performance scene before too long. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are hordes of rock clones blasting AC/DC- and Zeppelin-style riffs in suburban garages.
The guitar—acoustic or electric—is again a true ensemble instrument, and it’s easy to find evidence amongst the scores of releases from 2021.
What I’m seeing outside of blues, bro-country, and Americana circles is the guitar used in an orchestral way. The guitar—acoustic or electric—is again a true ensemble instrument, and it’s easy to find evidence amongst the scores of releases from 2021.
In African music, the guitar continues to be a driving force as a rhythm and single-note-phrase component in the tradition of Ali Farka Touré. The current incarnation, in electric form, is illustrated in Mdou Moctar’s “Afrique Victime,” where piercing Stratocaster figures punctuate and urge the music along. The title song’s upbeat crackle of single-coil spank dances in a joyful way that belies the dark message of the lyrics. It’s a sound that’s made its way into more than a few genres, including reggae and hip-hop.
Mdou Moctar - "Afrique Victime" (Edit) (Official Music Video)
An album finding its way into the year’s best-of lists is Sour by Olivia Rodrigo. This Disney-star-turned-teenage-misanthrope has earned a lot of attention. Her single “Brutal” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart with distorted guitar riffs and an angsty storyline. Unlike most pop offerings, the song’s intro begins with a full-on distorted power-chord riff reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” The resulting combination of sweet and sarcastic has given the song a sort of anti-Taylor Swift status. The official video is like a mesmerizing Sukeban version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where the cheerleaders are the band. I loved it but view at your own peril.
Olivia Rodrigo - brutal (Official Video)
Fans of angular riffs and funky rhythms might like to check out Black Midi’s second studio album, Cavalcade. They’ve been compared to off-center bands like Primus, but they’re capable of weaving dreamscapes as ethereal as Mazzy Star. Despite their math-rock leanings, the band is capable of genre-bending compositions that prominently feature textural guitars in an almost jazz-like manner. Geordie Greep’s flexible fretwork is an example of the 6-string used as a capable component as much as a solo instrument, never completely stealing the show.
black midi - Full Performance (Live on KEXP at Home)
In a more familiar format, singer/guitarist Tamara Lindeman fronts the Canadian folk band the Weather Station, whose long-established instrumentation of guitars, bass, and drums carries on the traditional guitar role as a rhythm and solo voice. There’s no mistaking that the spotlight is solidly on Lindeman, who handles the rhythm guitar duties on a vintage-style Kay hollowbody, yet there’s plenty of interplay with (ex-Constantines) guitarist Will Kidman. The band’s 2021 album, Ignorance, has made a lot of best-of lists with its airy, folk-based sound. It’s clear this format isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Weather Station - Robber (Official Video)
Another artist whose use of guitar illustrates the instrument as an important puzzle piece is Julien Baker, whose Little Oblivions was released last year. Most often seen with a black-guard Telecaster, Baker handles both electric and acoustic guitar duties on this self-produced album. Although I wouldn’t describe her as a shredder, the guitar plays an important role (alongside keyboards) in her music. Once again, I think that this is precisely the kind of format that is keeping the guitar relevant as an ingredient of popular music.
Julien Baker - "Hardline" (Official Music Video)
Continuing in a dystopian theme, Illuminati Hotties’ “Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism,” from the album Let Me Do One More, floats like a winsome butterfly and stings like a bulldozer. Supported with plodding chords and a dirge-like tempo, singer/songwriter/producer/engineer Sarah Tudzin lays out her vision of the American dream run amok with a catchy melody line and dark humor. Raised on Green Day and other pop-punk, it’s clear that Tudzin sees the guitar and bass as essential to her music.
illuminati hotties - Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism (Lyric Video)
Despite having been disappointed by the lack of guitar bands populating the year’s best-of lists, I’ve found some interesting and vibrant new music that uses the guitar as a sonic chameleon—which is one of the things I like best about its capabilities. I always remind myself that music is really all about the song, not the guitarist. If you’re not convinced, there’s always Americana, because even the worst country songs still have amazing guitar playing.
Diatonic sequences are powerful tools. Here’s how to use them wisely.
• Understand how to map out the neck in seven positions.
• Learn to combine legato and picking to create long phrases.
• Develop a smooth attack—even at high speeds.
I prefer to not teach each position based on a modal name, as sometimes they are taught. Personally, I’ve found labelling of positions like that can lead to confusion when learning the modes in a harmonic situation. To further emphasize this, no harmonic context has been given (aside from the fact that these are all based around the parent scale of G Major to give us positions to work with).
The goal here is for you to learn the sequence, pick out what you like from it and then work it into different applications. These applications could be taking a sequence from one position into another position, seeing if you can keep the same contour. Most importantly, you can spend time starting and ending the phrases around certain intervals to emphasize the chord that you’re playing over.
A technical note before we get started: I’ve transcribed the various hammer-ons and pull-offs that I use when playing these phrases at full speed. However, the secondary goal here is for you to find your own way of playing the examples that suit your style and sound. I use a mix of legato, hybrid picking, and sweep/economy picking. My advice is to look at the lines and listen to them. See what feels right for you.
Despite what angry YouTube comments might say, technique is feel (and vice versa) We can talk about technique and all the ins and outs of it, but unless we try it and feel how it is to play, we won’t find our own path and sound. We won’t develop our own confidence. As the Zen saying goes, “The thought of your mother is not your mother.”
Let’s start in 3rd position, a fitting way to begin our exploration in G. Ex. 1 is a legato phrase that starts off with an eight-note pattern that repeats across adjacent strings sets. The final measure outlines a G major triad with a trick string-skipping phrase on beat 2.
Working through the diatonic arpeggios is a great way to create new lines and sequences. In Ex. 2, I go through Em7, Bm7, F#m7b5, and Cmaj7 before I outline an Am9 arpeggio.
Rhythmic variety is a crucial part of any well-rounded vocabulary. Moving between different subdivisions is a great way to inject new life into a lick. Ex. 3 moves between straight 16th-notes and sextuplets (or 16th-note triplets). Although the pattern is relatively easy to hear, it moves fast, so focus on discovering the best fingering for you.
Ex. 4 moves around quite a bit, between legato fragments and arpeggio fragments. In the middle we have a classic displaced ascending sequence of fours through the scale that starts in the end of measure 1. We also utilize some slides on different strings. Watch out for this! I’ve found in my playing that timing can go astray on slides.
Ex. 5 is built around finding 3-1-3 and 2-1-2 patterns within this position. These terms are based on the number of notes before you change strings. A 3-1-3 pattern consists of three notes on a string, then one note on the next string, and finally three more notes on the final string. A great example starts on the second note of the phrase (G) and ends on the F# before beat 3.
There are some shifty slides like the last phrase (watch the timing!) and there’s also a mix of legato and picking to emphasize certain parts of the phrase. The line ends with a large arpeggio based on Em7 and F#m7b5. Dig the 2-1-2 phrasing here!
Since we are roughly thinking in the key of G major, Ex. 6 is sometimes referred to as the “minor” position since we start on E, the relative minor of the key. This phrase is built on a sequence based around a 3-1-3 pattern and we aim to keep this sequence going throughout the whole position. This lick is a great one to move around the neck.
Ex. 7 runs away with an initial legato sequence similar to the one found in Ex. 4, however we keep it going through the whole position before ascending through a fragment based on Ex. 1. Then I fill in the gaps of each phrase with some chromatic notes. The goal here is to aim for evenness of timing on the 16th-notes.
With these licks—or even parts of them—you will be able to navigate the fretboard with ease. Just remember: These licks are simply raw materials. It’s up to you to make music out of them.