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The Unpredictable Playing of Robert Quine

Explore how a rogue player combined punk, rock, and avant-garde in a truly original voice.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Develop an appreciation for Quine’s fearless style.
• Learn how to rip through fiery solos.
• Understand how to combine elements of soul, punk, and rock into a single solo. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Robert Quine was the kind of guitarist whose playing has never been mistaken for that of anyone else. By the time he made his recording debut with Richard Hell and the Voidoids on the iconic punk masterwork Blank Generation, Quine was already in his mid-30s and had developed an unmistakable sound. In a 1997 interview with Jason Gross for Perfect Sound Forever, the guitarist explained, “By many peoples’ standards, my playing is very primitive but by punk standards, I’m a virtuoso.”

It’s hard to overstate just how unpredictable Quine’s playing was. As a soloist, he could easily reference Chuck Berry or biting Chicago blues licks while channeling the sound of Albert Ayler’s overblown tenor sax or heading into Derek Bailey-style territory in just a few measures, while as an accompanist, he used raw harmonic and rhythmic materials in a totally supportive but personal way.

Quine, who died in 2004 at the age of 61, led a career that PG writer Tzvi Gluckin called a “paradox” in his September 2019 profile of the guitarist, Forgotten Heroes: Robert Quine. Gluckin summed up Quine’s career and playing as such:

“Quine was a niche player, yet somehow fit in multiple contexts—whether commercial pop or confrontational art—and was at home on projects by artists as diverse as Matthew Sweet, John Zorn, Lloyd Cole, and Lydia Lunch. He played for the song, didn’t overplay, but stood out anyway. You can always identify Quine on a track, even though his playing is tasteful and song appropriate. It’s also high-mid focused and unpredictable.”

Blank Generation is one of the ultimate documents of punk-rock lead guitar playing. Quine’s treble-heavy tone and aggressive attack is totally punk, but many of the licks he plays are rooted in the blues and early rock and roll. On the album’s title track, Quine’s first lead break begins with a conventional bluesy lick that goes off the rails as the guitarist slashes across his Stratocaster’s open strings, similar to Ex. 1.

Click here for Ex. 1

On paper, Quine’s second lead break on the song is straight out of the rock and roll handbook—as we see in Ex. 2—but his fierce bends and heavy picking make it sound like he’s strangling the notes out of the neck.

Click here for Ex. 2

As a rhythmic player, Quine drew from the same wellspring of influences. Blank Generation’s “Love Comes in Spurts” shows how he complemented a song’s rhythm with his accompaniment, from the use of an Aadd9 chord over guitarist Ivan Julian’s A major strums to his Keith Richards-style use of a second inversion D and first inversion G major shapes to imply a shuffle. As the song’s chorus closes, he uses a spiky and repetitive tritone pattern to contrast the band’s ascending power chords (Ex. 3).

Click here for Ex. 3

When he takes a solo later in the song, Quine uses a series of deconstructed rock and roll licks, each of which would have sounded natural coming from the hands of James Burton, but he assembled his ideas in a much more angular fashion as seen in Ex. 4.

Click here for Ex. 4

Quine was a masterful interpreter and could capture a song’s emotion like few other players could. He explained to Gross, “One thing that's crucial is that I listen to the lyrics. Like with Lou Reed’s 'Waves of Fear,’ if it had been about making an egg cream, my solo would be different than a guy having a nervous breakdown. It’s really obvious to do this but it’s important.” Ex. 5 is just one example of how Quine sculpted this anxiety-ridden solo using dissonant notes and bending and shaking them as if literally pulling the song’s emotion from the strings. While the studio recording is excellent, it’s worth seeking out live recordings to see how his playing on this song stretched out in performance and to watch Quine’s unique craftsmanship in action.

Click here for Ex. 5

While Quine never released a proper solo album, he did a number of duo records, some of which were recorded at his apartment. Basic, his duo record with drummer Fred Maher, shows a different side of Quine’s playing where, with his guitar in the foreground, he could spend time exploring chords more extensively than when he was in a supportive role. Quine told Gross that the album’s opening track, “’65” was, “One of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.” The song sets the tone for this multi-layered album and finds Quine stretching out on a series of woozy, delay-soaked chords as seen in Ex. 6.

Click here for Ex. 6

Quine fit in equally with the most abstract collaborators and the most mainstream songwriters, and his work with Matthew Sweet is evidence of how his playing could bolster a well-crafted pop song. On “Girlfriend,” Quine was given plenty of room to really rip. As seen in Ex. 7, he alternates from melodic bends to a series of wiry half-step slurs before coming to a tight conclusion.

Click here for Ex. 7

As you can see, it’s difficult to pin down Quine’s playing into a few succinct examples, but the greater point is that there was a fearlessness in his music. Hopefully this lesson will open your ears and hands to the contributions of the one of guitar’s true iconoclasts.