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Walking the Wires: Listening Outside Your Comfort Zone

Get inspired by listening to way different music than you''re used to.

I have an 18 year-old son who is very into music, but, thank the gods, nothing you’d hear on the radio (unless you listen to some really interesting radio stations). Because he was raised around folks like Richard Leo Johnson, Pat Kirtley, Catfish Keith, Pierre Bensusan, Stephen Fearing, BeJae Fleming, and of course the Cedar Rapids Guitar Mafia, he’s got quite a remarkable ear for melody, a great feel for good songwriting, and has been able to tell the difference between true substantive playing and mere flashy wanking since he was about 12. I have been intrigued by all the things he listens to, so I decided to dig in to learn more.

So, there’s post-rock, shoegazing, drum & bass, drill & bass, drone, ambient, new metal, black metal, industrial, and hardcore (which I am assured is the single most useless and horrible form of music ever spawned by any malignant force in music history) among a frighteningly vast array of other forms that have budded, bloomed or wilted on the new music vine.

Post-rock and shoegazing are extremely guitar intensive. Post-rock pieces (not songs, most of them don’t have words) are constructed around intertwining guitar riffs, frequently looped and usually effected, with bass and drums going from subtle to ginormous, and any other instrument you can imagine used, properly or not, to build into something that is both “wall of sound” and “river of sound.” The melodies are often sort of ephemeral, and frequently shared by several of the interwoven guitar parts. Most of the time, it is gorgeous stuff, sometimes scary, and often rivals orchestral music in its layers of complexity. Check out, if you haven’t already, bands like Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Red Sparrow, and the compelling and beautiful Icelandic band Sigur Ros, who use everything from bowed electric guitars to toy pianos to volcanic rock xylophones to nonsense language (and sometimes Icelandic, which is not a made up language but sounds hauntingly foreign) to create heartbreakingly beautiful soundscapes and utterly lovely little improvised gems.

Shoegazing may seem a funny name for music, but there’s a good reason for it. Born in the UK (like so many other great rock music forms) in the ‘80s, these guitar-driven bands frequently spent a lot of time staring at the floor navigating the enormous pedal boards they assembled to create huge and frequently “shatteringly loud” (according to the British music pub Melody Maker) walls of sound. Shoegazing bands typically used two rhythm guitarists playing with extreme distortion, layering up an atmosphere of sometimes interlocking, sometimes opposing riffs and grooves. Lead guitar is sometimes a factor, but nobody really pays much attention. Vocals are indistinct, often nonsensical, frequently effected beyond recognition. If you like wildly effected guitars and a lot of ‘em, shoegazing may be for you. Check out some early shoegazers for a little historical perspective, like My Bloody Valentine, Mojave 3, and Ride and then pick up on the current wave, sometimes called “nu-gaze” with A Place to Bury Strangers, A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Scarling, and The Daysleepers.

What the hell does this have to do with acoustic guitar?

Every influence you take in affects your playing. Every note you hear puts every other note you hear in a different perspective or context. So get outta that box, knock down those walls, suck it up and listen to some stuff that is completely outside what you usually listen to, even if it’s a little scary or difficult. For me, exploring post-rock has made me think differently about how I arrange things for the different ensembles that I work with. For example, maybe the guitar and bass need to “talk to each other” more, and maybe we don’t need another frickin’ guitar solo, and maybe the guitar should just lay out sometimes and let the bass and drums carry the vocal, and maybe we should take everything way, way down, minimize everything, just a whisper of drums and long, soft, ringing bass and then start layering a couple things in on top, and build it up and get it loud until it’s like mass hypnosis... whoops, got a little carried away there, I’m back now.

I’m a pretty holistic guitar player, and I don’t do blazing fast single string soloing at all, ever. I tend to play chord melodies, and usually keep the bass line going with my thumb no matter what, but I don’t do flash and I don’t do speed, and I’ve always had a wee inferiority complex about that, envying guys who can go “meedle-ee meedle-ee meedle-ee meeeee” at will. Well, suddenly post-rock comes along and I realize I’m way cooler than I ever thought I was. Hot diggity. I can do simple, interlocking, syncopated, and atmospheric until the cows come home. Hell, that’s pretty much what I have built my whole career on. So I’m finding myself fascinated and enchanted by something I never imagined listening to, and finding ways to apply my strengths to something so far outside what I’ve ever done that I can’t help but be excited. And isn’t that one of the best parts of our eternal quest for tone?