Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What is a "good" guitar player ?

You’ve seen it in polls, you asked the question to yourself, you even may have lost friends after some hot argument about “who’s the best guitar player in the world ?”. At some point, every guitar player has to estimate his own value, as well as his heroe’s.

So here is my point of view. First of all I will explain what can help you estimate your own “guitar player” value, then give you some hints about guitar heroes.

1) It’s easy to think you’re good when you’re covering some Malmsteen stuff over CDs, but I found out there is one objective way to evaluate yourself : recording a song. I’m not talking about recording your improvising over sequencer chords, I’m talking about having a band and some guys in a studio waiting for you to record your track on the first take.
How many takes does it take for you to be able to record the perfect track ? no misses, the sound you want, tight rhythm, the accents you want where you want, the perfect track. And I mean “the whole rhythm track”, the whole fucking xx minutes rhytm guitar part, not some pattern you’ll copy and paste on your computer. When you get the job done most of the time, you’re probably a good guitar player. At least you’re probably a reliable guitar player.

2) The other aspect you shouldn’t neglect is the live performance. It’s one thing to be able to play the way you want in your room, and it’s another to be able to play the way you want on stage. You know, when you guitar starts to scream because your amp is too close to the front speaker and you have to fight with feedback every time you let a note last for more than 2 seconds. Or when you can’t hear yourself because some asshole on the console doesn’t know his job. That kind of stuff. To be a good guitar player, there are many things you should know beside playing the guitar (unfortunately…).

About “who’s the best guitar player”, here are my 2 cents :

I think we should make a difference between "guitar player" and "musician". While many players have a technical mastery of the fretboard, I’ve found very few to also have a harmonic mastery of the fretboard. Blazing through scales and chosing the right note at the right moment are different things. Not to mention blazing through right notes at the right moments…

Styles is also something to consider if you don’t want to fall in a sterile “who’s stronger, elephant or rhino ?” debate. You just can’t compare Johnny Marr, Frank Gambale and Tommy Emmanuel.

Composition. For instance, everyone knows Jimmy Page is a sloppy guitar player. Please listen to the “Black dog” solo and tell me how a guitar player can be that sloppy. Nevertheless, Jimmy Page came up with many excellent songs and Led Zeppelin is without a doubt a milestone in rock n’roll music history. On the other hand, we all know many guitar players that came out of Berklee or the GIT that have now disappeared from the face of the planet because they couldn’t write a decent song.

Phrasing. To me that’s something that sets good guitar players apart from the rest. People like Marty Friedman, Yngwie Malmsteen, George Lynch or Joe Satriani are better than other guitar players because they can phrase. They have mastery of the fretboard AND they know how to use melodic phrasing. This is a very important point that few guitar players were able to pinpoint and that mistake is the very cause of all the 80’s and 90’s mess. Yngwie Malmsteen is a genius. It’s not my own opinion, it’s not that I praise Yngwie or anything (he did some shitty albums, too), it’s just a fact : Yngwie Malmsteen is a genius. He’s one of the very few, if not the only one that can use speed and power at the same time and on top of that with a very good phrasing. Because everybody failed to see that, we had millions of guitar players thinking “hey, the guy’s fast, I’ll play faster than him and be famous”. No sir, you won’t, because you missed the point : you’ve become a fast guitar player with a lame tone and you’ve been blazing meaninglessly through scales for decades, that’s all.
If you don’t know how to phrase, you can be the fastest dude on Earth, no one will remember your name because your soloing will mean nothing to people.
I’m telling you : many - and I mean MANY - guitar players know more theory, play cleaner and faster than Joe Satriani. They really do. But Joe still smokes them because he can come up with good phrasing that give consistency to what he plays. I mean, let’s face it, though he knows a whole lot of theory, Joe is using a very minimalistic vocabulary in his playing : lydian, phrygian dominant, dorian, here you are, the whole Satriani discography. But the guy is very good at rhythm playing and he can phrase. That alone makes him musically miles away from all the others. Can you believe that ? And I don’t even like what he’s been doing lately, but still, it’s something that’s beyond one’s opinion, the guy is revered as a guitar god and there is a simple reason for that : his phrasing. You may find it boring, predictable, I do agree it is (sometimes). But no Paul Gilbert, no Scott Mischoe, no John Petrucci, no [insert a million guitar players name here] can phrase like Joe Satriani. Surely they can play his stuff, but they can’t come up with his stuff.

Now do yourself a favor : listen to the Hotel California solo. God knows I really hate this song, it’s so cliché, but listen to that solo. That’s phrasing. That’s completely different from what we’ve been fed with during the 90’s but that’s where you should start to learn from. Scales are just a nice way to say “I have nothing to say in my music so I will put as many notes as I can so you think I’m good”.

Well, it works with apprentices, beginners and morons. Not with musicians.