Three years ago, I first heard Steve Vai. And, like most players, my jaw dropped and hit the floor. From there, I heard Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, and other greats. Before that, Hendrix was the only guitarist in my world of virtuosity. So, to hear these guys was an eye-opener to new techniques and soloing.
However, none of my peers could get into their music the way I did; as to why, it took me a while to figure it out. Eventually, I heard Dragonforce, and similar metal bands with crazy guitarists. I thought, Herman Li's great, but I can't listen to a Pac-Man soundtrack for hours on end. Sure, others like him and I respect him as an amazing player; it's just not my taste. I'd rather listen to Jack Johnson, something that to me is melodically relevant, as opposed to a wall of a million notes per second, which although may be cool can become incredibly annoying. Finally, I understood why my peers didn't enjoy Vai; to them, he was just playing notes that had no meaning to them. To me, though, I heard raw emotion in many of his tracks. It took me some time, though, to get past the fact that he was essentially just playing notes dictated by, in his words, little black dots.
After hearing the mentioned names, I began applying more theory to my guitar, as well as slowing down the songs to half-speed and learning them note-for-note. Slowly, my playing progressed, and although I may never reach the level these guys have attained, my technique improved drastically. I'm still stumbling through complex sections, like some of Petrucci's Glasgow Kiss, but the learning processes and increase in skills are still fun. One day, I popped U2's Zooropa in, and thought, as much as I love Vai's technique, tone, and songs, I'd take this over Vai any day. Why? Because, in my personal opinion, U2 are more melodically relevant and concentrate more on the actual song rather than focusing their energy into the technical pattern of the song. Don't get me wrong, I love Vai's music; I'm actually listening to For the love of God while I'm writing this, and it's one of the few songs that actually brings a tear to my eye when I hear it. I can feel his raw, emotional, spiritual longing. Some say Vai has no feeling; I disagree. I dare anyone to listen to For the Love of God and not feel any emotion. But, to some extent, I'll admit these people speak a very partial truth. Some of my favorites, like Johnny Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, are clearly pouring everything they've got, including their life experiences, into their playing on every single song. Vai is pouring his soul into his music and his playing, but not to the same extent as these guys. This is when the fact finally hit me with full force. Sure, I can play my way up and down the Phrygian scale (major III long story, that's another article), but shred isn't my thing. I am, after all, a musician before I am a shredder (as much as that sounds like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character). I'd rather follow the old punk adage three chords and the truth than be able to play the solo section to Through the Fire and Flames. Again, right now I'm working on one of the sections of Vai's Building the Church. Why? Because I love Vai, and that song is awesome, both technically and sonically. But also, it's to improve as a player. This whole idea actually brings me back to another one of my favorite guitarists, The Edge of U2 (once again, another article it's coming someday, I promise). In an interview with Guitar World, the interviewer asked why he didn't play more solos. He said that he was fed up with everyone playing for speed, claiming music had come down to what he calls the guitar olympics. He would much rather play intricate patters of delayed arpeggios molded within the complex architecture of the song's structure. So, you honestly have to ask yourself, do you want the gold at the guitar olympics? Personally, I feel it's a nice medal to show off, but I wouldn't make my living out of it. Here's a subjective point, and you don't have to listen to my opinion; in fact, I expect many of you will disagree with me on this one. I hate Yngwie Malmsteen, not as a person, but as a player. In fact, I detest almost the entire genre of neo-classical. Some people like it, and I respect that. I just don't like it. It's not entertaining to me. Why? I don't want to hear a Bach fugue on a heavily distorted guitar for three hours. If he were actually playing on a classical, that would be different. Sure, neo-classical can be cool in some situations, but I would never have any desire to attend such a concert. I absolutely love classical guitarists, and admire many of them. The other thing that kills me about neo-classical is the distortion. First off, the songs weren't meant to be played distorted. I'm pretty sure that when Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, he didn't imagine a Marshall cranked up to 12. The way it was meant to be played is, in my mind, beautiful. I'm one of the biggest classical fans; I just don't like it on heavy guitars. The other point is, I find distortion, while allowing you to pull off hammer-ons, crazy dives, and tapping and arpeggio techniques, can also mask all of the mistakes one makes when playing. If Yngwie were to play with no distortion, he'd be a totally different player, and I question whether he'd be able to do what he does without said distortion. No offense to you Yngwie, you're a great player and incredibly talented; I'm just not a fan of your music not yet at least. I'm going to bring Joe Satriani to the playing table here, along with Eric Johnson. The thing I love about these guys is that they bring both technical skill and quality of composition into effect. Satch is incredibly melodic, and that's what I love him for; what I especially love is his intros, usually in a Lydian scale. Satriani concentrates more so on the song he's writing than playing a million notes per minute. He doesn't do it just because he can, and for that I have a huge amount of respect for him. Johnson is just well the king of tone. And on top of that, he can play pretty fast. Just listen to Cliffs of Dover. I find that, so far among instrumental guitar virtuosos, they've come the closest to finding the perfect balance of speed and melody. Hopefully more will continue to unite the two the way these guys have. Still stranger, I'm going to drag a bassist into this; Billy Sheenan. I love Billy Sheenan's technique in terms of technicality and in terms of melody. He's awesome, and I could actually listen to his solo record all day. However, the one thing I will say that I think he could improve on (I know Billy Sheenan improve?!?!) is his tone. To me, it always sounded a little thin and treble heavy, especially for a bassist. I mean, I can understand if that's the tone he's looking for (which he probably is) and being a soloing bassist (okay, no drums stop very bad jokes please) his sound is probably contoured to what he likes and what makes his playing better. I just think as a bassist he needs more depth, as that is the first and foremost job of a bassist. If he's trying to think outside the box (which he is), then I respect him even more, that's what every good musician should strive to do. I just prefer basses that are fuller. Actually, that may be just a subjective opinion of mine that I should probably heed as a player. So, what can you draw out of this? If you haven't listened to a word I've said, I don't blame you; it's a long article. In a nutshell, I'm thinking that by writing this article it will create an ultimate realization within the reader. You don't need to play fast to be good. Though, I will admit it's cool. Some of the greatest guitarists aren't incredibly fast like The Edge, Eric Clapton, or Neil Young (okay, he might be fast, but I've heard him play one note for about a minute in a solo, and it sounded awesome). Shredding is, essentially fun. I mean, who doesn't want to stand (or sit as I do) in front of an audience and tap the end of Eruption and pretend you're Eddie Van Halen? That's the greatest feeling for any guitarist. The main observance, though, is that you should pay attention to both technical skill and melodic content.