Hello Troubadourians! Years ago, when people found out that I was a guitar player, the first question was always “lead or rhythm?” Depending on my mood, my answer was either “both” or “lead” depending upon how much time I wanted to spend in that particular conversation. I was trapped either way but I knew that if I simply said “lead” I could cut the conversation length by about 40%. The truth is that unless you’re a total wanker, a lead guitarist will spend most of the time playing rhythm guitar behind the vocal. There are notable exceptions—BB King and Carlos Santana come to mind, who can “sing” through their guitar and almost exclusively play lead. In fact, BB claimed that he didn’t know any chords. I doubt that, but he’s BB King so we’ll cut him some slack for stoking the “Legend.” But for me, playing in a band meant playing behind vocals and that’s why I believed the proper answer to be “both,” because I could indeed play both. You see, these are things that experienced musicians know and take for granted. The newbie player or the general public probably doesn’t even realize the significance of the question. As I thought about this for a while, I realized that the basic question had evolved over the 40-odd years I’ve been playing the guitar and I wondered what could account for the change. Was it popular culture, relative education, age, or what?
When I first started playing, the question was, “six-string or twelve-string?” This was in the late ’60s/early ’70s and for most adults at the time, the musical influence was the folk-rock music of the Byrds and Lovin’ Spoonful where there was a heavy 12-string presence. There was the perception that there was something magical about the 12-string guitar, and if you played one you were somehow magical, too. I never understood that idea as most of my experience with 12-string guitars at that time was that they were difficult to tune, difficult to keep in tune, and usually only had 11 strings (that damn octave G-string…). Among even older people, the question was often “classical or folk?” These people had grown up with Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as having been exposed to Segovia, Bream, and other classical guitarists. These folks tended to be more educated—or pretended to be so—and they wanted their culture to show. Pop music for these folks was “loud garbage” and not to be respected. (This wouldn’t be the last time I heard that description used in reference to some genre of music…). Along the same lines as the classical or folk question was the nylon or steel question. The people asking this question were often used-to-be players who still wanted to seem hip to the young guitar player that I was. Sometimes, they would refer to nylon strings as gut strings, which haven’t been used on guitars in a very long time. I learned quite early that trying to correctly explain that fact was a waste of time and just made me look like a jerk. Actually, for an arrogant teenage 20-something, 30-something guitarist, acting/looking like a jerk is fairly natural.
The question now is almost always, electric or acoustic? And I have no choice but to answer both. I’ve learned to use these conversations as an opportunity to teach people about the guitar and to let them feel good about themselves. I try not to get too heavily into what I do unless they are actually interested and ask specific questions. I find that most people don’t want to hear about my experience; rather, they ask the question so that they have an excuse to tell me about their experience. That’s fine. I’m happy to listen. For a while at least… so what accounts for the changes in the way the question is asked? Definitely, the culture has changed as has the musical landscape. In the ’70s and ’80s, the guitar was King and most people knew the names: Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, Page, Blackmore, Walsh, Santana, Harrison, and even DiMeola, McLaughlin, and Coryell. This was the age of the lead guitarist and even non-musicians knew there was definitely a distinction made between rhythm and lead guitarists. This was why I usually answered “lead,” because I wanted to be thought of in the same way as the legendary players of the time. Respect is highly important to the player who is struggling to get good on the instrument and even the respect of someone who had no real idea what they or I was talking about, was vital to that fragile ego.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that the cultural influence on the conversation is driven more by the genre wars of popular music than the actual instruments or players themselves. There was a time when everyone knew that CSN&Y played Martin guitars—particularly D45s—and that drove the preference of people and the course of the conversation. The Bloomfield/Clapton/ Green Les Paul burst mystique was known to musicians and non-musicians alike. Most people now have no idea what that means. When I met my wife, she had been a lifelong AC/DC fan yet has had no idea what I was talking about when I said that Angus Young played a Gibson SG exclusively. (Now she knows and would deny ever not knowing…) So, maybe the takeaway is that I need to write more about the significance of such things as Style vs. Genre and Touch vs. Technique. These are things that tend to be used interchangeably but are actually very different, something that I think was better known in the past. One thing I’ve noticed that is a constant from generation to generation is the resentment and dismissal of new music as being somehow inferior to the classic music of one’s youth. Yeah, I’m as guilty as anyone but hopefully for a different, more defendable reason. I like pretty much all genres of music that require some skill on an instrument to create. I’m undecided about genres that are based more on the ability to manipulate technology than to play one’s instrument but I suppose that’s what a lot of accomplished guitarists said about Hendrix when he exploded onto the scene. Now, it’s more of a digital vs. analog, or computers vs. traditional instruments argument and frankly I have to side with the analog/traditional instrument party. I use digital technology, but I use it to represent analog ideas. How about you?
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)