Off Piste: Shredded bliss

Is it all over for the signature instrument that is the electric guitar? James Alexander reflects on past glories

May 7, 2009

The electric guitar is the signature instrument of modern life. The guitar is ancient; but electricity liberated it from its relative lack of volume, and allowed the guitarist to step forward and demand a place in the history of music. The guitarist was always free - but from the 20th century on, he could be heard.

In one of his novels, Milan Kundera associates the sound of the electric guitar with the relentless, insensitive, mechanical haste of modernity. Even those who hate the guitar acknowledge that it is fundamental to modern music. Its sound was a clarion call. Think of the opening two chords of Jailhouse Rock, or the singular opening chord of A Hard Day's Night.

At first, chords were enough: to simply hammer, as John Lennon did, a chord, a root, a seventh, a sixth - anything. These were the cries of the coming-to-being of youth. But then a certain subtlety was introduced: melody entered such music in the form of repetitive motifs called riffs (which still dominate the heavily metalled side of modern music), and was supreme in the fully liberated musical device, the guitar solo. Chords, riffs, solos: these are the staples of guitar music.

The guitar solo is of mixed descent: descending partly from the jazz solo, and partly from the cadenza in a sonata or concerto, without being quite either. A guitar solo is a cadenzic outburst - within the structure, usually, of a sung song - in which the guitar, enraged, as it might be, by being part of a band, emerges, privileged, to unleash some sort of free reflection on the song.

Sometimes it is extremely chaste, forming a well-judged sympathetic commentary on the song, as George Harrison's solo did in the Beatles' Something and Henry McCullough's solo did in Paul McCartney's My Love. Or it can be a sheer blazing out of unruliness, sheer display. The ragged geniuses of display, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, who began as primitive Sixties guitarists, retained a certain roughness as they aged and speeded up. But the tutored geniuses of later decades, who imitated these faster models, achieved the ultimate Aufhebung of the electric guitar, a sort of apotheosis by way of auto-da-fe whereby the blistering solo became so effortless that it was turned into a form of mechanical blandness, mere empty virtuosity.

The electric guitar is the instrument of modern hubris. It articulates the inarticulate. It supplies a soundtrack for modern Cains and Calibans. The older men may be right. It is not respectable, it is not right. An old historian expressed surprise when he heard that I play the guitar. For the electric guitar is an uncivilised instrument, the instrument of primitive release. Guitarists are admired because they cannot write or speak: they play. Hysterically, violently, they play, twisting their revolutionary anger - such as it is - into streams of pure Schopenhauerian will.

There is a lot of exaggeration about the symbolism of the electric guitar. It is hardly a phallus, or a virgin, or anything like that. But it is the symbol of liberation for the very practical reason that the guitarist can wander around while playing. He can smoke, spit or even sing while he plays.

Electric guitarists, with one or two exceptions (Eric Clapton's rooted intensity might also be susceptible to Freudian explanation: Jimi Hendrix as phallic, Clapton as anal), are the dancers among modern musicians. Even Madonna has occasionally adopted a guitar as the necessary pendant of strutting musicianship. It is better to dance a bit with a guitar (Keith Richards) than dance a lot without one (Mick Jagger).

Guitarists have, moreover, invented strange forms of primitive ritual. Pete Townshend smashed his; Hendrix set fire to his; and other, lesser, men have thrown them into the air like the babies in The Brothers Karamazov. Some have even played them. But everyone, even a relatively tame guitarist such as David Gilmour, likes a scratched guitar: a guitar that looks a bit like it sleeps rough and travels harnessed on the saddle of a horse or (keeping the image urban and English) is dragged behind a van on a bit of rope.

Electric guitars may sound dirty, too. But none of the symbolism of the guitar comes through in the sound. It exists as pure sound in the music. And, for all the posturing on stage, the electric guitar is an instrument of the recorded era, par excellence. Such recordings, of course, are momentary. We do not have - although we could have - a strictly notated form of Hendrix's solo in All Along the Watchtower. What we do have is his performance from one day in 1968: a combination of man, instrument, amplification and distortion, of left-hand percussion and right-hand caression, of wah-wah, woodle-woodle and widdley-wow. (Plus, of course, the voice: "A wild cat did growl.")

Because of the momentariness of recorded music, there are exquisite moments that are almost signatures of particular guitarists. There is the almost unplayable extemporisation by Hank Marvin midway through the second refrain in Apache. There is the harmonic sounded by Harrison at the end of his solo in Nowhere Man. There is the delicious breaking of open tension by the first note played by Gilmour in Shine On You Crazy Diamond. There is the incredible moment in the solo by Page in Since I've Been Loving You, where he seems to shift from simple preparatory exercises to then scale some sort of sonic mountain as the solo shifts into the dominant.

And there are great solos, in entirety. Blackmore's first solo in Child in Time, before he runs out of ideas, over the bolero rhythm. Perhaps the greatest event in the history of the electric guitar was the sequence of three-by-three solos by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon in The End. Not one of them was a shredder. They were, to their honour, players, pickers: but they were the heroes of the music associated with the electric guitar and, in that one song, they did their homage. The end comes once the guitars are finished, McCartney carving, Harrison soaring and Lennon slashing.

It might be noticed that I mention only English guitarists, with one exception. Lists of the greatest guitarists of all time by magazines such as Rolling Stone are laughable. There is hardly one classic electric guitarist to have come from America. Blues, jazz, country, etc, indeed - and they have mastered the art of the Paganinistic solo in grand masters such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. But these are not guitarists with the right spirit, able to serve and transcend music at the same time.

It is in England that an odd mixture of pluck, determination and ignorance came to fruition between 1960 and 1970. There is no guitarist worth listening to who started playing after that time: the inauthenticity is too evident. And this is simply because the musical moment had passed. The Sixties was the era of the guitar: and the Sixties happened in London.

To say this is not to ignore the importance of America. Guitarists wanted to play American music, and perhaps even be American, but their America was an ideal that did not exist. The Shadows, a group of English electric guitarists, dominated the charts for two months in 1962 with a song - Wonderful Land - which was a paean to America. The electric guitar was the instrument of England's imaginary America, calling out to it, actually, in a strange sense, embodying it.

This America was soon exposed. The Beatles discovered in 1964 that Columbus had been right in 1492: America did not exist. (Perhaps it was India.) But the principle had already been established that young people would take their own contemporary music - the Americanised music of open country and Wild West freedoms - to be the sound of their own liberation. Forty years on, guitar music (no matter how bad) is still associated with this liberation. The guitar is the sound and symbol of this liberation; but it is a liberation that had nothing to do with politics.

Music may be a liberation but, if so, it is a pure Schopenhauerian liberation rather than a manifestation of some deeper Marxist liberation. Sociable, not socialist. Reactionary, not revolutionary. The liberation associated with the electric guitar is, at times, extreme in its primitivism; although no less beautiful, at times, than any other musical liberation. It is a liberation into wonder, the same wonder - thaumazein in Greek - that rendered Socrates speechless. This is why the guitar appeals to the young: just as sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, so the electric guitar is the lowest form of thaumazein.

My experience of the electric guitar was one of odd antiquarianism. With not much money I bought an electric guitar: a sunburst monstrosity with crude pick-ups and a bent neck, but with a certain amount of style. With this instrument I formed a band with two friends. They could not play, but were eager to achieve contemporaneity. Not for them the antiquities of the Sixties. So we listened to Iron Maiden and Metallica, exponents of the shredding style of the Eighties; and left the Sixties behind to achieve sonic escape velocity.

Our band was a failure. Some of us looked the part: long hair, tight denims and white boots. Our leader had charm, wit and ego - I later heard he joined a band as bassist, sacked the guitarist, became guitarist, sacked the singer and became singer. We could have attracted girls. (Some of us: I did not look the part.) But the problem was mostly noise. We had, musically speaking, gone from the Fifties to the Seventies without passing through the Sixties. We achieved immediate Spinal Tappery. The amplifiers would come on, to a hum of magnetic possibility and to a wowl of feedback, then the drums would crash, and the bass and fuzzed guitars would struggle through songs, turning them into the same churned blackness of hellish vortex.

It ended. We went our different ways, usually by writing and speaking rather than playing. (We matured in a way guitarists never quite can.) So Aeolian did not trouble the charts. The Rhetorik did not play at Donington. The problem was that we had been the Whigs of the electric guitar, assuming an infinite progression of music was possible. It was not. I was a Jacobite, a reluctant electric guitarist, able to shred, but not able to look as if I believed in the historical significance of shredding.

Sometimes I think it is over for the electric guitar. It rose in the Sixties, and then in the Seventies reached the point of no return. It is now schizophrenic, torn between the devil of decadent virtuosity and the deep blue sea of crude and pathetic repetitions of that old Sixties liberation.

It is not clear what will happen. In its heyday the electric guitar was the prodigal son of the acoustic guitar. It was the instrument that travelled abroad, lived riotously and died to his ancestry, rejecting all traditions. We are still resonating to its echoes.

Perhaps, if pieces such as Vai's For the Love of God can inspire modern composers, we might some day have works for the electric guitar of the beauty of the Passacaglia of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto. But we can always listen to the recordings of the classical electric guitarists of the Sixties. And play along. And listen to cover bands. It is there that the prodigal electric guitar can make us merry and glad: for although it has died, there it will live again, and though lost, be found.

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