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Lessons I’ve Learned from the Guitar Greats

Peter Hodgson
|
06.26.2014
Tommy-Emmanuel

As far as I see it, I have the best job in the world. As a music journalist I get to ask all sorts of artists all sorts of questions about what makes them tick, and I’m then able to selfishly take that inspiration back with me to my own music. But the real joy of doing this stuff is getting to share those lessons with others through the articles I write. I was recently going over some of my old interviews looking for words of inspiration to motivate me through a recording project I’m embarking on, and I realized that this stuff could help a lot of people. So here are some words of wisdom from a few folks I’ve chatted to over the years, telling their stories about what drives them to do what they do.

Rob Zombie on making music for a living: “Well, everything that I love, that I now do, it never seemed feasible that you could do it for a living, you know what I mean? When I was a kid, being a fan of Alice Cooper and KISS, it didn’t seem like you could do that, I didn’t think. It just seemed like this larger-than-life personality. I loved it but it didn’t seem like you could do it. Same thing with movies: you’d go see Raiders of the Lost Ark or Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it didn’t seem like you could do that. It seemed like ‘Oh, special people do that.’ And I didn’t live in Hollywood, I didn’t live in New York City, I didn’t live anywhere or have any access to anybody connected to show business in any way at all. And many, many people have told this same story, but it really wasn’t until I really discovered punk rock around 1981 or so and started listening to The Ramones and the Dead Kennedys: punk rock made me think ‘Oh I could do that.’ And Johnny Ramone would tell the same story: you’d watch Led Zeppelin and say ‘I could never play like that but I could play like this…’ And then it just becomes baby steps. Every day you see new possibilities of where you can go to it. To get from Point A to Point B seems like an impossible journey, but there are a million steps in between.”

Slipknot/Stone Sour’s Corey Taylor on being an extrovert onstage: It’s always been like that – I don’t think there’s a lot of introvert to me! I’m pretty much turned up all the way all the time. I know sometimes that can be annoying so I try to dial it back, but doing a show like this, especially opening for Linkin Park, we couldn’t be further away as far as bands, so we need a reaction. We know we’re gonna have some fans out there, but at the same time you’re winning over new fans and you’ve got to basically show them exactly what you’re about, y’know? And the great thing about this band is, on the three shows we’ve done we’ve never played the same set. So we’ve really tried to go above and beyond and to show all these fans that there’s so much more to us than meets the eye. And I love a challenge! I love the challenge of getting out there and working that room into a frenzy. Especially people who weren’t really expecting it. So for me it’s just about doing what you do.”

Debashish Bhattacharya on being connected to your music: “My music is very much inspired by many great things in this world, and I have found a common thread which is that music without meaning and expression is worthless. It’s a story to the feelings. I love to talk and I love to relate the current affairs through my music, and people like that, but my music has another flow of constant storytelling, and that is about the seven generations of my family’s music. Our ancestors used to be in the old tradition of maharajas or sultans. We have the seven generations of musicians, and my daughter who is coming with me to Australia is eighth generation. We have a kind of genetic disposition, you might say, to salve people with music. I don’t like to just keep on doing whatever I have done 30 years ago. That’s why I have very few albums released. Over 30 years I’ve only had 16 albums, because my albums, like my concerts, are not the same. In the UK I saw a guy following us from concert to concert and he said ‘Your first concert, I almost cried, and tonight when you played the same numbers I was happy and dancing.’ This is what I’ve learned and I have practiced from the great people of the world. The creative people never stay in one line forever.”

Buddy Guy on being honest to your music: “Whatever you’re doing, do it well. And that’s why Hendrix made himself so famous. He was just doing what he was doing. And the people in New York was booing him for playing like that. Y’know, when Hendrix came along, he was playing for a living with Little Richie. And y’know, back then we didn’t look up and see we could come to Australia or Japan or wherever we go around the world, and make a decent living. It was just the love of music that made us play those guitars like that. Nowadays, young people say ‘Man, if I can be like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, I can get rich!’ And we didn’t see that. Matter of fact, it wasn’t there! It wasn’t there when I learned to play guitar. I just wanted to learn how to play so I can be different, ‘cos can’t nobody else play yet. And that was a lot of us: the great Muddy, BB and all of us felt like that.”

Butch Vig on what he learned from recording Foo Fighters on tape: “One of the things I realized with the Foos, when everybody hits the ‘one,’ no matter how tight it is, if it’s on tape you can’t move it around by a few milliseconds, so what happens is the one, the downbeat, gets wider. Most people will just hear the one and go ‘whatever,’ but there’s a thickness, a width, a heaviness of sound when it’s played for real in real-time. It is what it is, and that makes the music bigger, and breathe.”

Tommy Emmanuel on staying in playing form: “I don’t always set challenges, but I definitely go through periods of working on certain things like strength, or I try to come up with new arrangements and things like that, and I try to force myself to think outside of the box a little. You get so comfortable doing your own thing and in your own world that maybe you need to step outside of that, out of your comfort zone. I definitely try to do that with some of my arrangements. I try to make myself think in a totally different way. But I’ve been working a lot on building my show and improving what I do, and I’ve changed my guitars around. I’m getting a better sound now and I think I’m playing better this year than I was last year.”

Devin Townsend on staying true to your vision: I trust that the things that allow me to be functional, not only as an artist but as a human, are the things that I employ in the process that allows me to say “I’m not doing that,” or “I am doing that.” Is it commercially advisable for me not to follow up Epicloud with another version of Epicloud? No! It makes no sense, right? However, if that’s what I had felt like doing, I would have. Rest assured. I’ve got no hang-up about being viewed as cheesy or nerdy or contrived or anything. Call me whatever you want, I don’t give a shit, y’know what I mean? Because ultimately, what I’m doing is exactly what I feel compelled to do. And if some cheesy, nerdy thing was what I felt compelled to do, I would have done it! But this is what I felt like doing, and so I did it!”

Steve Vai on his thought processes while improvising: “Well, a part of me thinks about real practical stuff – ‘We go to this piece of gear here, we shift into this mode here, we try this harmonic atmosphere.’ But that’s a very small part. The thing that I try to capture is, it’s a particular frame of mind. It can be elusive, but there’s this focus that you go to, this little place that exists between your brain and the tip of your fingers and your ears. It’s this process of listening to your environment, processing it with your creative element, then letting that creative element take control of your fingers and just trying to step back from it. But it’s easy to lose that focus, because when you’re doing that, usually for me, you’re in the moment. Improvising, most of it is listening – responding to what’s coming into your ears and letting your fingers move in an unobstructed way. And there are all these little flashes that are just comfortable visuals, like you’re hearing something and you know that there’s a particular scale or note or atmosphere or chord that’s going to work. And that’s just like a ghost to letting your fingers speak. And here’s the trick with being in the moment: you almost have to be a little bit ahead of the moment. You have to think about where you’re going, and then once you’re exploring where you’re going, your fingers and everything are performing where you were thinking about going. So you’re almost not even a part of the playing – your whole consciousness is in that elusive space of just a little bit ahead of what you’re about to play.”

For further reading:

Joey Jordison of Slipknot and Scar the Martyr Praises Les Pauls

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