The Real Eighties: Everybody Wants Some

It was in the eighties that the definition of the term “great guitar player” changed.

In the fifties, a “great guitar player” was the likes of James Burton.

Elvis’ longtime lead guitar player ws pretty typical of the era; combining blues, R&B and country-western styles into a fluid melange.

In the sixties, of course, the guitar came into its own as the dominant instrument – with the idea of the “lead guitar player” coming into its own as a genre. It’s easy to name guitar players from the era – George Harrison, Pete Weir, Dave Davies, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – but eventually most roads led to Jimi Hendrix:

…who plugged the blues into some newly-cheap technology (in this case, transistorized guitar effects like the “fuzz box”, the phase shifter and the wah-wah pedal), creating a mixture that matched the psychedelic id of the era.

The seventies, as far as the guitar went, was largely about making the guitar a melodic element in a band’s sound; see guitarists as diverse as George Harrison, David Gilmour, Nils Lofgren, and Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the list goes on and on…

Now, Van Halen did get its start in the seventies.

But that first Van Halen album, coming out six years after Hendrix’ death, was the start (at least commercially) of several trends that changed the way people perceived what made “great” guitar: almost supernatural dexterity and fingerboard acrobatics; disconnection of the instrument from the “genre” – “explosive guitar” almost became a genre of its own; focus on the guitar as an “event”…

….and, most of all, the beginning of the idea of the guitar player as a “virtuoso”, in a very classical sense, complete with extended pyrotechnic soloing that borrowed everything from the classical obligato but the name.

Randy Rhodes, of course, is the first name people go to. Ozzy Ozbourne’s iconic guitar player (seen here in a fanboy video that actually is a pretty good overview of his career)…

…is the next name most people go to. It’s amazing to watch him do things with (guitar players only here) full-on picking that sound like they’re hammer-ons.

And then there’s Steve Vai.

Vai, so freakishly talented that Frank Zappa, himself no slouch on the instrument, called him a “stunt guitarist”, was a prodigy on the instrument from his teens. Zappa plucked him from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music at age 20 to transcribe his own solos, and then tour with him, Vai has been the “Oh, yeah, how about…” trump card in a hundred gazillion “who’s the best guitar player” arguments in the past thirty years.

Here’s an example (recorded in 2004, but a good example of how Vai’s played for thirty years now)..

…not only of his sheer virtuosity (which descends into comedy around the 4:50 mark), but of why he, and so much of the genre, bores me stiff.

You heard me right.

This much talent, speed and virtuosity eventually wears you down. It’s predictable. It’s like watching a computer executing a mathematician’s formula. It’s so fast, so tight, so perfect, that it’s not just dull, but it wears me down.

And bear in mind that I say it’s “wearing-down dull” with the greatest respect! Like I’ve written a slew of times, I appreciate music on a couple of levels; an intellectual appreciation for technical talent, and an emotional response to a piece of music that grabs me in the liver.

Vai, and a horde of similar players, were part of a trend that still dominates the instrument today; people with stunning chops whose musicianship is mind-numbingly proficient, and with any emotional response squeezed out.

I’m going to rewind this post back to Hendrix; I need to wake up.

Anyway – it was a trend that started in the eighties.

9 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Everybody Wants Some

  1. When I listen to the first ten seconds, twenty seconds or so of Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert or Yngwie Malmsteen, I would never think of it as dull: they are playing fast, melodic crystal clear solos with blinding speed. It’s amazing on a technical level, and a musical level. Some decent youtube videos with those guys discussing their technique, and you know that they understand what they are doing.
    But, there is a limit. I can appreciate the technique, and all of the practice it takes to do all of these arpeggio sweeps without missing a note, but sooner or later they’ve made their point. I’m not sure its a complete lack of emotional response, but I really appreciate more feeling in the playing. I guess that’s a long way of saying I agree with Mitch.

    And I suspect (or guess) that his next post will deal with SRV and like guitar players who have the chops, but express them in a different way, sometimes slower, quieter. Sometimes with great speed. SRV, Mark Knopfler?

    I like these posts. Good to remember the 80’s weren’t all Madonna and hair bands.

  2. Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert or Yngwie Malmsteen

    Those are three guitarists I would call out, too. Unbelievable technical ability, but lacking vision. Joe Satriani and Adrian Belew belong on the list as well.

    SRV was unbelievably good.

  3. I left Knopfler and Vaughan off the list because they didn’t really change the way guitar was played and perceived so much as play it in traditional way unbelieveably well.

    Both will be appearing soon enough.

  4. “because they didn’t really change the way guitar was played and perceived”

    I could quibble, noting Knopfler’s unique fingernail strumming/picking. Not new, but it’s a sound I believe he mastered and popularized. But yeah, they are both traditional (and unbelievable) so I’ll defer to your expertise.

    A while back, I was watching a youtube video on how to play a snippet of the solo from Sultans. It wasn’t until then that I realized how different his sound is. Remarkable.

  5. Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert or Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani and Adrian Belew

    Add Gary Moore to that list.

  6. When you talk about people who transformed how guitar is played, you have to mention Robert Fripp.

    I saw him in concert in the 80’s with a League of Crafty Guitarists, and while Vai’s virtuosity was indeed comedic at 4:50 mark, Fripp had nearly a dozen guitarists playing a tune one note a time – each note played consecutively by a different person.

  7. Pingback: The Real Eighties: Play Guitar | Shot in the Dark

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