The Real Eighties: Play Guitar

This week in “The Real Eighties” is dedicated to the impact of new technology on popular music.

Earlier this week, we talked about how the tumbling price of synthesizers – almost invariabely keyboard instruments – affected the entry point to creating some form of music.

It wasn’t just keyboards.  In a sense, the eighties was the golden age of the guitar hero.  We talked about that a bit last week – the golden age of the guitar pyrotechnicist which started in the late seventies, but really took hold in the eightes.

The change in technology sparked a trend in the music press – articles predicting that the revolution in technology would make the guitar obsolete, as people flocked to new, cheap keyboards.

Of course, technology had exactly the same effect on guitarists.  As the price of sound-processing technology kept dropping, it became possible for guitarists to create entirely new approaches to the instrument.

More below the jump (so the rest of the page can actually load…)

Exhibit 1, of course, was Dave “The Edge” Evans of U2.  Evans was a serviceable but unspectacular guitarist in terms of “fretboard olympics” technique…

…but more famously than anyone, he pioneered the use of signal processing effects – esepcially echo, reverb and chorus effects – as virtual instruments in their own right.

Here’s a fascinating interview (if you’re a guitar player, anyway) with Evans on his instruments and effects – Part 1:

…and Part 2:

From the standpoint of someone who learned guitar from the blues-based school of rock and roll guitar, which prizes fingerboard dexterity, speed and manual inventiveness (see Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and all of the guitar players who descended from and expanded on Eddie Van Halen) it’s easy to look down the nose at Evans and his ilk..

But Evans was the most famous example of the guitarist who plays the “signal chain” – the electronic effects boxes between the guitar and the amp – every bit as much as he plays the instrument itself.

As the tone and tenor of pop music have changed, it’s hard to remember how many guitarists influenced by the Edge – or at least who approached the instrument similarly and in parallel – there were in the eighties.

Right up there with Evans, of course, was Charlie Burchill of “Simple Minds”. He was an “atmospheric” guitar player, in more or less the same style as Evans – backing a lead singer who was even more pompous and overbearing, if possible, than Bono:

The best “unsung” guitarist of the genre? My vote goes to Johnny Marr, who played in The Smiths (a band I never liked, and never will), as well as stints in The The, the Pretenders, the Kinks, and as a sideman for Kirsty MacColl, among many others.

Here’s a great interview with Marr, on his technique and approach; it touches on a bunch of his signature parts.

I’ve focused on the changes wrought on the guitar by changing technology. But there was an equally powerful dynamic in the music market.

Think about it:  in 1977, the top forty charts were dominated by the likes of Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac – which, whatever its relative merits (and I’ve had a series of “Rethinking the Seventies” posts in hopper for a couple of years now), was all cut from pretty much the same cloth.  (Or not – but that’s an argument for another day).  And bands like the Cars, the Police, Dire Straits and the like, which were mildly subversive in 1978, were the mainstream.

Six years later, most of the 1977 chart-toppers were out on the nostalgia circuit, replaced by the “subversives”.

And while that meant a whole lot of “new”, it also meant a fair amount of “traditional”.

Mark Knopfler, with his blues-via-Nashville style of fingerpicking, became (along, naturally, with Dire Straits) Europe’s biggest artists of the decade:

It was the commercial heyday of Richard Thompson, who combined British/Scottish folk styles with an obsessive love Roger McGuinn and the Byrds (here appearing with what may have been the best band he ever toured with, doing one of his signature songs, from 1982)…

…and is, for my money, the best living guitarist on earth today.

And who’d have thunk that old-school blues-via-Hendrix would resurface bigger and louder than ever, in the form of Stevie Ray Vaughan?

That felt so good, I’m going to run another.

It wasn’t just the “new” stuff that made eighties music – especially 1980-1986 – just about the best six years of music of the rock and roll era.

Next week, we’ll wrap up the month-long series with a look at the eighties trends that have the biggest affect music today.

6 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Play Guitar

  1. Sure have.

    And he was a lot of things But an icon of eighties music wasn’t one of them.

    Sixties and seventies? Sure. In fact, I need to write something about him soon.

  2. I think this post is spot-on. How the guitar was played really changed in the 1980s. I’d also throw in Andy Summers of the Police in this discussion.

    I’m with you on the Smiths, but Marr is a hell of a guitarist.

  3. Not a huge Smiths fan either, but I love the guitar in How Soon is Now.

    Mitch, what is your opinion on the jangly guitar of Pete Buck?

  4. I used to be down on Edge, sort of assuming that he used his pedals as a crutch for weak playing. Some years ago, I gave it another listen, and changed my tune (so to speak). Creative, skillful use of effects, while it can be a crutch, doesn’t have to be. The sounds he gets are interesting, and I think complement the playing and the sound rather than substitute for it. Listening to, for example “Mysterious Ways,” or “Magnificent” makes that clear to me. What turned me around was listening to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” About then, I started thinking about the pedals/effects as part of the instrument rather than just an add on.

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