The (Guitar) Gods Must Be Boring

An electric guitar.  Duh

During the 1980s, Sonic Youth seized on the unorthodox tunings used by Glenn Branca and Mars (Branca used unorthodox tuning to create a wide palette for his electric guitar symphonies, while Mars detuned their instruments to create appropriate instrumentation for their abrasive, shattered fragments masquerading as songs) and attempted to smash rock and roll over the head with cacophonous semi-songs; later, they would integrate the two styles in a less jarring way.  The path they followed- from industrial ground zero on Confusion Is Sex to semi-pop on their major label records (Goo, Dirty)- created some of the most interesting guitar sounds ever recorded.  Sonic Youth’s later success during the 90s and their placement in the rock pantheon suggested that there could be more groups like Sonic Youth; that their larger audience could inspire more people in the mainstream to make bizarre, experimental music.  

That wondrous idea was correct, as proven by the interesting timbres and textures wrangled out of electric guitars by…. Nickelback. Red Hot Chili Peppers? Coldplay? John Mayer?!?

Unless sanitized distortion, self-indulgent funk, sterilized dream pop, or the same old shit (respectively) are new styles, there are only a few new groups (No Age, Liars)  that are using the electric guitar in an inventive way.  Most guitarists are indistinguishable from each other; the biggest difference in guitar sounds today is between acoustic and grungily distorted.  What happened to the days when even mainstream rockers experimented? Robert Fripp, leader of King Crimson, dived into ambient music with Brian Eno and the experimental tape-loop system Frippertronics.  Jimi Hendrix explored the possibilities of feedback, albeit much less brutally than the Velvet Underground.  What happened to this experimentalism? The electric guitar is not a dead instrument.  It has a virtually limitless array of sounds; it is, for all intensive purposes, a synthesizer, one that can generate harsh noise (Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music,  Lydia Lunch’s slide guitar work in Teenage Jesus & the Jerks), droning tones (Rhys Chatham’s composition Guitar Trio, Glenn Branca’s composition The Ascension), queasy whorls of sound (Richard H. Kirk’s guitar work in Cabaret Voltaire, best heard on the song “Seconds Too Late”), splintered scrapes (Arto Lindsay’s skronk guitar, and to a lesser extent Andy Gill’s work in Gang of Four), and even pop melodies (Cheap Trick).  But most guitarists simply aren’t exploring these possibilities (well, the pop melody possibility is being explored), which makes most rock music boring. The genre becomes formulaic and homogeneous; it’s as if every band employs the same studio guitarist with the same amp (With Nickelback, it’s as if they employed the studio guitarist once and then sampled the performance over and over.).

What can be done to fix this?  Well, I certainly do not advocate attacking the guitarists for popular bands and shoving copies of Daydream Nation down their throats.  You should also give them a copy of No New York.  But barring violence, start your own freaking band and don’t learn to play your guitar.  Originality must be favored over technique.  If you can’t play a chord, put a screwdriver under the strings and strum like mad.  Better yet, just do whatever you want to do.  It can’t be worse than John Mayer.

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