Tag Archive: guitar


Bang Your Head

There was a guy in college (I don’t remember his name ‘cause we weren’t friends) that I was in a conversation with once. It was at one of those freshman mixers at the beginning of the year. There was a group of us, and he posed a question to the group.

“What is the biggest, heaviest, most monster, melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll, EVER? Don’t answer; just think of it in your head. You got it?”

We said “yeah,” or nodded, or murmured assent.

“Wrong. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

I piped up in a testy voice. “Isn’t that an impossible question to answer, since music is inherently subjective?”

“No. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

We all just rolled our eyes and wandered off. Not because “Back In Black” isn’t the most melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll ever (a thing which is impossible to determine), but because none of us liked being told by a relative stranger that we were definitively wrong about something, and in such a brusque tone. And you know what I thought? “’Back In Black’ can go suck my balls. Jerk.”

Quite obviously, this was before my fandom of AC/DC started, which is logical considering this is freshman year of college and my musical world is very small, swirlingly absorbed by Smashing Pumpkins and Genesis. Still, that’s little excuse. While it’s impossible to put guitar riffs on a scale of “this one is so-much-point-so-much better than that one,” “Back In Black” really IS monstrous – head-banging, devil-horning, balls-to-the-wall monstrous.

Every rock fan on the planet, the tall and the small, knows that riff. Every rock guitarist knows how to play that riff. Why? ‘Cause it’s a really easy riff; seriously, it takes a few times through to get the basics down. The only tricky part is the descending note pattern at the end of the 2nd measure. And for whatever reason, it’s one of the riffs that young guitarist learn first.

“Back In Black” is AC/DC’s tribute to their fallen singer, Bon Scott, written by their new singer, Brian Johnson, a man who had never actually met Bon. Admittedly, Brian was just writing what sounded good, going off of what he had heard ad infinitum from his other AC/DC-ers. Angus told him that the lyric needed to not be sad or morbid, but instead to be a celebration. And when Brian wrote the line “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes / Abusing every one of them and running wild,” it fit so perfectly with the man Brian had never met. And now it’s taken on a life of its own, being covered by so many rock bands it’s uncountable.

Lyrically, “Back In Black” is a first-person narrative from a guy who truly believes he is invincible. He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking and the gorge right below his high wire, but he behaves as if he’s never going to die. Sound familiar? And while this all seems like it’s setting us up for a delicious blow of irony on paper, the music is just as disrespectful to the concept of danger as the song’s protagonist. It’s driving, joyful and full of larger-than-life energy. “Back In Black,” being the tribute song that it is, gives no indication of the tragic fall or hopeless ending that Bon’s life turned out to have. It leaves all of that to “Hells Bells,” the album’s opening song.

“Hells Bells” fulfills what buying a CD or vinyl copy of Back In Black means for the listener. You find it in the record store and it’s all black; the words on the cover are barely readable. From the album’s physicality alone, you get a small sense of doom and dread, not knowing what awaits you when you drop the needle or press play, but fearing that it will be dark and a little disturbing. “Hells Bells” doesn’t disappoint. It opens the album with the lonely and mournful sound of a single church bell, rung several times before an electric guitar plays an equally mournful minor key riff. The absolute weight of the music falls on you as the rest of the band joins in, and you know that this is a different AC/DC than you knew.

Then there’s “Hells Bells” subject matter and main character: Satan himself. In this song, he’s a roaring lion, a savage devourer, and a remorseless consumer of every soul he comes across. The Satan that AC/DC portrays, like that of Black Sabbath and the plethora of bands they inspired, is the simplest and most obvious form of evil. How can anyone look at this evil and want any part of it? How can anyone listen to a song like “Hells Bells” and not see incredibly clearly that, contrary to what Bon previously affirmed, Hell is a VERY BAD place to be?

AC/DC, I think, understands this. They know that there exists a schism between two eternal destinies and that it’s drawn upon moral lines. They realize that there IS good, there IS evil, and that human beings exist somewhere in between, tipping at different times towards one or the other. And I truly believe that AC/DC want to tip towards the good, on the whole. It may not show in much of their music, but it doesn’t have to in order to be true. AC/DC, at their scar tissue-covered heart, are searching for salvation.

Advertisements

Lonely ≠ Alone

Very Lynn

Vera Lynn

The solipsism of “Is There Anybody Out There?” (the implied answer would be “no”) and “Nobody Home” is suddenly broken when Pink starts singing about a girl named Vera Lynn. “Vera” is a startlingly sparse but affecting song, being little more than Roger Waters’ voice and some light orchestral touches. Pink, now clinging to the wall because there’s just a vast empty space away from it, is going as far back into his memory as he can. What he finds is Vera.

Vera Lynn was commonly referred to as “The Forces’ Sweetheart,” owing to the fact that she was the most popular singer among the British Army in WWII. She visited the troops in Egypt, India and Burma, and her songs “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” were emblems of national identity to British soldiers all over the world. And in particular, “We’ll Meet Again” lent hope to not only the soldiers but everyone they left at home. She became a symbol of the United Kingdom during that time, and was made a Dame Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1975.

The invocation of her name by Pink is an acknowledgement of his father and the gap he left in Pink’s life. Vera sang that all those brave men who went to war would be reunited with their loved ones “some sunny day.” And the song “Vera” is Pink’s lament that her words didn’t come true, that her promise was in vain – Pink’s father never came home, and the two of them never even met for a first time, never mind “again.” Vera might have been talking about the hereafter as well as on Earth, but that was missed by a good percentage of her audience, Waters included.

But Waters has much more delicacy that to make “Vera” a simple accusation leveled at the Forces’ Sweetheart. Instead, “Vera” is not directed at anything or anyone, but is a whimper of anguish, a very small vocalization of the despair Pink feels at this. Despite that it’s beatless, not very long and doesn’t follow any pop conventions that I know of, I can’t help but feel the tiniest lump in my throat whenever I hear it.

“Vera” leads right into a further musing on war, loved ones and being lost, “Bring the Boys Back Home.” It starts off with a snare drum war march growing louder, like an approaching army. Then it explodes in epic and operatic singing, led by Waters. It sounds like it could be an actual WWII-era hit song, perhaps sung by Vera Lynn herself. The lyrics are very simple – just the title twice, then a tag, then the title once again. But the real crux of the song is the delivery. Roger Waters is joined by the New York Opera, as well as 35 New York drummers all playing the snare and the New York Orchestra on strings. It’s arguably not a Pink Floyd song, but it packs a powerful emotional punch.

It’s followed by one of the most famous and greatest Pink Floyd songs to ever grace our ears, “Comfortably Numb.” In the storyline of The Wall, it represents the moment when Pink is as far gone as he can get and has retreated completely from human emotions; he’s a true sociopath. In the movie version of The Wall, it’s shown as Pink’s manager, tour crew and doctor breaking down the door of his hotel room, reviving him with drugs, and carrying him out to the limo that will take him to the show for tonight. As he’s carried down the corridor, his skin starts melting and growing cancerous bulges and oozing sores. His fingers elongate, his limbs become trunks and his facial features become almost unrecognizable. Finally, in the limo, he rips off his own skin to reveal Pink as we knew him before (crew cut and eyebrow-less), but dressed in a military-style dress uniform, black and red with a leather strap across the chest. The intended Nazi reference is quite clear.

David Gilmour

David Gilmour

“Comfortably Numb” has a switch in it; David Gilmour sings Pink’s parts, and Roger Waters is performing the part of the doctor. And in addition, Gilmour has hands down his best guitar solo, not just on The Wall, but ever. The Wall features a great many fantastic solos from Gilmour – “Young Lust,” “Comfortably Numb,” “The Thin Ice,””One of My Turns,” and the first two parts of “Another Brick In the Wall.” Gilmour has previously shown he’s no slouch with the six-string. “Time” falls into the category of Blazingly Awesome, and a lot of Animals has outstanding guitar work. But he would go on to more bombastic, voluminous and self-indulgent solos after Roger Waters flies the coop. Once Gilmour is in charge on A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, the floodgates opened for guitar greatness. Just listen to a live version of “Sorrow” to see what I’m talking about. The solo goes on for 5+ minutes.

There are subtle drug references and hints of clinical depression in the lyrics of “Comfortably Numb,” but what it’s really about is disconnection. The song sums up the whole of The Wall quite beautifully. To the narrator, nothing gets through. Things hit him from all angles, but none of it means a thing. That’s the loneliest place a human being can wander into, but not because you’re alone; “alone” and “lonely” are not exactly the same thing. There are other faces all around you, but it’s like they’re all wearing masks. And once you’re in that place where nobody matters, there are no limits to the brutality and evil you can exhibit.

Next: “Are there any QUEERS in the theater tonight?”

The game Rock Band 2 has a feature at the end of some songs called the Big Rock Ending. That’s where the band members, for the last several seconds of a song, can just go nuts with their notes and rhythms, and the number of points you get from the Big Rock Ending will depend on how many notes and beats you manage to squeeze into the 10 or 15 seconds of the ending. One other thing, too: you only get the points if all the band members also hit the last note with perfect timing and pitch. Otherwise, you get zero.

The only AC/DC song in the standard package of Rock Band 2 is “Let There Be Rock,” the title track from their 1977 album. Not only does the track feature the longest guitar solo – and the greatest number of them – in the entire game, it also has the longest, loudest and most bombastic Big Rock Ending in Rock Band 2. The first time I played it in the game (which was also the first time I heard “Let There Be Rock”), I was simply blown away by the utter hugeness of both the guitar solos and the ending.

I guess the Big Rock Ending is very symbolic of AC/DC’s entire musical ethos. You play your heart out, give everything you’ve got, then give more than you’ve got, until you finally explode in a brilliantly loud apex of rock and roll greatness. You burn hard and burn fast, then you burn out. That may be AC/DC’s general musical philosophy, but it’s also the trajectory that Bon Scott’s life took.

classy, Bon, real classy...

classy, Bon, real classy…

Few characters in rock history are more fascinating to me than Bon Scott. His very existence is a cautionary tale, his life a story that grizzled, washed-up rock stars tell young hotshots of their craft. “Don’t take it from me, son… take it from Bon,” they say with a wagging finger. The younger generation just rolls their eyes, not wanting to give up a life of drugs and sex and decadence. The story of Bon would seem too clichéd, too perfectly tailored to that grizzled rock star’s sermon, if it weren’t true.

Like the Young brothers, Bon was a Scottish transplant to Australia. He took over as lead singer of AC/DC in 1974, shortly before the recording and release of their first album, High Voltage. Their popularity and reputation grew steadily, and they became known as heavy rockers, heavy partiers, and heavy drinkers. This was especially true of Bon. His long streak of partying ended in February of 1980; he died after passing out in a drunken stupor and choking on his own vomit.

Bon’s songwriting style shows that he saw things as simple – one thing leads to another, like a mathematical equation. In “Highway to Hell,” the narrator is melting two candles together so he can burn it at three ends. All along, he – and we can easily infer that it’s Bon himself talking – knows that all this destructive behavior will earn him nothing but damnation; one thing leads to another. But what separates him from a southern Baptist preacher spinning a cautionary tale is that Bon’s entire inflection when talking about fast living and hell is one of a salesman trying to get someone to buy a potato peeler.

Why? I think the reason is he thought hell would be fun. As far as he had heard, hell was where all the drunkards, thieves, womanizers, and kids with spray paint cans would go. In the inverse, heaven would be a boring place where everybody sat on a cloud with a harp all day long. According to what Bon must have thought, hell was where all the cool people would be. In his own words, “hell ain’t a bad place to be!”

gag

gag

I cannot tell you how much this attitude frustrates me. When I hear people talk about how they’re atheists because they think the Christian heaven sounds incredibly dull, it almost makes me wretch. Where did anyone get the idea that we’d all be wearing white robes and sitting on clouds when we got to heaven? Where does that iconography come from? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s described as a house (John 14:2) and a city (Hebrews 11:16), but I really don’t understand this crap about clouds and harps. It might be because of the inadequacies of the English language – the Bible, when translated into English, sometimes uses the word “heaven” or “the heavens” to talk about the sky. Kindergarten logic says if we’re in “heaven” than we must be in the sky, right? That means clouds. Brilliant! Let’s make it church doctrine!

Bear in mind that I’m NOWHERE NEAR being a Biblical scholar, so you should probably take my statements about heaven with a pickup-truck-sized grain of salt.

Bon’s direct and simple approach to songwriting takes another form, too, and that’s when he’s telling a narrative. “Shot Down In Flames” is a straight-up account of a horny male being soundly rejected by two different females. I can totally imagine Bon simply smiling and shrugging when he sings the chorus, as if to say, “Them’s the breaks, huh?” And “Touch Too Much” tells the story of a man who has stumbled into a sexual relationship where the woman’s appetite greatly eclipses his own. The one place Bon uses metaphor instead of directness in his storytelling is “Night Prowler,” where he perceives that what he’s actually talking about is taboo. What’s his solution, then? Use something that’s even less socially acceptable! What could go wrong?

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Also, songs like “Touch Too Much,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “Love Hungry Man” show that Bon sees nearly everything through a sexual lens. Here’s where I can really empathize with him. To Bon, life is just one big search for a better feeling – there’s always something better over the next horizon. As hot and gorgeous as the last girl you slept with was, and as good as she made you feel, there’s somebody that will make you feel better. While that logic is flawed, it makes a lot of sense in the moment. While Bon’s methods were ultimately destructive to himself and the world around him, I can completely understand his philosophy of trying to feel good always and feel bad never.

Much as some Christians say otherwise, feeling good is good. In fact, God made us to feel good – it’s in His design. But the stunted versions of good feeling we seek all the time don’t really compare with the full versions God can give us. Just like we’re designed to feel good, we’re also designed to feel best in God. If I have to make a choice between “good” and “best,” I’ll pick “best.” But consider this: if it’s possible, why not have “good” AND “best?” That’s a lesson I learned from Bon Scott.

Young Boys

Angus Young

Angus Young

If you have even a sliver of musical awareness, even if you always forget the names of songs, never bother to learn band or singer names, and don’t have a clue what the lyrics to your favorite songs are, chances are you probably know Angus Young. You might not know he’s named that, what band he’s in, or what kind of guitar he plays, but you’ve probably seen him at least once – once is all it takes. He’s the guitarist with the flyaway hair, the twisted sneer and the convulsive stage antics, but you undoubtedly remember him for his costume. “Oh yeah… isn’t that the guy who wears the schoolboy outfit?”

The rumor goes that when Angus and his brother Malcolm were first forming AC/DC when they were teenagers, Angus had to rush to practice directly from school, and didn’t have time to change out of his uniform. Older sister Margaret Young suggested that he wear that as his stage costume – at the time, all the members of AC/DC were playing around with the idea of costumes, and Angus had tried several. They soon abandoned the idea, as another more successful local band was already doing the same thing. Angus’s schoolboy costume stuck, though, as it has to this very day.

I won’t mince words: Angus Young is one of the best guitarists still walking the earth. I say that with full knowledge that there must be thousands of guitarists with more skill, craft, and technical excellence than Angus. Most of them are going without recognition for one simple reason: technical excellence alone doesn’t make it. In order to really capture people’s hearts, minds and sexual organs, a guitarist needs to have passion.

That’s what the whole smashing guitars thing that The Who did was all about. That’s why Slash plays his Les Paul like he’s handling his own (allegedly) monstrous manhood. And that’s why Angus Young rolls around on the floor as one possessed by the devil and has a duckwalk that makes Chuck Berry jealous. And that’s why they’re famous and you, practicing 6 hours a day to Dream Theater in your dank basement and offering daily sacrifices to the Gods of Rock, aren’t.

Malcolm Young

All this talk and adulation thrown Angus’s way is appropriate, but it must leave his older brother Malcolm feeling overshadowed. Malcolm and Angus started AC/DC together, after all; the idea for the band was a mutual thing, after seeing the success in bands of their older brothers. The two Youngs are the two youngest of eight kids, born in Scotland but living in Australia by the time Malcolm was 10 and Angus 8. They’ve both been members of AC/DC for its entire 40-year life. They even play the same instrument, even if they have different roles. Yet all along, the quite shy Malcolm has been happy to let Angus have all the glory. Instead, he handles the business end of the AC/DC machine. All I can say is that he’s a good big brother.

1979 and Highway to Hell saw the Young brothers and company in top form. Even with the over-the-top antics of Angus and the powerful stage presence of Bon Scott, Highway to Hell still features some absolutely blazing guitar work from Malcolm. The distinctive flavor of their sound that instantly lets you know you’re listening to AC/DC is almost all the creation of the two Young brothers. Malcolm drives the action and Angus brings it home. This paradigm is heard on “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and “Shot Down In Flames,” but perhaps it’s strongest on the title track. “Highway to Hell” has the entire band working towards a climax of sound and fury, coming at last at the end through Angus’s guitar and Bon’s scream of “AAAAAALL THE WAY DOWN!!!!!”

Much is made of the musical partnerships of Mick and Keith, Robert and Jimmy, Steven and Joe, even Bono and The Edge – rightly so, too. But I think you simply can’t talk about two people working together like a well-oiled machine without mentioning Angus and Malcolm.

Next: the tao of Bon.

Eric & Duane

August 26th, 1970. Producer Tom Dowd was in Criteria Studios in Miami, doing a record for Eric Clapton’s new band, something Eric formed out of the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. He had gotten together with D&B keyboardist Bobby Whitlock for some easy jamming over brews and joints, and they had been quickly joined by Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, D&B’s rhythm section. Dubbed Derek & the Dominos, Tom was recruited to man the boards for them after his success recording Idlewild South for the Allman Brothers Band.

That prodigious August afternoon, Tom received a call from Duane Allman, the Skydog himself, letting him know that the Allman Brothers Band would be in Miami playing a benefit concert that night. When Eric found out, he wanted to go.

“You mean that guy who plays on the back of ‘Hey Jude’?” (Wilson Pickett’s, not the Beatles’) “…I want to see him play… let’s go.”

The bunch of them went to the Allmans show that night, and managed to score seats in front of the front row barricade. When the Dominos came in, Skydog was playing a solo, eyes closed and lost in the glory of the blues. When Duane opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, a famous name and godlike presence in the guitar world. And he was staring right at him. Duane froze. Luckily, the Allmans’ other lead guitarist Dickey Betts was right there to pick it up, but when Dickey followed Duane’s gaze to see what he was gaping at, he had to turn away to keep from freezing himself.

Clapton and Allman were two guitar Supermen, transcendent beings Nietzsche would have been proud of. If they had been different people with bigger egos, I think all of Miami would have sunk into the sea with the weight of their posturing, not to mention their talent. But that wasn’t how it went down. Instead, they each had an admiration and giddy excitement at seeing the other one play. Instead of arching their backs and showing their fangs, they both said “oh man, it’s Eric Clapton!” or “I can’t believe this… it’s Duane Allman!”

Slowhand and Skydog met after the show, talked some shop, and Duane said he’d love to come by the studio to check out what they were doing. Eric excitedly said, “Bring your guitar! You gotta play!” And like that, a musical brotherhood was born. Duane became an official member of Derek & the Dominos, and the two were inseparable for the entire recording of Layla. They talked shop, swapped guitars, and showed each other techniques. But the best thing was that they traded licks, calling and answering with their guitars in a fantastic partnership; and it’s all caught on tape for the generations to enjoy and learn from. Pay attention, you blooming guitarists; this is how it’s done.

“Key to the Highway,” the last track on the first half of this double album, contains the glory, beauty and excellent freedom of blues music in its Platonic form. Blues is all about having a basic progression that’s repeated, and improvising over it to creating a unique sound and musical experience not just with each song, but with each repeat of the form of a song. “Key to the Highway” is only 8 measures played over and over again. Yet no set of eight measures is the same because of the splendid element of the guitarists having no idea where they’re going, what comes next, or where it will end. They only know that when the 8 measures are up, the song will start over again, and so can they.

The recording of it came by happy accident. 60s camp artist Sam the Sham was recording “Key to the Highway” in the studio room next door for his album Hard and Heavy. The band recognized it (it’s an old blues standard first recorded by Charles Seger in 1940), and they just started playing it improv-style. After they got going, Tom Dowd started recording. The jam apparently goes on for about 15 minutes before what’s on the album actually starts.

I can imagine “Key to the Highway” going on forever; no beginning, no end. The musicians never tire, never sweat, never get bored or let their minds wander. It’s a picture of heaven for me. I’ve heard lots of things from lots of people about heaven, but my  mom’s description is the one that sticks with me. She says heaven will be all God’s children singing endless praise to him, ceaselessly giving him the glory due his name in a progression that never stops. To complete that picture, I use “Key to the Highway.” When we get to heaven, we will never get tired of playing those 8 measures.

Crystal Moments

When my parents gave me my first electric guitar (a used Hohner Les Paul) for Christmas, it was a turning point in my life. I started hearing music for not just a song or a melody, but for the individual instruments; the way the guitar plays off the bass, the way the drums vary in tonal quality, how a singer’s voice modulates to fit the emotional color of a particular song. But most of all, I noticed the vast number of sounds the electric guitar could make, the subtle differences between them, and how every single guitarist had the ability to create a sound all his own through combinations of different effects. It seemed limitless to me.

Before I started playing guitar, I didn’t really take Jimmy Page or Led Zeppelin seriously. Even then, I was only aware of Jimmy as a distant icon until I met Mike in college. But there was a moment of glorious realization when I was about 15, and I heard “Heartbreaker” on the radio in a friend’s car. I call instances like that “crystal moments”: times when you are truly listening to music, and something just clicks and you “get it.” When I first heard the guitar solo in “Heartbreaker,” that was a crystal moment. It was when I realized that I had only taken one bite of the first appetizer in an infinitely huge buffet of guitar delights.

For whatever reason God has divined, I no longer have access to those delights. The stroke I had when I was 21 left me with limited use of my right arm, making guitar-playing impossible. I could have gotten the arm back, but it just wasn’t in me; at the time, I had bigger things on my mind (like plowing through 2 bone marrow transplants to deal with the leukemia that my stroke tipped the doctors off to). But it remains that I used to play guitar, but now I don’t. And I still hear music in terms of the separate sounds coming together to make the soup of a song. Disparate parts making a unified whole; sound familiar?

John “Bonzo” Bonham

Back to II. “Moby Dick,” besides being a simple 12 bar blues, is a showcase for drummer John Bonham to let it fly. Maybe it’s just me, but the drum solos from the 60s and 70s seem rather unimpressive. When I look at drummers from the modern age, like Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater or Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, they seem so much more proficient than some drummers from earlier years. The godlike bands from the rock renaissance of the 70s had mostly mediocre drummers. At the very least, the recorded drum solos from that era were very unimpressive even if the drummers themselves aren’t. The exception to the rule is Ginger Baker from Cream; he was awesome.

John Bonham is a whole lot better than “Moby Dick” makes it seem. With juggernauts like Plant and Page in the same band, it’s easy to overlook the massive contributions Bonham made. I think Led Zep’s overall sound is as much a result of Bonham’s inspired drumming and Page’s guitar work or Plant’s vocal histrionics. It’s a shame that the only drum solo in Led Zep’s catalogue is sub-par.

At the cap, there is “Bring It On Home.” It starts as a soft, bluesy stomp powered by nothing but a simple guitar and a harmonica. The vocals sound like they’re underwater. Then a roaring to life, and the band pulls out the stops for the most aggressive and charging song on the album. The guitar takes a 180 from soothing and smooth to distorted and crackling. And the main riff encapsulates the entire quest of Led Zeppelin: blues music shifted into a heavy and aggressive form, turning it on its head.

With the arrival of Led Zeppelin, the landscape of the music world changed. That type of thing tends to happen around the turning of a decade. It happened in 1980 when punk music ceased being a revolution and became a corporate brand. It happened in 1991 when Nirvana made us all rediscover that rock and roll comes from our guts, not our wallets. It happened just before the new millennium when the boy bands took over the airwaves. And it’s happening even now with the meteoric rise of alternative folk bands like the Decemberists, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars. But the difference is this: all those other shifts at the decades existed on a pendulum – Led Zeppelin broke the pendulum. When they changed things, they stayed changed.

Tomorrow: the descent and demise of Brian Jones, a rolling stone.

The 6 string electric guitar had been an icon in rock and roll for over 40 years when I got my hands on it, and I took for granted that it always was as it currently is. To a trained ear, the sound of the guitar had gone through somewhat massive metamorphoses over the decades, but that didn’t matter when I was 13. When something first enters your life at that age, it has no past. Everything about it is fresh and new, and it has all come into being just now. I soon figured out that the electric guitar is much older than I am, and my partnership with it was just one of many partnerships it had. It’s a player; it had broken the hearts of many young lads before me.

This universal aspect the guitar has to it just makes what Jimi Hendrix did that much more mind-blowing. Jimi played the player. He took the 6-string and mastered it. His was the reverse of my relationship with it; I did its bidding, but it did his.

The story of the 6 string took a major and permanent turn when Jimi got a hold of it. It took on a power, force and volume that no one had heard from it before. It was rather simple, but most genius innovations involve a simple idea. He knew that there was more potential for power to run through the guitar, so much that one amplifier couldn’t hold it. Jimi’s idea broke down into “why don’t we just use more than one amp?”

Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix

Pete Townshend of the Who told a story about when he met Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Jimi had come to a Who show and liked it very much. Their wild abandon and lack of restraint appealed to him. When Jimi introduced himself to Pete after the show, they were talking shop for a bit. Jimi asked Pete what kind of amp he used, and Pete told him about his model. Jimi nodded his head and said, “I think I’ll give it a try.” Later, Pete went to a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. He found that Jimi had taken him up on his recommendation, but he wasn’t just using one of his amps; he was using four – at the same time.

This was where the idea for the Marshall stack came from. One amp was no longer enough for those who could afford it. Marshall amps (I don’t know why it was that particular brand; I don’t think that was the brand that Pete and Jimi were discussing) were just run one into another, and the multiple amps were “stacked” one on top of the previous  ‘til they became a literal mountain of sound. It was both sonically powerful and visually intimidating.

Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced - 5/12/1967

That power and charge are present from the very first second of Are You Experienced. That’s the most remarkable thing about “Purple Haze.” It’s a splendid lead-off track because it’s an indicator to the rest of the album. It has a kind of wild abandon from the beginning. Jimi is singing lyrics that say he’s out of control, lost, blind, and in unknown territory. But he sings them with an excited and even victorious voice, and says he’s just gotta “kiss the sky.”

“Manic Depression” follows; the power is different but not lesser. It’s a nervous, tension-filled power. In harmony with that emotional tone, the lyrics are about a mental anguish that can only be relieved by music. While the lyrics speak of a man in turmoil, Jimi’s voice suggests something different. He’s laconic and breezy, like he’s not quite taking this seriously.

On Monday: Jimi’s goin’ down to shoot his ol’ lady…