Changing Of The (Pick) Guard
Modern use of guitars is changing
This article appeared in the December 2018 (I think) issue of Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
A curious thing has been happening lately in my studio. I’ll hire a killer guitar god, bang out a session, throw down a great mix thinking “ohhh yeeaahh” and when I seek feedback, I’m told the track sounds dated or old. For a little while, it was every time there was any kind of guitar involved. Once it was pointed out, all those tracks sounded stale to me too. What gives?
Needless to say this was quite disturbing, because I love a sick guitar track. I love putting one on a record even more, but that’s mainly because I can’t play the guitar to save my life. I’ve had guitars since I was 16 (that’s 27 years but who’s counting?), but I can play an e chord and that’s it. So maybe this whole trend where guitars aren’t as central is good for me?
This really got me thinking, and almost immediately, I started seeing article after article about the decline of guitar sales (over the past 10 years, electric guitar sales have gone down to about 1 million annually, from 1.5 million), the death of rock and roll, and so on. Everyone has an opinion about why, and the guitar-making giants have their opinions about how to slow or reverse their apparently imminent demise. I’m more interested in making hot tracks, telling amazing stories and moving people to dance, yell, sing or cry.
So the question for me became “why does this instrument sound old?” and “what do I do about it?” Do I remove guitar from my productions? Do I use it in a different way? How do I coach a guitar player who wants to keep up with the latest trends?
Well first, let me say this: Trend chasing isn’t always important. Straight forward, guitar driven rock and roll will be relevant as long as there’s someone who’s moved by it, which, Beethoven will tell you, will probably be forever. Trend chasing is also dangerous to creative flow, and can be detrimental to originality, leaving a person forever one step behind the edge. In other words, I don’t copy the latest hot acts. I AM the latest hot act, and I encourage you to think the same way.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about the role the guitar plays now, as opposed to the role it played 10, 20 and 50 years ago, and more importantly, some ways to keep it fresh in the studio.
First it might help to understand why my track with the shredding 16 bar guitar solo and nifty keen twice dubbed, stereo spread distorted rhythm track sounds old, and why I would gravitate toward that, even though I don’t play guitar. Well, because it IS old. It’s something that we’ve all heard a thousand times. That’s not a bad thing at all! But that’s the basic reason.
A rock band has this basic line up: Drum kit, electric guitar, electric bass, vocal. There may be piano, synths, other vocals, but that’s been the foundation for long on 70 years. I haven’t been around THAT long, so why would I be slave to that? For the same reasons I make music that’s very different from that, and there are two big ones:
1 – Guitar driven rock-n-roll has been the most important musical thing in the world for longer than I’ve been alive. Of course I want to emulate that, it’s what I think matters.
2 – Guitar driven rock-n-roll is hard to record. Until maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you really had to BE somebody to have the money and access to record that music. Of course I love it when I can sound like that, it makes me feel successful.
Ironically, these are also reasons that straight forward guitar driven rock seems to be getting less and less important. New musical trends are often initiated by people who lack the resources to do things the old way. Hip-hop is a great example. Grand Master Flash used two old turntables because that’s what he had. EDM is today’s version of hip-hop. Samples, synths and “fake” drums are easy and cheap to create, and an intrepid kid with a crappy laptop can make music that way. She may not even have the resources to learn how to play a guitar, let alone the scratch to get a big ol Marshall stack to play with, but she’s got a laptop.
And of course, the young and creative tend to want to push past what they’ve heard before.
So, now the pop landscape is dominated by sounds other than your basic 4 piece rock band band.
But the guitar isn’t dead by any means. I didn’t say sales had gone down from 1.5 million to 0 – a million is still a lot! But at the cutting edge, it’s being used differently. So I’ll spend the rest of this piece talking about how, and present a few ideas for using it in fresh ways in your productions.
While I have noticed a drop off of new and hot electric guitar driven rock, I have noticed a significant pick up in the number of acoustic driven acts and songs. Ed Sheeran uses nothing but an acoustic guitar and a looper on stage. Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson are older examples, but they’re still relevant, and they’re acoustic guitar people. Satellite radio has an entire channel dedicated to “coffee shop” versions of hit songs. And in my productions, my favorite killer guitarist has recently given me a few latin influenced nylon string acoustic tracks that absolutely no one said sounded dated (even though THAT tradition is way older than rock and roll).
So idea one is pretty simple: go acoustic. And if you can get creative with technology like looping, effects and genre mixing, you might discover a completely new sound. Tommy Emanuel is incredibly creative with a series of effects pedals and wildly different playing techniques, all using an acoustic guitar. For another older example, look to Ani Difranco’s array of oddly tuned acoustics.
Even a plain acoustic guitar somehow remains a more timeless sound, probably because it’s another example of something that a creative person with no money and no band can use to show up anywhere and move people.
Matt Bellamy (front man for Muse) was quoted this year by the BBC as saying “The guitar has become a textural instrument rather than a lead instrument, and I think that’s probably a good thing.” That’s an astute statement, and if you listen through a bunch of hit music today, even hip-hop, you’ll be able to pick out guitars that sometimes don’t even sound like guitars. Big, reverby swells and pad like sounds, boops, beeps, noise tracks, even crazy effects and odd techniques that sound like synths are all possibilities. After all, the guitar is actually a super versatile instrument. You can bend the strings, you can break all kinds of fretting rules, and you can add effects like crazy. And the cool thing is, a great guitarist can switch from texturing to rhythm to traditional lead relatively easily.
Check out “Last Danger of Frost” by Steve Kimock for some crazy textural yet melodic guitar work, or listen to U2’s “Beautiful Day” for textural work that also serves to create a groove.
Throw Back Farther
One of the problems those of us of a certain age have is that we throw back – to our youth. That’s the surest way to sound and feel old. But throw back art is almost always in vogue, when it’s ACTUALLY old. Instead of throwing back to your youth, throwback farther. Throw back to your parents or grandparent’s youth. Think at least 40 years back. Have you noticed that 70’s movies are getting cool now? 80’s rock hasn’t made it back just yet, but it’s starting to poke it’s head in the room.
So when it comes to guitar, try thinking back to the 50’s. Portugal The Man.’s “Feel It Still” uses a really 50’s feeling spring reverb’d bass/guitar combo to give the track a retro feel, but the use of newer technology and drum technique in combination with that, as well as a very un-fifties lyric set and modern female vocal makes it feel weird, fresh and cool. Bruno Mars’ entire act is a purposeful throw back to old school funk R&B and it works because there are slight differences in the production style and culture that connect it to now. The guitars in these productions are clean and funky. They generally aren’t distorted or bluesy sounding. Take off the distortion, throw in a wah pedal, and see what happens.
And of course, if you or your guitar player friend are steeped in older traditions like classical guitar or flamenco, you can come up with brilliant new combinations that ground themselves in the past yet pull you forward into the future.
Here’s another idea. Use the guitar as a tool to create EDM-like grooves or technological wonders that combine recording technology with the instrument. Recently a radio promoter and artist manager told me that a song sounded great except for the guitar, which he said would be an easy fix, just use the guitar in a new way. He pointed me at an act called Nvdes, which is ostensibly guitar driven, but on many tracks you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Their use of the guitar doesn’t always sound like a guitar, but it’s not necessarily textural or secondary. Often a guitar creates their groove, but it’s just – well, different.
Post Malone’s “Better Now” starts with a barely identifiable guitar which forms the foundation of the groove, similar to The Edge’s work on “Beautiful Day”. At least – I THINK that’s a guitar!
Or…Metal It Up
When I talked about guitar driven rock’n’roll before, I neglected something important. Metal. Metal is still metal. It’ll always be metal, and metal is for guitarists. But even then, the genre has been pushed, morphed and split. Metal guitars combined with rappers ala Rage Against The Machine, Limp Biskit or Linkin Park, ethereal female vocals like Evanescence, or even with traditional Scandinavian folk are all examples of odd metal pairings that push that genre. Try Cellar Darling for a curious mix of these things like textural work, ethereal female vocals and traditional driving metal guitars. Or if you want a true blending of genres, try The Sidh (one could even argue against calling them metal). The point is, if you want you can just go ahead and double down on guitar and metal things up, and you can still be inventive!
Mix Up The Mix
It’s not just about playing style. You can experiment with new mix techniques too. Right now, minimal and spacious is trumping big wall of sound kind of material, so instead of a double tracked stereo guitar, you might try a mono track, panned just a little left or right. Instead of a huge full spectrum distorted guitar, try just a little fuzz, eq’d tightly into a smaller frequency footprint, to leave room for other instruments to play a bigger role in the overall picture. Or go bigger than ever, or super reverby, and neglect the other elements of a traditional band, to create something that’s truly and only guitar driven. The idea here is if you haven’t heard it, try it.
Finally, as you try to freshen up your guitar sound or tweak a dated sounding track, you might consider that the culprit may not be your guitar at all. The guitar may be the most important element of a traditional rock band, but it’s not the only element. What would your song sound like with a blues-rock guitar track, but a drum machine style rhythm track? How about no drums, or a cello instead of a bass guitar? The possibilities are endless.
Speaking of drums, this conversation is larger than the guitar. Drums have also seen a similar shift in their usage and role in modern music, and next month, we’re going to tackle that subject as well. We’ll talk about how a drum kit can sound dated, and what to do with that, as well as alternatives to the traditional trap drummer that could freshen up not only your tracks, but your stage presence as well. Don’t worry drummers, we won’t leave you behind!
Until then, happy shredding, all you six string samurai!
Aaron J. Trumm can play e-minor and sometimes a version of a minor on a guitar. Check him out at aarontrumm.com and talk to him on social media @AaronJTrumm.