Tag Archives: vibrato

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

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Vai & Mann

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Still No Clapton, Part 5 – I’d Run Away by the Jayhawks

The first batch of these posts that I did at the very end of 2013 I called “No Hendrix, No Clapton, No Vai”, and not because I dislike those players. It’s impossible to have any feel for rock’n’roll music and dislike Jimi Hendrix. I’m not a shred fan, but I can appreciate Steve Vai’s chops and dedication to his craft, and I genuinely loved No More Amsterdam, his 2012 co-write/duet with Aimee Mann. God, even some Clapton is OK, too, though don’t get me started on his politics. We’ll be here all night and I’ll lose all my good humour.
The point of doing these, then, has been to talk in brief about some tracks I might have struggled to discuss at length in a conventional post, but also to pick out some less heralded players along the way. Sure, J Mascis and David Lindley aren’t unknowns, and Robbie Robertson is a bona-fide legend, but they’re all at least a step down in renown from Clapton and Hendrix, who simply are rock guitar for many people, or Vai, who stands for the 1980s shredders (a school of metal-ish guitarists whose extreme technical proficiency was their key selling point for many of their fans, and who are still high-profile players in guitar geek circles).
Not every great solo proclaims its greatness by being the centrepiece of a classic song, or by lasting for minutes on end, or by being the work of a celebrated player. Today’s choice is indicative of this.
The dominant instrument on my favourite Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, is not Gary Louris’s guitar, but Karen Grotberg’s underrated country-soul piano. The band always sounded more expansive with her on board, and her harmonies sweetened the pinched and nasal vocal blend of Gary Louris and Marc Olsen. All in all, she’s the easily overlooked Jayhawks MVP, like a great defensive lineman.
Nevertheless, Louris remained a powerful presence as lead guitarist. Louris’s playing is ultimately blues derived – most of the licks he plays, Chuck Berry played first – but the Jayhawks have always drawn strength and vigour from Louris’s lead guitar interjections. They add uncomplicated vigour, a swagger even, to a group who’ve rarely strayed all that far from medium-intensity mid-tempo country-rock.
His solo on I’d Run Away is a perfectly constructed little gem with the full range of Louris tricks: an ear-grabbing opening lick that sees him making use of the Vibrola arm on his SG for a strong vibrato, some melodic double-stop licks and a bit of old-fashioned bluesy pentatonic wailing of the type that’s been the backbone of rock guitar since Mr Berry, I guess. It’s the highlight of a song that in typical Jayhawks fashion mixes breezy music with doleful lyrics.

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Gary Louris, still rockin’ that Vibrola-equipped Gibson SG

Still No Clapton, Part 4 – Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few days. Mel and I were in Venice from Thursday to Sunday. Back now, ready to crack on with the last couple of these. So, David Lindley, as promised. Yes, I know that two Jackson Browne-related pieces within a couple of weeks of each other is not great timing, but I imagine it’ll be a while before he comes up again!

Jackson Browne could write a tune and turn a phrase. It’s been said many times before, but “Don’t confront me with my failures; I had no forgotten them” is an astonishing lyric for a 17-year-old to have written (even if no one that age could truly understand what it is to irrevocably fail at anything), so let’s give the man his due. At this best, he has been a very powerful writer.

But, to be picky, within Browne’s work there has always been a sense that, just maybe, the head is faking the heart’s business (as Ian McDonald once said of Elvis Costello); the same man that could craft something as sharp as the line above from These Days could also write something as gauche, as unwieldy and as far removed from the syntax and rhythm of everyday speech as, “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light/You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight” (and this in a song that is widely loved).

So Browne needed David Lindley, then, to add fire to his music, to cut through the bullshit and the extended metaphors, to be both head and heart at the same time. Lindley plays with a fierce passion, his deft technique always evident but never at the expense of meaning. Within Browne’s music, he clarifies, he amplifies and he puts into sound what it is Browne’s trying to say in words: think of those two, sobbing high F notes he plays at around 4.10 on These Days – for all that the song’s lyric is impressive, nothing in the words communicates regret and sadness like those two desperate notes from Lindley’s guitar.

Lindley’s slide playing is hugely inventive, and his renown rests largely upon it, but the song I would nominate as containing my favourite Lindley work isn’t a slide piece. It’s Late for the Sky, which is a masterclass in how to play lead guitar alongside a singer. Containing beautiful short solos during the intro and the coda and a long one about three minutes in (after the first chorus), Late for the Sky also sees Lindley weaving sinuous lead guitar lines in and around Browne’s vocal. His tone is thick and creamy, and his rapid vibrato (if I’m hearing right, he uses a horizontal technique rather than the rock player’s up-and-down method, possibly more derived from his slide playing than from classic guitar) and slowly released bent notes (see 3.26) essentially narrate the song with Browne, who was truly blessed to have him in his team.

If I could play electric lead guitar like anyone, it would probably be David Lindley.

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Lindley in familiar lap steel mode

A recent recordeding – live one-take performance, no overdubs

Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

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Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing

Still No Clapton, Part 2 – To Kingdom Come by The Band

This is an article about Robbie Robertson the guitar player rather than Robbie Robertson the songwriter. And so I’m obliged to start with Dylan’s quote about his one-time sideman:

The only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound

I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to the Band’s music. How many times have I listened to The Band and Northern Lights, Southern Cross? 50, 80, 100 times each? If you add in the number of times I’ve listened to the 1966 Dylan/Hawks set from Manchester Free Trade Hall, I may have as many as 500 hours or so on just this one group. I know the Band’s music well, I know Robertson’s playing well. I still have no idea what Dylan was driving at.

Playing with Dylan, Robertson’s solos were apt to be scrappy and messy. He bit hard into notes, and played without much vibrato. If he played one note and held it, you wouldn’t think, Ah, yes, the tone and control of a natural lead guitar player, as you would with, say, David Gilmour. Robertson’s attack, the lack of refinement, was the whole point. As Barney Hoskyns noted in Across the Great Divide, there has always been something of the enthusiastic amateur in Robertson’s playing.

The step change in his style occurred during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Partly because he’d played enough solos to last him a lifetime and partly because of the discipline enforced on the group by recording to a cheap mono tape machine at low volume in a clangy basement, Robertson emerged a different player. His new style was sensitive, tasteful, based on a deep feel for the song and an understanding of how and where one should play to complement, but not compete with, the singer. It is this version of Robertson that is a guitar genius.

A key text for me has always been To Kingdom Come. The second track on the Band’s debut, Music from Big Pink, contained the only Robertson lead vocal (until Islands‘ Knocking Lost John) in the Band’s catalogue and the only extended lead guitar break on the whole of the first album. As such, it debuted all the facets of his new style: a superlative tone, a mastery of structure and repetition, a much more prominent vibrato, and a string bending technique that begins to anticipate the great Jerry Donahue (who widened the folk and country guitar player’s vocabulary immeasurably with his arsenal of contrary-motion bends and double-stop bends that go up by different intervals). Most evident, though, is the soulful influence of Curtis Mayfield, audible in the R&B/gospel licks that Robertson was now interweaving with his bandmates’ vocals. He retained enough bite that you still knew it was him, but what was gone, at least from his recorded work, was the frantic quality that his playing had in the early years. Leaving this behind, he truly became the mathematical guitar genius Dylan had praised so highly a couple of years before.

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Robertson, latter days with the Band

Some of the author’s own work. The author is not Robbie Robertson unfortunately:

Still no Clapton – 5 More Favourite Guitar Solos, Part 1: Start Choppin’ by Dinosaur Jr

When I was 15 or so, my three touchstone guitarists were Jonny Greenwood, Joey Santiago and J Mascis. All three were respected lead guitar players, but they made their reps by employing cool textures and melodies rather than a constant stream of slurred sextuplets. All three made a lot of noise a lot of the time – bound to appeal to any 15-year-old grunge fan – but all of them could turn out a tune, too. And none of them played a pointy guitar. This was – remains – important stuff. I can’t think of any guitarist I really admire (possible exception: Page Hamilton from Helmet) who plays/played a superstrat. They’re just not cool.

Mascis’s first solo on Dinosaur Jr’s 1993 single Start Choppin’ remains my absolute favourite of his. I’ve memorised every second of both of the song’s solos, but the first one is the real classic, the one that shows the full range of techniques at his disposal: messy oblique bends and vibrato unit abuse (the guy played a Jazzmaster, remember – the vibrato unit on a JM is only for the brave or the foolish), but also a great ear for melody, an instinct for phrasing and the ability to speed up and down the fretboard if the mood took him.

He starts off, in typical Mascis style, with ear-grabbing noise: an old Chuck Berry-style lick turned into something huge and nasty by the addition of an enormous bucket of gunky fuzz. It isn’t until you think his solo is going to collapse in on itself entirely and take the song with it that he pulls out the fancy stuff. That short passage after the rhythm guitar switches back to the main riff and the drummer switches to 16ths on the hats is masterly, and shows that Mascis has it in him to compete with the real technicians if he wants to; it’s just that he rarely does. He has a style: Neil Young, plus distortion pedals, plus dexterity. This is why the guy is still high profile enough for Fender to release not one but two guitars bearing his signature, a full 22 years after his band’s commercial heyday.

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Angry Johnny’s awesome artwork for the Start Choppin’ single