Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guitar World and the Rock Guitarist

Part of the purpose of this blog is to figure out exactly what it is that separates a guitarist right now from a pianist 200 years ago.  It seems obvious, doesn't it?  One is a ruler of the stage, playing loud, raucous music in front of cheering fans while the other was a stodgy old man who sat alone writing the kind of music that gets played in elevators.  Their differences should be easy to find; what could they possibly have in common in the first place?

But it isn't so easy.  Mozart was a grand showman in his day.  His correspondence and writings speak of audiences exploding into applause at certain points in his music (of course, the exact points he intended, so the letters say).  The idea of an audience sitting in solemn silence through a performance wasn't so rigid until Wagner.  

And what of the guitarist?  Do we not spend hours on end practicing?  We study past "literature," just as the masters of old - only our "literature" is our brother's/uncle's/older friend's CD collection instead of manuscripts of orchestra scores.  Perhaps the line from Mozart to Tom Morello does not have such a clean break as it first appears.  

But then, neither is the line so clear.  Most of the "great masters" of Western Classical music were drawing principally from their own tradition - that is, the music continued to sound like itself; there was little outside influence.  Later eras would find inspiration in folk music and other sources.  Stravinsky loved Russian folk music, and Dvorak showed Americans they could sound like America instead of Europe.  Yet still, even in the Romantic era, the music was still fundamentally derived from the Western Classical tradition (music theorists call this the Common Practice Period - CPP).  

Which is all a long-winded and winding (and lacking citation) way of saying that the contemporary rock guitarist comes from a much more varied and globe-trotting tradition.  Appalachian folk, negro spiritual, spanish flamenco and Western CPP all influence his playing - wether he is aware of it or not.  Bach would have taken only a surface idea from another culture - a folk melody gets harmonized into a chorale - but a rock guitarist can choose to absorb any amount of another culture into his style, and many cultures are already there. 

So here's what I want to know, guitarists: how did you learn to play guitar?  Did you read Guitar World (hey, remember Guitar One?  How about Performing Guitarist?) Did you take private lessons?  What songs did you learn first?  Or did you learn any at all until you were "better"?  Tell me about the early steps in your journey.  
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