J. M. Pressley
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The Way the Music Died?

Rock 'n' Roll is phony and false, and sung, written, and played for the most part by cretinous goons. By means of its almost imbecilic reiteration it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.
     — Frank Sinatra

Kiss my ass.
     — Frank Zappa

Eric Clapton, guitar godI've been doing some thinking lately. When is the last time in the past decade that I heard a guitar solo that actually had me humming it? Sadly, I can't recall, at least not since hearing Clapton's remake of After Midnight back around the early 1990s. I'm talking about the kind of guitar solo that you recognize after a bar or two because it's so distinctive. Eric Clapton's Cocaine, Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), Carlos Santana's Black Magic Woman, David Gilmour's Comfortably Numb, Jimmy Page's Communication Breakdown; that's the kind of solo I'm talking about. When you hear the intro to the guitar solo in Hotel California by the Eagles, you damn well know which song it is and how the rest of that solo is supposed to sound.

Mind you, I realize what generation of musicians I just reeled off in the last paragraph. I'm not lamenting the fact that it's no longer the seventies. There were great rock guitarists in the fifties, in the sixties, in the seventies, and arguably into the eighties. Each generation influenced the succeeding one, which then influenced the next, and so on. Somewhere along the way, however, the guitar gods that defined at least 30 years of rock music faded one by one from the mainstream scene, and no one has yet come to replace them in my opinion.

Talkin' About My Generation: 1965–1985

Let's just look at the guitar players that rose to fame during this time frame. In most of these cases, you knew the guitar player by name as well as sound. Granted, there was a tendency to elevate the lead guitarist in such a way that led to extended 20-minute solos, but as much as I felt such grandstanding at the time was musical masturbation, I'd almost kill to hear a guitar player with the stones to try that in today's market. Below are some of the greatest guitar legends of this time; it's by no means exhaustive, and I know everyone has their pet favorite, but I think we can all agree that the players listed deserve recognition:

Duane Allman Ry Cooder Mark Knopfler Keith Richards Steve Vai
Jeff Beck Ace Frehley Brian May Carlos Santana Eddie Van Halen
Ritchie Blackmore David Gilmour Ted Nugent Joe Satriani Stevie Ray Vaughan
Lindsey Buckingham George Harrison Jimmy Page Neal Schon Joe Walsh
Eric Clapton Jimi Hendrix Joe Perry Pete Townshend Angus Young

That's 25 players off the top of my head who were all recognizable names during these years. I didn't even have to break a mental sweat, and that's not even scratching the surface when you realize how many truly great guitarists were operating around that time. And I didn't even have to break out names like Adrian Belew, Steve Cropper, Peter Green, Steve Morse, or Randy Rhoads. Every one of those guys was a talent, and I'll bet you those of us born before 1980 could even start to hear licks playing in your head as you read those names.

And that, my friend is my lament in all this. It's not that I'm pining for the past so much as I'm pissed off that somewhere along the line, we dropped the ball. The guitar god may not be dead, but he's on life support awaiting a heart transplant. What happened?

Why My Guitar Gently Weeps: Theories

Like I said, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this. I can't think of many memorable guitar solos that just get in my head and don't leave since at least 1990. I have a few theories—or at worst, working hypotheses—of how this sorry state of affairs came to be. Having said that, it ain't just as simple as one thing; there's a grain of truth in all of these theories, and maybe the convergence of all these scenarios is what got us here.

The Fall of the House of Blues

Having been in Chicago for the past fifteen-odd years, it seems like the blues is still going strong. And in isolated pockets, blues has not waned so much in popularity. Blues, however, on the national scene sure seems like it's seen better days. The genre has bled with the loss of a lot of cherished artists over the decades, and I'm not sure it's gotten enough of a youth infusion to staunch the bleeding. Many young "rock" musicians don't know much more about the blues than how to play a standard 12-bar progression. This is in stark contrast to the heady days when Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and just about every major British invasion guitarist had discovered the blues guys like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, et al. That seems only fair, as we wouldn't have rock as we know it without all the blues guys paving the way.

Now, though, it seems like the majority of pop/rock guys coming up through the ranks are doing it without a lot of roots knowledge in a time when blues has faded in our collective memory. Whereas rock music when I was growing up was counterbalanced by and drew from the blues and Motown, the rock of the 1990s and beyond coexisted with hip-hop and dance mixes. As popular music distanced itself from the blues, it distanced itself from the classic guitar icons; concurrently, the waning of blues guitar heroes has led to the waning of rock guitar heroes.

The Hair-Band Eighties

I remember the eighties very well; I was in high school during this decade. I saw the rise and fall (and sometimes rise again) of bands like Whitesnake, Poison, Cinderella, Dokken, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, and God knows how many others. There were also the harder bands like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden. While I will admit that I occasionally succumb to the guilty pleasure of listening to Once Bitten, Twice Shy or Every Rose Has its Thorn, this is the decade that got me turned back onto what was already being termed "classic rock" on the radio station. Specifically, I have Mötley Crüe to thank for it. I remember watching MTV one day and seeing Looks that Kill on the tube. I scratched my head for a moment, thought to myself, wasn't Kiss doing this same thing ten years ago?, and began turning back the dial on the musical tastes. The bands became such caricatures both musically and otherwise that I believe it did serious—perhaps irreparable—harm to the reputation of guitar players in general.

MTV and the Triumph of Style over Substance

Speaking of MTV, their rise to cultural prominence coincided with the rise of bands that looked better than they sounded. I've long been of the opinion that MTV did more harm to music than good during the eighties. It started back when I was still in the age demographic to which the network panders, so this hasn't just come with age. At the time, however, I didn't quite realize the full extent of the damage that could be wrought on music by slapping promotional imagery on top of it. Nor did I realize that by turning into the minor leagues of cinematography, music videos would also end up attempting to destroy television and film at the same time—but I digress.

The point is that the bands that looked the best on MTV and concentrated as much (or more) on reaching a visual audience were not always the most accomplished musicians or songwriters. Consequently, the music began to suffer. This also bred an entire generation that grew up thinking that this was the best music to emulate. When you add to all this the tendency of the music industry to define musical taste rather than reflect it, you get a situation where mainstream rock has all but proclaimed the guitar virtuoso a relic. After all, isn't it better to have a charismatic lead singer on whom we can focus the camera anyway?

The Helicopter Crash of 1990

August 27, 1990. I heard the news while in North Carolina. A helicopter crash had ended the life of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was one of the most recognizable guitar players of the late eighties. At the time, Stevie Ray was 35 years old with five albums under his belt. He had only been in the national spotlight for seven years. My theory on this is that Vaughan, who was arguably the best guitar player since Clapton to bridge the gap between rock and blues, might have done more to reinvigorate the status of the guitar in mainstream music if he hadn't had such an untimely death. And as Stevie Ray Vaughan was the last young guitarist I remember with that kind of status, with no one taking up the mantle, I think it's as good a theory as any. Maybe having Vaughan around for the entirety of the 1990s, reminding us of what a good, finger-burning player can do, would have led to a few more kids growing up wanting to emulate his style.

Radio Blah-Blah: The 1990s and Beyond

I try to look at the good as well as the bad. As the 1990s came around, I thought that there was a good foundation in place for traditional rock music. And to be sure, I think the outlook for songs in general is good. There are a lot of good songwriters out there in the marketplace, for one thing. On the other hand, I don't hear a lot of guitarists that just make me stop whatever I'm doing to listen, nor do I remember hearing a particular guitar solo over the past five to ten years played by a guitarist under the age of 30 that really sticks in my head. It's sad, really; most if not all of the guitar players that I truly admire are probably into their forties or fifties now. Back in the day, it seemed like there was always a new generation of players coming up behind them, but now it seems like there's nobody to take the baton. That's a big reason why I find myself tuning in more to AM talk radio than FM music stations these days.

And if you don't think there's a guitar void in contemporary music to be found, then you haven't been paying attention. If the next Hendrix or Clapton had been found, we'd be talking about him instead of asking if there will ever be another like him.

If there is any cause to hope, I know a number of teenage musicians who seem to be saying the right things when they're starting out on guitar. There's a high school sophomore, for instance, that discovered Chuck Berry, Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience at an early age, and he says that's how he's learning to play. Or my freshman nephew, who engaged me in a long discussion one afternoon about Creedence Clearwater Revival and other early seventies bands; he was trying to pick up the intro to Fortunate Son. These guys and a lot of their musician friends spend at least as much time listening to classic rock as they do to contemporary, and all of them seem to treat a lot of the older guitar greats as if that's the standard against which they want to be measured.

There is also some hope in the small group of guitar virtuosos that cropped up during this time. Players like Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer, Mike McCready, Tom Morello, John Petrucci, and Kenny Wayne Sheperd have all done fine work on the guitar. One would hope that this would be enough to keep the the embers of guitar music burning, even if most of these players aren't the household names that their predecessors were.

This is the End (Beautiful Friend)

Maybe the solo guitarist will come back in vogue someday. Maybe this is a cyclical thing, and the industry and fans alike will realize that rock could only have been born with the electric guitar serving as midwife, and that as the guitar goes, so goes rock. Or, perhaps the era of the mainstream prodigy soloist is over, and the virtuosos of the instrument will be exiled to the same musical hinterlands as the blues and jazz greats of their time. Or maybe we've just become so fragmented in our societal musical tastes that the notion of consensus mainstream music is outdated, and there will never be another cult of guitar celebrity like there was in the sixties and seventies. Maybe pop culture simply isn't capable of that anymore.

If that's the way it is, so be it. If you need me, I'll be listening to Disraeli Gears with my headphones on. And I'll still be waiting for somebody to take up the slack. Wanted: just one guitar god. Please.

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