By The Landlord
"When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me, and the other was my guitar." – Bruce Springsteen
"The violin is my mistress, but the guitar is my master." – Niccolò Paganini
"The time I burned my guitar it was like a sacrifice. You sacrifice the things you love." – Jimi Hendrix
Twang! Strum! Weeeooow! Welcome all to the Song Bar Guitar Emporium, for this week we open our doors to talk about any songs mention, in lyric or title, something about those much-loved hollow- or solid-bodied instruments, shapely and fretted, of four, six or 12-strings, bass or standard, electric, acoustic or classical. The guitar.
But while the sounds of these beautiful instruments will undoubtedly decorate many a song, the topic is not about riffs, sounds and techniques, or indeed songs with guitar playing, because that would be absurd and infinite, but instead everything else about the guitar itself, and the player playing it, mentioned in all sorts of ways. Perhaps that could be the guitar as form of first love, as a companion, as a friend, as having a voice, as a songwriting tool, a source of expression, of sadness or swagger, a character, a sexual object, a weapon, a sacred object, a lifesaver, and among other things, how it affects the player and all those around them.
And with this in mind, we welcome a whole collection, or you could say a coil, a pick, a guild, a gander, a chorus, a rack perhaps, or whatever the collective noun might be, of great guitarists here to talk about what this instrument means to them. It's a right old clatter, hum and strum going on, with pedals, cables, amps and tuners entangled, but out of the cacophony and chaos, let's pick out a few of the guests with something to say.
Most guitarists started young, and have been unable to put down their instrument since that time. "Guitars have been the obsession of my life. I first picked one up at the age of four and I've been a guitar junkie ever since," says Johnny Marr. And leaping through the door and writhing on the floor, wearing his school uniform of course, here's a very different sort of guitarist – AC/DC's Angus Young, who explains his beginnings: "I never bothered with cars. I was probably one of the few kids in school who didn't run around with hot-rod magazines. As I would be at home fiddling with my guitar, they would be fiddling with a car engine."
Nevertheless, guitars are a form of engine for young minds to tinker with, Brian May of course, whose father was some kind of engineering genius (who made the family's own TV and washing machine) famously built his own as a paternal-son project, and a couple of years ago celebrated the Red Special's 50th anniversary with a book. A quiet, but very focused and determined guy, he says: "The guitar was my weapon, my shield to hide behind." And also: "The guitar has a kind of grit and excitement possessed by nothing else."
Some players didn't start with the guitar. "I actually first picked up an ukulele before I picked up a guitar." says that influential innovator, Dick Dale, who then explains his style: "Surf music is actually just the sound of the waves played on a guitar: that wet, splashy sound."
The attraction of the guitar is also its versatility. Jeff Beck is a serial and skilled experimenter of sound, and the inspiration for many other players. Even in the Bar he's fiddling with it right now, and explains: "I don't understand why some people will only accept a guitar if it has an instantly recognisable guitar sound. Finding ways to use the same guitar people have been using for 50 years to make sounds that no one has heard before is truly what gets me off."
While Jeff's getting off (get a practice room, you two …) it's impossible to ignore the fact that the guitar is an inescapably sexy instrument. They are beautiful objects. And even Radiohead's Thom Yorke admits: "Sometimes the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it." So let's now take a moment to look at some of the most attractive and favourite models of modern music history, various light and and heavy, twangy, rich, bull-bodied or raw, almost like bottles of wine. The Gibson Explorer, SG, Les Paul or ES335 (Chuck Berry) or Flying V as used by The Kinks? The Ibanez Gem? The Martin acoustic? The jangly Beatles favourite, Rickenbacker 300 series? The Danelectro Shorthorn? The Gretsch 6120 or Nashville, endorsed by Chet Atkins? The Fender Telecaster, Jazzmaster, Stratocaster or Jaguar? The qualities of these can be talked about endlessly but where are they named in songs? They may be mentioned in lyrics as a Strat, Jag, or other pet names, so these might help:
And here's the great Les Paul talking about his design idea: "Now I need to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and lovable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist - whatever. I wanted something very dense, something that would sustain long and more pieces of wood that would be soft, sweet, for more of a mellow sound."
If this doesn't summarise what many songwriters feel about their guitars, I don't know what does.
But while all of these models are well known and very much tested and loved, there are still plenty of stranger models out there, expressions of inventive obsession, but also utter daftness. Some guitars are there to be very useful, even if they look rather unwieldy. For example there's Jimmy Page's double neck:
But at least he used it. There's also this monster:
Then again there's the steampunk special, perhaps part of guitar players cognitive process?
Or this rather fetching video of oddball models:
Walk into a guitar shop, and it's still very much a blokey world, but thankfully that's changing and let's not also forget that there are also many great female guitarists out there. Joan Jett isn't going to let the men in the Bar keep her quiet: "My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am."
The guitar has also been a great tool for women in music. St Vincent, aka Annie Clark is a current inspiration to many younger players, and back in the day, here's another icon talking about her era: "People forget the punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse. It allowed us to be aggressive," says Siouxsie Sioux. And Courtney Love doesn't want to be left out: "I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming!" she screams.
But what about the bass? "Without the Fender bass, there'd be no rock n' roll or no Motown. The electric guitar had been waiting 'round since 1939 for a nice partner to come along. It became an electric rhythm section, and that changed everything," says Quincy Jones.
"The bass guitar is the engine of the band," says Suzi Quatro. The bass is certainly the heartbeat, the throbbing, thrumming backbone of music. There is even a current band composed of only of two female bass players playing their instrument – Kite Base's Kendra Frost, who also sings, alongside Savages' bass player Ayse Hassan. But one of the best bass players in music, Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth, said she ended up playing the instrument to fill a gap: "I wasn't originally a bass player. I just found out I was needed, because everyone wants to play guitar." Necessity perhaps, but it certainly turned out to be the brilliant mother of invention.
The guitar above all is loved because it is a source of songwriting creativity. Angus Young is still writhing and gurning here on the Bar-room floor, and in between blistering solos, shouts: "I just go where the guitar takes me, mate!" But to get to that level, you must practise endlessly. Even Jimi Hendrix did that, so relentlessly he was kicked out of the US Army for fingering instead of drilling: "Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you'll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you're gonna be rewarded," he says. What a dude.
Keith Richards says the instrument is all he needs to keep him occupied: "Give me a guitar, give me a piano, give me a broom and string; I wouldn't get bored anywhere." And now Pete Townshend has turned up and tells us about his songwriting process, via another model: "When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had, and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and I try to bang it out as it comes."
Jimmy Page has now put down his double-neck, and tells us what a guitar can do for an individual's specific creativity: "I believe every guitar player inherently has something unique about their playing. They just have to identify what makes them different and develop it."
Dave Gilmour agrees, and manages to big himself up at the same time: "I think I could walk into any music shop anywhere and with a guitar off the rack, a couple of basic pedals and an amp I could sound just like me. There's no devices, customised or otherwise, that give me my sound." That's vey possibly true, but Dave so loves this instrument, he riffs on more about how great it is: "It's a magical thing, the guitar. It allows you to be the whole band in one, to play rhythm and melody, sing over the top. And as an instrument for solos, you can bend notes, draw emotional content out of tiny movements, vibratos and tonal things which even a piano can't do."
"Yes," says Jimmy. "And my vocation is more in composition really than anything else - building up harmonies using the guitar, orchestrating the guitar like an army, a guitar army."
The Spanish classical virtuoso Andrés Segovia is now here. He might not quite enjoy the electric sound of pedals and feedback, but he agrees with the sentiment: "The guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different colour, a different voice."
So the guitar is versatile, expressive, and for some it's directed and saved their whole existence. Here's Slash: "Guitar is the best form of self-expression I know. Everything else, and I'm just sort of tripping around, trying to figure my way through life." And as for Wilko Johnson? Well just look at him, a character and a cancer survivor who is half man, half guitar:
"I just want to be a guy with a guitar," says Jeff Buckley, who just happened to also be a great singer. Lou Reed elevates the instrument's role even higher: "The most important part of my religion is to play guitar." So in many ways guitar playing is a sacred ritual to many players. They lose themselves in it indefinitely. The guitar is an addiction.
Richie Sambora explains that the guitar was as much his own patient teacher: "I taught myself how to play the guitar, so I basically learned by a system of making mistakes."
"Well," says Dave Gilmour, "I actually learned the guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger instructional record when I was 13 or 14." And suddenly Dave is shocked and thrilled to see that the great Pete Seeger has strolled in the Bar too, who adds another point to his remote pupil, and handily refers to another model that David Bowie used to compose many of his early songs:
"When you play the 12-string guitar, you spend half your life tuning the instrument and the other half playing it out of tune," says Pete.
The guitar is all about searching for something. Metallica's James Hetfield tell us: "I'm on this eternal quest to get the best guitar sound in the world, but my vision of what is 'the best' changes every time I go into the studio. Sometimes my goal is to make my guitar jump out, and sometimes I want it to lay back."
Hugh Laurie is no guitarist. He plays piano tolerably well, and is a blues obsessive, but he's her to make a good point about the guitar as a travelling companion, as a natural touring instrument: "Some people are drawn naturally - there are natural guitarists, and there are natural piano players, and I think guitar implies travel, a sort of footloose gypsy existence. You grab your bag and you go to the next town."
Now let's get some true blues players over. BB King can make the guitar sing like no one else. He's popped in now to tell us why: "I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions."
"I don't play a lot of fancy guitar. I don't want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks," says John Lee Hooker.
BB is full of joy, and John Lee likes mean licks, but lot of those emotions also come from pain, feelings expressed but also caused by the guitar, and not just the emotional kind. Kurt Cobain admits it's also physical: "My body is damaged from music in two ways. I have a red irritation in my stomach. It's psychosomatic, caused by all the anger and the screaming. I have scoliosis, where the curvature of your spine is bent, and the weight of my guitar has made it worse. I'm always in pain, and that adds to the anger in our music."
But what about the acoustic players out there? Don't they feel pain? Of course they do. Just listen to Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake. "If you play acoustic guitar you're the depressed, sensitive guy," says Elliott Smith. It's a generalisation but it's possibly true, and the acoustic guitar is the great home alone friend when you're feeling down. Richard Thompson prefers to joke about this when he performs: "To stand up on a stage alone with an acoustic guitar requires bravery bordering on heroism. Bordering on insanity."
Guitars get smashed, and in Hendrix's case, set alight, but even in playing them, Paul Weller reminds us that they are also a great tool to express anger: "Everyone gets frustrated and aggressive, and I'd sooner take my aggression out on a guitar than on a person."
As well as anger, the guitar can also make people fall in love. It didn't work out ultimately, but Kim Gordon describes how she first met the great innovator and tall Thurston Moore: "A friend of mine introduced me to Thurston Moore because she thought I would like him. He was playing with the tallest band in the world, the Coachmen. They were sort of like Talking Heads, jangly guitar, Feelies guitar. Anyway, it was love at first sight. His band broke up that night. And we started playing."
Guitarists also fall in love with other guitarists because of their playing. So finally here's a jazz talent expressing his love of a Spanish classical master. Here's George Benson: "The greatest guitar player in the world today for me is Paco de Lucia." And for George, and everyone else, let's enjoy a bit of his greatest love:
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, The Stone Roses' Chris Squire, these and many more have more things to say about what the guitar means to them, but at this point it's time to hand the axe over to you, dear Bar customers, and let you play the tune, naming songs that talk about this instrument in any number of ways.
And so this week I'm delighted to welcome back as our top tuner and guitar tech, our chief roadie, our strummer supreme, and chief librarian of the vaults, is Marco den Ouden, aka Marconius. Place your songs that talk about guitars on this topic in comments below. Deadline? 11pm UK time on Monday for playlists published next Wednesday. Don't worry about barre chords, just Bar accords!
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