Some Reflections on Rock Guitar in the Sixties

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Some Reflections on Rock Guitar in the Sixties

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of   Crawdaddy   in July 1966.

Popular music, in America at least, has always tended to enforce a fairly strict separation between singers and instrumentalists. With some significant exceptions, singers sing and musicians play, with little duplication of roles. Furthermore, the musicians behind a well-known vocalist are usually anonymous, even though their contribution may be more creditable than the singer’s. In rock ‘n’ roll, however, this state of affairs is changing rapidly. With the rise in popularity of groups built more or less on the Chicago r&b band model, the singer-instrumentalist now dominates in a way in which he never has before. This accounts partly for the ease with which folk musicians, for whom the singer-instrumentalist is a tradition, have been making the transition to r ‘n’ r; and it accounts too for the development of a hippie thing in rock ‘n’ roll not unlike that found in the hard core of folk audiences. The positive effect, on the other hand, has been a renewed emphasis on music rather than gyrations and sexy mouth-wiggling, though these continue to be elements in the visual presentations of many performers.

The guitar has always been important in r ‘n’ r, but it is probably more so today than at any previous point in the history of the idiom. Part of this popularity is due no doubt to a general revival of interest in the instrument, of which the folk craze was part (but not the whole!). One has only to witness the devoted followers of Julian Bream and Charlie Byrd to know that in one form or another, the guitar is reaching nearly everybody. The tenor sax, once a mainstay of rock ‘n’ roll, is relied on far less today—though some of its tonal effects can be duplicated with the use of distorting devices attached to guitar amplifiers. Good examples of the use of distortion can be heard in the work of Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds. It is also important to note that, although there are more good rock guitarists per square inch today than there were six years ago, the earlier period of rock ‘n’ roll has some excellent players—Duane Eddy notwithstanding. There were, of course, the Negro artists like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and John Lee Hooker (all of whom are still with us); but there were also groups like the Ventures who were capable of some extremely competent music.

The new wave, particularly following the influx of folk musicians seeking new possibilities, has resulted in a number of modifications in earlier styles of playing and arranging. For one thing, the more or less universal separation of “lead” and “rhythm” guitar is no longer strictly adhered to. In a recent interview with Hit Parader, Keith Richards notes that he and Brian Jones usually keep their instruments at the same volume and trade off leads; ordinarily, the rhythm guitar is kept at about half the volume of the lead instrument. The success of “Walk Right In” in early 1963 introduced a mass audience to the sound of the twelve-string guitar, now standard equipment in folk and rock alike. Fingerpicking styles have found their way in as well (although note that the use of fingerpicking on electric instruments is not an innovation per se, since country players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins have been at it for years). There are other styles of playing, too; Willie Chambers (of the Brothers of the same name) does it all with one incredibly fast-moving thumb, and the author has experimented with a technique involving the use of the teeth—thus far with indifferent success. Another important device introduced from folk music is the use of the capo (which, contrary to the view of many—Gene Lees and Hi-Fi Stereo Review take note!—is not a crutch for inferior players; every flamenco guitarist makes liberal use of it, for example). The main advantage of its use is that double guitar arrangements may be made more interesting, by allowing the guitarists to play out of different positions in the same key. The main disadvantage to its use is that it tends to throw instruments out of tune with the result that performances are often slowed down while the players readjust.

Players who began on acoustic guitar are likely to be stymied by their first contact with electricity. An electric guitar is not just a louder version of a conventional one; further, although it is possible to get sustained vibrato, reverberation, and other effects through an amplifier, to use these effects tastefully and to make a sound that is not simply a mass of muddy noise is a skill that must be acquired. Getting two guitars to make a coherent sound together requires endless experimentation; the process of getting a sound to fit a particular room is an agonizing one, but must be gone through each time a group plays. Curiously enough, good acoustics are often less to be desired when electric instruments are used since an extremely live room will make everything too loud with too much echo. Then there is the actual problem of playing the instrument; the principles of attack are quite different from those used on the acoustic guitar, for example. Under certain settings, not damping the strings immediately after they have been struck will send a wave of feedback over everything. The major problem arises from the fact that in order to get the right kind of tone quality, it is absolutely essential to have considerable volume. Rock ‘n’ roll is not played loud just for the sake of being loud—with each drop in volume goes a corresponding sacrifice of some feature of the rest of the sound. Problems in coordination become considerable as well. Good rock ‘n’ roll guitars, for example, have two sets of pickups, one of which emphasizes treble and the other bass. The guitarist must often switch from one to the other during a song, requiring a very fast move from the strings to the controls on the guitar and then back to the strings. This is not terribly hard to do if the guitar is only playing riffs between phrases, but if a sustained part is being carried, the switching process becomes a skill requiring a great deal of practice.

One of the most exciting sounds that can be made on an electric instrument is the “bending” of notes in such a way that the whine produced carries over into what follows. The bending technique is, of course, used on acoustic guitar also and consists in “choking” a string—pushing it horizontally across the neck at a given fret. Since the sound is artificially amplified, a guitar may be strung light without loss of tone or volume, so that many guitarists use a banjo 1-1-2-3-4-5 stringing, making it possible to bend notes as much as a full tone with relatively little effort. On the high frets it is possible to get near-screams with the use of this technique. Outstanding examples come from the work of the Stones and the Yardbirds; Mike Bloomfield adds to his sound by fretting with a piece of metal tubing worn on his little finger. Listen to “Mellow Down Easy” and “Look Over Yonder’s Wall” on the Butterfield album as good examples of extremely tasteful use of this technique.

Once certain tricks have been mastered, the guitarist is up against a new obstacle. Starting to play electric and sounding like something is apt to get intoxicating to the point where accompaniment can easily be overdone. The principles of contrast and development, building to a climax and dropping down, are often in danger of going by the board in favor of a constant orgasmic level of playing which, exciting as it is, becomes tiresome after a point. Problem One is learning to play; after that comes Problem Two, which is learning to play with taste. The Beatles and the Stones have tremendous discipline and rarely cross a boundary; the Yardbirds, for all their proficiency and genuine talent, occasionally lapse and simply begin turning out undifferentiated noise with not much quality of motion to it. The moral of the story is that anybody with a degree in electrical engineering, reinforced eardrums, perfect pitch, and the patience of Job, can learn to play rock ‘n’ roll guitar and live to enjoy it. Good luck.