A Guitar God With No Believers

[from Reservoir / April 11, 2007]

What ever happened to the guitar god?

Not the guy who can write a solid riff or string together a few choice power chords. I mean what happened to the guy who was going to come out and kick your ass with face-melting solos and the kind of riffs so devastating you thought the world was going to end?

G3 2007 Tour Poster

I was thinking about this the other weekend at the G3. For those who don’t know, the G3 is the annual touring cavalcade of shred guitarists led by quasi-famous virtuoso Joe Satriani. The Congress Theatre was packed to the rafters with serious musicians, prog nerds and metalheads alike, all there to get thoroughly schooled in how to knock thousands dead at a time with a six-string, and the guys certainly delivered the goods. Gunslingers, indeed.

That there’s even an audience for this kind of show these days is almost startling, considering the blatant lack of musical chops required to make a living in music anymore. No one’s saying that proficiency automatically equals musicality, nor is anyone saying that 128th-note sweeps and odd time signatures are the only hallmarks of a great instrumentalist.

But where, outside of ridiculous metal songs and “music for musicians”-type of projects can we find the guy (or gal, which would be sooo hot) who can bring the instrument not just to life but to the masses? The reason Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, et al, were so cool was not because they could just wail, but because they could entertain at the same time. There are some people who still embrace this idea – Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age comes to mind, lest we forget the amusing and infinitely frightening Buckethead – but at some point people forgot you can do more with music than just emote and whine about how girls are pretty and how life can be, like, totally tough when you have to make decisions and stuff.

The lineup of the G3 should say all there is to say about the state of the guitar god: Satriani is 50, John Petrucci is 39, Paul Gilbert is 40. If rock music is supposed to be a young man’s game, why are three middle-aged guys standing atop the mountain?

The common answer is that the grunge and alt-rock movement of the ‘90’s killed the guitar solo, but I call bullshit on that one. Not only do people forget how the whole point of that era was that you can do whatever you want with the art form, but they also forget that some of the most awesome guitar work ever came out of some of the scene’s biggest bands.

Think I’m kidding? Go listen to those Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains or Soundgarden or Smashing Pumpkins or Nine Inch Nails albums and then try to convince me those guys weren’t trying to outdo what the likes of Kerry King and Kirk Hammett were doing before them.

The answer, I suspect, is that people just became scared and lazy. The guitar as a tough-guy instrument fell out of favor, as did so much else of the tough-guy trappings in American culture. People stopped seeing the power and capability of the guitar solo and instead saw only the brute force with which it had for so long been applied. This is why Coldplay is so popular; this is also why Tenacious D is so great. The former succeeds by eschewing the savage possibilities of the instrument while the latter whole-heartedly (and ham-fistedly) embraces it.

Meanwhile, all we, the axe-wielding masses, are left with is one long pause, clinging to our old idols while waiting for the next one to please come along and save us. Zakk Wylde, Petrucci, Satch – you guys are carrying a weight almost as heavy as your music. Long may you rock.