How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Electric Guitar

I first began playing guitar around November of 1982; I remember vividly driving back from the Moorestown Mall having purchased (in the now defunct B. Dalton bookstore chain) The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. Covering everything from the author’s favorite guitar heroes, to what to look for when buying a guitar, to an extensive and well-written main core of the book devoted to music theory, Denyer’s book certainly lives up to its name. I remember instantly thinking as I thumbed through it, “This is it! It’s all here!” Of course, what wasn’t there was much of an insight into rock guitar licks, but still, it was a book I referred to endlessly when I first began playing, to the point where I basically wore my copy out, using black electrical tape to keep its binding together. While Denyer released an updated version of the book in 1992, a few years ago, I bought a used copy of the original 1982 edition, just to remind myself of where things started.

You've got to start somewhere.

And they really did start from there.  Shortly afterward, I bought my first electric guitar, a Hondo (Korean- or Japanese-made) clone of a 1959 Les Paul. In March of this year, after my mom had passed away and we cleaned out her house in preparation of putting it on the market, I found the old Hondo in the basement and picked it up — as was typical of Les Pauls of the early 1980s, both by Gibson and those selling knock-offs, it weighed a ton!

While I counted Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as my early guitar heroes, at the time, my biggest musical inspiration was Pete Townshend. And as journalist J.R Taylor wrote a few years ago, with both The Who’s popularity and his own as a solo artist at their apogee, the early 1980s “was a good time to be a Pete Townshend fan.” Certainly in my case that was true.

In 1983, Townshend released the first of his Scoop series of albums. These were the demo recordings of songs that would be recorded by The Who or professionally re-recorded by Townshend for his solo albums. In the liner notes, Townshend explained that he didn’t write his songs on staff paper; he recorded them on tape recorders, overdubbing a drum track — either real drums or a drum machine — then guitar, then bass, then vocals.

Concurrent with the release of Scoop, the first cassette four-track recorders began to appear in music stores,  building on punk rock’s DIY ethos, and I was quickly off and running. A cassette four-track isn’t one of those old eight-track machines that Homer Simpson had in his car as a teenager. They use ordinary cassettes, but instead of having flipping the tape over to play the other side, the four-track recorder only plays in one direction, to allow for overdubbing up to four tracks of music; perfect for cutting a demo, as mentioned above, with a drum machine (which was also a new development in the early 1980s), bass, guitar and vocals; one instrument per track.

While I was not very artistic as a teenager prior to picking up an instrument, once I realized I could write and produce my own music, I thought, what else can I do? Which lead to studying radio production, video production, and eventually, a certificate in filmmaking from NYU.

But it all began with guitar playing. And one of the elements that ties together so many early bloggers is DIY music. As Glenn Reynolds (who was producing his own MP3s before launching Instapundit) told C-Span’s Brian Lamb in 2006, paraphrasing the 2003 Dave Clarke song “Disgraceland” along the way, to him blogging was “like the old punk rock ethos. You know, ‘they were terrible; I wanted to be terrible too!’ But it wasn’t terrible. And that was actually what was really striking about [Mickey Kaus’s Kausfiles in 2001.] There were lots of sort of amateurish, not very good Web sites out there in 1996, or whenever this was, but this looked good and it read well and it was really interesting, and I just thought it was really cool.”

More or less concurrent with my own nascent blogging efforts beginning in early 2002, I returned to my eighties-era hobby of recording my own music. Only this time around, using a personal computer, Cakewalk’s Sonar multitrack recording program, and eventually, a couple of incarnations of the Roland Corporation’s guitar modeling rigs, which allow a guitarist to dial through an enormous variety of preset sounds in much the same way a keyboard synthesizer player is able to. (You can scroll through my articles at Blogcritics over the years; I’ve written all sorts of posts there on the topic of home recording.)

When I started producing PJM’s Sirius-XM radio show, which lasted from September of 2007 through the end of 2010, and my ongoing Silicon Graffiti video series, which began in earnest in January of 2008, my guitar playing went by the wayside a bit. I still picked it up almost every day to noodle, but rarely plugged it into an amplifier. And cranking out a weekly 55-minute MP3 filled with interviews and music — occasionally my own — and uploading it to the Sirius-XM server filled my home recording jones in spades.

But this past weekend, I dusted off my “Roland-Ready Strat,” a Fender Stratocaster electric equipped with a special pickup designed to plug into Roland’s guitar synthesizers and plugged it in my Roland VG-99 guitar modeling box.  Just dialing through the presets, and playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric sitar, and guitar synthesizer was a reminder of all of the possibilities inherent in the seemingly simple instrument that is the guitar.

And also a reminder of how comparatively easy it now is to both learn how to play guitar, and to get a decent sound out of it. Once you’ve learned a few basic chord shapes and the bare bones rudiments of musical theory and you’d like to learn to play a hit song, there’s likely tablature available for free on the Internet to learn its riffs and chord changes. With the fundamentals now so easy to learn, we should be hearing hours of fantastic new music on the radio every week, right?

No, of course not. Which brings us to the second part of this essay, starting on the next page.

OK, They Are Terrible. But Why?

The song that Glenn Reynolds referenced during his interview with Brian Lamb had the line, “they were terrible; I wanted to be terrible too?” But — and you knew this question was coming eventually, right? – if it’s so easy to get started on an instrument and advance your knowledge of music, then why is so much contemporary music so terrible? Where are the Beatles of today, using all of this technology to produce great popular music?

Well, here’s my theory; see if this makes any sense. A counterculture can’t exist in a vacuum — it needs an overculture both to push against and to draw techniques from. This isn’t a development that occurred in the wake of the 1960s; the pioneering modernist artists of the first decades of the 20th century were also very much a counterculture; the best of them also had plenty of training and knowledge acquired from the overculture of the period. As the late Hilton Kramer once wrote about those early modernists:

As for the avant-garde itself, its own history is anything but a single-minded tale of revolt against bourgeois values. Cocteau may have been exaggerating when he claimed that “The ‘bourgeoisie’ is the bed-rock of France from which all our artists emerge. They may possibly get clear of it, but it allows them to build dangerously on substantial foundations.” (“With us,” he wrote in Cock and Harlequin, “there is a house, a lamp, a plate of soup, a fire, wine and pipes at the back of every important work of art.”) But he was only exaggerating an essential part of the truth. The history of the avant-garde actually harbors a complex agenda of internal conflict and debate, not only about aesthetic matters but about the social values that govern them. If the bourgeois ethos may be said to have both a “progressive” and a “reactionary” side, the avant-garde is similarly divided. At one extreme, there is indeed an intransigent radicalism that categorically refuses to acknowledge the contingent and rather fragile character of the cultural enterprise, a radicalism that cancels all debts to the past in the pursuit of a new vision, however limited and fragmentary and circumscribed, and thus feels at liberty—in fact compelled—to sweep anything and everything in the path of its own immediate goals, whatever the consequences. It is from this radical extreme, of which Dada, I suppose, is the quintessential expression, that our romance of the avant-garde is largely derived. But the history of the avant-garde is by no means confined to these partisans of wholesale revolt. It also boasts its champions of harmony and tradition. It is actually among the latter that we are likely to find the most solid and enduring achievements of the modern era—among those tradition-haunted artists (Matisse and Picasso, Eliot and Yeats, Schoenberg and Stravinsky) who are mindful, above all, of the continuity of culture, and thus committed to the creative renewal of its deepest impulses.

This division between art conceived as a form of guerrilla warfare and art conceived as the reaffirmation of a vital tradition is by no means absolute. Many important artists—even such self-avowed Dadaists as Arp and Schwitters—identified their interests with the one camp while quietly enjoying the advantages of the other. And such a division is certainly no guide to the aesthetic quality of individual works of art. But it does describe the essential dialectic that governed the sensibilities of the avant-garde in the era of its greatest endeavors. That the custodians of bourgeois taste failed so miserably and for so long to distinguish between their genuine adversaries and their rightful allies is part of the historical tragedy of bourgeois culture. It is also part of its comedy. But neither the tragedy nor the comedy should mislead us about the actual course of the avant-garde enterprise, which in the 20th century—and even earlier—has been characterized by extreme dissensions in its own ranks.

Similarly, we tend to think of the early Beatles as wildmen rocking out in Hamburg, before being discovered by manager Brian Epstein, who ordered them to discard the leather jackets for tasteful matching Pierre Cardin suits. But as Reason’s Charles Paul Freund noted in June of 2001, the early Beatles had soaked up much more than Little Richard and Chuck Berry:

Sgt. Pepper’s (1967) may well have transformed the rock world, but it owes nothing to rock’s Romantic myth. It is built largely from the music and imagery of the Victorian and Edwardian pleasure palaces of the industrial working class. (Herman’s Hermits had already revived the Music Hall standard, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” but as a 1965 novelty song.) Though the Beatles approached the material with a literary sensibility, especially irony, songs like “When I’m 64” and “Lovely Rita” are effective evocations of antique Music Hall style, while “Getting Better” and the melodramatic “She’s Leaving Home” make sympathetic use of antique emotion. Indeed, the corny, melodic sentimentalism of the Music Hall repertoire was a rich vein for the group, and they were never to abandon it.

A long list of later Beatles songs is drawn, directly or indirectly, from this tradition: “Martha, My Dear,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Penny Lane,” “All You Need Is Love,” “All Together Now,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Honey Pie,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Good Night,” and almost everything on the B side of Abbey Road, down to and including the inner-groove run-out, “Her Majesty.” While the Beatles continued to write and record rock songs such as “Revolution” and “Come Together,” and while they engaged in some entirely different musical experiments on the White Album, the influences that shaped their major, later output — most of the music for which they are best known — emerges from an antique pop style.

These two elements of the Beatles’ career — their development as narrators, and their exploitation of Music Hall content and style — lift the group’s music into a context of its own. It is these elements that are able to claim the attention of an audience that was born long after the group broke up. But what do either of these elements have to do with the mythology that the rock establishment embraces? Precious little. In the end, the rock world’s head was turned by music that was sweet, corny, artificial, and intensely sentimental. Rock has yet to come to grips with this.

The respectable middle class British citizens who inhabited those music halls would have understood the dismissive tone of Newsweek’s coverage of the Beatles when they arrived in the US in February of 1964 to play the Ed Sullivan Show, which in the post-Boomer world sounds like a news dispatch from another planet:

Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair.  Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody.  Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.”

After the above quote from Newsweek, Bryce Zadel of the Instant History website wrote, “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” No, not at all. I know from conversations with my father that this is absolutely what he thought when the Beatles first appeared on American radar screens, and proceeded to utterly destroy the midcentury culture of Crosby, Sinatra, Armstrong and Basie that he adored. Fortunately, even after their breakup in 1970s, The Beatles left such a powerful creative wake that artists as disparate as Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, The Who, and Led Zeppelin carried on the Beatles’ experimentation and willingness to destroy musical boundaries.

In sharp contradistinction today, it’s possible for a “musician” to make a very good living as a rap star grunting into a microphone accompanied by a drum machine; any additional accompaniment can be “sampled” from a recording from a previous era. The producers assembling the new recording probably think that the old music adds a layer of irony to their new effort, but in reality, the joke’s on them; it serves as a reminder of an era when musicians could still sit in the same room together, make music and learn from each other, all of which is increasingly a lost art. As Mark Steyn once wrote, “I think we can guess how Nat ‘King’ Cole would have felt about gangsta rap. Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than with Snoop Dogg.”

And if there’s no music made that advances popular culture, eventually that culture collapses — at least until something new comes along to revive it. It’s sort of like putting a reel of audio tape into a continuous loop — in theory it will play endlessly; in reality the contents will eventually degrade, wear out, and ultimately break.

At least that’s my theory as to why craftsmanship and taste seems to have vanished from today’s pop music. If you agree, leave your thoughts as to what happened in the comments.

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers and those tuning in from the PJ Media homepage; photo of first guitar added above.

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