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Blue Collar's Guitar Gunslingers!
By Mick Polich - 08/18/2008 - 08:43 AM EDT

Guitar Gunslinger – yep, tried that….quite awhile ago as it seems….

Fun stuff – you darn kids have it SOOOOO easy with this “Guitar Hero” business!!!

Back in the day, guitar solos –ala the Clapton/Beck (JEFF Beck)/Van Halen School –were a thing of beauty, and everybody was trying to get on board in some fashion. But, to quote R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” after being asked by an incredulous young charge about ‘what it all means’, well it don’t mean SHEE –IT!!

Guitar Gunslingers – same meaning, as in folks that can play the bee-jeezus out of a guitar, any style, but in different eras. Dragonforce, Rainbow, Radiohead, or Bad Company – all the aforementioned have excellent guitarists who play different styles music common with the same thing: they’ve got a little gunslingin’ action going with the guitar! Bigger, louder, harder, faster – same specs, different eras again. It’s a fun term, but ultimately, one whose qualifications change as music styles and genres change. Can we honestly compare and say who’s better between Johnny Greenwood, Jimmy Bryant, or Brent Mason? All have different styles and abilities befitting different music. So again, to quote’ Mr. Natural’, it’s a moot point…..

There seem to be two polarized extremes at work with Guitar Gunslingerism: people who dig over-the-top virtuosity, and scrap-the-barrel, garage band punk tirades. As a listener, I go for both polar tips, and everything in between. As a player, I tried to reach the summit of the whole ‘80’s shred dynamic – didn’t work out for me in the long run, and that’s great in hindsight because I’ve branched myself into other musical genres while appreciating that eras Van Halens and Malmsteens. I was no more meant to be a metal dude back then, or a punk – hey, I’m me (to put a perky, self-esteem – building - you’re - o. k,- I’m - o. k, 1970’s spin on it…..). Guitar Gunslingers will be with us thru any musical style and decade, and as a teacher, there will always be a need to address the issue!

For myself, I started off with the usual rock heroes of my generation, and tried to emulate what they did in approach and manner for exploring and working at their instrument and the music. The blues-immersed-in-rock-trappings suited me quite nicely, so not only did I take in the Stones ala “Sticky Fingers” and “Let It Bleed”, but Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Robin Trower, Rory Gallagher, and Ed King from Lynyrd Skynyrd. The next wave of influences came via Van Halen, o’ course, with scores of other shred dudes to follow (King’s X and Joe Satriani were big faves then, too). All this guitar-centric stuff ran co-currently with all the other stuff I was diving headfirst into: punk, jazz, new wave, country, world, electronic and experimental, and film scores.

So, I got out of all this what I could – the thing was identity-thru-rock-star-and guitar-histrionics, no matter where the stage was, or how big it was, or wasn’t. Hey, this is your teens and twenties – rare was the musical entity who looked beyond the sheen and shallow nature of attracting a mass following, then bending them to your will – come on, peeps!!

I did practice one summer for a brief time period for 8 to 10 hours per day (that is, until my old man told me to get out and get a summer job before school went back in session) – this was the thing of legend that the Gods O’ Rawk did: hole yourself away with your instrument, and don’t reappear until you got BETTER!!!

In reference to today’s youth learning the guitar: you have all the best available resources at hand. Try Googling “Van Halen licks” on You Tube, and see what pops up – it’s freaking amazing, kats. When I first started playing guitar, music publishers still had PIANISTS transcribing GUITAR music – are you kidding me? Now, we’ve got TABS, and darn accurate at that. “Guitar Hero”? A fun, interactive game, but time to graduate up to the real thing, and see how it feels to bend some strings thru a sonically alive, growling Marshall half stack!!!

Time and the passing of the moons seemed to have tempered and deepened my reasons, emotional and spiritual, for playing the guitar and music (although the 15 year old that wants to burn like a little mo’ fo’ still lurks in the small, rural bedroom of my mind….).

So where did all this guitar-ism stuff get me? Well, a deeper appreciation for lesser known, and heralded music – thru the early explorations of  Clapton, Page, Hendrix, and the rest of that crew, I’ve grown a fond, at times semi-fanatic blues tree that I shake on occasion. Chicago electric, old hill country, Texas boogie and swing – the blues is the root that can be traced back to our origins in Africa and the Middle East.

Lemme see –Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, Rory Gallagher, Pat Travers, Frank Marino - a pretty hefty list (and that’s just in the 1970’s!!). 

Van Halen loomed large in my musical rock guitar life after my best buddy/killer guitarist John Salak dropped the needle on “Van Halen 1” that Saturday afternoon in 1977. “Man, you’ve got to check THIS out,” exclaimed Misser Salak –truly revolutionary; nobody was CLOSE to doing these types of guitar aerobatics, sound, power, and musical literacy. Eddie was the guitar hero to set the template for the 1980’s, and beyond. Mid 1980’s, my band, Salmon Dave, was playing one of many 4-nighters at Stuart Anderson’s Cattle Company restaurant north of Des Moines. I was working, as most of us were, for a local music store, Rieman Music, and making the most money I’d ever made, at that point in life (which was pretty good jing for a young man in his 20’s). I was operating on very little sleep, but hey, you’re young, excess to burn, might as well work, work, work, and have some fun, Homers! Thusly, I was, and to get myself pumped each night for the gig, Van Halen’s “1984” was the soundtrack. I didn’t really fully appreciate Eddie’s guitar prowess, of course, until down the road, but man, what chops. Listen to the solo and chord break during the middle of “House Of Pain”, or the solo at the end of “Drop Dead Legs”. What kinda craziness was THAT??!!

Say what you will, but there is a certain technical awareness, even prowess to any music ( yes, even emo and punk). Consider: I had stated in the ‘guitar interview’ article with Dave Powell that early on, I didn’t really consider Neil Young or Keith Richards that adept at anything technical on guitar. Well, what kind of a world would it be without Neil’s classic one-note solo in “Cinnamon Girl” or Keith bringing heavily amplified open tunings on the guitar to the Stones? Two vital pieces of rock history – of course, it only matters if you’re into the music. Personally, I dropped a lot of snobbery along time ago to open up a few new worlds for myself – glad I did, because my vistas were expanded greatly!

I’m sure a lot of folks from my generation (and earlier) will argue the point on who’s a ‘guitar god’ and who’s not. We can start as early on as country-blues giant Charley Patton, to gypsy legend Django Reinhart, and head into today. Many say the genre is dead, there are no ‘guitar legends’ today (wrong!). Ask any 12 - year old who his favorite axe person is, or any 18 –35 year old. Mark Tremoni from Creed means a lot to some, as does Tommy Emmanuel (and both have signature guitar models, which says something if only the fact that they are widely recognized as players). The main point is: who are the people that raise your ears and eyebrows when it comes to guitar playing?

I keep one ear on the ‘old guys’, and one ear out for the new. Given our media-saavy, tech-driven, tech-everywhere age, it’s amazing to hear, and try to suss thru, all the talent (and lack thereof) out there in the world. O.k., I’ll tote one of my own: go to My Space and check out a kid named Bobby Withers. Back when we lived in Westerville, Ohio, Bobby took music lessons from me for quite awhile. I remember his first guitar competition at a local music store in Columbus – boy, I can tell you that the youngster has come MILES from that day. The kid plays like he’s burning up with music! Not only does he wear all his classic rock influences on his sleeve, he’ll throw in some new ones. Currently, Bobby is going to Ohio University in Athens, writing and recording a ton of music. You can’t deny his talent once you’ve heard him – the boy’s got it!

Point is, every generation has guitar heroes, really. Back in the day, having Johnny Thunders, Joey Ramone, or Sid Vicious as a ‘musical role model’ was considered bordering on ridiculous by mainstream rockers or metalheads. Now, especially in metal circles, it’s considered a badge of honor to wear your punk influences on your sleeve (wear a Misfits t-shirt, anyone?). Race or genre doesn’t matter any more, nor should it, in picking up influences ( Jimi Hendrix thru Vernon Reid, Santana thru P.O.D. thru Los Lonely Boys). The main thing is that we have heroes that are keeping the flame lit for the music we all love!

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