In this article, I will try to talk about the most important guitarists who belong in the Rock genre, because of the sound, the technique and the general attitute towards music.
I already written about a few important Rock (Hard Rock) bands in my previous articles about Blues music’s evolution and influence, Garage Rock and its Punk connections, but I will possibly quote them again, because in my opinion Rock music timeline can be seen from different points of view: it’s not just a sequence of sub-genres, one after another, but it’s more like a huge hotel, where there’s always been space for many rooms, and the guests are different kind of people, with different taste…
Now, it’s been often said that Rock developed from Rock n Roll and its evolution in the 60s…I will take it from there and try to explain my views about Rock music.
First of all, it’s a genre that is got its basic instrumentation: powerful drums, strong vocals, pumping bass lines, sometimes keyboards, and…powerful guitars…
Rock music without guitars is difficult to imagine: one can say that Rock… is guitar.
Adding distortion to that guitar sound and changing the usual chord sequences of the song a little bit, (plus a tremolo effect ), the result is Rumble (1958), one of the first examples of a new approach to youth music. The name of this guitarist is Link Wray, and this song is considered very important for Rock history, as it had an incredible influence on Pete Townshend (The Who) , Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and many others.
His version of Batman’s Theme (mid 60s) is very powerful, as well…
So, one can see that youth music was changing, from happy, optimistic entertainment, to something more rebellious…
One of the first bands to play with this new style, with a rebel attitude and powerful riffs and chords were the British band “The Who”, with Pete Townshend playing the important role of guitarist (he was more into rhythm guitar than a soloist) . Listen to The Who Sell Out, an album full of psychedelic moods, optimistic melodies (sometimes reminding me of The Beatles) , powerful sounds (strumming the strings with raw energy, mostly)
one of the songs of this album (Tattoo) features arpeggios with interesting chords , which have in common the E string (the 1st ) and aren’t the same major or minor chords…
They developed a style that combined unusual melodies and chord changes, and had a powerful sound of guitar in most of their songs ( listen to the guitar sound of Baba o Riley, to have an example)
Their magic sound was created from the combination of a unique singer, who used to sing on amazing, atmospheric songs, influenced by blues, jazz, folk, psychedelia all mixed for an amazing experience. The song L.A. Woman, with its optimistic moods (the song is written in a major key), the simple rhythmic guitar, the textures made by the keyboards and that raw voice create an unique mix of “Californian sound” of the sixties…
One of their masterpiece, Light my fire, has got almost 3 different moments: the classical-oriented intro, the verses (that sounds like lounge music, to me) and the amazingly hypnotic solos, which were played with a modal jazz attitude, repeating two chords built in a Dorian scale, for an “infinite” time and space, where Manzarek and Kreiger play like time did not exist, giving the audience a sense of floating in other dimensions. This is very rare in rock music, so hats off to the Doors…they really don’t cease to amaze me…every time I listen- the soloing /phrasing style, here, is interesting because Krieger uses both pentatonic/blues scales, and dorian…
A part from their classic “Somebody to love”, that I consider a good song, but with no particular innovative elements (it’s got simple guitar chords sequence) , I would like to focus on White rabbit, which has got some nice melodies in Phrygian/Flamenco scale, in the intro of the song…
Their classic In a gadda de vida contains elements that can be considered “Heavy Metal”
(the guitar riff and the guitar sound)
Glam Rock’s typical artistic elements are the look and the attitude, the music style is Rock, played with heavy guitars, sometimes with orchestral arrangements like Children of the Revolution by T. Rex, or with more rock n roll influences like in School’s Out by Alice Cooper and Star by David Bowie. The glam years were pretty cool as an artistic revolution, and contribuited to the evolution of Rock music, that later influences musicians who became Heavy Metal stars (like Randy Rhoads, who was a big fan of Mick Ronson …I would talk more about David Bowie’s music, but, as for most of the artists featured in my articles, I try to extrapolate the most relevant guitar parts, that are important for the evolution and developing of the guitar as an instrument and modern music as an important part of society in general…so, instead of talking about the most famous songs (that you can search with google or youtube) I prefer the more interesting for the point of view of a guitarist – listen to this song, a gem in the Bowie universe Width of a circle– featuring Mixolydian-flavoured-psychedelic-influenced, lead guitars that create harmonies of thirds with the bass playing high notes…
Brian May is one of the most important guitarists in Rock History: his style is always elegant, precise, and his phrasing always have great melodies, often played with twin-guitar harmonies like in Killer Queen with the neoclassical “canon”pattern…or the intro notes of My fairy king. Other typical examples of May’s melodic style are the solos of Somebody to love , Bohemian Rhapsody, Spread your wings…and many others
Some guitar works are even more interesting, like in Mustapha, where he plays arabian scales (or, better, fragments of the so-called Phrygian Dominant scale, a mode derived from the Harmonic minor scale)
“Initially termed “progressive pop“, the style was an outgrowth of psychedelic bands who abandoned standard pop traditions in favour of instrumentation and compositional techniques more frequently associated with jazz, folk or classical music.” (Wikipedia)
I already talked about Jethro Tull, in my article about Folk (because they were largely influenced by this genre) but all their discography is worth listening to, especially Songs from the Wood, Aqualung (that is more Prog-oriented, with its oblique melodies and complex structure)- Thick as a Brick, once again, a very Folk and Celtic music-influenced example of good Prog Rock, and of course, the blues jazz-influenced Living in the past
To my opinion they were the best composers of the Prog scene, with songs taking from classical and symphonic influences, music from the XX century, rock, folk all mixed together. The guitar sound was distorted but not heavy, listen to this masterpiece
now listen to the medieval-influenced song Dancing with the moonlit knight where the guitarist Steve Hackett plays a series of chords in small arpeggios, and changes the atmosphere to hard rock in the second part of the song…
I also adore that typical early seventies relaxed and serene atmosphere- listen to another masterpiece I know what I like (in your wardrobe) with a sitar-like sound, making it more psychedelic oriented (the song was influenced by the Beatles)
But the album that I totally adore (sorry Peter Gabriel fans) is
A trick of the tail, full of dreamy atmospheres, ever changing tempos, daring guitar sounds and riffs- and wonderful songs that mix traditional folk music with classical (I have the suspect that this album influenced a lot the american Prog Metal band Dream Theater…)
HARD ROCK AND HEAVY METAL
1970 is an important year for music, we can easily say that Heavy Metal and Hard Rock were born in this year: Deep Purple released “Deep Purple in Rock” and Black Sabbath released their first album with the same name: Black Sabbath (1st album)
Both these albums are full of Heavy, acid sounds, made with distorted guitars, an aggressive attitude, that can be heard in all songs. Purple sounds very technical, and Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar playing is wild, made of acid solos using fuzzboxes, whammy bar and simple bluesy lines (in Speed King)- heavy guitar riffs and wild bendings (Bloodsucker) and playing one of the first neo-classical rock guitar solos in Child in time (the last part, after the pentatonic mess…)
Sabbath sound less technical, with Tony Iommi more of a blues guitarists with a penchant for Heavy guitar riffs (which he delivered in huge quantities…) It’s interesting how they doubled the main theme of A national acrobat, in thirds ‘ harmony- a style that Iron Maiden will use for their whole career.
Another song that I always loved for its “nocturnal”, dreamy moods and innovative concept, is Spiral Architect, a song from their album “Sabbat bloody Sabbath”
Listening to Planet Caravan, I’ve got the feeling that this obscure, psychedelic atmosphere influenced more than a teenager who, years later, began to play and become a Goth Rock artist…
The famous band of Simmons and Stanley used to play a seventies “Rock n Roll” (as they claim) with distorted guitars, typical of that era…songs built on simple chords changes-althought I question this is Rock n Roll- sometimes in a minor key, sometimes in major key. The structure of the song is basic : intro with a guitar riff, verses, chorus, guitar solo…
The style of Ace Frehley is simple, but effective for the genre: post-Jimmy Page phrasing, with pentatonic/blues licks, some bendings, some tapping (rare, but you can find it sometimes like for example, here: Shock me guitar solo.
My opinion on Kiss is that they began to play some heavy metal songs with the 2 albums Love Gun. and in the album Destroyer, with its powerful, epic opening “God of Thunder” .Destroyer is a collection of various moods: you have the happy/party rock tracks Shout it out loud, Flamin Youth and the beautiful ballad Beth .
After their disco rock success I was made for lovin you from the album: Dinasty, they began to think about being more commercial, I think…and align their product to the new, 80s audience, that was more into Heavy Metal…
the result is a good album: Creatures of the night, with faster tempos, more precise guitars, riffs and solos (recorded in studio by various guitarists, including Vinnie Vincent, who became Freheley’s substitute
About Vincent, I can only say that he was a good Metal guitarist, but too much technical for that band, often excessive and playing redundant solos in a totally different context.
One of my fave guitarists of the 80s, instead, is
Famous for being Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist in 2, amazing albums (Bark at the Moon and The Ultimate Sin). Precise, energetic, full of passion, somehow innovative, Jake created wonderful rhythmic patterns, riffs, melodic yet aggressive solos, often using flanger/chorus effects to create a liquid, spacey sound. Typical of all Ozzy’s guitarist, he was very, very melodic and all the parts were intelligently written, with no room for sloppy playing or redudant solos. As a matter of fact, Jake E. Lee was the natural substitute of Randy Rhoads: melodic, fast, precise, and more modern and with a heavier sound.
Now let’s talk about Randy: a guitarist who was able to play classical music and heavy metal with the same accuracy: one who is credited with being the missing link between Blackmore and Malmsteen, in the neo-classical hard rock style:if you listen to Mr Crowley (and you survive to Ozzy’s vocals) you will listen to 2 of the most beautiful neo classical rock guitar solos of…all times, in my view…solos that have everything: melody, precision, sense of musical direction (check the trills in harmonic minor scale, the triplets, the fast descending runs….everything)
I also suggest: Crazy Train to have a wider perception of his incredible style of playing, made of precise phrasing, amazing fills, riffs, harmonics, legatos, perfect timing with a relaxed, natural playing (there’s not a moment when you can say he play nervously)
Believer , for the lovers of a more “Gothic” sound with dark, obscure themes, oblique melodies and strange chord changes.
Diary of a madman for the lovers of Classical music (a little bit flamenco-like) with a darker side, turning into a crossover of Gothic and Metal
And now…ladies and gentleman…a man who doen’t need introductions, one of the most important guitarists in Rock history… Mr
Eddie Van Halen
He’s one of the musicians who changed both Rock history and Rock Guitar history
I could analyze his style in every aspect and detail, but I still would not be able to describe his unique sound, tone and emotional world…
His playing is always very original, he combines the “tapping” technique (that became world-famous thanks to him), legatos, fast runs, the most diverse rhythm guitar patterns, riffs, natural and artificial harmonics, noises, different kinds of picking (mostly he plays with the usual hard rock power, but he often inserts some “punk elements” (or better, rock n roll phrasings with a punk attitude)
If most of all don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to Ain’t talkin’ bout love– where you will find the diverse kind of rock styles: the picking is precise and powerful, in the riff and the verses, but it’s more loose when it comes to the solo (resembling the rockabilly style, but in a futuristic, spacey mood…) In the first album, his playing is pretty balanced -like in “Runnin with the devil ” and he doesnt overplay with guitar solos (a part from Eruption, which is a collection of fast licks, legatos, plus the stellar tapping section)
Their cover version of the Kinks’ You really got me is full on energy, high sounds made with artificial harmonics, fills played with legato technique, and the solo is, once again, a mix of futuristic rock n roll phrasing and ultra-modern style (in my view, Van Halen is still ultra modern, compared to the thousands of wannabes, nerds and clones of modern times)
New Wave of British Heavy Metal :
A musical movement that started in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and achieved international attention by the early 1980s. Most relevant bands are:
Steve Harris and Dave Murray started the band in the second half of the 70s, with the idea to make Heavy music, that was influenced by classic Hard Rock and a little bit by Prog Rock. The first album features some tracks, now considered classics, that reflect these influences: Running Free, for example, is a song built on three chords, played with an heavy sound, some intermezzos between the verses, played in harmony of thirds (a style that they will keep for almost all of their songs).
Phantom of the Opera is more complex, it opens with a single line melody theme, adding
an “ostinato”(sequence of a few notes repeated for x times) and a second theme in unison with the vocals of the first verses, followed by a sequence of chords. The song has got at least three moments and different tempos and grooves, there are some relevant guitar solos by Murray, and 2 final parts: the first with a theme made of triads in arpeggio, played fast , the second when the tempo slows down, and it’s made of another theme (in double harmony) and a guitar solo. This analysys is important, because it’s a model that Iron Maiden would keep for several songs of their albums.
Other relevant works are The number of the beast, featuring one of Murray’s best guitar solos, made of legatos, trills, vibratos and tremolo bar (the first solo) and a final solo by Adrian Smith (more pentatonic-oriented)
Another important song by this band is Powerslave-a song built on scales taken from the music of the middle east (it’s a Phrygian dominant scale, with a modified interval)
One the most important bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Their style changed from the 70s hard rock/bluesy sound of the early album “Rocka Rolla” which featured ballads with a mild psychedelic-folk atmosphere like Run of the Mill, or Dying to meet you…to a harder sound, in the 2nd and 3rd ablums- still influenced by glam rock pentatonic riffs but already fresh in some faster tempos and heavier, solid sound- like in The ripper, with occasional ballads like Dreamer Deceiver
Sin after sin is their 3rd album, full of elements of that new style that will develop all thru the eighties: fast tempos, screaming vocals, solid guitar riffs, guitar solos that ends up in noises, or sometimes Pop-oriented songs like the wonderful cover version of Joan Baez’s
By the late 70s, their style is even heavier, with faster tempos (listen to Stained Class, which features several good songs, some of them played with the famous “riding a horse” rhythm…)
Yngwie J Malmsteen
Very important for the history of Rock guitar, this swedish musician re-invented neo classical rock in the early 80s, combining hyper-techniques as fast sweep picking, alternate picking, dimished arpeggios, a lot of harmonic minor scale fast runs…and songs based on sequences of melodic themes taken from classical musical models (Vivaldi, Paganini, Bach…) Listen to his masterpiece Far Beyond the sun and you will find all the neoclassical typical licks-say no more…
Black Star opens with a classical guitar intro, and soon he begins to play licks in E minor key…the good thing is that he starts at a medium speed, to increase it as the song goes on
Odyssey is a good album, too (with Joe Lynn Turner on vocals) – featuring all the neo classical techniques and great songs as well.
Other guitarists that I like, in the 80s’ Heavy Metal/Hard Rock scene, are:
Vivian Campbell has got all that it takes to play Heavy Metal -a great sense
of melody, powerful riffs, energetic sounds, and he knows exactly what to play in
this scene (I’m talking about the Heavy Metal scene of the 80s)
Very good soloist, with sense of melody and punch – his phrasing is based mainly on pentatonic licks, minor scales, arpeggios, great themes in triplets. Listen to Fade to black, a song that has got both melodic and acoustic mood (in the first part) and powerful riffs and rhythm guitars that prepare the final, epic, guitar solo…
Metallica must like arpeggios in E minor – they’ve written several songs with them…Listen to another Metal Masterpiece, the dark, heavy…Welcome home (Sanitarium) and its hypnotic textures, with that arpeggio that last for most of the song, the power riffs in the chorus, the solos…(the song features one, melodic solo, plus another two solos in the last part, made of really fast alternate pickings and pentatonic scales with a style that resembles Dave Murray of Iron Maiden)
You can find both Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath’s influence in Orion-in the first theme, after the intro, and also in the style of solos when it comes to melodies- and also in the slow tempo part, in my view…really peculiar…all the song is soaked with Sabbath and 70s music , apart from the fast, 80s Metal parts.
Another song I always like, for its charming dark moods (to me, they resemble Diary Of A Madman a little bit,,,) is The Call of Chtulhu (or “Ktulu”…)
With Metallica, Heavy Metal begins to trasform into something of epic proportion (musically, but also the band success) and the music takes the listeners to worlds of primitive chaos, otherworldly sounds, a sensory equivalent of alien wars…