Yes, the title of this blog post sounds audacious – but hear me out…
First, let’s take a step back and define what a “musician” actually is. In my mind, a musician is someone who creates art through music.
Now, let’s take a further step back and define what “art” is. In my mind, art is anything that moves you on an emotional level; it can make you happy, sad, angry, horny, whatever.
Whenever I hear a shredder guitarist widdling away, I’m initially impressed by his or her technical wizardry for about 60 seconds and then my mind just goes into a brain freeze thereafter. You ever try drinking a 7-Eleven Slurpee too fast? That’s the feeling I get whenever I’m forced to hear guitar wanking for an extended period of time. I’m not moved by that sort of guitar playing whatsoever. And I’m not alone, as I’ll explain further.
The very best musicians have the ability to move a wide audience of listeners on an emotional level through their music. Shredders (for the most part) are unable to do this. Here’s a visual representation of what I’m talking about:
The above photo is a snapshot from the Generation Axe tour which featured some of the greatest guitar shredders ever. Now, compare the size of that audience with that in the snapshot below:
The above photo is a snapshot of Slash in concert (either with his own band or with Guns and Roses, I’m not quite sure). A lot of the shredder guitarists consider Slash to be an “average” or “slightly above average” player. So it doesn’t make any sense that Slash would have a much larger audience than the technically superior shredder guitarists, right?
Well actually it does make sense when you apply my preceding analysis that distinguishes a “technician” from “musician”. The former is technically impressive, but his or her audience is usually limited to other technicians who have the aural stamina to listen to extended guitar wankery (i.e., other guitar shredders).
On the other hand, the latter has a playing style that “speaks” to a broad swath of people – both musicians and non-musicians, even if he or she might not have the “chops” of the shredders. Think of Slash or Jimmy Page, both of whom shredders often denigrate as overrated or sloppy.
This ability to “speak” through their playing is why Slash and Jimmy Page are so highly regarded as guitarists by the general public (not just a tiny subset of guitarists). In contrast the average person on the street probably doesn’t even have a clue who Nuno Bettencourt or Tobin Abasi is. The acclaim (and attendant monetary rewards) that “average” guitarists like Slash and Jimmy Page receive in contrast to the lack of awareness of shredders in the general public is a result of the Wisdom of Crowds – “the Crowds” sense on an instinctive level that players like Slash and Jimmy Page are musicians in the truest sense (because the Crowds are moved by these players’ music), whereas the shredders most definitely are not.
So here’s the Million Dollar Question: why is the playing of “average” guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Slash so popular among the general public? My hypothesis: the playing of these guitarists is rooted in blues music and hence, their playing has more depth and substance than that of the shredders who for the most part, shun playing blues music because they deem it “too simple”. For the most part, shredders focus on modes, scales, precision and speed – the more complicated and difficult to play, the better.
So if you’re a budding future guitar hero just starting out, my advice to you is to listen to some great blues (or blues-influenced) players and master your vibrato and blues licks before jumping right into modes, sweep picking and arpeggios. Listen to players like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton (Cream era), Paul Kossoff (Free), Leslie West (Mountain) and Johnny Winter. Listening to and learning from these players will teach you to “speak” with your guitar and move your audience in such a way that shredding will never be able to do.