Beyond the Fretboard: The Double-Edged Sword of Guitar Idols, Part 2
In Part 1 of this column, we discussed the transcendent ability of every "guitar idol" to inspire a new generation of musicians.
Inspiration is the lifeblood of creative energy, and these notable individuals have been — and still are — the most effective conduits for conveying that energy.
We also discussed the downsides of inspiration on a mass scale. Large amounts of young and ambitious guitar players have trouble defining themselves as individual musicians due to their all-encompassing devotion to a particular band or genre. There are multiple reasons for this, but the larger-than-life concept of a guitar idol and the high level of commercial saturation that come with it definitely play a role.
When I was nearing the end of the first part, I felt there were more drawbacks that needed to be addressed. These drawbacks have less to do with the audience than they do with the "idol" him- or herself.
Obviously, this perspective is coming from an outsider who has no experience being a "rock star" in the mainstream sense. But I am a lifelong musician who feels comfortable exploring any musical project that happens to interest me, regardless of style or genre. However, I wonder if the same would be true if I had to manage the expectations of millions of fans, in addition to satisfying the financial appetite of a large record label.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF HAVING A "SOUND"
Many of the greats have that unique quality to their playing that can be instantly discernible from others. Sometimes it's the way they vibrato a note or their particular phrasing style. This generates a powerful sense of familiarity with listeners, which is similar to recognizing a singer's voice.
But what does this mean for the originator of those sounds? Are they unknowingly constructing their own cage?
We all have those little nuances that are unique to us. But if we hear ourselves on enough recordings or have musically inclined (and honest) friends who can point out our repetitive moments, then we can make a conscious effort to reshape or even overhaul our playing.
But if you've built a successful career upon a certain style, then you might be encouraged to "play it safe" by those around you.
This could manifest itself in different forms. If you're known for your heavy distortion, then it might be risky to experiment with a "cleaner" tone. If you're playing style is synonymous with "tapping," you might not have much luck writing an album that is completely devoid of tapping licks.
LESS PRACTICE TIME
I've read in various interviews that practice time can be hard to find for high-profile touring musicians. When you're not playing on stage, you might have obligations involving all kinds of promotional press, which can surely chew up a big part of the day. Not to mention the constant traveling from city to city must take its toll.
If you're touring all over the world (as most big names do) you can be stuck on a plane for 10 or more hours at a time. That's 10 hours of potential practice time lost.
I'm sure people are reading this and thinking, "Well, that's the trade-off you have to accept for being a successful musician."
Since I'm not in that position, the only response I can muster is, "Fair enough." But this loss of practice time could definitely have a negative effect on your future creativity.
CAN THERE BE GUITAR IDOLS IN TODAY'S WORLD?
The current shape of the music industry hardly resembles the gargantuan cash cow of decades past. This reality highlights the question of whether we'll continue to have guitar idols in the future. Yes, there are those YouTube videos that go viral and produce a burst of temporary "internet fame" to some talented unknowns. But these moments are becoming more and more, well, momentary.
Today's viral video can be tomorrow's distant memory in a world where attention spans have become so narrow. In this new world, will there be successors to the "guitar god" throne who can carry on the tradition started by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen? I'm not sure.
If the answer does turn out to be "no," then what would be the silver lining to this new reality? (After all, there's no sense in living life like the glass is half empty.)
One possibility is that we could see an unprecedented level of musical diversity coming out of future guitar players. Tomorrow's aspiring musicians will almost certainly be influenced by 10, 20 or even 30 eclectic musicians from all different genres, instead of one or two of the big names. Even genre categories could receive quite the facelift and terms like "rock star" or 'guitar idol' might fade into the annals of history.
But, perhaps not. Humans are, above all else, social animals. We thrive on feeling connected with one another and engaging in emotionally transcendent activities like going to rock concerts.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the "guitar idol" (or "rock star") is perfectly suited to elicit this effect in large groups of people. For as long as we enjoy feeding off of this energy, I suspect there will be a place (and a need) for guitar idols in our uncertain future.
Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. They've recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and have released an album, A Tale of Two Worlds (available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify). Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project called Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons (in person or via Skype). For more information, visit BreenMusicLessons.com.