Guthrie Govan Takes His Six-String Fusion to New Heights with The Aristocrats' New Album, 'Culture Clash'
The world needs more guitar heroes like Guthrie Govan.
No mere notes-per-nanosecond noodler, Govan has musical tastes and a command of music history far more eclectic and adventurous than those of the average shred demon.
As a result, his playing is markedly more interesting than anything else in the current chops-guitar marketplace. Ample proof of this can be found on Culture Clash, his latest album with the Aristocrats, a polynational power trio that teams the British-born Govan with American bassist Bryan Beller (Steve Vai, Dream Theater, Dweezil Zappa) and German drummer Marco Minnemann (Paul Gilbert, Necrophagist, Mike Keneally).
Culture Clash is the second album by the all-instrumental Aristocrats, who take their name from an “inside” dirty joke among comedians (see the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats). Frank Zappa, a key Aristocrats influence, once asked, “Does humor belong in music?”
Govan, Beller and Minnemann would certainly answer in the affirmative. Rubber chickens and pigs constitute part of their stage gear and are immortalized on Culture Clash’s cartoon cover art. Even Govan’s look seems a bit tongue-in-cheek: the scraggly bearded, shaggy-maned guitarist is a dead ringer for Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, one of prog-rock’s more outlandish progenitors. In fact, he once met Anderson’s son at a Joe Satriani gig. “I couldn’t resist the temptation,” Govan recalls. “I just had to say to him, ‘I bet I’ve been told I look like your dad more often than you have.’ ”
Not that Govan’s grotty, early Seventies hippie vibe is deliberately cultivated. “My look is entirely a byproduct of not caring what I look like,” he says. And indeed, the Aristocrats are not going to win points on image. But then the level of their musicianship renders that somewhat unnecessary. The 41-year-old Govan strikes an ideal balance between classic “brown tone” guitar sensibilities and a 21st century extreme-guitar aesthetic.
His remarkably fluid playing effortlessly blends elements of fusion, prog, metal and even EDM with more traditional styles like blues, straight-ahead jazz and country chicken pickin’, often in the same song. Govan’s masterfully nuanced tone is generally much cleaner than what’s heard in the average chops guitar performance and serves to bring the blinding but nonchalant precision of his playing into sharper focus.
“We realized that we don’t have to adhere to any kind of genre,” Govan says of the Aristocrats’ musical modus operandi. “The sound of the band, if we have such a thing, doesn’t so much come from adhering to any particular style of music. It comes from the way we play together. So we wanted to be a little bolder and crazier in terms of the writing and scope of this new album. We wanted to make the extreme parts more extreme, so the violent stuff is more violent and the pretty stuff is more pretty.”
Govan’s eclectic musical outlook was hatched at an early age when he learned some guitar rudiments from his baby-boomer dad. “I had this wide-eyed fascination with all of music when I was three years old and learning to play my first Elvis Presley songs on guitar,” he says. “And something that I figured out a long time ago is that music is all around you. You don’t just have to learn guitar solos from your favorite records; you can learn jingles from the TV; you can learn the music that the ice cream man is playing. I’ve always tried to stay open to all the noises I hear around me.”
Adolescence marked a big transition for the guitarist in many ways. “When I was 13 or 14,” he recalls, “I started hanging out with kids at school who were older than me. I was always the guitar-playing misfit. I could never find anyone my own age who was at a comparable level or had a comparable amount of passion for playing, so I would always end up hanging out with the older kids.
And they took it upon themselves to corrupt me with heavy rock and metal. Prior to that I’d essentially been a blues-rock guy with some smatterings of country and jazz. But I didn’t know what a Floyd Rose was. I didn’t know what tapping was. And I didn’t really know what you could do with a pinched harmonic if you had enough gain on your amp, ’cause I’d never tried having that much gain.
“Suddenly I heard Yngwie Malmsteen. I heard Steve Vai. I think I heard Steve Vai before I heard Eddie Van Halen. How’s that for messed up? I heard lots of guys on Shrapnel Records. I heard Metallica, which of course mostly had an impact on me in the rhythmic department. I loved the kind of chuggy, monstrous tone those guys were getting.
"It was a time in my life when there was a huge ear-opening thing going on. And the players I really warmed to were Steve Vai, for his creativity and humor, and the fact that he made the vocabulary of the overdriven guitar so much bigger. And then Yngwie, who, to me, demonstrates that it is possible to have all these chops and play these outrageous fast things but still sound like you mean it. This may not be a popular viewpoint, but when I listen to Yngwie playing, there’s as much sincerity as there is when B.B. King is playing. He plays every note like it could be his last.”
Apart from some brief studies in violin, Govan has no formal musical training. He studied English, rather than music, during his one year at Oxford. But his remarkable natural ear for music made him an ace transcriptionist for the U.K.’s Guitar Techniques magazine and a much-sought-after clinician.
Govan’s 2006 solo album, Erotic Cakes, took its title from the name of a fictitious bakery in The Simpsons and featured a guest shot by Richie Kotzen, garnering praise and acclaim in the virtuoso-guitar community. Govan has played with several bands, most notably a latter-day incarnation of Asia and an ensemble led by kindred spirit and neo-prog/psychedelic singer guitarist Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame. But with the Aristocrats, he seems to have found his niche—for the moment, anyway.
GUITAR WORLD: Juxtaposition seems to be one of the Aristocrats’ key musical strategies—putting prog-rock stuff alongside blues, alongside jazzy chording and so on. Is that your view of the band’s brief?
I think the brief is to do whatever the hell we like and assume we can get away with it. And to try crazy things. All of us are the kind of players who can go to a trade show like NAMM and get mobbed by hundreds of people with demos CDs in a very specific style. We get a lot of fusion-shred guys saying, “Check this out,” and really, that’s not the stuff we listen to.
If you could be a fly on the wall inside the van when we’re driving from one venue to the next, exchanging iPods and comparing musical tastes, there’s really not much complicated fusion going on. There’s everything else. So it’s not just me. Everyone in the Aristocrats is interested in a broad canvas of music.