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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Guitar Players are a Dime-A-Dozen

The guitar is a whorish instrument. It can make you think you're better than you are; "Oooh baby! You are GOOD! You're the best I've ever had! Listen to those power chords! What a sound!"

Everybody and his brother play guitar. All the time I get, "Yeah, I used to play in a band. Can I sit in?"

You know what? It's mostly true. The world is full of guitar players who reside along a continuum of adequacy. Many are good enough. Some are better than others; most are not very good, but there is a rudimentary level of being able to play some cowboy chords, power chords and minor pentatonic licks. Their time might suck, their technique is bad and they don't know when to stop. When soloing or improvising, they are not aware of song form or have any knowledge of theory, they just noodle around with a scale. But they can play a song or two by rote, more-or-less. Boom! Guitar player.

As a teenager in the late '60's I was in my formative stage as a performing guitarist. As a child and preteen I sang and played ukulele. I got my first guitar at 11, and the singing and playing with the ukulele carried over from the uke to the guitar.

When I hit puberty, my voice changed, I lost control and became self-conscious about my singing and so quit singing.

I was obsessed with guitar players like Jimi Hendrix; I listened to Cream incessantly, especially the live stuff. I liked Mountain (Leslie West) and Grand Funk Railroad. The fact that the guitar players sang, or in Hendrix's case, kind of sang, was irrelevant to me. Bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Steppenwolf and others I was listening to and learning from had lead singers - the guitarists rarely sang, if ever.

I didn't care about singing, I didn't care about being a showman, I just wanted to play the guitar. With the exception of Hendrix and to a lesser extent, Jimmy Page, the guitarists I was interested in just stood there and played their asses off. Later in his short career, Jimi quit doing the show biz schtick - playing the guitar behind his head, playing with his teeth, setting his guitar on fire etc. and just stood there and played (think Band of Gypsys rather than Monterey '67). I liked that Jimi better.

Look at some of the extant footage of Cream playing live. Don't let the busy cinematography fool you. The cinematography is compensating for the fact that there's very little showmanship going on. I thought Clapton was way cooler than say, Pete Townsend. I didn't care about the leaps, the splits, the windmills, the whirling dervish, the angst or destroying your gear onstage at the end of the show - just play. Be good enough that the playing stands on its own. That was my attitude - and still is to a great degree.

I'm aware of the argument; the music of the Who stands on its own, the music of Hendrix stands on its own - if you add the show-biz crap how can that hurt? It makes it even more influential because it attracts those who listen with their eyes, thus massively increasing the audience.

All true. I don't care.

The first real band I was in had a lead singer so I didn't have to sing much at all. That was fine with me. He was a good singer/frontman and we were also good friends. Perfect. After a while we lost that singer; he volunteered for the Navy to avoid the jungles of Vietnam.

There were issues with the second singer; artistic differences as well as some personality clashes. After the departure of the second singer, I was disgusted enough to think that I should start singing lead and then we wouldn't have to worry about a lead singer. I used Cream, the later Hendrix and Mountain as my model.

It worked out ok I guess, but honestly? I didn't enjoy it that much. Being responsible for dealing with the crowd was intimidating and I certainly wasn't Mr. Sparkly Entertainment Guy - but then again, I reasoned, neither was Eric Clapton or Leslie West.

Besides the disgust with having to be dependent on prima donna, narcissistic lead singers (consider the cliché; neurotic, co-dependent conflict between the lead singer and the lead guitarist), there was a more important thing driving my motivation to sing.

At about 17 years old, after playing in a real band for a while (i.e. a band that actually played gigs), I had learned some lessons:

  1. In general, marketability is not correlated to how good a guitarist you are (see comments above on show biz crap). All you have to be is good enough. Success and popularity are the result of other things. As a matter of fact, in a general sense, it's an inverse ratio; the better you are (if that's all that you are), the smaller your market value. Pretty soon, I reasoned, you could get so good no one would want to hear you.

  2. The mediocre guitar player who sang would get the gig over the monstrous guitar player who didn't sing.

  3. Chicks dig singers.

I knew that my motivation was to be as good a guitar player as I could be. Eric Clapton's comment, "It is good to be good" resonated the moment I heard it. I knew that I was not motivated by fame or money. I also knew that to be as good as I could be, I had to gig all the time, and that merely being good was not a guarantee of employment.

The learning curve involved with my singing could be another blog or two. Suffice to say I have put in a lot of thought, time, experience and a little formal training over the years to up my singing game - though not as much (not even close) as I've devoted to my guitar skills.

I don't consider myself all that great a singer, but as I've grown as a vocalist I've learned to enjoy it more, which makes it better. I appreciate a good lyric and an interesting melody, but I lean on my guitar playing and the song itself rather than my singing prowess and showmanship. I still hook up with showy singers when possible but I'm not completely dependent on that.

I do pay some attention to image - clothes, hair, etc - but, you know, the older I get the more I'm like, "Let's face it; how good can I look?" The hair recedes, gravity takes its inevitable toll, scars, lines and wrinkles accumulate and I'm left thinking about how I can age and continue to do what I love with some dignity. I'm just trying to stay alive and continue to play; how I look becomes less important to me the older I get.

I've concentrated on genres that have the room for old guys - jazz, blues, singer/songwriter, etc.

I've backed up or opened for some old rock stars that I'm convinced still see themselves the way they were 40 years ago. They think they're still hot and nasty; the nasty's there but the hot's long gone - and so is any shred of dignity.

For me, it all comes down to the guitar playing. But because I sing, I get more work (about half the gigs I'm currently playing are solo singer/songwriter-type shows), which makes me a better guitarist, which is what I am really after. The fact that I am a good guitarist is just icing on the cake; the real deal-closer is that I can sing.

That's why I sing; it helps stack the deck in my favor when it comes to getting work.

Because guitar players are a dime-a-dozen.


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Chris Foster
Chris Foster

Jay, WONDERFUL article. You nailed so many points. Most people don't know the difference between a good guitar player and a great guitar player. Most people DO however know the difference between a good singer and a not so good singer. Those pipes are important to reaching a crowd and thankfully I too have put some focused energy into that realm. It does lead to more work than just my guitar playing or my hotness factor. I DO hear that gray hair looks hot on old guys so who knows maybe its time for my renaissance. LOL

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