Hip Hop Guitar God?
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
In the last blog, The Decline Of The Guitar God, I talked about the precipitous drop in my teaching schedule following the market crash of 2008.
I stated my opinion that this was not due to the crash, but primarily due to the way Pop music evolved post-80's. By 2008 there were no guitar gods in Pop music. There were a few pop gods who played guitar (e.g. Prince) but that's different. Popular music was guitar-centric from the mid-50's through the 80's. Starting with the ascendancy of Grunge music via Nirvana in 1991 (which was still guitar-centric), the guitar became increasingly marginalized. This reduced the interest in, and the demand for, guitar lessons. The rise of the internet and online guitar lessons was also a significant factor. All this was a cumulative trend over the course of 15 years from which I was mostly insulated due to my massive student roster plus the store at which I was teaching during those years - it was the biggest guitar store in town. The crash was merely the last little straw that broke the camel's back of my 80-students-a-week load.
I spoke of trying to compensate by spending thousands of dollars running radio ad campaigns, print ads and internet radio ads. I said,
The short story is nothing worked - and I mean nothing. As far as I could tell, I didn't obtain a single student from any of it.
However, one of the things that happens when you step out and take risks like that is what I call, "unforeseen collateral benefits."
Initially I thought, "Well, I just flushed thousands of dollars down the toilet."
But it turns out the money wasn't wasted. I mean, at the very least, I learned that radio ads for guitar lessons don't work. And that knowledge is worth something. But really, I made all the money back - and more - in ways I hadn't anticipated; unforeseen collateral benefits. And sometimes those unforeseen collateral benefits can take years to unfold. Furthermore, unforeseen collateral benefits aren't always about money.
The whole thing started when one day, out of the blue, a radio ad salesman cold-called me. He had been doing some research and kept running into my online stuff - my Craigslist ads, social media activity, gig promotion and my website, MasterGuitar.com. I had not yet built MasterGuitarSchool.com and had no clue about the guitar lessons online marketing and promotion in which I would get involved in the near future. That story I wrote about in The Fun Has Not Yet Gone Away.
Anyway, as fate would have it, I had been thinking about trying radio ads so the timing was synchronistic. I told him I was interested.
The first thing that happened was, during a business lunch meeting, the radio ad salesman told me about selling some ads to a new guitar store downtown that had opened about 6 months before. He asked me if I knew of it and I hadn't. I immediately perked up because I had a couple of open days in my teaching schedule. I went down to check it out. They didn't have room for teaching studio space but it was a cool little store and they agreed to refer students to me. To make it easy for them I would drop by every month and leave a pile of flyers for them to hand out to prospective students - marketing, old-school. I got a few students from them but the real benefit was the nurturing of the relationship with the owners - a husband and wife team that were good folks.
I'm not going to go into the long story here because it's beside the point. The short story is, they moved, put in teaching studios, called me, and I taught a couple of days a week there for several years. When they closed for good, most of my students there followed me to my home studio. I'm still reaping the unforeseen collateral benefits from my "wasted" money on the radio ads. Remember, it was the radio ad salesman that told me about the store.
More to the point of this blog, another thing that happened was one of the radio stations I ran ads on was the number one FM rock station in the local market at the time. The number one DJ at that station produced the ads. He took a few guitar lessons from me as well.
Unbeknownst to me this DJ, known as Steve O, was also a Dubstep producer. In 2012, about a year after my failed radio ad campaign, Steve O called. He wanted me to come into the studio and put some guitar tracks down on a couple of his Dubstep remixes. I had no idea what Dubstep was; I'd never heard of it. But I'm always up for something new, especially with younger guys. We did 2 or 3 sessions. When one of my 15-year-old female guitar students found out I was working with Steve O she and her bestie just about creamed their jeans. "OMG! We listen to him all the time!" For an old guy, my hip-quotient went way up! I should have raised my lesson prices.
"I guess Steve O is somebody," I thought. I should have known - he was the number one DJ on the number one station! But I hadn't listened to the radio for years so I didn't know.
Dubstep is a completely computer-driven dance music, there are no real instruments being played; it's all sampled sounds. Steve O wanted to record a real guitar being played in order to add a more organic sound to his remixes. I didn't have a concept for what Dubstep was. My motivation was to learn something from someone who was plugged into a genre of Pop music that I had no knowledge of. And who knows where it might lead?
My concept of a recording session is you go in and if there are no charts, you figure out what key the song is in, what the chord changes are and what kind of parts the producer or artist wants. You come up with those parts as quickly as possible and you record them perfectly with no mistakes as quickly as possible - 1st or 2nd take is the goal. Anything more and you may not get the call next time. Everything is done under the gun and the studio clock is running at $100 an hour, give-or-take, plus what the musicians are being paid. Every time you have to do another take you're costing the client more money. It's a high-pressure, stressful environment but it can also be euphorically creative; it's not unusual to come out exhausted from several hours of total, intense concentration. If you have a lot of experience you get used to it and the challenge of it can be fun.
So with that paradigm in mind the first thing I did was ask Steve O the key of the song - he couldn't tell me so I figured it out. Furthermore, he didn't seem to care. I spent a few seconds finding the chords (there were three) - he didn't care about that either. When coaching me on parts, he didn't talk to me in terms of music, he talked in terms of timbre and the sonic spectrum - what register, what frequency range and so on. After a while I realized he wasn't asking for parts, he was asking for sounds he could add to his library of samples. He wanted colors for his palette, not parts for his songs. I did my best to give him what he wanted. It was easy; I didn't have to come up with parts, therefore there were no mistakes. Ok...I came up with parts, I couldn't help myself! I'm old school. He actually used some of those parts, or pieces of parts; there was a lot of sound processing and copy-and-pasting when he mixed it later - I had recorded direct into the board for obvious reasons; it gave him more options in the mixing and production process.
We finished to his satisfaction and I walked out of the studio after 30 or 40 minutes feeling like I hadn't even been in a recording session.
A week later he sent me some of the remixes. This example is a little long in my opinion but what the hell do I know? Pay attention to where the guitar comes in at 0:59. Also, the breakdown at 1:59 - those are guitar chords - Gadd9(no 3rd) to Ebadd9(no 3rd).
Fatboy Slim Remix:
Before you start dissing this music allow me to address some assumed criticisms from my peers; Jazz, Blues and Rock musicians who are more-or-less my generation, i.e. cranky old bastards:
First of all, as I've stated elsewhere, genre is secondary to me. I will play any genre - and like it - if I'm playing a guitar. The love of the instrument is the primary thing for me, genre is secondary. There's a difference between liking a song and liking playing a song. I play songs I don't like all the time - and I like playing them.
Secondly, whether you or I like it or not is beside the point I'm making. The fact of the matter is a lot of people like it. And in order for something to qualify as Pop music, a lot of people have to like it - by definition.
Thirdly, consider the environment from which this music sprang; ecstasy-fueled raves in underground London dance clubs.
Remember some of the psychedelic noise you used to listen to back in the sixties when you were trippin' your brains out? And you called it music? Be careful with your criticism, you might sound like your dad.
But Jay, there's only 3 chords! True. So? There's only 3 chords in countless thousands upon thousands of Blues, Folk, Rock and Country songs. I could name several hit songs off the top of my head that consist of ONE chord.
But Jay, it's all a computer, it's not music, it's a machine! Yeah - just like most Pop hits today, right? The biggest names in Pop put on concerts where nothing is live, it's all lip-synced dancing to computerized tracks. As a matter of fact, if you do any research you'll find that Dubstep has significantly influenced current pop music and culture.
Consider this question: What is music? If you give the traditional answer of rhythm, melody and harmony, you are eliminating significant genres in which one or more of these elements are missing. Nevertheless, this track has all three elements.
When Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire while it was still plugged in and turned on - was that music? When he used controlled feedback in songs - was that music? When Ginger Baker recited "Pressed Rat and Warthog" over chords and rhythm (no melody) - was that music? When John Cage performed "Piece for Prepared Piano" wherein paper clips are attached to all the piano strings - is that music? Is a drum circle music? Is a kid banging on a trashcan lid music?
Avant-Garde &/or Experimental musicians would argue that music is simply "consciously organized sound." By that definition Dubstep is music - it is organized sound; consciously organized by a human. The computer is the instrument - like a guitar or a piano. I've heard Keith Richards refer to his guitar as an "amazing machine."
Be all that as it may, the issue of whether something is "music" or not is irrelevant to me. Yeah, I dearly love melody, rhythm and harmony. I also love to create a psychedelic wall of noise. If I'm playing a guitar it's all music to me.
Now, getting back to "Fatboy Slim Remix."
The first guitar part, introduced at 0:59, is a typical funk/disco guitar part. It fits what's going on but there's a million songs that have guitar parts like that. The place I like it best is the breakdown at 3:39 where it's more exposed.
The add9 chords introduced at 1:59 are more interesting. I came up with those chords but, among other things, Steve O added a volume swell to each chord. It sounds to me like Frippertronics. I talked a little bit about Frippertronics, and my interest in it, in a previous blog, Loop-De-Loop. I would be interested in knowing if Steve O knows about Frippertronics; it was pretty obscure stuff that found it's way very subtly into the background of some Pop hits in the eighties. It wouldn't surprise me if he did; he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of popular and not so popular music over the last 50 or 60 years.
Since the sessions with Steve O, I have done many sessions with Rap/Hip Hop and other electronica-genre producers/artists who want the same thing; real guitar sounds. It's been kind of surreal for me; an old white guitarist like me hired by young, usually black Hip Hop producers who want what I can do. It's a beautiful thing. BTW - many of these "studios" are in basements and garages, and they pay in cash - which is also a beautiful thing.
It seems to me that this has potential for the reintroduction of the guitar god into pop music; some kind of hip hop/guitar god hybrid that I talked about in my previous blog.
I was talking (texting that is) with a former student of mine, Dan Weller. Dan plays with Florida Georgia Line. That's one of the top modern Country acts I spoke of in the previous blog that has collaborated with Rap artists. When I told Dan that I'd been doing sessions with young Hip Hop producers he said,
"Makes perfect sense - Hip Hop is pulling strongly from the R&B vibes of the '70's. Heavy funk/jazz chords/rhythms."
He's in a much better position than me to know, but my experience says that this is true. BTW - I didn't teach Dan how to get a gig in one of the biggest acts of the genre, he did that without any help from me; I just showed him some guitar stuff.
So if I was collaborating with a Hip Hop or Dubstep artist like Steve O - that's collaborating and not just being a hired gun guitarist giving him colors for his palette - what I would want to bring to the table is harmonic depth.
More chords - actual chord progressions - that go somewhere. Extended chords, altered chords etc. I would probably have to help program the bass lines and keyboard parts to accommodate the more complex harmony.
Right now, harmonically sophisticated Dubstep doesn't exist as far as I know - but it could. And it would be just as danceable for the raved-up crowd on the dance floor because I wouldn't change the rhythm or the drum parts or the overall production.
If I had the opportunity to push the envelope farther, I would put a guitar solo somewhere - a really screaming, quirky, rocked out whammy-barred guitar solo - think Steve Vai.
A computer is not capable of producing a sound like a real guitar player playing a real guitar solo - that's why Steve O wanted me. The Dubstep producer would keep and manipulate the sampled vocal ("Fatboy Slim is in da house!") like he normally would. It would still be Dubstep - just a more grown-up Dubstep. Aaaanndd.......
A guitar god would be in the mix!
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