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Stop Playing The Guitar

By Pee Air

"It's cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize that I hate the sound of guitars."

Fugazi, "Target"

There comes a time in every music-obsessed person's life when he or she realizes that he or she "hates the sound of guitars." Whether this means an actual distaste for the sound of six-stringed instruments is beside the point. The deeper significance behind this stage of development is reaching a point of no return and refusing to buy into the prefab world of radio-rock. It is also the moment when a person says, "I want to hear someone do something that I can't do myself."

Almost everyone has a guitar in the closet. It's right next to the stamp collection or the broken fishing pole. It usually happens in college if it hasn't before then. You decide you should be playing the guitar, expressing yourself, putting all that poetry to music, because the guitar is the easiest instrument in the world to play badly. That's why the guitar is such a good symbol of the music industry, which is basically a lottery system. Major labels sign hundreds of bands per year in hopes that one or two will hit it big and fund their enterprise and then they discard the other artists after wasting years of their lives.

The same can be said of playing the guitar badly. Learn an instrument halfway in the hope that you'll get lucky and impress people instead of putting in the time and energy to learn an important, useful skill like architecture or beekeeping. Imagine how beautiful our world would be if all of those bad guitar players had put their frustrated energy into building really original schools or malls or apartment complexes. Instead, we have a glut of soul-deadening guitar music.

At this point, I have to admit that I'm a guitar player, but I started out playing the trumpet at a very young age and learned it pretty well before picking up the Idiot's Hammer. And now I play music that allows me to play the guitar like a piano or a clarinet, not like a quarterback. What the fuck am I talking about? Listen:

Most of the guitar music out there essentially uses the guitar as a percussion instrument. By recycling the same tired chord progressions over and over and relying on studio tricks to get a really thick, layered, important sounding guitar texture, you effectively remove the need for human expression in the guitar.

I recently acquired the "American Folk Music Anthology" put out by Harry Smith on Folkways in 1952. On these recordings, most of which were made between 1927 and 1930, the guitar is a living appendage of the singer. You can feel the heart beating in the strings. There is no separation between the instrument and the player. It doesn't matter what instrument they are playing. In some instances, they are playing banjos or panpipes, but the effect is the same. They are communicating the contents of their soul. Harry Smith was a punk. He knew that music was supposed to be weird and personal and make you a little uncomfortable. He released this anthology of songs that completely changed the face of American music and ushered in the folk movement of the 50's and 60's which basically paved the way for rock and roll. How did we get from Furry Lewis singing "Kasey Jones" in 1928 to The Offspring or Slipknot?

Anyway, I'm going to quickly skim over the next 30 or 40 years of rock history. There was Leadbelly, there was Little Richard, then Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Jane's Addiction and Nirvana. They and many others were the royal succession of penis guitar bands. And now there is Korn and Kid Rock. However, a lot of people, even those of us who loved the whole penis guitar movement, are beginning to realize that we "hate the sound of guitars." It's not just the whole macho convergence of the music industry with the porn industry; it's the actual sound of guitars. The way they are recorded and played. They sound like George W. Bush. They are loud and clear but deep down I know they're lying to me.

I have to make two categories of music. There is Guitar Rock (GR), which can be made with or without guitars, and Non-guitar Rock (NGR), which can also be made with or without guitars. What? Here's how it works; In GR, we find bands like the Foo Fighters, the MC5 and Soundgarden. These bands are not necessarily bad, they just really celebrate the hugeness of the guitar, the loudness of expression. These penis guitar bands can also be made up of women, as in the case of L7 or Hole, for example, who are way more macho than most guys I know. In NGR, we find bands like Belle and Sebastian, Fugazi and Tortoise; people like Willie Nelson, Nick Drake and Donovan. Now it just so happens that all of these people play actual guitars in their music, but somehow they communicate the contents of their soul in such a way that the instrument doesn't matter. They could be playing panpipes or banjos, they could be yodeling - you would still get the message.

Ricky Martin is GR. He uses his voice the same way that Limp Bizkit uses a guitar - to shut out all other sounds, to monopolize your attention span. AC/DC is a GR band that I love, along with Iggy Pop and Black Sabbath. Frank Sinatra is GR because it's all about his voice - the songs don't really matter and he didn't write most of them anyway. NGR bands generally rely more on the songs than the sounds. The Beatles, Pinback, Camper Van Beethoven, Blonde Redhead, Momus, Looper, the Minutemen, Quasi, Can, Ween, Calexico, and Kruder and Dorfmeister are all NGR. They express emotion and thought through sound in a way that transcends the medium.

This is just my opinion. Everyone should have a personal GR/NGR list. The point of it all is to persuade a few people out there to not play the guitar. Play another instrument or, better yet, learn to cook or speak Croatian or something. Then go back and listen to all of the great music already out there and wonder what it would sound like without guitars.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008