Pick up a random stack of recent guitar mags and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the 60s. Or 70s. Or 80s. The players of yesteryear are still very much at the forefront of guitarists’ minds today, and for good reason: these are the dudes who helped to make rock what it is today, and they still sell magazines. Where would we be without Jimmy Page? Jimi Hendrix? Eddie Van Halen? Dimebag Darrell? John Petrucci? But more importantly, why are there so few new guitar heroes?
Well, to be honest, I’m not really sure. It’s not that there are no good players any more. Just look at bands like Animals As Leaders and Periphery to hear some killer modern guitar playing. And bands like Karnivool are doing some very cool things that build on the past but take it into the future. Yet if you scan the ‘Signature Models’ section of any guitar brand’s website, you’re going to see many more old names than new ones. Steve Vai. Eric Clapton. Dave Mustaine. Kirk Hammett. Billy Gibbons. Alex Lifeson. Jeff Beck. Leslie West. Dig a bit further and you’ll find a Synyster Gates or an Alexi Laiho, but even those dudes have been around for a while now. So why aren’t more new guitarists really capturing the imagination of the guitar-playing public? And why is it that those who do are typically of the metal persuasion?
I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that, but I certainly have a theory as to how it applies to my own back yard here in Australia. I’ve noticed a clear difference between interviewing an American guitarist compared to an Aussie guitarist. Ask the American to talk about their playing or their gear and they will go into great detail about every little thing. What they did on this fill. Where they set the pickup selector switch for this solo. What the ideal strap length is for playing a Gsus4. Ask them why they started playing, and they’ll reel off a list of influences and inspirations as long as the aforementioned guitar strap.
Ask an Aussie and they’ll usually say “I dunno. I don’t really like the guitar that much … I just play it, y’know?”
Now, it’s hard to tell if they actually mean this or not. Australia is notorious for ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome,’ a social phenomenon where those who get really good at something, who draw attention to themselves via their achievements, are likely to be cut down. This is a country where, when I was growing up, a popular insult was “What, do you think you’re special or something?” so it’s not surprising that an Aussie guitarist might downplay their response to guitar questions. They don’t want to be seen as big-noting themselves in case they come off sounding like they think they’re better than everyone else.
But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with aspiring to be better than the dude next to you at the guitar store? Where’s the shame in putting in the hours to be able to do something that not many other people can do? And most importantly, who’s going to carry the flame for the spirit of achievement when the last of the old guitar heroes are gone? One thing the old-school guitar heroes are particularly good at is making you feel like you’re a part of something simply by being into their music. When you learned a Dimebag Darrell riff, you felt like you were tapping into a little of his energy. Ditto for Hendrix. Ditto for Eddie Van Halen. All of these guys had that balance of attainability and unattainability. You could play their licks and try to dial in their tone, but you could never quite nail it. Didn’t matter. It still inspired you to keep playing. But so many bands now are lacking a distinctive guitar voice, and perhaps even more importantly they’re lacking guitarists who are unashamed in talking about their love for the instrument, and who express that through their musical individuality. For every Misha Mansoor who loves to talk gear and to promote the joys of putting in hours, days, years of hard work, there are a hundred Random-Indie-Band-Guys who don’t offer anything particularly new or unique. (I’m not anti-indie, by the way – for example, I’m a big fan of The Clientele, whose Alasdair MacLean has a very distinctive fingerpicking style). But it’s those indie guys that we really need to push the glory of the guitar. The kids who are going to be into shred are going to be into it anyway, and its associated gear-lust. But there isn’t really much going on in the mainstream and indie scenes to promote guitar education, to promote gear, to promote individuality, to promote innovation and experimentation. There are a lot of dudes strumming Jazzmasters though. On the fringes there are some very talented players experimenting with loopers and synth pedals and the like, but they seem to do so almost apologetically. Indie can have guitar heroes too. So step up! I would love to see as many magazine covers and signature guitar models for indie players that I see for classic rock and metal ones. I’m certainly not blaming indie for the lack of guitar heroes but it’s a genre that feels underrepresented. So bring it on!