To Will The Abyss

Excerpted from Speed-Picking for the 21st Century Rock Guitarist



When I was in graduate school I wanted to explore an aspect of the social psychology of guitarists by exposing people to really absurd playing –– the kind of playing that really flew in the face of convention and really trounced on norms and sensibilities regarding taste and restraint. Boy, I got a lot of good data. The big takeaway was that guitar culture is profoundly conservative and even wildly reactionary to anything out of the ordinary. Few players, in other words, are truly artists –– art, at its core, is about taboo smashing and boundary transgressions. If a person was a true artist they would embrace chaos and the unconventional. Despite what conservatives think, the realm of culture is the realm of fluidity and experimentation. Instead, what I found was that the vast and overwhelming majority of guitarists are basically musical fascists. 

The musical fascist starts by trying to ignore the threatening thing. This is called fetishistic disavowal. It’s not really there. It’s just noise. They move on to dismissal –– it’s not good, you need to learn that less is more, etc. But it bothers them that you don’t care about their norms. Then they try to laugh it away. You become the object of jokes and ridicule. But this does not appease the fascist. Then they turn to rage and denunciation (you have become the village magician and scapegoat) and pretty soon a few of them cannot stand the idea that you just don’t care and that somebody has seemingly monopolized superhuman powers to defy conventions so they threaten to kill you. 

However, if you stay the course and go ‘through’ the hate good things might happen. But only if some authority figure comes along and sprinkles some fairy dust (conferred authority) upon you. And this brings us to one of the fundamental truths about all things moral, though it seems very counter-intuitive. 

As Gadamer said about Hegel’s philosophy: the good really is the bad. The idea is this: the good is merely the evil we choose to ignore.

If you’re aiming at being a ‘good’ guitarists then be prepared to be ignored like 99.99% of all guitar players. They want to be good and they play by the rules and obey the herd norms and get in line with convention. A few win the good boy or good girl lottery and become famous and a few of them even get wealthy for being normal and propping up the status quo. They function, socially, as the role model for good boys and girls: if you play by the rules you get rewarded. The trick is to be completely conventional while appearing to be cutting edge. Usually, this sheen of novelty is mediated by some product that you can buy, like some new pedal or effects processor. 

Of course, this system of obedience and mimesis means that a few are rewarded and the rest are stuck playing Mustang Sally at the local bar on Saturday night for peanuts and the warm glow of anonymity. The real trailblazers are players you never heard of or those that die prematurely in obscurity. Arthur Rhames: dead by age 32. Shawn Lane: dead by age 40. Mick Barr? Who’s Mick Barr. Is he dead or alive? Gatton was called the “greatest guitarist you never heard of” and he killed himself at age 49. Reid is unusual in that he played like a maniac but still achieved fame (and is still alive) by linking his style to Coltrane and Dolphy, etc. In other words, he was able to mobilize jazz-charisma to cover his cultural rock and metal sins. Buckethead? He might be both dead and alive. Who knows? He hit the big time with Guns and Roses, briefly, and then fell back into obscurity. Does anybody even know where he is these days? Earlier I mentioned Vinnie Vincent. This poor dude had a really interesting musical career before having the very back luck of becoming an employee of KISS and then attempting his own, terrible, metal career. Apparently, everything just fell apart for the guy who, at least on the surface of things, appears to want nothing more than recognition and money –– kind of an exaggerated version of most people I suppose. Check out this sad Rolling Stone magazine article on the rise and fall of Vincent

But dig, if you took his soloing prowess and placed it within something like a Praxis or Living Colour context, you’d have something amazing. 


In short, this is the long way of saying, if you’re interested in operating on the fringes of guitar and musical culture then be prepared for the animosity and turmoil of being hated and defending absurd positions. I said earlier that there could be some payoff if you persevered through the hate, and that may be true, but the rewards will be augmented by even greater quantities of hate and, therefore, may not what you had hoped for or immediately obvious until later, if at all. 

Honestly, look at the outcomes for all these cool players and you wouldn’t wish that on anyone you cared about. But, by all means, keep plugging along if you just can’t help yourself.