#27- on guitars

On my mind lately: how the number of guitars in a band affects its sound. In addition to unvanquishable debt, unnavigable crushes and insurmountable alienation, this is the stuff I dwell on in my free time. Word.

I think the common misconception for most folks is, "Oh, that band has guitars. End of story." You'd be surprised how--without even getting into playing styles or equipment--the number of guitars can really change a band's sound. Examples:

One guitar--The two easiest examples are 1) the Green Day types, playing power chords that effectively serve as an arm to the chugging rhythm section, or 2) the classic "power trio:" bands like Rush and Gov't Mule, where there are guitar solos a-plenty. My favorite one-guitar approach is summed up by Paul Weller, of the Jam. Weller effectively merged the typical "lead" and "rhythm" approaches into one chunky slab of guitar awesomeness. It's not atypical (Better than Ezra and Jam heir Ted Leo are two very good examples), but Weller did it best. Also worth noting are bands like the Who, who are their own animal in the one guitar approach.

Two guitars--Probably the most typical guitar line-up, and most bands that have two guitars utilize the lead/rhythm split. It works in that "if it ain't broke..." sort of way. The number of lead/rhythm guitar-oriented bands that've had hit singles probably numbers in the tens of thousands. Classic rock radio is awash in this split (AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, etc.) as is more modern groups (Oasis, almost every modern hard rock/"nu"-metal band). The rhythm guitarist plays chords, the lead guitarist noodles around. Yeehaw.

But then things can get mixed up. Many bands have two guitarists but fail to split into the "lead" and "rhythm" dichotomy: Springsteen and the E Street Band and modern descendents like the Hold Steady basically have two rhythm players; and plenty of bands (especially indie rockers) have two guitarists that play unique enough parts that totally transcend the labels. I'm thinking of bands like Television, Pavement, the Posies, My Bloody Valentine, and countless other groups. These sorts of groups tend to confuse folks used to the rhythm/lead pattern, who then try to label various players incorrectly. Even if the songwriting isn't very good, usually these sorts of bands have more complex arrangements.

One odd arrangement can be found in Frank Black's work, both solo and with the Pixies. While Black is most certainly a rhythm guitarist at heart, his six-string contributions are usually more focal to the piece than the lead guitarist(s)' stuff. He's a manic rhythm guitarist.

Three guitars--Most groups can go the Skynyrd route (one rhythm, two leads) or the Radiohead route (one rhythm, one more complex rhythm, one lead--though they've altered this a bit in recent years). But you also have the Bedhead route: three guitars contributing completely different, complex, and interlocking arrangement. Other bands have done this (Juno comes to mind), but I think Bedhead did it best. Surprisingly, people only familiar with the rhythm/lead shebang have a hard time imagining what you could use three guitars for. "Won't they all be playing the same thing?" someone asked me about three years ago. No, no they won't.

Four or more guitars--This is the bizarre realm occupied by music collectives (Broken Social Scene) or, more rarely, bar cover bands that somehow think four guitars chugging out Foghat riffs together is a good thing. I saw Broken Social Scene on Conan O'Brien's show once, and they had, like, six guitarist (not including the bass player) all freaking out. There was a point where I couldn't tell what was going on. Bedhead offspring the New Year also fits into this category, if conditionally: the band has three dedicated guitarists, but a fourth is added occasionally by a multi-instrumentalist. The New Year's albums are dense enough that you can only make three at most of the guitars out, so the addition of a fourth just makes my head spin more.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these cases. There are plenty of bands that don't fit into any of these categories, or differ in certain spots, or add and subtract the number of guitarists between albums. Regardless, if you see me looking to see how many guitarists play in a band or on an album, you now know why.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 10/02/2006 11:15:00 AM,


At 1:27 PM, Blogger Qere Ketiv said...

Another first comment on your blog. Do I ever work? Not if you ask my students...

The real key to rock genius, however, is how many basses/double basses that the group has, making Spinal Tap the greatest band ever.

"This one goes up to 11..."

At 8:07 PM, Blogger Erica said...

What about 0 guitars a la Ben Folds Five?


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