I picked up my first electric guitar in the middle of the neo-classical period of rock music. I spent all my free time practicing while listening to hot guitar players such as Joe Satriani, Tony MacAlpine and Vinnie Moore. Because of this, it took me years to learn that good songwriting was mostly about chords and lyrics, not guitar solos. Even after Kurt Cobain had declared guitar solos illegal, I still continued to fill cassettes with vein directionless solos.
The Player Paradox
There’s kind of an interesting paradox among musicians: being technically proficient on an instrument has nothing to do with good songwriting. In fact, it seems like a disadvantage. Kind of like being a PHd hired to flip burgers: you just can’t keep it simple. You want to show off your hard-earned skills on every song.
Band Of Songwriters
Peter Gabriel once said that what made Genesis and it’s spin-offs (Mike and the Mechanics, solo Gabriel, solo Phil Colins, GTR) so successful was that it was a band of songwriters. This obviously creates tensions as everyone tries to have their compositions on the albums (Steve Hacket quit over just that), but in the long term, it really paid off. Steve Miller once mentioned how hard it was to find the right musicians for his tour. The hot players he auditioned just couldn’t play Steve’s simple 4/4 meat-and-potato type of songs.
No Readin’ Required
Dianne Warren and Jason Blume have both mentioned that they do not read music notation. Neither did Lennon and McCartney before them. However, they all knew basic chord theory and in the case of the Beatles, came up with some very inventive chord changes.
Here’s a list of my favorite songwriters who can also shred:
- Randy Bachman — Sure, “American Woman”, “Taking Care Of Business” and “You’ve Seen Nothing Yet” are simple rock songs. Yet they were written by a guy with considerable jazz guitar chops. In fact, Randy Bachman was a friend and student of the late Lenny Brau who basically owned jazz guitar for a while. It’s amazing to me how he can effortlessly switch from simple power chords to complex jazz “uptown” chords within the same song.
- The Police — Did you know that the Police were formally a jazz band? Of course, this explains why both Sting and Stewart Copeland have ventured into jazz-flavored projects after the break up of The Police. Sting recorded the album “Dream Of a Blue Turtle” with Branford Marsilis and Omar Hakim while Copeland recorded his Animal Logic project with Stanley Clark. As for Andy Summer, he was an accomplished session guitarist with a huge vocabulary of jazz chords. The thing however is that Sting’s songwriting was way better than the others, which led to his success which caused their breakup.
- Tori Amos — Being a classically trained pianist usually means that you can play Litz and Shopin in your sleep. What I like about Tori Amos is that she basically replaced the Blues with classical influences in her songs. Sure, Kate Bush did it before, but Tori can shred – and does.
- Paul Gilbert — After finding one of his CD in Japan, I realized this guy could do a lot more than play at 3000 mph. He has a great singing voice, does incredible 3 parts harmonies and generally rocks. He is a huge star in Japan but North-America still won’t forgive him for is post-Malmsteen days.
- Oscar Peterson — Everyone knows that the late Oscar Peterson was an incredible technician. What is less known is the extent to which he composed some timeless music like the “Canadiana Suite”. In this video of him with the great Ella Fidzerald, you can see how he was also a masterful accompanist; always supporting the singer, never overshadowing her. Now that’s good taste.
- Rush — One thing that Rush always had over younger prog rock bands like Dream Theater and Symphony-X is the consistent songwriting. I still listen to Moving Pictures and cannot believe haw strong the songwriting is. My favorite phrase: “Everybody got to deviate from the north”.
- Bobby McFerrin — Now, this guy took this to another level and wrote several album worth of songs with only his voice as instrument. In fact, when “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” first came out, it took me a while to realize that was “singing” all the parts. The song was good and could totally stand on its own without a solo instrument.
- Eddie VanHalen — OK, I had to put him in the list. Initially, when he came out with his wild complex playing style, millions of young people started imitating him. What he had over everybody else however, was real songwriting and arranging skills earned playing classical piano as a teenager. In fact, the reason he accepted to play the guitar solo in “Beat It” was because he admired Quicy Jones and suggested they add a little break before the solo to allow tension build.
To Shred Or Not To Shred
There’s a distinct satisfaction in mastering an instrument, but I believe that it takes a lot of maturity to put this aside and concentrate on the song itself. Shredding is fun, but it doesn’t touch people as much as great songwriting.