Guitars Are Personal, Whatever Music You Play

Guitar brands are stereotyped or associated with particular genres. The Telecaster with Country, the Les Paul with Blues or the Stratocaster’s, clean-cut quacky sound with reverb-drenched soft rock.

The marketing of instruments often reinforce these associations. In the same way home furnishings appeal to a particular consumer lifestyle. However, when we buy objects, we adapt them to our own environment, mould them into something unique to us.

I was once hesitant about buying a guitar that was clearly designed for hard rock players. I was looking to buy a Telecaster, so I tried out a powerful, twin-humbucker model, which had a beautiful playing action. The fretboard felt like silk though I didn’t really need all the power. The guitar was clearly designed for Heavy Metal, which is not the music I play. I ended up going for a fairly classic Telecaster. But I soon regretted not buying the other one (made for shredding), because it just felt nicer to play.

In future I will buy guitars that I enjoy playing, irrespective of the target audience. A guitar becomes a unique part of your music. You never use a guitar as it might have been intended by the designers or sales department, which also applies to amplifiers or effects. For example, the classic Cry Baby Wah can be used for any music, though it’s often associated with funk or psychedelic rock. These days I use my Wah pedal in the static position, as a tone control, which is partly inspired by the Mick Ronson sound.

It’s not essential to read or write music, though I have studied music theory more closely in recent years.

Today I am quite familiar with standard modes (or scales), the relationships between chord shapes and intervals. But for many years I relied heavily on fretboard visualisation, because we practiced songs endlessly and also played them live. I didn’t really know what I was playing, only really the key it was in, performance was also closely tied to what everyone else in the band was playing. The only issue with this approach is that you can easily forget songs, once you stop playing them altogether.

Digital recording software has definitely helped me to learn much more about music theory and how to construct an arrangement. The visual timeline is perhaps like a spreadsheet, but there is also a music score available, time signatures and tempo settings. This visualisation of music theory has really helped me to learn the keyboard, memorise chord positions. It turns out that, if I dedicated more time, I can become a decent pianist. Though right now I am happy to be good enough to just back up my guitar performances.

Obviously, it’s now a lot easier for musicians to learn music theory, simply by watching countless tutorials on YouTube. I am careful not to learn too much because I don’t want to lose spontaneity. The music I write often emerges out of improvisation. I absorb snippets of theory, maybe introduce some new chord shapes, which then adds to my mental library. It’s useful to know modes for soloing, experiment with major over minor or vice versa.

YouTube success depends on star quality, fans demand more than a few cool guitar licks.

I’ve always been reluctant to make YouTube videos because I know that the most watched videos tend to be the clickbait-style ones. Where the viewers are antagonised and driven to make rash comments. When you introduce a social element (such as a comment section) to a video, the dynamic changes and potentially invites bad actors. Viewers are not interested in being entertained, watching a performance or a creative music video.

I don’t feel comfortable talking to a camera, so I’m never going to go down that road. You have to face facts, that presenting a video is really show business, you need to have a degree of personal charisma that transfers to an audience. In the same way people present quiz shows on TV. Running a popular YouTube channel is being a celebrity. The vast majority of musicians are not suited to being in the limelight. I’ve been happy to perform with a band on stage, but was never the central focus, the front-person.

Musicians on YouTube tend to get more views when they are just talking to camera, railing about something. Less so than when they are actually performing one of their songs. The social element of YouTube renders creative music videos completely useless. Unless you’re watching music videos made years ago, which becomes more about nostalgia. People are then drawn to make comments about their memories of the time.