Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

When the circus moves on

The other night I was channel-surfing and stumbled on an edition of the talent show Britain’s Got Talent at just the moment when a young man with a Fender Strat was about to perform in front of the audience. These talent shows tend to be dominated by histrionic singers, so I was curious for a moment to see what this young man would do and how it would go down. What followed was a ghastly collision of a hostile context with a fundamental lack of musicality, prefaced by the usual humiliation of such contestants.

Said young man (who I think was 26) began a solo rendition of ‘Beat It’ and within half a minute had abandoned the singing bit for the guitar solo. He dropped to his knees, executed some Van Halenesque tapping, and finished off by playing the guitar with his teeth in the manner of Hendrix. These bits didn’t connect up. The fact that he was running his guitar into a very small Fender combo amp didn’t help much either. By this point the jury had voted him off and the audience weren’t impressed either.

What struck me about this was not the humiliation he was put through, which you expect from those programmes. It was the way he had unconsciously set himself up for it by not understanding what would work in performance. Playing electric guitar parts on your own that need a full band backing is never a good idea. Although he had some technical ability (probably hampered by nerves) and was apparently a guitar teacher (!), he didn’t seem to realise that in 2015 those theatrical guitar show-off gestures don’t mean anything. The only place for playing guitar with your teeth is in a Hendrix tribute band. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps you have watched videos of Jimi playing guitar in 1970, and your dentist may be unhappy next visit.

It didn’t mean that much when Hendrix himself was doing it. His creative genius as a guitarist lies in other things altogether, despite the fact that rock documentaries continue to try to convince us that he was a great guitarist because he liked setting fire to his guitar or smashing it up. It’s a bit like doing a Hendrix version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 2015. It’s either a Hendrix tribute gesture or pure establishment, or both. But it can’t mean what it meant in 1969, not least because the electric guitar doesn’t mean what it meant in 1969.

Whereas, if this contestant had concentrated on making his own musical statement – maybe not requiring much guitar technique – he might have fared better, and even if he had been voted out it would have had a kind of integrity to which the vote was irrelevant.

An important lesson really about musicality and musical awareness.

Now, where’s my lighter fuel … I fancy Strat Stroganoff for dinner …

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5 responses

  1. I’m one of those, Rikki – the problem is enthusiastic young men – and they tend to be men – dream of getting a music career off the ground, bus into their nearest big town, and buy the worst guitar they can for cash. They proceed to thrash the hell out of it for three years much to the merriment of all the spectators: they need to be ppppproduced.

    April 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    • Hello Dan, I’m sure you’re not quite one of those! 🙂 I should add that I don’t see anything wrong in people just messing about with electric guitars and having fun, and if they want to tap or play with their teeth, fine. The problem arises when they kid themselves that what they’re doing is the start of a successful career in music, or rebellious, or art. In the case of this TV programme, the young man had made a fundamental error in thinking that this approach would win him a place further on in a national talent competition.

      May 6, 2015 at 7:10 am

  2. Steve

    Merle Travis and others have done well solo electric but not many.
    Rikky if you’ve played solo guitar I can see a future book about
    it by you. How to write songs on solo acoustic/electric guitar!
    What do you think?

    May 6, 2015 at 2:31 am

    • Hello Steve, thanks for your comment. I think I’ve covered the topic of writing songs on guitar already. Perhaps there are a few things to be said about how one presents a song if a solo guitar is all you have, but I don’t think it would add up to a book. If you are referring to guitar instrumentals, that’s a particular form of composition, and wouldn’t be covered by the song concept, but probably too esoteric for me to tackle. I would like to publish a book of guitar transcriptions for my CD of finger-picked guitar Atlantic Canticles. You can buy that on amazon.com.

      May 6, 2015 at 7:06 am

  3. Steve

    I think you’re underestimating yourself and the subject Rikky. If someone comes up with
    some chords and melodies to make a song there are so many different ways to do it
    (Thumbpicking, Acoustic Blues, Country, Classical etc) that it would make a book.
    Not everyone wants to put a one man band together with a DAW
    using different instruments.Things like bass lines leading from one chord to another, substitutions etc.would be like your arranging book only for one guitar. It wouldn’t have to besuper complex like Chet Atkins but no one has put together a book with all of
    the available options for both vocal and instrumental arranging of this type.
    You could use your own compositions for examples.
    You’ve already done a lot and we appreciate it but I guess its never enough.
    We certainly wouldn’t bring it to Britian’s got talent though, maybe the local pub.

    May 21, 2015 at 1:28 pm

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