All right, after yesterday’s utterly unprovoked salvo against commonly acknowledged guitar gods I don’t want to hear anymore, let’s do an about-face and accentuate the positive, shall we? Here are five players whose work has just about KILLED me over the years, and who dismaying few people know about.
As usual, your mileage may vary, only my opinion, don’t take it personally, etc. etc. etc., and yes, you’re totally entitled to think these folks make shitty music.
It’s ludicrously difficult to define what it is I respond to in a guitar player. I admire technique, sure, but not too much of it, or it just becomes clinical. I likes me some noise, but not without a degree of control. I like to hear a guitar player who sounds excited to be playing, as if at any moment the entire thing could just come crashing down around his ears — and ours.
All right, let’s count ’em down.
5. Elliott Easton. Lead guitarist for a little-known group named The Cars. Lots of folks loved the Cars back in the day, and some still do. Elliott was their secret weapon, the kind of guitarist who knows how to play to the strengths of the frontperson, but totally commands the soundscape when it’s his turn to be in focus. His playing invariably boasts fluidity, speed, melody, and surprises. If you only listen to one Elliott Easton solo, make it the one after the second chorus of “Touch and Go,” the first single off the Cars’ “Panorama” album (their edgiest and best, by the way). Sweet, like candy. Listen to that long, serpentine run he throws in 2/3 of the way through the solo. Good lord, it’s showy — but’s also tasty. It’s not widdly-wah for widdly-wah’s sake.
4. Ira Kaplan. Listen to Yo La Tengo’s first album, on which Dave Schramm handled most of the heavy guitar lifting, and you’d be forgiven for thinking not much would ever come of Ira Kaplan’s guitar playing. Wrong. Somewhere in between “President Yo La Tengo” and “May I Sing With Me,” Kaplan absolutely bloomed as a guitarist, and ever since he’s mined rich veins of melodic noise that no one else seems to be able to touch. He’s not a particularly fast or showy player, but he’s amazingly expressive, which is so much more important. Check out “From a Motel 6” from their great Painful album for a lil’ taste of how deftly Kaplan is able to balance both delicate melody and jaw-droppingly noisy SKRONK. Now THAT’s what I call music!
3. Roger Miller. No, not “King of the Road” Roger Miller — we’re talking about the Roger Miller who plays guitar for Mission of Burma, the great Boston band that helped inspire, for example, U2. I learned to play guitar by figuring out as best I could what Miller was doing on the first two MoB albums. I never did figure it out, but just trying and failing taught me more about how to make magic out of limitations and constraints. Lots of folks on the indie circuit recognize Miller’s genius, but that’s not enough. He should be a household name. Or at least as well-known as Thurston and Lee. A sonic mindfuck like “Trem Two” only begins to hint at the explorations Miller’s conducted over the years.
2. Robert Poss. The head honcho of late, lamented Band of Susans understands a thing or two about the pure beauty of an overdriven guitar amp. Thankfully, he’s still composing. Here’s “Now Is Now” “Blind” from the great Veil album.
1. Karl Precoda. The first time I heard the peals of feedback that start off “When You Smile”, the first song on side two of the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses album, I was with my best friend Dejan at Eide’s in Pittsburgh. Cosmo had put it on the store’s record player and turned the fucker up. Way up. I owe him for that.
I remember Dejan covering his ears and complaining about the noise. I bought the album and never looked back.
Karl Precoda’s guitar work tends to be slow, noisy, riddled with feedback, and droning. You can hear all of that on “Halloween,” a song Precoda wrote that appears on Days of Wine and Roses.
Creem’s brilliant rock critic Rick Johnson, I believe, once called his guitar sound “The Thing That Can’t Be Stopped.” That’s pretty damned accurate. It’s slow and inevitable and full of menace and it will get you. I won’t say Precoda’s the best guitar player I ever heard, but on many, many days he’s still my favorite.