In looking at the list of five lesser-known guitar heroes I threw together late last week, I noticed something: with the exception of Elliott Easton, by far the most conventional of the guitarists I cited, each those heroes tends to eschew clean lines and phrases in favor of big, meaty slabs of sound. Roger Miller, Robert Poss, Ira Kaplan, and Karl Precoda are capable of subtlety, but I wouldn’t call of any of them, well, restrained. That’s partly what I respond to in their work, but as much as I like a big wall-of-fuzz (as one reviewer referred to some of my own work on The Luxury Problem album), there are other dimensions of rock guitar playing that are just as interesting.
Sometimes, it’s not what you play, but what you choose NOT to play that makes a song or part interesting.
So I began thinking about the guitarists I love who, by design, very deliberately AVOID filling up the soundscape. The ones who create space and let the silences between their notes and chords say as much as what they choose to play. The ones who aren’t afraid to play a single damn note and only one, if that’s what’s called for. So here’s my list of five masters of the sparse guitar.
As always, just my opinion, you don’t have to share it, blah blah blah. If you haven’t heard some of these players yet, though, perhaps they’ll interest you. If you have heard them, perhaps my comments may focus your attention on aspects of their playing you hadn’t noticed before. Or maybe not.
Let’s find out, shall we?
5. Tommy and Billy Robertson, Polyrock.
Yeah, it’s a twofer. I’m not sure which of the Robertson brothers played which guitar parts in Polyrock’s work, but it really doesn’t matter because they threw the standard rockist paradigm of lead and rhythm guitar serving different functions straight out the window. Polyrock was frequently called “minimalist,” mainly because their association with producer Phillip Glass made this an easy tag to hang on them. But it’s also fundamentally lazy — Polyrock were many things, but minimalist wasn’t one of them. Yes, they made a virtue of repetition. Yes, they avoided ornamentation just for ornamentation’s sake. But that’s what made them — and their guitar work — so interesting: there is NO WASTED NOTE on a Polyrock song. Everything contributes to the momentum of the track; there’s no icing here — it’s all cake. Delicious, rhythmic cake. And in “Bucket Rider,” a nifty little instrumental named after an equally nifty little Kafka story, you can hear every guitar line is intended to move the song forward. Nothing less — and nothing more.
4. Craig Scanlon, The Fall.
When it comes to Fall guitarists, Brix Smith usually gets the most prominent mentions. But for my money, the Fall’s secret weapon for 17 years was Craig Scanlon, whose downright spidery guitar lines were like nothing else being played when he joined the band in 1979. Consider a prime track from Dragnet, the first Fall album he appeared on, the ominous “A Figure Walks.” A great example of how much Scanlon can do with remarkably few notes.
3. Keith Levene, PiL.
Before I grabbed PiL’s “Metal Box,” I’d never heard guitar playing like this. I haven’t since, either. Inimitable. Here’s Levene’s magnificence on display in the opening track of that set, “Death Disco” aka “Swan Lake.”
2. Michael Rother, Neu!
All of Stereolab’s work, great as it is, stems directly from Neu! And Michael Rother played the guitar that made Neu! move. Just check out “Fur Immer,” if you would. Hypnotic. Or, as they say, mekkanik. (Of course, you could also give a nod to the great Michael Karoli from Can, but he tended to play more traditional leads. Rother? Not so much.)
1. Bernard Albrecht (Sumner), Joy Division / New Order.
If there was a post-punk analog to Pink Floyd, Joy Division was it: their music, like no other post-Pistols era band, was about mapping the spaces of the interior. And just like David Gilmour’s echoplexed Fender came to define the inner space that Floyd evoked, so did Bernard Albrecht (nee Sumner)’s reverb-drenched six-string define the alternately claustrophobic and all-too-wide-open spaces mapped out in Joy Division’s work. You can’t find a better example of that than “Disorder,” the first cut from their first LP.
But lest you think Albrecht / Sumner was nothing but grim, remember also his work with New Order, which saw him applying the same economic approach to the guitar to much less sombre tunes, such as the buoyant “Age of Consent.” The lyrics may still be downcast, but the tune moves in a downright happy direction.