Thursday, December 31, 2009

Folk Metal Heroes

Last on my list of guitar heroes who play metal (but far from last in my estimation) are Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari from Amorphis. They are a mythic folk metal band from Finland and they have been around for 20 years and been a huge influence on the european metal scene but are still relatively unknown in the US which is a shame, but that's the US metal scene for ya.

Tomi K. (not to be mistaken for Tomi J., their singer) plays mostly rhythm and all the intricate treble, picked stuff from their early music. He also used to do their growling in the early, death metal days, but is mostly happy now to keep out of the spotlight. He also plays a mean mandolin and writes part of the music for the band. Esa plays mostly lead in that he plays most of the solos and a lot of single note parts, but a lot of the time he's playing melodies or counterpoint to the keys over the top of another melody. Amorphis is one of those ensemble bands where everyone is doing something different and making it all work together. Esa does the finnish folk melody parts on guitar and Tomi supplies the metal heaviness.

Go to the Nuclear Blast website and you can find their video for Silent Waters or Silver Bride to get an idea what I'm talking about. Their music is very epic and there's a lot going on there. Fortunately enough for a crappy guitar player like myself, a lot of what they do is not so difficult from a technical standpoint that I can't at least approximate it for playing along. The rhythms are pretty straightforward and the folk melodies are off-kilter little modal things that move around, but repeat a lot of patterns, so they are manageable as well.

Tomi's rhythm work is interesting because he spends a lot of time chunking out the barre chords, but he can also do the old school death metal single note treble rhythms and slide into more acoustic arpeggios as well. He's an understated player, not really showing off, but doing some pretty intricate and delicate stuff. Esa's lead work is soaring and emotional and makes really lovely use of his Vox wah to give it a vocal quality. I can't touch his feel or his phrasing. It's deceptively good.

They also do some lovely acoustic work.

They are supposed to be swinging over to this side of the pond again sometime soon. I'll be there.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Metal Heroes Part Deux

Opeth aren't the easiest band for a guitarist of somewhat-less-than-moderate talent to emulate. I love them, and I do my best with what little tab exists, (not that much of it is any good since they seldom use straightforward chords and most tabbers have ears of tin), but when I play much on my own I find myself barre chord riffing and experimenting with slower, simpler melodic lines. No surprise, then, that I love the music of both Swallow the Sun and Daylight Dies. Both of them make some of the most melodic, simple, and massively heavy music out there.

I really don't know what to write about Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen (of Swallow the Sun) or Barre Gambling and Charlie Shackelford (of Daylight Dies) or Greg Mackintosh and Aaron Aedy (of Paradise Lost) as players, except that they are exceptionally tasteful and understated players more interested in making beautiful music than in showing off their chops. Not that they have no chops, mind you. There are plenty of moments that show their technical abilities. Most often, however, they spend their time in service to the overall compositions and the atmosphere of the songs.

I think part of my love for these bands and their guitar work lies in the stately tone they get from their guitars and the way that their music shows that off. They all use a lovely, saturated, sustaining high-gain sound with a nice, full midrange rather than the scoop and chunk of most modern American metal. There's also some nice air and reverb in the mix without it going all cavernous and echoey like a lot of classic metal or early death metal bands.

Too many times it seems to me that guitar players get recognition mostly from having impressive chops that will sell a lot of equipment and magazines to new players who are impressed by speed. These guys remain under the radar, especially in the US music media, because they are more musicians than guitar celebrity spokesmodels. No one is going to buy a magazine chock full of their riffs because they aren't players who can be distilled into a page full of riffs, solos, and rhythm figures. They are more about chord progressions and melodies. Playing their music, which is not too difficult to pick out on your own, teaches you more about music theory and how to think outside of scales and keys and go for those little moments of transformation within the scope of the song.

I should also mention here that all of the guitar players I have mentioned so far have the good fortune to play with excellent, musical bass players who, in contrast to the norm, often play more complex lines than the guitars they are 'supporting.' Pretty much all of these guys are in ensemble bands where the whole is far greater than the individual star power of the parts.

Next up...a shift into the folkier side of metal.

ETA: I've been thinking about this post a bit and have concluded that Mackintosh and Aedy are much more riffy a unit than the other two bands, but the part of their music that sticks with me most is not the riffs, but rather the more lyrical parts. So I cheated a bit. I can live with that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Metal Heroes

Much as I love Steve Hackett's guitar playing, I listen to a lot more metal than prog. Granted, I like my metal on the proggy end of things, but I also like a heaping helping of darkness with it. And when I sit down to actually play guitar I don't end up playing much that sounds like Hackett's music either, other than my having learned a couple of his solos. As such, most of my practical guitar heroes are metal players.

My favorite metal guitarists are Mikael Ackerfeldt, Peter Lindgren, and Fredrik Akesson of Opeth. Again, it's not that they are amazing technical players. Fredrik has some serious shred and speed and I love what he has brought to the band, but what has always set Opeth apart for me is the sheer range of what they do and the tremendous contrasts that they put in their music. They manage to be both beautiful and brutal, intimate and epic. Early on in their catalogue they tended towards a lot of twin guitar riffs like on The Night and the Silent Waters -- not just harmonized lead lines a la classic Wishbone Ash but also contrapuntal classical lines and push-pull lead/chord twinned riffs like at the end of this song and all through Demon of the Fall. The lines and the rhythms tend to be complex and non-linear, always looking for something surprising.

As Opeth matured they began adding keys in the mix and giving their compositions more space and openness. As they did this they also began to incorporate more jazz, blues and old school prog elements in as well -- like the ebow and slide playing on The Drapery Falls or the simple, understated blues solos on A Fair Judgment. Yet through it all they have never gone soft or lost their instinct for the heavy and brutal. For sheer brutal bombast it's hard to beat the single chord outro riff for Deliverance or the angularity of the section of Hessian Peel from the solo at 6:15 through to the break at 7:24.

But, as always with them, the heart of their sound lies in those moments of contrast when they shift from sweet to sour. My favorite example of this is probably the section of Ghost of Perdition where the song shifts from the vocal harmonies of 'winding ever higher' with the lovely acoustic guitar playing into a stunningly beautiful and emotional bluesy guitar close that fades on a high, sustained note that resolves the section only to give way to a one-chord, syncopated riff that starts to build the tension right back up like the long slow climb of a rollercoaster towards that big drop. It's especially gratifying to see and hear live. You can watch the shift happen as the crowd goes from singing along with the delicate melody to a sort of rapture at the solo, only to watch the circle pits start to roil like a growing storm with the first notes of the pedal tone. It's like a brutal organism.

Next up, we'll shift from prog metal to doom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dream Guitar Musings

Thinking about Steve Hackett's guitars got me dreaming about the ideal guitar, or at least the ideal counterpart to the Hagstrom Swede that I already own. The Swede is an LP type guitar with a stop-tail, twin Alnico V humbuckers, and a 24.75" scale length. I love the smooth, warm sound of its neck pup and the extra sizzle of the in-between setting, but I'd like to see what I could do with a trem equipped guitar as well. order to keep the important things constant we'll keep the scale length but start to mix things up from there.

Let's start by making it a 7-string to extend the lower end down to B without killing the tension on all the other strings to keep the intervals consistent with standard tuning. I know that I already struggle with one fewer strings, but I figure that if I'm already comfortable playing between the low E and the G strings and muting the low E when I'm playing barre chords with a root on the A that adding a low B will only really give me one more iteration of a pattern I already know. Having the extra string will allow me to cover songs from bands that tune down to D or C in addition to those that use standard tuning. The riffs will need some refiguring, but it should reduce the need for retuning.

Which is a good thing because, as I noted above, I'm wanting to have a trem on this guitar. That means either a Wilkinson or a locking trem if I want to keep anything like tuning stability, and since I want to be able to palm mute all those chunky low chords I'm getting with the extra low string I'm thinking that a Kahler is the way to go. I know that a Floyd is more popular for seven string shredders, but I think that a Kahler is better for extreme metal riffage, and I do love to chunk away.

Final bits of sonic versatility -- I love the way that Parker Flys are wired for both magnetic and piezo run together or to separate channels, so we'll say that the electronics are wired that way with piezo saddles on the Kahler running through a built in preamp to balance the signals. And, for the icing on the cake, let's make the neck pickup a Sustainiac so that we can get that awesome, singing sustain for as long as we want.

A guy can dream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Guitar Heroes

Not sure how much of an honor it is to be a hero to a crappy guitar player, but...

Yeah, yeah. We all know about Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. They are both amazing guitarists for very different reasons (jaw dropping live playing and amazing composition respectively), so I won't waste your time going over their achievements or the achievements of the dozens of other great guitarists who get a ton of coverage in the guitar mags whether by dint of talent or of marketability and endorsements. Instead I'll concentrate on some of the guitarists I love who get less attention than they merit and from whose playing I have learned a little.

Steve Hackett -- merits top of the list for his solo on Genesis' Firth of Fifth alone. Much as I like some of his solo work, I have to say that what I love most about his playing is the way that he works within a virtuoso ensemble like Genesis in its idiosyncratic prime between Nursery Cryme and Wind and Wuthering, with Steve's special brand of genius most prominently on display in Selling England by the Pound. And again, while I love his pioneering two-handed tapping on songs like The Musical Box and Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, what slays me again and again is the understated grandeur of his soaring solos and his melodic counterpoint to Peter Gabriel's vocal lines. It's not easy to find space between Tony Banks keys and Mike Rutherford's blend of acoustic/bass/bass pedal genius, but it seems that whenever Hackett emerges from the mix he does so with amazing beauty and grace and delivers a performance that is unmistakably his own.

In addition to two handed tapping, Hackett plays some amazing slide guitar in a non-blues setting that ranges from etherial to downright rude. Given his love of sustain and crescendo, I thought for many years that he was a big Ebow player, but it turns out that much of what I thought was a combination of slide and ebow was actually Hackett's use of a Fernandes sustainer and a Floyd Rose playing through a volume pedal. You can see his Floyded out Les Paul in action here:

His solo albums after Genesis started off a bit uneven, but he still usually manages to astound often enough to make each release worthwhile and his nylon string work is always stellar. And at least once per album he reminds the listener of all that Genesis lost when they parted ways with him to chart a more radio-friendly path. He's worked with Steve Howe of Yes in their co-project GTR, and former King Crimson and Asia alum John Wetton on several notable tours. He's even managed to hold down his part of the stage while touring with John Paul Jones, Nuno Bettencourt and Paul Gilbert as part of Guitar Wars.

But mostly he's remained my most constant hero on guitar no matter what other fixations I might have at the time.

[coming next...some metal heroes]