Thursday, August 29, 2013

"I Want To Sound Just Like Hendrix." Rock Ain't Near Dead, But We Sure Could Use Some New Heroes

I'm guessing that in all his 27 years, Jimi never once said that he'd like to sound just like anyone. I hear many influences in Hendrix's playing - there's his Curtis Mayfield-inspired chordal work, the Albert King bends, even some Wes Montgomery in the mix, but I think we can all agree that in the end, he sounded only like Jimi.

In the last few days I've heard several interesting discussions on the legacy of Hendrix - at a time when we sure could use a few new guitar heroes. I sat enthralled listening to session guitar legend/producer Bob Kulick (KISS, Meatloaf, Lou Reed, Diana Ross) discuss seeing Jimi when he was still Jimmy James at the Cafe Wha? in New York City, and how it changed his life at 15. I heard my pal at 65amps, Dan Boul explain that no matter where you set the knobs on his exquisite rock 'n' roll machines, you can capture tones, but you still not only won't, but shouldn't sound like Hendrix. Then yesterday afternoon I had an interesting discussion concerning the fact of Hendrix's left-handed playing - did it make him unique by its very nature, and difficult for righties to comprehend and co-opt? Did it even make Jimi approach the instrument in a different fashion?

I've also been witness to some great discussions concerning the question as to the current state of rock 'n' roll. For the umpteenth time, some have again even proclaimed rock to be dead.

What with America being up in arms over Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, or the near complete absence of anything on the Billboard charts resembling a true guitar hero, I'm wondering where it's all gone wrong and what if anything can be done - has rock guitar, and by association rock 'n' roll virtually been played out?

Who was the last universally acknowledged guitar hero? I see and hear a lot of guys making great music and playing great guitar, but I can't say that anyone stands poised to be the next Eddie Van Halen. I go to the example of Eddie because I was there - I remember like it was yesterday that day when I heard VH's You Really Got Me, and I knew there was a new sheriff in town. Since then the metal guys, Dimebag Darrell Abbott and Zakk Wylde and shred kings Steve Vai and Joe Satriani all did noble work putting asses in seats, selling guitars and amps, and inspiring their fans, but alas here we sit today waiting for a new savior of sorts.

Lately, I've taken to using the phrase "Rock Ain't Near Dead." Even going to the extreme of capitalization to emphasize my feelings - I've heard more good rock in the last twelve months than I have perhaps in the last ten years.  But as great as that is, I still don't see a beacon shining towards anyone who can up the ante to the point where not just record and ticket sales can increase, and also bolster the sales of shiny new guitars and amps.

Mind you, those guitars and amps have never been better. Whether it's the brilliant work of the boutique amp builder and luthiers, or companies that are both behemoth and ubiquitous (a friend who has worked in music instrument retailing for a great many years just told me that Fender quality control and customer service appears to be better than ever), guitars and amps have never been better built, nor has there ever been more options for the player. Whether you're a metal maven or a blues guru, there are endless and fantastic options.

So - what's the problem?

Well, maybe there isn't one. I know times are tough - I know that Avenged Sevenfold is going to top the Billboard Rock Album charts with 170,000 copies sold in its first week, and that fifteen years ago Queensryche may well have sold 500,000 in a week and not even topped the charts. I realize that the streaming problem is not going away anytime soon and that the artist's share of the pie is dwindling. Guitar and amp sales are down - none of this is great news, but I see this as evolution more than the road to extinction.

The music industry is being reinvented one day at a time - I have spoken with friends in the last week who are starting in-house small batch boutique record labels and management groups, reinventing guitar amps as we know them, and even yes, opening large recording facilities. There's even distant talk of stereo tube components becoming not just available, but affordable, and the concept of music actually sounding good again is very exciting. After a generation of kids thinking that ear buds and mp3s sound like music, I see this in much the same light as the Monsanto vs. organic plight. If you have trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, or you're thinking that light might just be a train, remember where the music industry was just before John, Paul, George, and Ringo became The Beatles.

"If you build it, He will come." Faith is hard to find, and sometimes even harder to hold onto, but it is essential. It's much like the old saying - "Whether you think you can, or can't, you're probably right."

The essence is to never give up, to never quit. Instead of complaining, or bitching about the VMAs, focus on some new piece of music you like, or maybe even go make some of your own. Now is the time for expansion - for reaching out and realizing that it's not up to the world, it's up to you. We can't change the past, and even the future is tenuous, but what we can do is control our own efforts and what comes from us. If there's something you've wanted to do, but haven't had the time, energy, or faith in yourself to step up and do it, now is the time to drop the fears, drop the worries, and to plunge ahead. What is there to lose?

The new Hendrix? Well, he may be just around the next bend, or maybe it's the new Beatles.

In the meantime, I'm watching some new heroes at work - building things, starting things, being willing to go forth boldly into a world that seems unyielding and difficult. Not watching the news, but going forward with their head down and their ears back. Some will succeed and some will fail, but it's important to keep in mind that we can't control results - we can only control our efforts, and how we respond to results. These are the true measure and where we will find growth.

If we are all doing what we can, then the universe can perhaps go with our flow and a new Jimi may be made possible.

Rock Ain't Near Dead
But bringing this semi-full circle, it may be best that you not wish to sound "Just like Hendrix." It's great to educate yourself on Hendrix, immerse yourself in his style, and find out how he achieved his sounds - that's certainly a part of becoming a musician. I'm guessing that I could take almost any decent guitar and amp, and come close enough to Jimi's signature sounds and learn all I need to learn about sounding like Hendrix. I'm guessing that would be true for most of us.

The key may be in doing what Hendrix did - he learned his craft, paid his dues, and then he took off in his own direction. Maybe part of the key lies in what we are each bringing to the table. What's your direction?

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