Beyond the Fretboard: The Double-Edged Sword of Guitar Idols, Part 1

by Chris Breen
Posted Apr 9, 2014 at 1:22pm

Every guitarist (myself included) can likely point to one main source of inspiration that captured our ears' undivided attention during our formative years.

This source might have even been the reason why many of us picked up the guitar in the first place.

Obviously, I'm talking about the guitar idol (or guitar god). Every generation has had a few. What is less discussed is the positive and negative consequences of having a singular icon for an entire generation of aspiring musicians.

The first incarnation of the guitar idol in popular culture was probably Jimi Hendrix. He could be thought of as the archetype who set the standard to which all other guitar idols would be compared.

What Hendrix brought to rock was multi-dimensional: He popularized a new tonal quality of the electric guitar (overdriven distortion), his signature blues/pentatonic lead playing helped usher in the current musical paradigm that all rock guitarists know and love. He also raised the bar on what it meant to have an exciting and unpredictable stage presence that could captivate any audience.

Since Hendrix's untimely passing, there have been other noteworthy guitar gods who have carved their own path into rock and roll history, including Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai and Slash, among others.

It's hard to imagine how rock or heavy metal music would have evolved without this essential cast of characters. However, it's important to be objective and to look at both sides of the fence when evaluating the impact these players' fame and reputation have had on future guitarists as well as their own musical growth.

YOU CAN'T PUT A PRICE TAG ON INSPIRATION

It's hard to excel at anything in life if a person is underwhelmed by others who have come before them. Hendrix's legacy set off a domino effect of rockstar culture that would last for the next 30 years. The YouTube sensations of today were inspired by the greats of the late Seventies and Eighties, who were inspired by Hendrix.

Before we dive into the potential drawbacks of "guitar idol" status, we must not forget the endless amount of talented musicians who were drawn to the guitar over other instruments (somewhere in a parallel universe, Eddie Van Halen might be playing classical piano at Carnegie Hall).

THE PITFALLS OF INSPIRATION

Many people are so awe-struck by their idols that when it's their time to shine, imitation can be an unfortunate result. You might not even realize it at first, but a "cult of personality" (shout out to Living Colour!) is developed and sometimes engineered by the record label. This not only influences your guitar playing but also could alter lifestyle habits as well. How many guitarists started smoking cigarettes just because they saw Keith Richards with one in his mouth at every show?

Particularly on a musical level, if all you learn are Van Halen tapping licks, how do you think you're going to sound when you write your own music? Even worse, how many other players have also learned all the Van Halen licks just like you?

Arguably, no one's really immune from this phenomenon of imitation, especially at a young age (I know I wasn't). But if your long-term goal is to write your own music, then an attempt to minimize it (or diversify your influences) would be beneficial.

I can remember my own experience with this when I'd read magazine articles from the late, great Dimebag Darrell. As some of you may know, he would regularly profess his ignorance toward the topic of music theory. He seemed to be so naturally in tune with the world of music that he just played by ear (claiming he only knew one or two scales).

I was blown away by his comments because I was originally convinced that he was a music theory buff simply by hearing his fluid and effortless mastery of the fretboard. The effects that his comments had on me were good and bad.

The positive effect was that I no longer saw music theory as a road block to my success. This helped me develop my natural ear for music as well as solidify my rhythm chops by constantly jamming to cover songs or with my brother, who plays drums.

The downside was that, for many years (the first 10 years of my playing), I knew virtually nothing about even the basics of music theory. Sure, I intuitively understood the concepts of tonal center and the musical differences between major and minor chords, but I was completely incapable of articulating these topics to others. I figured, "if Dimebag succeeded without knowing theory, then I probably don't need it either."

But now that I'm quite comfortable with theory, I think it helped me grow beyond the creative box where I later found myself. I now have so many more options when it comes to creating and composing my own music. And there's also the obvious benefit of communicating this information to others when I'm teaching (which is something I've come to enjoy).

For the record, this anecdote was not a sneaky attempt at promoting music theory. The opposite might have been the case; I could have been a diehard fan of John Petrucci and, while reading his interviews, decided I wanted to go to school for music. But what if I had the personality of a Dimebag Darrell? The potential drudgery of studying music in college might have tainted my passion.

So there clearly are advantages and disadvantages to this paradigm.

But we're not done just yet. There are a few more consequences of having guitar idols, which I'd like to discuss in the next installment of this column. Notably, the effect this "cult of personality" has on the musicians themselves. We'll also explore the future viability of guitar idols in the new internet landscape. To be continued ...

Chris Breen is a New Jersey-based guitarist with 14 years of experience under his belt. He, along with his brother Jon (on drums) started the two-piece metal project known as SCARSIC in 2011. They've recently been joined by bassist Bill Loucas and have released an album, A Tale of Two Worlds (available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify). Chris also is part of an all-acoustic side project called Eyes Turn Stone. Chris teaches guitar lessons (in person or via Skype). For more information, visit BreenMusicLessons.com.