True Musicianship

It happened again just the other day. A new guitar student started with me. He had some experience playing guitar ... but not much. He was there for his first lesson and I asked him what he wanted to do. He said "Show me how to play like Eddie Van Halen. Show me how he does that thing with the drill." I thought to myself "Oh no. Here we go again."

For those of you who don't know, in a famous Van Halen tune, Eddie noticed that if you hold an electric drill up next to the pickups on an electric guitar, you can hear the "whirrrrrrrrr" of the drill motor through the speakers as you push the trigger. It made for a interesting effect ... one of many that Eddie has invented throughout his long and illustrious career. Now, I'm no rabid Van Halen fan, but I do say give the man his due. He is an interesting and creative guitar player who has revolutionized the instrument forever. It's difficult to envision contemporary electric guitar without seeing Eddie's formidable handprints all over it.

Van Halen's wild and crazy solos are indeed filled with unique and daring techniques (wammy dive-bombs, finger tapping, pinch harmonics etc). What concerns me is the idea (eagerly proposed by the guitar magazines) that the "gimmicky" elements of his guitar playing is the real essence of his style. This does both Eddie and guitar students everywhere a real disservice as it prevents us from observing the real nature of his contributions. If you're really listening, you see that this is just the "frosting" on the cake. Eddie Van Halen is a serious musician who knows his music and works his butt off. That's what truly makes his guitar playing great ... true musicianship.

What do you like about Van Halen's music? Is it just those crazy little finger tricks he does in his solo? No. You like the way the chords flow. You like the melody that the singer sings ... those bad boy lyrics. You dig that funky bass line, those ripping riffs and that driving beat. It's not just the solos. You gotta' see that it's a total package. Those crazy tricks he does might occupy a total of 3 minutes on an entire album! Guitar players everywhere have a lot more to learn from Eddie then finger tapping ... and that drill thing.

I really can't say I've studied every last lick from all those Van Halen tunes. I'm just using Eddie as an example of how great the gap between the reality and the myth can be. I do know that he took classical piano lessons at an early age and was considered quite talented. He suggested that this is where he began learning his theory and started working on his ears. He even knows how to read music! He used to walk around with his guitar strapped on all day ... practicing constantly. His songs are full of complex melodic lines (a solo is just an improvised melody), interesting chord sequences, finely crafted vocal harmonies and some of the most awesome riffs in all of rock music. Stuff like that doesn't just grow on trees ya' know. Where does it come from? Two words ... true musicianship ... even in rock n' roll.

It's so easy for us to be diverted from learning about what really matters in music. I was reading an article in one of the magazines on Jimi Hendrix's 1967 appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. The author seemed more interested in talking about Jimi's clothes and the people in his entourage than his actual musical performance. He went on and on about how Jimi and Pete Townshend (The Who) were competing to see who could do the more spectacular "smash-up" gig. He retold every last detail of how Jimi set his guitar ablaze. I'm thinkin' ... I'm a musician. This is a guitar magazine. Save this garbage for the National Enquirer. I wanna' hear about the music!

A lot of times, people seem to want to avoid talking about true musicianship because they think it's the difficult, dry, confusing part of learning guitar. I think my student wanted me to show him the Van Halen drill thing because he was thinking it would be more fun than learning scale and chord theory. But you can't build a music career just on gimmicks and I still feel obliged to point that out to students.

...Learning the tools of true musicianship (theory, technique, notation and ear training) doesn't have to be boring. Music is a fascinating subject if someone explains it to you the right way....

Learning the tools of true musicianship (theory, technique, notation and ear training) doesn't have to be boring. Music is a fascinating subject if someone explains it to you the right way. It's not rocket science. It's just taught really badly a lot of the time. Students get turned off and intimidated. Many actually get defensive about their ignorance. "What the heck do I need to know that crap for?" I often describe death metal and rap as punishment for the parents and administrators who eliminated music programs from the public schools because of budget constraints! What did you think would happen? If you don't expose kids to true musicianship, this is what you get.

In our profit driven society, music isn't really an art form anymore. It's a commodity. Record companies need a constant flow of new acts to sell in order to keep the money coming in and the shareholders happy. How about these cute teen actresses. They make a few movies ... wind up on Entertainment Tonight. Then one day, WOW. She can sing too! Suddenly she's a multi-platinum recording artist! Give me a break.

I've alway been interested in music as an art form. I think if you ever hope to do anything creative with it, you have to understand it ... know how it works. You need to learn something about it's history. All taste is acquired. You like what you're exposed to and what you're conditioned to accept. Just because you don't like a certain style, it doesn't mean that it's bad music. There are gifted and creative artists in all genres. It takes courage to rise above the constraints of peer group culture and embrace music as the expressive art form that it can be. You might finally begin to appreciate true musicianship.

One more personal story. I was 10 when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show. That's when I began to seriously pursue a music career. I still hold a fondness for the Fab Four though I feel I've moved beyond pop/rock music in many ways. Students sometimes ask me "Were The Beatles really as great as they say ... or was it all just hype?" After consideration, I always return to the same conclusion "Yes ... they were that great". I often refer to them as the original "Prog-Rock" (progressive rock) band.

But to really comprehend The Beatles phenomenon, you have to understand that there were really 5 Beatles! There was John ... Paul ... Ringo ... George ... and George. As I see it, The Beatles would have remained just another garage band from Liverpool if they hadn't hooked up with their producer, George Martin. Sir George (his work with The Beatles earned him a knighthood) was a bit older then the four lads and was a bonafide, classic conservatory trained (piano and oboe), degree holding REAL musician. Initially, he wasn't very happy to be assigned these 4 scruffy rock n' roll types to work with ... but they gradually won him over. He ultimately found them determined, talented and "charming". I think they loosened him up a bit too ... and the rest is rock n' roll history.

The Beatles with Sir George Martin. Sir George sits on a stool between John Lennon and George Harrison.

Sir George's impact on The Beatles can not be overstated. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is a George Martin album in many ways! Go back to those epic recording sessions and you find Sir George right there in the thick of it ... coming up with so many of the most creative ideas that propelled that masterpiece into history. That's just a single example.

One of my favorites is the song Eleanor Rigby from Revolver (the album just before Sgt. Pepper) ... in my humble opinion, one of the most incredible pieces of pop music of all times. Paul McCartneys brilliant lyrics ... the images it portrays as we catch a brief glimpse into the lives of two lost and lonely souls who's life lines cross in their little world of isolation, loneliness and failed expectations. It haunts me to this day. Is my life also that pointless? There must have been a lot of that going around in England in the years following Word War ll.

And the music so brilliantly compliments the lyrics. But wait! Think back. Can you hear the instrumentation behind the vocals in Eleanor Rigby? Is it the usual rock band sound we hear in most Beatles tunes ... the regular old 2 guitars, bass and drums?

No. It's a classic string quartet ... two violins, viola and cello ... and a brilliant one at that. I believe nothing else could have caught that feeling of total despair in quite the same way. Metallica, with all their gloom, doom and distortion couldn't touch it in a million years.

So you think those four young rockers from Liverpool wrote that string quartet? No way. They wouldn't even known where to start. It was Sir George Martin ... the nerdy guy with the music degree hangin' on the wall ... and that's true musicianship.

Oh ... and by the way ... I did show the kid the drill thing.

-Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program