Published in PM August 2008
People + Opinion : Cooper's Column
I worry about my fellow scribbler, Steve Hughes, really I do. Not for the first time, his latest Loose Strings column hit on something about which I was to expound the next time I clambered up on to my soapbox. I've decided either we are long-lost twins, he is a psychic vampire, or there is something in the 'meme' theory: that certain ideas just have a natural life and time of their own. The point Steve made last month, and which I had been about to make, was the tendency of inexperienced guitarists to whack everything on full and call it 'a tone'. I don't know what had reminded Steve of the truth that 'less is more', but I had recently been listening to some early guitar-hero stuff from people like the much-missed Paul Kossoff and early Wishbone Ash, with Ted Turner and Andy Powell. If you haven't heard it, dig it out. Kossoff's use of a Marshall was anything but the ear-splitting grunge so many think is 'exciting' (and neither was Peter Green's come to that!) while Powell and Turner's use of Orange Matamps was almost Shadows-like at times, it was so clean. But when they did hit the loud pedal, it wasn't ragged, wasp-in-a-jam-jar distortion they were squeezing out but pure, sweet, harmonic sustain. This hit me full-force as I was trudging around the recent London International Music Show. On the public days, it got to the point where I seriously considered nipping onto the BC Rich stand, stealing something with a pointy headstock and prowling the aisles, where, whenever I found a 13-year-old widdling faster than Malmsteen and making a sound like a fart blown through an atomic megaphone, I'd give him (it's always a him) a poke in the wedding tackle with a set of Grovers. I felt the same way about the slappers, too — those bass players who think they are drummers. There was one demonstrator in particular who went on and on and on, slapping and tapping and popping and pulling so furiously that even Mark King would have slunk away with his tail between his legs, had he been there. Me? After the first five minutes, I just wanted to set fire to his bass. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't playing the bass guitar. It is a problem, I admit. What do you play when you test a guitar or bass? One demonstrator tried to show off his endorsed gear by playing ordinary bass to a backing track. It was embarrassing. I think it was the great Herbie Flowers who once said you get a gig as a bassist by playing on the top four frets, and you keep it by sticking to the bottom four. Likewise the widdlers, who, God bless 'em, mostly need to calm down a bit, back off the overdrive knob, and remember that the general idea isn't to cram as many distorted, indistinguishable notes as possible per minute, but to play some bloody music. It occurs to me, as I write this, that I may be getting old. But, as I seem to drift farther away from admiring pyrotechnics, I don't think that's actually the problem. It's that we need to remember that technical ability is absolutely no substitute for musicality.
Gary Cooper is one of the seminal figures of British music journalism. He was editor of the UK's first magazine for rock musicians, Beat Instrumental, and founded Music UK, Sound Engineer and In Tune magazines. Today, he is a freelance journalist and consultant specialising in the technical and business aspects of the music industry.
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Published in PM August 2008
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