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Guitar Heroes: Guthrie Govan

There is a common saying that says “Jack of all trades, master of none” - it refers to someone that is proficient in many different areas, but never excels in any one of them. To some extent, this is how a modern guitarist should be - to remain versatile is key. However, the subject of this Guitar Heroes blog post is none other than the modern day guitar messiah, Mr Guthrie Govan. I can honestly say that I believe him to be one of, if not the singular, best guitar guitarists alive today. I have referred to him before as master of all trades, jack of none and I truly believe this to be the case. 

After picking up the guitar at the age of three, and then traversing a life that took him to Oxford University studying English, to a position at a branch of McDonalds and then winning Guitarist of the Year in 1993 - his life has been far from ordinary. As with my other Guitar Heroes blog posts, I will not be writing a biography here, simply explaining what his contribution to the world of guitar means to me, and things that I find particularly interesting.

(Image courtesy Daniel Work)

True to His Roots

One thing I admire about Guthrie Govan, having met him a couple of times, is that, with all the skill and sagely knowledge he possesses, he is a genuinely lovely person. He always seems to have time for his fans within reason and genuinely enjoys what he does. See below for a picture of when I first met him in 2014 - oh to be fresh faced and wide-eyed again (the eyes may have been because of the company!).

Hailing from Essex in the United Kingdom, he still lives in the area and can often be found playing small intimate shows with an outfit called The Fellowship, consisting of saxophonist Zakk Barrett, Pete Riley (one of my tutors from university!), John Dutton and Guthrie’s equally talented brother, Seth. Tickets for these shows usually cost around £10 - complete madness considering the level of musicianship on show!

Guthrie is also known to frequent random open mic and jam nights around his local area - a worrisome prospect for any other guitarist in attendance. 

Technical Mastery

He can play pretty much anything, and do an otherworldly job of it too! Below I have linked a video that he created for a magazine following a poll that ranked different guitarists in various categories - he does an impression of all of them, simply brilliant!

Guthrie Govan Mimics the Greats

There are so many different styles and techniques featured in that video, but the pieces were written purely for demonstration purposes and so do not constitute an actual song. The songs that I’ve linked below are some of my favorites - I’ll do my best to explain why.

Guthrie Govan - Fives

This song is so called ‘Fives’ because the time signature of this piece is 5/8. The chords behind this song are not too tricky, with the main section revolving around an Am11, Fm11 and a Dbmaj7#11 - I will admit that the last one sounds intimidating but it is not difficult to play. There is some great playing at blistering speeds, but exemplary dynamic flow and a catchy melody are to be found also. 

The arrangement is also pleasing, as there is no full on assault that is so common with instrumental guitar songs. A quieter section with harmonics and a bass solo bring this song up to the next level.

Guthrie Govan - Ner Ner

Both this song and ‘Fives’ are from his album ‘Erotic Cakes’ - so named after a famous episode of The Simpsons. This particular song is in 6/8, nothing crazy about that, but it is also played in dropped D tuning (check out my recent blog post on the tuning and the associated videos). Many songs in this tuning are in 4/4 time and are aimed towards the heavier side of the spectrum - this song heavy for Guthrie, but not a metal song by any stretch of the imagination. 

The Aristocrats - Bad Asteroid (Live)

The Aristocrats are a trio of supremely talented musicians consisting of Guthrie (obviously!), Bryan Beller and Marco Minneman - both legends in their own rights. This song taught me about alternate chord voicings, but also choosing the best voicing in a rock trio context.

The song follows a standard format, but what really impresses me beyond the ridiculous skills on display, is the jazz line 4:07 - for him to then quote the theme from Inspector Gadget just shows how aware he is of what he is playing and where it should be going. The smiles from the band all around, regardless of the complexity of the music, is what music should always come down to - enjoying yourself (I have lost track of how many times I have mentioned that!).

In terms of guitar tone, I was immediately captivated by the chorus sound at 5:17 - it just sounds expensive. 

What I Take Away From His Playing 

Govan has an ability to produce and connect coherent ideas in a way that is so fluid and effortless, it has often garnered comments like “I may as well sell my guitars then!” on the internet - it is almost alien and almost always improvised. However, it still has the hallmark all great guitarists have, which is a signature sound that makes their playing instantly recognisable. One of the most prominent lessons I have taken from watching and listening to him play is the confidence to try new, perhaps unusual ideas on the guitar, safe in the knowledge that I can always resolve a line if it doesn’t work - play nine terrible ideas and the last one is something special, the other nine are forgotten. 

I have also taken his lead in quoting different tunes in songs and solos, just for fun. Learning different themes from TV shows, films and popular songs is a great ear training method, but it can also teach how to play over different progressions and how the same melody can function differently if the harmony changes.

“Some of what you practice should sound terrible, because then you know you’re

working on something that needs to be worked on” - Guthrie Govan (2023)

The above quote is a recent one from the master, and not only does it make me evaluate my personal practice, but also guide students in their own practice sessions. Playing something that you already know and are good at isn’t practice at all, it is more of rehearsal if anything. 

Guthrie has played with Hans Zimmer for many years, whose music is primarily film scores, played in arenas across the world. With such a densely packed orchestra, guitar parts should always be concise and sparse, otherwise they would get lost. In the case of mimicking some lines, or in big band music, you may play through a whole chord progression playing one note at a time. On the other hand, playing with a trio like The Aristocrats means that you need to fill out as much space as possible, the bass can only do so much and the drums have no harmonic content at all - your playing would need to be adjusted. This is typically done by spreading out the intervals, creating space within the chord that you’re playing to give the feeling of depth. Observing Guthrie playing in both scenarios has helped me understand in what way I should be changing my playing to fit a scenario. 

Final Thoughts

I have met a few guitarists that dislike Guthrie’s playing, though I cannot figure out why. Perhaps it stems from a place of jealousy, or they pigeon hole him has a nonsense shredder - something I will discuss in another blog post soon. One person I met said it was because he sounded like so many famous guitarists put together… I fail to see how that is a bad thing. Any one person’s playing has a lineage that goes back many years - it can always be connected. Fortunately though, those people are few and far between.

I honestly can’t remember a time that I wasn’t a fan, but I remember being obsessed with his playing, even more than I currently am, whilst I was attending college in 2012 - it must have been at least 12 years. I still think his playing is as timeless as ever!

No-one can play like he can, but if you would like to learn some of his music, get in touch with The American Guitar Academy and they can help you out! 



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