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Judging a Book by It’s Cover

It is an unfortunate truth that many aspects of numerous industries are based on appearance. This is especially true in the music industry, however, today I want to talk about something a little more relatable for the average, workaday musician. 


I have spoken a few times about being versatile, and how many players have a unique approach to music (see my blog post here). However, due to the way one might look, other people might immediately assume that you may only play a certain style of music, or you are unable to play in a specific way.  Please note that this does not refer to people that are well known for playing in a certain way - they are famous for a reason!


Personal Experiences


Without going into too much detail, I would like to detail some of my own personal experiences with pigeonholing - when someone unfairly categorizes you through unfair assumptions. For reference, I have long hair, a somewhat lackluster beard (though through lack of trying!) and a simple lip piercing (when I’m not teaching naturally) - many people, when I meet them for the first time, assume that I play rock or metal… and that is pretty much it.  I have performed and recorded in countless genres including soul/R&B, electronic dance, hair metal and ska - I also have an insatiable love for the blues in all of its forms as well as jazz and funk. I can never seem to settle on one style, and truly live by my own advice that is “try to see something in everything”.


Frequently I have surprised people by knowing some George Benson tunes, or even more foolishly on my part, attempting some obscure Allan Holdsworth solo. I do not think I am particularly unique in that regard, that is just how I am - I have observed this in many famous and highly-skilled individuals too. 


I recall an occasion at university where I attended a jazz workshop, and I offered to play guitar for a standard tune - I don’t remember the tune, but we played in the key of C, that much I can remember. At that time I always wore my leather jacket and, for reasons relating to being a poor student and not being able to change the strings on my guitars, I was using my old Ibanez RG550EX in a sparkly silver finish - very pointy, very inappropriate visually but it still sounded great (we’ll talk about gear later!). This naturally cued some concerned looks as I approached the stage… I could almost feel the eyes roll! It was definitely a surprise to them when I decided to play the Flintstones theme over my solo section because I decided to not take myself too seriously!


Future Blog Posts


In the future, I will be sharing some short interviews I have conducted with notable and working professional guitarists in the industry. Their experience is across many genres, areas of the industry and from the smallest stages to the biggest festivals. All of these people I consider friends, and trust their opinions wholeheartedly. 


I will be covering their perspective on the topic we’re discussing today, and discussing their personal experiences with being judged prematurely - those blog posts will also serve as an artist spotlight, that will be the name of the series. It is my hope that these posts will be interesting for the reader, but also eye-opening and inspire you to forge your own path, no matter what. 


As a sneak preview, here are the guitarists I will be speaking to:


Charles Roper

More notes that you can shake a stick at, but a technical and theoretical knowledge you would struggle to match. This masterclass video should keep you occupied for a while!



Michael Kaplan 

Our illustrious leader at The American Guitar Academy. A noted educator, performer and businessman, seen here interviewing the smooth jazz legend that is Norman Brown.



Nat Martin

One of my teachers at university, phrasing extraordinaire and purveyor of possibly the best guitar tone around. This video is a funk arrangement by Stefan Redtenbacher, a fabulous version with awe-inspiring playing.



Nik Sampson

A metal guitar maestro who is equally as comfortable shredding through some of the most complex metal tunes around as he is playing bass and touring the world with UK death metal pioneers Benediction. This video playthrough is as brutal as it is amazing!



Joe Boult

This fine Northern specimen is a hard-working musician and guitarist that fully embodies what it means to be a working professional in this industry. Being able to teach, write, record content and publish great tunes, like the one linked below, is no mean feat!




Assumptions Based on Gear


It is not uncommon to have a preconceived idea of a performer or performance based upon equipment, something I alluded to earlier in this post. There are some real world examples I think would make a good challenge for you.


Artist 1:


Consider this, you see a large pedalboard onstage with a Gibson Les Paul and Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and a 4x12 Mesa Boogie guitar cabinet - can you guess what music this artist plays, and who it might be? 


This artist is none other than studio legend and jazz maestro, Lee Ritenour. Whilst he does also use nylon-string guitars and jazzboxes (big hollow-bodied guitars), we can almost always be seen with a Les Paul and a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier - one of the most common amps for crushing metal sounds!


(Image courtesy Hans-joachim Maquet)


Artist 2:


You spot an interesting guitar onstage. The shape is unusual, the guitar has seven strings and three of them are unusually thick. The frets are also oriented diagonally, called fan frets - what is going on here?


The artist here is Charlie Hunter, a pioneering musician across many genres that has a unique approach to playing, something I adopted in my own way when I use a seven string guitar myself. The custom-built guitars he uses are designed for the lowest three strings to be similar to that of a bass, allowing him to faithfully play bass guitar parts whilst using the conventional higher strings to play various chord voicings and phrases. Again, you might assume a guitar like this would be aimed more towards heavier genres - see my blog post on seven string guitars for more info.


Artist 3:


This set-up is slightly different, in that the stage you see it on is much bigger than the others. There is a Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster and Jazzmaster visible and a guitar amp that is an interesting shade of Orange, not typically befitting the image of a guitar amp. Any ideas?


In an opposite fashion to the previous two entries, this player uses guitars that might ordinarily be associated with rock, funk, blues and indie - instead using them for some of the heaviest mainstream riffs around with the band Slipknot - I am of course talking about Jim Root. Orange Amplifiers (this is the brand name) have long been associated with rock and metal, following closely on the tails of Marshall Amps as they are both from the United Kingdom. To those uninitiated, the bright Orange color of the Tolex cover on the heads and cabinets might conjure an image of something not quite as aggressive. 


Did any of these case studies catch you out? Perhaps you were jumping to conclusions and judging preemptively, a normal response though I hope to have shown that it is something we should train out of ourselves.


Final Thoughts


There are so many layers to music, an insurmountable number that we each perceive in our own unique way. You can have a person that might excel, or be well known, in a particular style, though they may still have a strong ability in other areas - this can also extend to other skills such as arrangement, songwriting and production. Sometimes even with other instruments! Guitar virtuoso Nick Johnston is well known for composing most, if not all, of his instrumental songs on the piano then arranging the tunes for the guitar further down the line. 


I was always surprised at the depth of the knowledge my tutors possessed, and also how broad that knowledge was. Try asking your teacher, or one of the amazing team of teachers at The American Guitar Academy, for their opinions and if this has affected them in the past and how they overcame it. Also, keep an eye for the upcoming Artist Spotlight blog posts!


Keep rocking!


Alex

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