Wielding the Six-Stringed Axe

by Michael Lipari

In 2005, the iconic video game series called Guitar Hero was released to the public.  Within a few years and three installments of the series, producers sold over ten million copies worldwide.  After such success, they continue to produce Guitar Hero games, selling millions of copies yearly.  Now, the player can use all types of plastic instruments to simulate the experience of a rock star.  These include bass guitar, drums, microphones, and more recently, disc jockey equipment.  What exactly is the lure of this succession of video games? According to Blair Jackson, author of an insightful article about Guitar Hero, it is the task of the player, “as a totally awesome rock guitar god” (50) to hit the buttons corresponding to notes in the song.  Even though reality suggests this is only a video game, and any experience of stardom associated with the game is fabricated, the popularity of the game says much about the human desire to be a famous rock star.

Jackson suggests people associate proficiency in the game with being a “rock guitar god” of sorts.  Completing a song in Guitar Hero invokes a certain victorious feeling which author Jane McGonigal articulates quite well in her work, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  She describes “fiero,” literally translated from Italian as “pride,” as the “primal emotional rush […] after we triumph over adversity” (33).  The triumph, the “fiero,” which comes with success in Guitar Hero relates not only to victory in the game, but also to a deeper conquest.  For a few minutes, in an extraordinarily bizarre way, the player feels like someone standing in front of a crowd of thousands, shredding an impossibly fast solo.  Due to the evolution of the guitar, particularly that of the electric guitar in the American and British rock scene, society has begun to revere the instrument in a mystical way.  It has now become a social icon.  People everywhere, young and old alike, tend to admire famous rock guitarists.  Most know little about their personalities, but virtues and moral righteousness are not what bring guitarists their fame.  They are dubbed awesome, they are dubbed “gods” because of their ability to make otherworldly guitar sounds for hours on end.  Today, a unique and magnificent aura surrounds the guitar, an aura which resonates in the minds of the ordinary.  According to renowned music historian Jeffrey Noonan, “players are described as heroes, while stories of performances range from the apocryphal to the fantastic” (4).  He also notes that “studies of American popular music regularly emphasize the transgressive character of the guitar, celebrating its role in breaking down musical and social barriers, emphasizing the iconic and the mythological” (4).

As the success of Guitar Hero shows, humans want to wield the instrument and share in the fame that comes with it.  Even little kids who can play Guitar Hero subconsciously understand that playing guitar is a cool thing to do.  For those who play the instrument—particulary those who play well enough to achieve fame—the force has become part of their lives.  It has helped create and define a facet of the musical world.  Revolutionary guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen and the late Jimi Hendrix, with their iconic lead riffs and signature stage presences, have assisted in the development of the guitar as this enigmatic, remarkable instrument. Guitarists long to have their music heard and recognized as excellent, but playing the instrument involves much more than the desire for fame.  The personal rewards of simply playing it are also extraordinarily powerful.   The guitarist subculture not only signifies mystery and awe, but also genuine emotion and expression.  The sense of achievement and success that guitarists experience after passing personal milestones pushes them to continue playing.  Examining the traits of desire for fame and of determination in musical pursuits will offer a deep and informed understanding of today’s guitarists.

As a kid, I always viewed the guitar as an enigma.  The mysterious instrument stood out to me in an indescribable way; it was truly fascinating.  In his “office” portion of my house (over the years it has become a storage room filled with random junk), my father kept a beige Fender Stratocaster, a well-known and respected guitar.  I frequented that room, curiously plucking each string, wishing I could make them sound extraordinary. Years later, when I finally learned how to play, a new world opened up to me.  I plunged into a fresh way of life that involved playing, listening, and expressing.  Although I have played guitar for years, I never took a good step back to recognize that I do, in fact, belong to a subculture, a group of people that the guitar helps define.  Guitar has significantly molded and shaped my personality and how I live.

Recently, I have tried to observe guitar players from an outsider’s perspective.  Defamiliarizing proved challenging, but through these observations, I have become conscious of guitarists’ actions that I had previously accepted without much thought; I took knowledge of my subculture for granted.  I see now that guitarists possess certain idiosyncrasies and musical views which differ from those of other musicians.  I attended a meeting for a Boston College club called “Jammin’ Toast,” which boasts food, friends, and playing music in spontaneous gatherings.  I noticed guitarists’ unique contortions of their bodies while playing.  I observed several other guitarists who, while waiting patiently in the audience to perform their music, strummed an “air guitar” frequently and at random.  On another occasion, as I watched an impromptu band come together and play in Lyons Hall, an academic building which is part of Boston College, the guitarist showed a strong desire to solo around the rhythm provided by the drummer, the bassist, and the pianist.  He turned on his effect pedals and played very fast, while simultaneously moving his mouth and his eyebrows in awkward, strange ways.

Shortly afterwards, he switched modes of playing instantaneously.  He turned off his distortion pedal and fell back into the rhythm section of the song, playing clean chords in a concrete manner.  He shot a glance at the pianist, who then began to solo himself.  This exchange, although familiar to me, struck me in a new way at this time.  When I play guitar in my band, I similarly signal for a change in a song or a change in solos with a simple raise of the eyebrows and nod of the head.  Days after watching that band play in Lyons Hall, I noted the universality of those gestures.  Later, I spoke with my friend Dan, the guitarist for our informal band at Boston College.  After rehearsing a song together with the other members, he and I discussed the transition between the chorus and the solo of the song.  As the bassist for the band (in the last two years, I have taken up the bass guitar as well), I must fully memorize where song changes occur.

“Listen man, I didn’t really practice the song before this.  You have to let me know when I play the part you solo over because right now, I’m clueless.”

Reassuring me with a positive attitude, he stated, “Don’t worry, dude.  I’ll give you the eyes.”

The remark left me awestruck.  I contemplated my profound realization; guitarists in bands throughout the world must share this ability to signal changes with a glance.  These changes may vary for each guitarist, but without them, the functionality of a band becomes limited.  They help the gears of songs spin as they should.  Although drummers, pianists, and other band members commonly use “the eyes” or other forms of transitional exchanges, guitarists hold them in especially high regard.  When bands play music spontaneously (they commonly do this without a vocalist, and refer to it as “jamming”), the guitarist generally establishes the basic melody or driving riff.  The bassist primarily functions as accompaniment for the drums, to keep the steady pulse in the rhythm.  When bands jam together, the guitarist usually initiates transitions and the bassist and drummer follow.  In order to form a flowing, coherent jam, the guitarist and the remaining members must wordlessly communicate.  Musical possibilities are certainly infinite, and the guitarist’s control does not limit the band.  However, the guitarist normally creates memorable melodies and carries them where he or she sees fit.

A strange phenomenon in the guitarist subculture involves band members relinquishing some of the control to the guitarist.  It is conventional for guitars to project their sound in songs, to demonstrate slight prominence over the other members, apart from the vocalist.  When recalling a famous song on the radio, for example, listeners first recognize the signature sound of the band’s vocalist or the alluring vocal melody.  Then, they will identify the guitarist’s sound or the riff they play.  “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses serves as a perfect example.  After the notorious opening guitar riff, singer Axl Rose enters the mix and dominates until the climactic guitar solo.  To the listener, the vocal and the guitar part become the most memorable pieces of the song.  Unless a drum beat or a bass line particularly stands out, like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” or Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” listeners follow an implicit hierarchy of song remembrance.   They associate the crux of their listening experience with vocals, then guitar parts.  Since jamming sessions might involve all members but the vocalist, guitarists usually hold more responsibility in pointing the band in the right direction.  I speak from experience, as both a guitarist and a bassist, having carefully examined not only these two roles, but also the roles of other band members.

Through my observations of my band at home and my band at Boston College, I saw that guitarists play air guitar when without their actual instruments.  This relates directly to bodily contortions that I additionally observed.  Both aspects of guitar playing reflect a deep, unsaid yearning for guitarists to become more in touch with the surrounding music or the music they churn in their minds.  Andy, a fellow guitarist and good friend, provided great insight to playing air guitar and the subsequent contortions of the face and body.

Andy started playing guitar when he was about twelve years old.  “It seemed fun when I first picked up a guitar,” he stated.  “I really liked the sound.  It had a different texture that attracted me to play it.”  When I asked if he plays air guitar, he replied immediately and with great enthusiasm: “All the time.”

“What do you think makes you want to play air guitar so badly?”

He took his time in answering my obviously thought-provoking question.  “[When I play air guitar], I’m playing a song I know how to play.  It connects me to a song on a much deeper level.  When you play air guitar, it is your musical creativity showing itself.”  His thought process intrigued me.  He continued:  “It has a lot to do with rock music, and with the culture behind it.  Air-guitaring [by non-guitarists] shows a deep desire to learn to how play the guitar.”  I could not have agreed more with his perspective.  I followed my questions about air guitar with a question about contortions.

“Do you think playing air guitar relates to contortions and other movements that guitarists sometimes show?”

Again taking a moment to process the question, he gave an intelligent response.

“Yes, I really do.  But they have less to do with nature of the music and more with the nature of the player and how the song seems to cut right through you [the player], into your heart.”

Andy seems to express that the music does not automatically define how an air or actual  guitarist will react; no set formula exists for how a guitarist should contort him or herself based on a song played.  Rather, each guitarist reacts differently to each song and further, to each particular version of a song.  I recall my cousin Joe, the guitarist in our band back at home (we switch roles between guitarist and bassist), once communicated his thoughts to me after we played a cover of “Soul to Squeeze” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  He discussed his prior experience playing the song with some friends from school.  Nothing sounded right at the time.  He only went through the motions, he remarked, playing notes and chords with no heart behind them.  Simply put, he “just wasn’t into it.”  When we performed the song as a band, however, when all of the tones in the room sounded just right, the music pervaded his mind and body.  He felt synchronized with me and with our drummer, and thus ensued a variety of contortions.

Furthermore, I cannot personally name one guitar composer who does not desire fame to some extent.  Guitarist John Frusciante, previously of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, initially had trouble coping with the fame that came with their groundbreaking 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik.  He had enjoyed their smaller fan base; the stardom overwhelmed him at first.  Lead singer Anthony Kiedis, in his autobiography Scar Tissue, recalls Frusciante’s words after the album’s release: “We’re too popular.  I don’t need to be at this level of success.  I would just be proud to be playing this music in clubs like we were doing two years ago” (229).

I am certain that many guitarists feel this way about their music; I do not doubt that some would rather attain fame on a smaller scale.  But Frusciante makes it clear that guitarists crave attention.  If not for this yearning, why would guitarists bother playing their music to any crowd at all?  They perform at venues around the globe to showcase their talent, hoping that listeners will find something emotionally poignant in their music.  They dream of fans admiring their work and appreciating their abilities.  This facet of the guitarist subculture holds true for all of its members.  Passionate, emotional playing and a longing for greatness characterize guitarists most accurately.

The guitar has surely come of age in the past century.  Revolutionary artists have helped make it a mystical, awesome musical device that can alter lives for the better.  Avid guitarists will forever know that something special happens when they strike a chord the right way.  They keep the instrument close to their hearts from the time they begin playing to the time they die.  Over many years, new levels of ambition will endlessly pile atop the previous.  Guitar playing persistently drives those who brandish the weapon to conquer both short and long-term objectives.  And when, at long last, they attain these goals, guitarists become possessed.  They bend and twist their bodies to no avail.  Their faces cringe.  They shudder with euphoria, wincing at the music around them, overtaken by their triumphs.  Guitarists know firsthand the “fiero” of playing the breakout music of the mid to late twentieth century.  While they will carry established conventions far into the future, they will also maintain the tradition through their own innovations, albeit influenced by the sounds of their predecessors.  Guitarists will feel musical fiero in the same way they have for decades past.  Ultimately, the fiero of the modern guitar pioneers lives on in all of today’s guitarists.  The subculture derives its unity from this long-standing primitive emotional rush.  Now, even “Guitar Heroes” can taste a small piece of the legacy.


 Works Cited

Chen, Andy. Personal Interview. 18 October 2012.

Jackson, Blair. “Guitar Hero” Rocks.” Mix Feb. 2008: 50-52. EBSCOhost. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

Kiedis, Anthony, and Larry Sloman. Scar Tissue. New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.

Lipari, Joseph. Personal Interview. August 2012.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change

the World. New York: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

Noonan, Jeffrey. The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson: University

of Mississippi, 2008. Print.