Play Like Marc Bolan

January 29, 2014

MARC BOLAN KNEW HOW TO BE a star, and when he finally got his chance to shine in the early ’70s, he owned the world for a time. Always very sure of himself, always a little bit nuts, and always bigger than life, Bolan was constantly strategizing for notoriety and fame. When he surmised his given name of Mark Feld didn’t evoke the proper superstar élan, he changed it to Toby Tyler, and then Mark Bowland, before settling on the sleeker and sexier “Marc Bolan.” But it was the cultural triple threat of the guitar, fashion, and androgynous visage that would lead Bolan to transform himself from a mystic folkie into an electric warrior, and, with visionary record producer Tony Visconti, invent glam rock with T. Rex in 1970.

While Bolan’s rock-star tsunami overwhelmed any serious consideration of his chops, he revered the guitar, loved Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and James Burton, and often wished his musical credibility was as solid as his stardom. As a member of John’s Children for a few brief months in 1967, Bolan certainly plied his genius for controversy by writing a single that got banned on the BBC (“Desdemona,” for the line, “lift up your skirt…”), but he also designed a trippy—and unwieldy—array of reflector screens behind his guitar amps to “beam” high frequencies into the audience. In Tyrannosaurus Rex, his pop smarts inspired him to bring psychedelic elements into folk music, but his love for electrified rock guitar ultimately found its way into the band’s acoustic mix. Finally, everything would come together in T. Rex: a mammoth stage presence that stirred teens to “T.Rextasy,” boppin’ and edgy guitar grooves that exploded out of radio speakers, boisterous and anthemic songs, and enough glitter to cover the Americas—as well as still inform rock fashion to this day.

What guitarists can glean from Bolan’s brief run as an iconic stratospheric-superduper star is not as much technical as it is—believe it or not—experimental. Here was a man who adored guitarists and the guitar, and who continually fought through limitations of technique to blend his influences into an individual and very personal style. At times, he’d flail away at solos completely unaware of what key he was playing in, but he was always refining the bits that sounded good and got the audience off. His journey from mere strumming to developing a buoyant mix of gritty guitar tone and Bo Diddley-influenced rhythm skanks—the sound that drove so many T. Rex hits—is a victory of experimentation, instinct, and pure joy. As a result, Bolan will likely be remembered far longer than more musically blessed guitarists. There’s a damn good fable in there, somewhere… —Michael Molenda

From his brash fashion statements, attitude, and one-ofa- kind singing voice, to his extraordinary songwriting ability and beautifully doctored guitar tones, Marc Bolan always seemed to be a step ahead of his time, though often in a primitive way. His trendsetting work with/as T. Rex blended elements of folk (T. Rex began as a folk duo), rockabilly, rock-and-roll (Bolan’s hero was Eddie Cochran), and prog (he dug Syd Barrett) into a truly new wave of glamorous concoctions that influenced and inspired musicians and bands as diverse as David Bowie, Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell, the Psychedelic Furs, and Guns N’ Roses, and left an indelible imprint on much of the world at large. Bolan certainly made a relatively small amount of gear go a long way. His go-to guitars included a Gibson Les Paul Custom refinished in translucent orange, a black, tremequipped Flying V, a late-’60s Olympic White Fender Stratocaster, a Veleno aluminum ax, and a Burns Flyte, typically pumped through one of the short-lived Vampower line of British amplifiers, or a Vox, Orange, or Marshall of the moment, and sometimes effected with a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Electro-Harmonix Screaming Tree, MXR Blue Box, and/or Vox wah. (Fact: Bolan’s single-note, low-register guitar work was often doubled or augmented by various saxophones.) We’ll be concentrating on the golden age of T. Rex, circa 1971’s Electric Warrior and 1972’s The Slider, so I highly recommended getting familiar with these pivotal recordings. When you feel ready, you’ve gotta don some war paint and...

Many of Bolan’s catchiest rhythm figures rely on recontextualized, Chuck Berry-style E5-to-E6 riffs punctuated with heavily syncopated E5 stabs voiced on the open first and second strings. Ex.1a shows the basis for the chordal intro and verse figures from “Mambo Sun” (Electric Warrior), while a second guitar in Ex. 1b adds three signature open E5s followed by a low open-E downbeat. Establish the tempo and swingsixteenth groove, and then record Ex. 1a as a loop, adding Ex. 1b to every fourth round, and you’ll hear this monster roar. The displaced half-of-a-Bo-Diddley beat that anchors the A5 and A7 hits in Ex. 1c (reminiscent of the “Jeepster” riff) is embellished in Ex. 1d with a major scale pickup, in which G# rubs deliciously against the G in the A7 chord, plus a slight rhythmic variation on the and of beat four. Choose your voicing and have at it!

“Get It On” (from Electric Warrior), Bolan’s biggest hit in the states, has been knocking listeners off their platform shoes since its release in 1971. A true “Why didn’t I think of that?” forehead-slapper, Ex. 2 reveals the irresistible intro/verse figure’s bone-headed simple combination of Bolan’s trademark ingredients: A medium-tempo E5- and E6- based rhythm riff—laced in each measure with open low Es on the and of beat two, and on beat four—played against five strategically placed open E5 hits capped with a three-note, bent-and-released, G-F#-E pickup. Again, you’ll have to loop one part and superimpose the other to experience the full, two-guitar effect. Or you can always play it with a bud!

We’ll reserve the term “guitar weaving” for Keith Richards (who coined it), but as we’ve already seen and heard, Bolan was equally crafty when it came to layering his parts. The intro/verse riff to “Telegram Sam,” detailed in Ex. 3, takes us to the key of A for an exercise in interlocking guitar parts that pits three, double-stopped A5s and a single-note F# played in the fifth position (Gtr. 1) against a slightly more spacious Berry-style deconstruction (Gtr.2). Once again, Bolan’s whole is greater than the sum of his parts.

SPIN ON THE BLUES Of course, not all T. Rex songs were based on a single formula—you’ll find a remarkable breadth of stylistic crossovers present throughout the Bolan catalog, often within the same tune. Bolan’s take on the blues, for instance, could easily encompass a traditional Jimmy Reed-ish I-chord figure as depicted in Ex. 4a (a la “Lean Woman Blues”), as well as the unique and slightly bizarre turnaround shown in Ex. 4b. Here, we follow a low-E downbeat with a simple arpeggiated V-chord (B7) voicing on beat two, chromatically drop it to Bb7 on beat three, add a double-stopped triplet to cover A on beat four, and return to a more traditional E-B7 wrap-up in bar 2. Come to think of it, I’ve never run into or thought of playing this turnaround before. Have you?

Bolan was quite fond of odd song forms and harmonic schemes. Case in point: The quirky, 5-bar verse progression from “Rip Off” (Electric Warrior), which is documented in Ex. 5, comes off as four bars of pure, protopunk tension (C-B-F-Am, laced with all-purpose open-string G6 passing chords) capped with a whole-note Cmaj7 “ahh” for resolution. The entire song consists of this repeated figure, plus a bridge built first from eight rounds of G-to-A, and then four rounds of A-to-B, all played as half-notes. Simply monstrous and pure Bolan.

“Baby Strange” (The Slider), features another odd intro and verse progression. The song’s intro consists of four rounds of the one-bar, C#-to- D figure transcribed in Ex. 6a and labeled “Rhy. Fig. 1.” (Tip: Try it with an open D shape and its lower chromatic neighbor, C#, both sans the fourth string.) The 14-bar verse progression that follows begins with the rhythmic motif in Ex. 6b applied first to the D, and then to the Cmaj7 voicings shown in Ex. 6c, plus one two-bar round of Rhy. Fig. 1. The verse figure concludes by repeating this formula appended with an additional round of Rhy. Fig. 1. Paraphrased in Ex. 6d, Bolan’s short-’n’-sweet, incredibly detailed, and slightly “out” outro solo, is immensely catchy, which brings us to our next thing...

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Big, thematic, singalong solos are another hallmark in the T. Rex pantheon. Consider “Metal Guru” (The Slider), which features, in place of a traditional guitar solo, a simple, G-AF#- E half-note ensemble melody played in unison and octaves by every instrument (guitars, bass, horns, and strings), and embellished with bombastic, wordless, backup vocals by none other than Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, a.k.a. Flo and Eddie. (Fact: During the recording of Forever Now, the Psychedelic Furs adamantly refused to have the former Turtles and Mothers sing on the album until producer Todd Rundgren informed the band that the duo worked their magic on both Electric Warrior and The Slider, whereupon they quickly relented.) In similar fashion, but without the sheer bombasity of “Metal Guru,” Bolan’s two-guitar, motif-based, E pentatonic major solo, along with his rhythm figure from “Mambo Sun,” transcribed in Ex. 7, accomplishes the same effect with only two guitars. Though it’s an even, eight-bar progression, the three plus-five grouping creates the illusion of an odd amount of measures. It’s all about the arrangement.

Halfway through The Slider, listeners are suddenly pulled into proto-metal territory with some Zep-worthy, lowregister, single-note riffery that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in the early Led catalog. Presented in all its glory in Ex. 8, the intro/verse riff from the deep album cut “Buick MacKane” (covered by Guns N’ Roses in 1993) crackles with a deceptive, “where’s one?” intro before the drums give us our bearings. Once again, the amount of detail and ornamentation Bolan packs into this syncopated, fifth-position workout is astounding.

Finally, if there’s one T. Rex riff you’ve gotta know, it’s the intro/verse figure from “20th Century Boy,” yet another heavy, Zep-ish, “where’s one?” riff that leaves us hanging until the drums kick in. Ex. 9 reveals the true rhythmic personality of both the opening E-chord figure and Bolan’s ensuing bend-y, low E-string riff. It’s coolness personified. What more do you need?

He may not have been the premier soloist of his day, but Marc Bolan had a genuine knack for distilling rock-and-roll guitar down to its base elements in ways that most of us deemed too simplistic or simply overlooked. Our loss, his fame!

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