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When Guitars Went Gargantuan: A Prog Rock Primer

March 25, 2008
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IN THE LATE 1960s, rock began to evolve from short pop songs best suited to the lo-fi bandwidth of AM radio and cheesy sounding 45s to higher-fidelity, stereo-ready FM, long-playing albums (a.k.a. LP’s), and increasingly powerful home and car stereo rigs. More ambitious arrangements and grander musical schemes were explored by creative guitarists looking to break out of the blues-box pattern (think “Louie, Louie” solo), the 12-bar blues form (all those Chuck Berry and early Beatles tunes), and the three-minute pop ditty. Aiding this effort was the work of guitar heroes such as Hendrix, Clapton, and Beck, who had established lead guitar as a dominant rock voice, and who had opened the door for this new generation of progressive-minded guitarists to push their instrument’s role even further by forming groups that were dominated by intricate and ambitious guitar work, sometimes to the point of being wholly instrumental.

Out of this came the movement now known as progressive rock, or “prog rock,” which encompassed everything from clasically influenced strings backing blues-based rock to the concept album. Hallmarks of prog rock include orchestral instrumental settings (performed either on acoustic or, as was most often the case, on a Mellotron), complex harmonies, expanded musical forms, and a literary ambition that takes its aesthetic cue more from classical music and opera than from the 12-bar blues. The guitarists who were to make an impact during this era were plectrum-wielding polyglots who knew their Bach as well as their Beck.

The First Wave

The first progressive rock artists exploded out of England during the period from 1966-1970. In this era, such groups as Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Genesis appeared. During this fertile time, rock guitar technique took a quantum leap forward, seeing such players as Yes’ Steve Howe and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp eschewing the blues-based Hendrix/Clapton approach and instead inventing very novel ways of playing that were often as cerebral as they were visceral.

Howe was one of the most important and versatile proponents of this new school of guitar. He fused together the diverse disciplines of classical, jazz, fingerstyle, ragtime, rockabilly, country, and blues into his own individual brand of playing. For a good part of the ’70s, many people considered him to be rock’s best guitarist, and he frequently won guitar polls. (In 1981, he was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player for the fifth year in a row.) From contributing to Yes’ multi-layered, symphonic sound to playing solo fingerstyle tunes in concert (“The Clap,” “Mood for a Day”), Howe could do it all.

Perhaps Howe’s best-known lick is in the 1972 Yes single “Roundabout,” the band’s first major U.S. hit (from the album Fragile). The song’s most captivating aspect may in fact be Howe’s simple but memorable intro—a blend of 12th-fret harmonics and fingerpicked, hammer-on-laden licks performed on a steel-string acoustic. The riff soon became a staple in the vocabulary of every beginning rock guitarist. Ex. 1 shows another Steve Howe staple—the double-stop sixth (last two bars). Arguably a variation on Wes Montgomery’s approach to octave solos, Howe frequently slides these intervals up and down the fingerboard on either the high E and G or B and D string pairs. This riff helped integrate a harmonized, two-string double-stop approach into rock soloing that was much different from what Chuck Berry had done.

The “Yardbirds of Prog”

In the early days, Genesis—like Yes—were heavily influenced by folk music. They often played folk covers, and often shared stages with folk singers such as Richie Havens (Yes’ second album, in fact, opens with a cover of Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed”). Long before Genesis became pop superstars, they recorded some of the most beautiful progressive music of the 1970s, much of it created by their guitarists, Mike Rutherford (who doubled on bass), Anthony Phillips, and Steve Hackett (who joined Genesis for their third album, 1971’s Nursery Crime).

A unique soloist, Hackett concocted haunting melodies he artfully embellished with volume swells (one of the true staples of prog guitar) and, occasionally, two-handed tapping (he pioneered this technique in rock long before Eddie Van Halen did, as can be heard on “Return of the Giant Hogweed,” from Nursery Crime). Hackett’s best solos are in “Watcher of the Skies” (where he plays melodic background phrases, swells, and delivers a searing fuzz solo) and in “Firth of Fifth,” which contains a long lead, filled with more volume swells, hammer-on trills, and serpentine melodic patterns. On many Genesis records, Mike Rutherford can be heard contributing acoustic and electric 12-string arpeggios. (Keyboardist Tony Banks also picked up a 12-string from time to time.) Genesis spawned many famous personalities (Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins), making them sort of the “Yardbirds of prog,” but it was the guitar battery of Hackett and Rutherford that was arguably the band’s most seminal.

The passage in Ex. 2 evokes the ethereal sound of early Genesis. It features a soft background of arpeggios and mesmerizing lead lines accented with a subtle whammy-inflected vibrato. It’s definitely great guitar playing, and idiomatic, too (the slides, the bends, the whammy bar manipulation), but it’s used for atmospheric and textural purpose, and for avoiding obvious rock guitar clichés.

Fripp’s Trip

There’s a strong argument to be made that King Crimson was the first true progressive rock band and Robert Fripp the first prog guitarist. Playing his trademark black Gibson Les Paul Custom, Fripp’s ferocious guitar assaults mix a refined classical-fretting technique with an inventive use of unusual scales (at least for rock) and meter changes. That Fripp comported himself with a zen-like approach to his music and the mien of a spiritual leader and philosopher, made it that much easier for him to arise as the genre’s natural ambassador.

Although most of the songs on Crimson’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, primarily feature gentle keyboards and acoustic guitar-oriented ballads, they are offset by “21st Century Schizoid Man,” an abrasive rocker highlighted by Fripp’s off-the-wall power chords and solo. King Crimson’s progressive rock often danced on the edge of the avant-garde, and nearly 40 years later, Fripp and King Crimson—including co-guitar genius Adrian Belew, who joined in 1981—continue to provoke audiences with their daring, offbeat brand of rock.
The lick in Ex. 3 is classic Fripp, using heavy distortion and the neck pickup to create a fat, thick tone for notes that slide up and down the fretboard in an unorthodox manner. In many ways, it evinces the sound of a sitar more than a guitar. If Fripp has one modus operandi, perhaps it’s the more exotic and unusual the lick, the better.

Pink Floyd’s Space Blues

Where prog rock did incorporate the established vocabulary of blues-based rock, it did so with grand ambition—symphonic orchestrations, complex arrangements, and harmonically adventurous accompaniment. Pink Floyd ushered in the idea of the concept album—a hallmark of the prog rock genre (though of course, the Who had done it with their rock opera Tommy as well). Later styles—such as speed metal and neoclassic rock—owe a debt to prog rock for paving the way for more bombastic settings than the blues-based, rhythm-section-backed hard rock of the late ’60s, as typified by Cream and early Zeppelin.

Floyd’s guitarist, David Gilmour (who replaced co-founder Syd Barrett), is a wonderfully soulful blues-based player competing in an arena populated by progressive rock players who exude strange and exotic influences in their solos. But Gilmour keeps on the traditional side—more of a blues guitarist in the mold of Eric Clapton than the sonic revolutionary of Fripp.

Nevertheless, Gilmour’s haunting yet always lyrical solos help define the Floyd sound as much as their obscure lyrics and Roger Waters’ subterranean synthesizer parts. Listen to “Time” (from the mega-platinum Dark Side of the Moon), where Gilmour cuts an echoey lead laced with plenty of bluesy string bends. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V” (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here), includes a series of soulful solos over a basic minor-blues backbeat. Gilmour’s best-known break, however, is the fadeout solo in the power ballad from The Wall, “Comfortably Numb.” Technically, it’s a basic blues-rock pentatonic excursion, but one that builds to operatic proportions, due to a highly dramatic chord progression.

If you play Ex. 4 with the right tone (perhaps half-dirty with plenty of sustain) and the right amount of fire in your fingertips, you can hear an approximation of the bluesy nature of David Gilmour’s guitar style. The secret to its effect is that it’s in a “space rock” context, not a conventional blues one. Gilmour’s uniqueness in the prog rock pantheon was that he naturally and masterfully blended straight blues-rock guitar with dreamy art-rock chord progressions and adventurous, even psychedelic production techniques.

The Great Lake

One of the most elegant players on the progressive scene, Greg Lake can do it all: play electric, acoustic, and bass guitar; sing; produce; and write many of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s best songs. Although his instrumental work was often subordinate to Keith Emerson’s over-the-top keyboard antics, beautiful guitar parts abound on ELP albums such as Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery. In particular, Lake contributes brilliant acoustic passages to “Lucky Man,” “In the Beginning,” and “The Sage,” which contains a virtuoso solo performance. You can hear his most memorable electric parts in the suite “Karn Evil 9,” as well as in the gentle ballad “Still … YouTurn Me On.”

Example 5 is a riff that brings to mind Lake’s ringing acoustic arpeggios in “The Sage.” (You can either pick the notes or play them fingerstyle.) The thing to walk away with here is that this is one of the best examples of a guitarist bringing an elegant, classical-like approach to pop music to create a full-sounding backdrop.

Rush into the Limelight

A powerhouse player, Alex Lifeson remains among the most innovative rock guitarists of the last three decades. His work with the kajillion-selling Canadian power trio Rush is marked by epic and melodic solos, shimmering rhythm parts, and a frequent use of modulation and time-based effects to add dimension to his colorful guitarscapes. Some of Lifeson’s best electric solos are in tracks such as the complex instrumental “La Villa Strangiato,” and “Limelight,” which includes tasteful whammy-bar effects and strong melodic statements.

In addition to his fiery lead work, Lifeson is also a skilled rhythm guitarist and texturalist. Like the Police’s Andy Summers, Lifeson makes extensive use of chorus in his arpeggiated chord progressions. His electric work often sounds like acoustic playing, and his rhythm work is just as developed as his lead playing—which certainly contributes to the success of any power trio, even if that trio includes monster bassist Geddy Lee and powerhouse percussionist Neal Peart. Like many other iconic prog guitarists, Lifeson is a veritable jack of all guitar trades, equally at home with electric, acoustic, or classical guitars, and always handy at pushing the envelope of rock guitar.

Let’s zero in on Lifeson’s ability to craft vibrant chord parts that sound full and jangly by checking out Ex. 6. Instead of playing typical, clunky barre chords, Lifeson often lets the B and high-E strings ring open (provided it suits the tonality), making his six-string guitars sound almost like 12-strings, perhaps adding some stereo chorus to further widen the sound.

“I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on being a rhythm guitarist,” said Lifeson in 1994. “In a three-piece, you have to. You have to fill the space.”

Barre Chords

It’s not surprising that as progressive rock and heavy metal both took off in the 1970s, they would eventually cross over. Bands such as Jethro Tull, Mountain, Kansas, and Rush successfully mixed muscular guitar thump with the lighter keyboard, string, and acoustic textures of art rock, blurring the lines between “hard,” “heavy,” and “progressive,” as well as the line between prog rock and metal. In fact, some disagreement exists on how to classify Tull: prog (with their neo-classical influences as seen in the swing version of Bach’s “Bourée in E minor”), art rock (the nimble and delicate stylings of Ian Anderson’s flute playing), or metal (Tull was named “Best Heavy Metal Band” by the 1989 Grammy Awards committee).

In any case, Martin Barre (below), who joined Jethro Tull in 1969, put his tough guitar work all over Tull’s early-’70s hits, including “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Locomotive Breath,” and the FM-radio anthem “Aqualung.” His solo on the latter is particularly noteworthy, because it possesses a melodic sense rarely shared with his hard-rock brethren. But Barre is also known for his monstrous riffs, usually played on a Gibson or Hamer solidbody going through a distortion-driven stack.

Simple, distorted, and full of visceral punch, Ex. 7 is a riff in the classic Martin Barre style. Play these simple power chords decisively and with aggressive downstrokes, and note the prominent use of fretting-hand string muting. Like picking-hand palm muting, fretting-hand muting later became a staple in the music of pioneering thrash bands such as Metallica and Megadeth.

Did You Know ...

... that most seminal prog guitar tones were crafted with Hiwatt amplifiers? Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett, David Gilmour, Martin Barre, and Greg Lake were all Hiwatt users during their heydays. Steve Howe, who used Fenders almost exclusively, was the notable exception.

Jon Chappell is the author of three music-related Dummies books, including Rock Guitar for Dummies [Wiley].

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