At some point in the '80s I guess I became known as a “guitar virtuoso.” Whether or not that’s appropriate, in some ways it applies to a certain aspect of what I’m trying to do on the guitar, which is play at the highest level of musicianship all the time. I look at it more as something to aspire to. But when I listen to classical violin or piano virtuosos I’m not convinced that any of us in the rock ‘n roll, fusion, country or jazz world really deserve the title.
With the guitar it seems that speed and chops are the number one qualifier for virtuoso status, and this is a pretty narrow view. It excludes some of the great masters of the instrument like Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, and many others. But the guitar is a very visual instrument and you can see the hands working when you watch a guitarist, which is unlike the piano. So I can understand why speed and physical dexterity trump tone, taste, vibrato, and musicality among the younger players and many fans of the instrument.
I’m on tour in Europe playing some very large arenas and a new realization has occurred to me. You really have to change your playing style to fit these venues because fast playing doesn’t translate to the guy in the last row. No matter how clear your distortion or solo tone is, the long flurries of 16th notes become a blur in these 10,000 to 15,000 seat stadiums. My goal is to try to relate something to the guy in the last row, and he is 300 feet away from the stage! And especially in this band, he is just as likely to be a she . . .
Supertramp is primarily known as a keyboard-based band, but surprisingly I’m afforded quite a bit of improvising space in the course of the show. It blows my mind that I’m given the opportunity to improvise in front of 10,000 people each night. The challenge is to make it appealing to the highest possible percentage of them and bring them to their feet with the sheer emotion of the solo.
Is that what a virtuoso does? —Carl Verheyen, October 2010