Back in October, Marnie Stern’s dense guitar work, frenetic energy, and idiosyncratic songcraft grabbed my attention. While sounding of her time, she also sounded unique and fresh. I made a mental note of her, but didn’t investigate further until coming across a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker (Jan 3, 2011). Jones characterizes Stern as a virtuosic guitarist, grouping her with indie rock contemporaries Annie Clark (nom de plectre, St. Vincent) and Marissa Paternoster (of the band Screaming Females), who are also invariably lauded for their guitar prowess whenever mentioned by the press.
While it’s not clear to what extent this fascinating phenomenon is a construction of the media, it really does appear that, at least in today’s world of mainstream indie rock, most of the guitarists pushing at the customary boundaries of the instrument are women (Frere-Jones observes that boys are more concerned with their samplers). Stern herself, though, is always quick to point out that she doesn’t see herself as a great guitar player. She opts for her technique of choice — finger tapping — because it’s “easy,” thanks to using two hands instead of one on the fret board. Here’s a video of Stern talking about it. If you don’t watch, note that she also remarks that, despite not presenting herself as a great guitarist (though she does, in another video, refer to one of her tapping riffs as a “shred,” an idiosyncratic use of a word associated with guitar virtuosity), people on the internet often make cruel attacks on her playing.
So, what’s with the discrepancy between the music journalists who revere Stern and the online public that tears her apart?
Finger tapping, the most focused on feature of her playing, is broadly associated with 1980s rock guitar icon Eddie Van Halen, though Stern, who’s self-taught, says she got it from Ian Williams of the band Don Caballero (and I once read an interview with Eddie, who’s also self-taught, in which he said he got it from trying to duplicate what he saw jazz fusion uber-virtuoso Alan Holdsworth doing with his left hand alone). Lots of guitarists used the technique in the ‘80s, however, some developing it beyond even Eddie’s impressively honed approach. Check out Jennifer Batten’s 8-finger performance of Rimsky-Kharkov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” — it’s quite the feat (she was Michael Jackson’s guitarist for a spell, by the way, which meant Jackson got a fantastic live rendition of Eddie’s solo for the song “Beat It”):
Stanley Jordan, another guitarist who came up in the ’80s, took tapping even further, playing bass lines and chords with the left hand while simultaneously playing melodies or improvising solos with the right. But he’s a jazz player. This is an important distinction. Most people expect jazz players to be capable of playing virtuosically, at least since music critics warmed to bebop. The same is not only expected, but demanded of classical musicians, particularly the soloists. And flamenco guitarists…well, a flamenco guitarist who can’t shred isn’t a flamenco guitarist.
Stern is an indie rock guitarist, which comes with its own technical expectations. As is Annie Clark. But Clark, though often referred to as a guitar genius, shredder, virtuoso and the like, doesn’t play with techniques that would be typically be associated with electric guitar virtuosity. She therefore doesn’t seem like she’s trying to be a shredder, and as a result will be largely ignored by the shredder community (I spent some time searching and couldn’t find the sort of guitar-centric vitriol you find for Stern). Stern, on the other hand, does play fast, and she does it with tapping, a technique associated with virtuosity. But, in pure shred guitar terms, what she’s doing isn’t nearly as difficult, ambitious, fast, or cleanly executed as what the best rock guitarists were doing in the ‘80s, nor what many of their (generally perfunctory) successors are doing today.
So, despite the fact that she’s an “indie rock guitarist,” Stern’s utilizing a virtuoso’s technique, getting media attention for it, and using that attention to her commercial advantage, which firmly drops her into the ‘gator tank of guitar player scrutiny. One of the first criterion young guitarists look at when determining if someone is any good is whether they can reasonably say, “I could play that.” Most guitarists who aspire to shredder status would consider themselves to be able to play what Stern is playing, even though most of them would have a hard time imitating what she does. Getting through the entirety of such songs as “This American Life” and “Precious Metal” (from 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm) would take quite a bit of practice due to the stamina and accuracy that her idiosyncratic (especially phrasing-wise) self-taught style requires. Not to mention that, to be true to the challenges Stern has set for herself, the guitar parts should be hammered out while singing! Still, ambitious guitarists figure that, with practice, they could play the guitar parts without too much trouble.
Personally, I have no doubt that Stern is a badass musician in her own right, at the very least for the way her intricately weaved tapping riffs are part of a grand musical structure in which vocal melody, harmonic environment, and fret board movement are juxtaposed. She is more than just finger tapping, as, in fact, is Eddie — we should be wary of reducing musicians to a single technique, no matter how much that technique is relied on as a marketing hook. Her music is fantastic, I love her playing, and I’m happy she’s made the scene.
As for her opponents who, even with practice, know they couldn’t play those parts — well, those types tend to consider most of the guitarists who are clearly better than they are to suck. They might argue, in long impassioned message board debates, that Jimi Hendrix or Steve Vai suck due to not meeting some arbitrary technical or aesthetic criterion such as, “To be a good guitarist, you have to be able to uniformly pick every note with your balls.” These are the sour-grape wannabes about whom I shall say no more. The Stern critics I’m interested in are the one who actually can work their way around a fretboard.
That said, I’d like to dig a little deeper into our cultural conceptions of the guitar without venturing too far from the topic at hand. These regions may be more dimly lit than the above, so bear with me as I attempt to separate and identify the obfuscated shapes and forms dwelling therein.
By employing her techniques primarily on distorted electric guitar (as opposed to acoustic guitar, as guitar wiz Kaki King does), Stern has landed on the radar screens of shredders from all walks of life: heavy metal, metal prog, jazz, fusion, neoclassical fusion, etc., despite the fact that what Stern claims to really want more than anything is to play guitar in the way that best facilities the realization of her musical vision as a whole. These other genres and subgenres continue to encourage virtuosic technique, but mainstream pop and rock music abandoned the virtuosic guitar solo around the time that Nirvana came onto the scene. Kurt Cobain soloed, but his solos served other purposes than those of the shredders. Virtuosic rock guitar solos became quickly stigmatized in the early ’90s. Billy Corgan, for example, played shreddy guitar solos on early Smashing Pumpkins albums, but did so less and less as they become popular.
In the last several years, however, I have noticed an increasing appetite for virtuosic rock guitar playing. You can find loads of aspiring young shredders of varying skill levels on YouTube, most of whom are playing along with the same stuff I did in the ‘80s because, having gone out of style, there’s not much interesting music to choose from that’s new to the field. Even the former metal shredders who are still around have taken to holding back — compare solo Marty Friedman in the ‘80s to his solo output in the ‘00s. Media and audience praise for Stern’s playing exemplifies this renewed appetite, though, to be clear, it’s coming from people who also expect to hear their idea of a well written song.
I myself get mostly positive response for my guitar solos, though there has been some anger as well. On the other hand, no one has ever objected to my playing fast, complicated music on a classical guitar. This difference in reaction is in line with our cultural conceptions of musicianship in general: it’s perfectly fine –revered as high art, in fact — to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on violin or classical guitar. Play it on a distorted electric guitar, however, and suddenly we have an affront to taste, a soulless exercise. We praise the classical and jazz (the “purer” the better) virtuosi, and denigrate the same in rock, due to a pervasive garage-band mentality whose aim is to keep rock simple. This strikes me as an arbitrary development, given that, in non-cultural terms, playing a piece on one instrument rather than another is largely just a change in timbre. In the case of going from violin to electric guitar, it’s a relatively small change — smaller, for example, than going from violin to classical guitar.
As a result of these persistent, though admittedly slowly letting up, cultural stigmas, many electric guitarists who aspire to virtuosity have developed the sort of defense mechanism we see at play when guitarists attack Stern online, particularly when these guitarists are more focused on musicianship than songcraft.
These harsh critics are, on some level, reacting to the fact that they themselves have been demonized for that which they do better than Stern, but for which Stern is being praised. For example, Rhapsody music service describes her as the “candy-coated Yngwie Malmsteen of freak rock,” which is way off the mark any way you look at it, and doesn’t help anybody involved. There is certainly going to be some resentment for the likes of Stern on the part of accomplished guitarists who have not managed to have a career. It’s unfortunate, but there is an incredible amount of bitterness among many guitarists who’ve spent years of their lives practicing eight hours a day only to be dismissed by the public as cheesy showoffs. Their therapy is to congregate at message boards and talk shit about the famous and revered. And you don’t have to be an accomplished player to join in, you just have to be a fan of the sentiment (see the aforementioned sour-grape wannabes). It’s not healthy. People with thriving careers don’t do this.
What the haters aren’t getting, though, is that Stern’s musical sensibility is essentially a marriage of the dirty philosophy of melodic post-punk with the technical approach of prog and metal, and that’s something the sensibility of the current, recently mainstreamed, indie rock media is going to respond to. A great example of this marriage is the song “Nothing Left” from Stern’s 2010 album, Marnie Stern. Her instrumental technique gives those journalists something new to think and write about, but they wouldn’t care about it at all if they didn’t relate to the music itself. From a more selfish perspective, I like that Stern’s touted by journalists as a virtuoso. It might help open some doors for my own music.
Before closing, I want to comment on the other guitarist mentioned in the New Yorker article, Marissa Paternoster. She shreds in an essentially blues-based rock style, and does it solidly. There has for some time been a debate amongst two factions of (mostly narrow-minded) rock guitarists about the merits of such a style, famous practitioners of which include Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Slash, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Frusciante, Angus Young, Eric Johnson, and Orianthi Panagaris, versus a more modal or technically honed rock style that also draws from blues, but mostly takes from jazz and/or classical music. Exemplars of this second style are Randy Rhoads, Frank Zappa, Jennifer Batten, Jason Becker, Vinnie Vincent, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and, of course, Yngwie Malmsteen. (NB: I’m loosely categorizing some of these for the sake of making a point, not as an attempt to designate a hard dichotomy in rock guitardom.)
“Tasteful” and “feel(ing)” are the words that get most bandied about in arguments over which of the above approaches is best, though I think it’s a pointless argument, the real purpose of which is to support tastes that are too elusive to concretize. I prefer defending my taste (if forced to) with the famous old Duke Ellington tautology: If it sounds good and feels good, then it is good! Paternoster might be put down by the latter faction but supported by the former, though overall she will be considered a good soloist by most fans of rock guitar. I know I dig her.
I’ll leave you with another excellent musician (and songwriter), Shannon Wright — one my favorite guitarists working today.