WORLD GUITAR DAY 2018: From the moment a 22-year-old McDonald’s burger flipper from Chelmsford, Essex swept the boards at 1993’s Guitarist Of The Year competition, Guthrie Govan has been an unstoppable force.
Even then a phenomenal talent, he was soon one of the most popular transcribers for TG’s sister magazine Guitar Techniques; he inspired thousands of students at UK guitar schools ACM and BIMM, and was invited to tour with prog legends Asia.
Prior to that Guthrie had dropped out of Oxford University where he was studying English, having decided music was to be his life. He’d been playing guitar since three years old when he picked up one of his dad’s instruments and struggled to play a D chord on its huge (for his tiny hands) neck.
Just like Jimmy Page, he appeared on TV as a youngster, and was scaring the big boys at King Edward VI grammar school with the kind of fretboard antics they could only dream about.
Years later, with the advent of YouTube, Guthrie became an online sensation, garnering a massive following and his fame spreading around the globe.
Move on a couple of decades and Govan is one of the world’s most admired musicians. He never stops learning. He never stops improving. And today he shares his wisdom far and wide at guitar clinics - he’s endorsed by Charvel who make the GG Signature models - he’s recorded and toured with prog genius Steven Wilson, worked with British rapper Dizzee Rascal, and has his own outfit The Aristocrats with Joe Satriani sidekicks Bryan Beller (bass) and Marco Minnemann (drums).
He was even sought out by Grammy-winning film composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight Trilogy, et al) and regularly tours as a member of his massive orchestra.
Now, he shares his wisdom with us…
Welcome to the pleasure dome
Guthrie possesses a rare talent, but we can all find satisfaction by questioning our expectations
“The thing I find myself saying at clinics - because I’m often asked to heal a room full of people’s problems with one pearl of wisdom - is, ‘What am I expecting music to give me back in exchange for all the money and hours I’m going to invest in this? What player am I trying to become?’ And the more specific you can be about what you expect, the less likely you are to waste any time.
“Some people just want to write a song; others want to use the money they earn by not being a professional musician, to buy the world’s nicest amp and enjoy the sound of that amp in their basement; others want to conquer the instrument.
“I don’t think it can hurt to learn the nuts and bolts from a page or in a scholastic kind of way, but anything you learn like that only becomes of use to you if you can internalise it and trust that it will be there when you need it, rather than call on it in a conscious way. You can’t be listening to this voice in your head telling you, ‘Now is the time to use the third mode of the major scale.’”
Ear to eternity
Striking a mindful balance between using your ear for musical memory and using your pen
“When I started playing, everything was by ear, and if my memory couldn’t retain something it got lost. Presumably, my ear got something a little more permanent in that the next time I heard that chord sequence I could remember it.
“The writing down started around the same time I discovered the ‘excessive’ players of the 80s: Yngwie, who knew the harmonic minor scale; or Steve Vai who taught himself to sightread. A lot of players of my generation who heard those players when they were malleable teenagers thought, ‘Even though this is rock ’n’ roll it’s okay to embrace a certain amount of academic discipline.’ Then I realised that if I can write it down and I don’t need to fill up the RAM in my mental computer, that I could spend less time trying to memorise the thing and more time honing my ear.”
The forbidden chops
Feel, tone, theory and chops are all important, but what makes a good balance?
“The older, wiser player knows in a deep, intuitive way that it’s the quality of the playing that counts: does it have a decent tone? Is it a beautiful sound and are you putting it in exactly the right place relative to the pulse of the music?
“But if you are a beginner who’s looking to derive enough joy from the instrument so that you are still pleased to see it the next time you practise, you need a mixture of those core values and things that are a little bit exotic or exciting, yet seem somehow attainable. So, yeah, I think there’s a real value in learning the ‘forbidden mode’, as long as you don’t expect that mode to solve all your problems.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t actually care about soloing. A solo was something that happened for eight bars in Rock Around The Clock, but first and foremost guitar was a tool that helped you perform a song. Everything I did in those days was easy rhythm, lots of I-IV-V songs, for which I’m profoundly grateful. Because if you are focusing on that type of music it’s not hard to play it, it’s only hard to play it well.
“When I was bumbling through Blue Suede Shoes I’d think, ‘Oh, I played all the chords in the right order and pretty much in time!’ Then I’d listen to Elvis and his band and think, ‘Why don’t I sound like that?’ It was something I figured out a long time ago - this nebulous concept of feel - how you play something: the dynamics, the timing and all the subtleties.”
Race with the devil
Music is not a contest...
“It’s an unhealthy thing to rate musicians. If you want to see this exemplified, go to the YouTube comments section where there’s a whole legion of guitar players who want to turn it into top trumps and give every player a rating out of 10 for various aspects of their fearsome technique.
“A lot of it is specific to the musical world you’ve chosen to steep yourself in. Yes, Yngwie came along and startled everyone; yes Eddie Van Halen came along and startled everyone. But the people who were the most blown away by that had possibly not been paying attention to John McLaughlin or Al DiMeola.
“There’s a whole species of guitar player who’s completely forgotten about what Les Paul did, what Chet Atkins did or what Django did. The difference was we didn’t have YouTube, so if you wanted to learn what Django did you were on your own, pal!”
The qualities that make a great musician can vary
“I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. I think everyone has their own unique skill set. For instance, Noel Gallagher is a successful musician; he’s made a lot of people happy. His sweep picking, I assume, is terrible. But he doesn’t need it.
“He has his vision of what he wants to be as a musician; and for him it’s all about, ‘What can I do with these same few chords that everyone else knows, in a way that sounds familiar but just fresh enough that it brings joy to many listeners?’
And good luck to him.”
Slide sweet lord
Why the slide is a gateway to a sound beyond the guitar...
“Slide was a George Harrison thing; that’s what it represented to me, more than the ‘Dust My Broom’ lick. It was almost like having a pedal: you could keep the guitar in regular tuning, set up like you’d have for your normal playing, but slip this prosthetic finger on and have a whole new ‘free’ tone.
“Then when I got the Hans Zimmer gig and my job was to come up with something for a guitar player to do on this epic, three-hour set of Hollywood soundtracks that all sound amazing but don’t have any guitar on them, slide poked its head out and said, ‘Why not try me?’ And what slide means to me now is a gateway to be able to sound like something other than a guitar, while still playing a guitar.
“Slide plus volume pedal gives you total freedom to sculpt a note to make it sound vocal, or like a cello or whatever.”
Even Guthrie needs a chart on the stage sometimes
“I would like to be a total hypocrite here and say it’s better to get rid of that stuff as soon as you can, otherwise every time you play the song you are just getting better at reading the chart. So once you’ve allowed the chart to serve its basic purpose, get rid of it.
“Having said that, for the Hans gig I have an iPad on a stand, not so much for remembering how the music goes, but there are some interesting structures in that music. We have these TV screens in front of us telling us what the bar number is, so I figured, ‘I’ve got a whole orchestra behind me with charts; I’m the hairy, heavy-metal looking guitar player, so what’s the weirdest thing a guy can do? Well, I guess have a chart like the rest of the orchestra!’”
Getting the most out of your guitar
“I think if I had one guitar and I had to do everything I do on that one guitar, and that guitar was, say, a '50s Tele, I would have issues. So, yes, there are many things I do that a Tele of that era doesn’t allow me to do. But I’m fortunate now that I have more than one guitar and I look to each of them to do different things.
“But when people talk about technique they often talk about how many notes a second you can play or how evenly you can pick. But another part of technique is, do you know how to get the most out of this instrument? Do you know the recorded lineage of it? Do you know what a great Tele sound or 335 sound should be? That in itself is something you can spend years on, knowing where each one of those classic tones fits. Although I’m fairly comfortable with Strats now, but I’d have to go back to the woodshed to learn how to get a decent A chord out of a Tele.”
Accepting guitar as your only muse
“I’m the world’s worst keyboard player. I can’t even hold a drumstick properly. And like most chain smokers, I shouldn’t be allowed to blow down any instrument with a reed in it. The only way I can think of translating music from my head into moving columns of air is definitely fretboard-based. The layout of the fretboard makes total sense to me. Everything else is alien.
“I hate keyboards because if you modulate up one ‘fret’ everything completely changes. The way your hands have to deal with modulating up a semitone doesn’t correlate in my head with how the sound has changed.”
Guthrie gets stuck in a creative cul-de-sac sometimes, but it’s all part of the process…
“Absolutely. And I think it’s normal. If you were never in a rut you would never experience lows, and bundled with that is you would never experience any highs, either. I think it’s unreasonable to look at your instrument and say, ‘I only want eureka moments and ecstatic discoveries.’
“So, yes, I have moments of not feeling that inspired and sometimes fairly lengthy moments of not wanting to see a guitar. The thing I can’t get away from is music, because it’s such a big country and there are so many things to discover. The way I conquer a rut, either consciously or unconsciously, is to look for something different in music - a genre that I’ve been neglecting, or just listening in a different way.”
I hear you knocking
Ritchie Blackmore once criticised ‘high-technique’ players for displaying too much perfection. Guthrie weighs in...
“It amuses me that someone from that generation looks for the fastest, most technically proficient player so they can pick on him. And they always go for Joe Satriani - ‘leaves me cold’, etc. And he’s the worst possible target, because he’s such a melodically aware player. Let’s give Joe a break: he’s a real musician, he’s a real guitar player; he has a voice of his own and it’s very human.
“But it puzzles me when people have to dismiss something largely because they can’t do it, especially when back in the day they would have lapped up the air of mystery around them because they could do what most other guitar players couldn’t, and maybe they miss that now.”
As someone who uses real and virtual amps, does Guthrie ultimately see modelling taking over?
“I hope not. An interesting parallel is the extreme autotune you hear on pop vocal tracks. There’s a generation of young people who want autotune on their vocal tracks or it doesn’t sound like a real pop record. And that’s just over-exposure to that technology, and you come to accept the sound of that technology. Maybe that will happen with guitar modelling.
“My current position is that I will use digital solutions if it’s the best way to get the job done. For the Hans gig, there’s a microphone on a piccolo behind me; I don’t want a screaming 100-watt stack or I will be fired! That’s just intelligent problem-solving, but I’m having slightly less fun onstage because I don’t feel that beam of sound coming out of the speaker cabinet and I can’t change the way the note is feeding back by moving around, but what the audience is hearing is basically the same.
“For something like The Aristocrats, you’re depending on inspiration dropping from the sky on every gig, so for that a real amp is going to get a better performance out of me, whether it’s a psychological thing or not.”
V for victory
Guthrie is now a Victory amps player and it’s been a collaboration...
“Victory have just made a new version of their V30 amp. The V30 and I go proudly back to the day I said to the guys at that company, ‘I think it would be really great if you could have an amp that sounds like what you do but that even easyJet will allow me to have as carry-on luggage, and I can just hire a 4x12 wherever I go and still have the same sound.’
“So they actually made that amp, but going round touring for the last couple of years I started to get a more detailed idea of what other things I could ask of it. Victory are great because they listen; even when you’re spouting off a stream of consciousness they are taking notes. [Designer] Martin Kidd is a very, very smart designer. So they made a bunch of changes to the V30 and the new one is actually more flexible, and I look forward to when I can take it on the road and use it at obscene volume levels. With the guitars and Charvel, we got to [version] 2.0 and I ran out of things to complain about, so I’m really happy with how that turned out.”
Reason to believe
As a kid, could Guthrie have imagined being hailed by the likes of Vai, Satriani, Gilbert or Tremonti?
“There was never any thought of success in those terms. I guess I always wanted people to like what I do... But it was never the thing I was looking for. If you were to ask me why do I play guitar, it’s essentially the same answer as, ‘Why do you speak English?’ It’s just part of the fabric of your life when you’re too young to choose it. It chooses you.
“I’d found an area of music that really excited me and I was focused on being able to do things in that style. I just wanted to get back home and spend more time with the guitar.”
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