Cultural Imperialist

"Scathing Spats on Shallow Subjects"


Fri Jul 28




Ax to Grind: Two Guitars Are Plenty

guitarsI had a fancy dinner in New York recently, a chili-smoked hanger steak at a Thai fusion restaurant. But it was buried under such a thick crust of spices, like a Port-au-Prince shopkeeper, that the steak was barely perceptible.

You know the musical equivalent? Including a third, fourth, or Jimi help us, fifth guitarist in a band.

The duality of life is well established, except in theology where yin/yang, Manichaeism and similar systems are damnable blasphemy worse than voting Green in a national election. Two sexes complement each other, as you'll learn if you try to hang out with a couple by your lonesome or arrive late to an even-numbered orgy. Point guards have shooting guards, and Blair Waldorf and Jenny Humphrey will be locked in competition for Ultimate Queen till the rapture.

Rhythm and lead. Two guitarists provide all the musical creativity any band needs from its six-string section. Like a breadwinner and homemaker, lead brings home the bacon and rhythm keeps the family together. Sometimes they join in beautiful, soaring solos that aurally mimic lovemaking. The (pre-Green album) interplay between Weezer's Rivers Cuomo and Brian Bell could have brought together Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in timeless romance, obviating the need for a magic mailbox in "The Lake House."

There's room for disagreement on whether to add a ukelelist, banjoist or musical sawist to any given band, which each increase the chance that NPR or Austin City Limits will call. But no one can credibly argue that more than two guitars does anything more than make an insecure band member feel better.

The Strokes' frontman Julian Casablancas had this guitarfluous problem in the traveling band for his solo act when I saw them last week. Nary a bass player to be seen, three keyboards, and three guitars for most numbers.  During one song, there were four people playing guitar. What did it accomplish? Just giving them something to do while the most slovenly, uninspiring frontman in pop meandered around the stage sans instrument like he lost a contact lens, and distracting from the excellent fretwork of the band's lead guitarist.

Unless you fly like an Eagle, there's no point piling on the guitars. Any virtuosity will get lost in the melee of sound, like pundits trying to talk above John McLaughlin on his show, and most likely you'll confirm to the crowd you learned just enough guitar to score. Remember this wisdom from Pete Hornberger: "The more people you add, the less effective it is. Like a neighborhood dad garage band."

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