Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rush for Aspiring Guitarists, Part One

When I was fifteen or so, in High School, I had a friend who introduced me to various rock bands that he liked -- bands like Foghat, Styx, and Blue Oyster Cult. I liked them all right, especially Blue Oyster Cult, who I found to be fun because of their sense of humor. But as we went through his records I kept thinking "what else have you got?" In other words, the blues-rock of the late 1970s was starting to sound all the same to me.

Eventually he got to a weird album with a naked guy and a pentacle on the cover. "I don't really like this," he said. (I think it was mostly because he was uncomfortable with the naked guy). He put it on.

There are a few moments I will never forget. I will always remember the first time I saw Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which blew my mind when I was perhaps ten years old. I will always remember the first time I kissed a girl. And I'll always remember that first needle-drop on Rush's 2112. It was the heaviest, hardest fastest rock I had ever heard, and I immediately wanted to learn how to play it myself. It had never occurred to me that it was even possible to put so much power and passion and speed into guitars, drums, bass, and vocals. Never mind that I couldn't even fret a barre chord. I wanted to sing it, too -- and back then I could hit those high notes. I spent so much time singing Rush songs, as well as songs by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, in falsetto that for years I could really only sing on pitch when I sang in falsetto. Of course, Geddy Lee can't hit those notes anymore, and neither can I.

I shredded my fingers trying to learn to play that album, but gained enough hand strength to fret barre chords, and with the aid of a few lessons I began, slowly, to gain a little bit of technique and ability to play by ear. I can't claim to be all that good at it -- I know people who are better -- but with persistence I can generally get the job done.

Over twenty-five years later, I still turn to Rush for inspiration. You can argue the overall merits of Rush's music. I'm not going to claim it is all wonderful. They are, well, a little geeky. It isn't for nothing that early Rush is sometimes called "math rock." They loved odd time signatures and difficult-to-play passages that inspire musicians more than average listeners. Extended science fiction and fantasy epics like "Hemispheres" aren't to everyone's tastes. Their lyrics are often pompous and arty and vague. But there is no denying their instrumental and compositional skills.

Moving Pictures featured a couple of traditional hard rock songs that are very good by any standard, such as "Limelight." Even while playing rhythm, Lifeson just can't hold still; his backing is imaginative and busy. But I will always remember Moving Pictures for the instrumental "YYZ," which is actually -- don't tell anyone -- a jazz composition! "YYZ" -- as a structured jazz piece -- will be remembered. It was nominated for a Grammy award, but unfortunately lost. But in 2007 who remembers "Behind My Camel," the Police instrumental that beat it? That song doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia.

For a number of years, after Moving Pictures and Signals, Rush began to produce music I didn't really like very much. Although every album had its moments, on the whole most of the songs seemed flabby and uninspired to me, often too slow and too soft, and too bombastic. More importantly, on these albums the band seemed to take themsevles far, far too seriously. Rush's best work has a sense of humor, and when they perform live it comes through. Geddy plays with a tip jar on his keyboard, Alex occasionally babbles nonsense into his microphone, and in general they look like they are having quite a bit of fun. But in songs like "Manhattan Project" and "Marathon" they were showing off their musical virtuosity, adding synthesizer washes and overdubbed choruses (played live using samples), and blindingly fast guitar soloes -- but somehow it just wasn't much fun. A whole series of Rush albums went by that I barely bothered to listen to.

Recently, it seems like the band has begun to get back some of that sense of enjoyment. In 2004 they released a short album of cover songs called Feedback. The covers are terrific. Their new release, "Snakes and Arrows," is for the most part quite good. They're tanned and rested! And there is a lot you can learn from their music. "Snakes and Arrows" has not one, but three, instrumentals. I think it is time Rush earned that Grammy for best rock instrumental.

Next time -- what it's like for an aspiring guitarist attempting to play Rush. Why to do it, what you can learn from it, and why not to do it.

No comments: