RIP Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

This news came as an absolute shock when I heard it earlier today: Eddie Van Halen, Hall of Fame Guitarist Who Revolutionized Instrument, Dead at 65.

Like thousands of other guitarists, Eddie Van Halen (EVH) was my first guitar hero. His band, Van Halen, hit the music scene in 1978, which was the same time as I began to play guitar. I spent countless hours learning dozens of Van Halen's songs on the guitar and playing them live at various gigs throughout my younger days.

Eddie-Van-Halen

There are a handful of guitarists who I would say profoundly influenced my life as a musician, and EVH would easily be in my top five. EVH was a true pioneer, and his influence wasn't just on me; I think EVH inspired more guitarists than any other guitarist in history - even more than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. As far as music in general is concerned, you could probably make the argument that few musicians in all of history have had as profound an impact, both for their instrument and their genre.

EVH's signature solo "Eruption" was the sound that launched a thousand imitators. While some might make the argument that this guitar player or that guitar player played this or that solo better than EVH, the fact remains that - for all intents and purposes - EVH did it first, and he did it better than anyone before him. EVH was a true innovator, whose technical skills and unique approach to the guitar was directly responsible for thousands of other people's careers.

I'm a big fan of Rick Beato's YouTube Channel, and a couple of years ago he created the following video, which describes Eddie's profound influence on guitar playing and rock music better than I could ever do.

EVH struggled with a myriad of health and substance abuse issues for decades, and it was great to hear that he was clean and sober from 2008 onward. But still - I think the years of physical abuse finally took their toll on him, and I was deeply saddened to hear that EVH lost his battle with cancer today at the young age of 65.

As I have grown older, it has been difficult to say goodbye to my childhood heroes. Chris Squire of Yes passed away in 2015, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP both passed away in 2016, and Neil Peart of Rush passed away in January of this year.

Despite the fact that I never met any of these musical influences, I somehow feel like I've lost several close friends. That isn't supposed to happen. Heroes are supposed to ride off into the sunset. They're supposed to be immortal. Heroes aren't supposed to die like ordinary people.

RIP EVH. You will be sorely missed.


POSTSCRIPT:

If I was to pick my top five six guitar influences they would be (in no particular order): Eddie Van Halen, Alex Lifeson, Steve Howe, David Gilmour, Randy Rhoads, and The Edge. While I have been influenced by dozens of guitarists, I can honestly say that something from each of the guitarists that I listed shows up in my playing almost every time I play the guitar. (For more about that train of thought, see my A Few of My Favorite Guitar Solos post from several years ago.)

A Few Thoughts about Trevor Rabin

Trevor Rabin slowly emerged as one of my favorite guitarists. I first learned of him when he was working with Manfred Mann in the early 1980s. (Thankfully I had missed his debacles with the glam rock band Rabbitt.) When the song "Owner of a Lonely Heart" came out in 1983 and became a huge hit, I wondered what the heck Rabin was doing with Yes, and how badly would he ruin the band. However, that feeling evaporated as I heard more of the 90125 album. Oh sure, that particular musical offering was more about creating "pop music" than "progressive rock," but still - Rabin had some SERIOUS musical chops.

Yes

When I saw Yes in 1984 during the Tucson stop of their 90125 tour, Rabin upped his game to a whole new level in my estimation. He completely nailed songs from both catalogs of Yes' music - both the old and the new. In fact, I much preferred Rabin's live versions of classic Yes songs like "And You and I" and "Yours Is No Disgrace" over Steve Howe's live versions. Rabin was far more meticulous than Steve Howe at getting all of the guitar parts right in a live setting. On the other hand, Steve Howe seemed to wander all over the neck in a never-ending stream of musical ramblings on every live Yes recording, which often sounded like he was almost drunk. However, Rabin also added some unique parts of his own to those vintage pieces; I had to admit that Rabin added parts where Howe would never have thought to add them, and in the end I thought Yes' music with Rabin's additions were sometimes better than the originals.

After the Tucson concert had ended, a few friends and I met Yes backstage, and Trevor Rabin was one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. After our group of friends had an informal meeting and autograph session with the entire band, most of the band members wanted to climb into their waiting limousines and speed off to their hotel for the night. But Rabin was involved in a great discussion about music with my friend Larry and me, so Rabin waved them off and said he'd catch up with the rest of the band later.

Larry was the drummer for a band that we were both in at the time, and our discussion with Rabin was simply about music - and that's it. Rabin wasn't acting like a rock star, he wasn't basking in the adulation of fans, and we weren't showering him with adoration and compliments. The three of us were talking about guitar effects, and production techniques, and songwriting, and about music in general. In short, this was simply three normal guys having a normal conversation about their favorite subject.

During the course of our discussion, I told Rabin that I thought he was a great replacement for Steve Howe, who was the predominant guitarist for Yes during the 1970s. I immediately sensed that I had touched on a sensitive subject, so I let it drop. However, some years later I was reading an interview with Rabin in a guitar magazine, and he said that the hardest thing for him while he was a member of Yes was constantly being compared with Howe. That's not what I meant to do, and I felt badly that I had been part of that experience for him.

A few years later I joined the US Army, and by the late 1980s I was stationed in Germany. If you've read any of my military-related posts, you'll know that I spent a lot of time out in the woods chasing bad guys. However, when I wasn't working, you would find me curled up with a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton novel, and quite often I was listening to Trevor Rabin's Can't Look Away album. Once again, it was more of a pop music album, which was different than my general preference for progressive rock. Still, I had this album on cassette, and I nearly played it to death during my tenure there. The following video features the song "Something to Hold Onto" from that album, and it's a great example of just how weird an 80s rock music video could be.

In 1991, I caught Yes on their Union tour in Frankfurt, Germany. During this concert, I saw Rabin save the show when the audio for Howe's guitar dropped out during "And You and I." For some reason, Howe's sound vanished from the mix during the acoustic breakdown in the middle of the song. Rabin had been standing off to the side, but when Howe's guitar disappeared, Rabin jumped over to his pedal board, hit a couple buttons, and came up with a plausible acoustic sound to finish the section, with barely a moment or two of dead time. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I eventually found a video of that show. The camera was predominantly focused on Squire and Anderson so you can't see everything that's happening, but you can hear it. If you watch the following video, you can hear Howe's guitar disappear around the 20-second mark, followed by Rabin's guitar filling in the gap for Howe a second or two later.

Rabin eventually left Yes, and he spent several years writing soundtracks for movies. (IMDB currently lists him with 60 credits as a film composer.) However, in 2012 Rabin released his Jacaranda solo album, where he showed that he still hasn't lost his touch as a guitarist. In addition, the following video shows that he hasn't lost his touch with odd music videos, either.

In what would seem like a rare moment in musical history, the surviving members of Yes put their pasts behind them and teamed up to play a couple of their classic songs when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. (Quick side note: Chris Squire, the longtime bassist of Yes, had recently passed away, and Geddy Lee from Rush filled in for him.) It was nice to see Rabin back with the group, and to be honest - the following video shows that Steve Howe isn't aging well; his guitar chops are starting to fade, and he made several embarrassing mistakes. On the other hand, Rabin looks like he's having a ball, and he seems to have a great musical rapport going on with Geddy Lee. (Hmm. Perhaps the two of them should do a side project together?)

One day, I'd like to meet Trevor Rabin again and apologize for my poor choice of words from when I met him back in 1984. It's a poor excuse, but I was only 18 years old at the time. I honestly meant what I said to be a compliment, and I didn't realize how Rabin would receive that. Who knows? Maybe some day I'll get the chance.


POSTSCRIPT:

On a totally unrelated piece of trivia, the writer and director Joss Whedon is a big fan of Yes, and I recently learned he named his Mutant Enemy Productions company after the acoustic breakdown section of Yes' song "And You and I."

MutantEnemy

The lyrics for that section of the song are:

"Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time.
Insane teacher be there, reminded of the rhyme.
There'll be no mutant enemy we shall certify;
Political ends as sad remains will die.
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you."

You can store that piece of trivia awesomeness for a rainy day...

Christian Progressive Rock is a Small but Necessary Genre

I mean no disrespect to anyone - including my wife - but I personally find the majority of what is called "worship music" within the church to be insufferably boring when heard outside of a formal church service.

99% of the time that music is based around some arrangement of the I ii IV and V chords, with the occasional vi chord to mix things up.

I'd also say that 90% of the time that music has a time signature of 4/4, with another 7% of 3/4, and the remaining 3% being mostly of 6/8.

Adding insult to injury, most of the contemporary "worship" lyrics are utterly pedestrian and predictable. You could take a list of about 100 words from popular "worship songs" and write them on 3x5 cards, then toss them on a table and arrange them in some sort of random order and you'd pretty much have recreated the next Chris Tomlin "hit."

There was a time that I was working on an "Instant Worship" website as a joke, which would have used something akin to a "Mad Libs" type of algorithm to kick out random lyrics with bogus chord charts based on everything I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.

Suffice it to say, if it were not for prog I would have gone crazy years ago. I accepted Jesus in my late teens in 1984, and I spent years listening to a conglomeration (or conflagration?) of Christian music's "rock music" offerings. Bands like Petra were the powerhouses in that genre, and yet - I had been listening to Rush and Yes and Genesis and a host of prog bands before my salvation; Petra was nowhere near the level of musicianship or complex arranging as secular proggers.

I had heard of Phil Keaggy in the late 70s, but it wasn't until I heard King's X in the early 90s that I thought, "Wow - a Christian band with serious prog skills." (Yes, I know King's X seriously backslid in later years, but in their heyday they were awesome.)

Iona and some other Christian proggers came along later, and several pieces from Iona's catalog definitely hit the mark. Although I know several prog fans who grow quickly tired by their Celtic influence. (Irish music doesn't appeal to everyone. Although I'm of Irish heritage so it works for me.) But still - I often feel that there's an itch that I just can't scratch when I think about Christian music. (Which, by the way, is the only music I buy.)

These days I have been particularly impressed by several of the spin off projects and musicians that are operating with Neal Morse's realm of influence. See the following video for an example of what I mean, although that particular song is more a pop/rock piece than prog until you get to the bridge, but having seen them live, holy cow - amazing musicians.

Some of the projects involving Matt Smith of Theocracy are also great. See the following video for Project Aegis as an example.

With all of that being said, more often than not I find that I cannot kick back and enjoy most of what exists within the banal realms of what Christian music typically has to offer, but I can get totally lost in a great prog piece of music.


UPDATE:

Much of what was written above was extracted from a post that I had made in the Christian Progressive Rock Online Gathering (CPROG) group on Facebook. Someone challenged my statements about Iona, to which I replied:

"Pieces here and there from Iona's catalog definitely hit the mark; that's why I intentionally singled them out. Although I know several prog fans who grow quickly tired by their Celtic influence. (Irish music doesn't appeal to everyone. Although I'm Irish so it works for me.)

However, if you look at the brilliance behind albums like
Fragile from Yes, or Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from Genesis, or Brain Salad Surgery from ELP, or Permanent Waves from Rush, etc., I can think of no albums in their entirety from the Christian Prog genre that approach those masterpieces. Because if they did, they'd also be popular outside of the incredibly tiny genre that is Christian Prog. So to reiterate: Iona is some of the best that Christian Prog has to offer, but overall - the Christian Prog genre is seldom everything that it could (or should) be.

PS - I should add that I have everything that Iona produced, to include their live videos. As far as Iona is concerned, I am quite the fanboy, and one of my regrets is that I never had the chance to see them live."

And then, much to my horror, Dave Baindbridge - one of the musical visionaries behind Iona - posted the following:

Thats' great Robert. Have you heard my albums Celestial Fire, and Veil of Gossamer? Both are more 'progressive' than most of my work with Iona. https://www.musicglue.com/iona/shop/categories/dave-bainbridge

I had to quickly re-read all of my earlier statements to see if I'd insulted Iona in any way... which I probably did. Not by intention, of course, but still... crap.

Sad smile

Yup, there's nothing quite like inadvertently insulting one of your favorite musicians in a public forum to remind yourself that anyone can read what you say.

Transcribing Shallow by Porcupine Tree

One of the things that I like about certain pieces of music is "groove," which is hard to describe in words - but you'll know a good groove when you hear one. Several of the pieces that I have transcribed in the past fall into the "great groove" category, which is largely why I transcribed them in the first place; the groove of each respective piece got under my skin, and today's transcription clearly belongs in that collection.

Without further discussion, here's my transcription of "Shallow" by Porcupine Tree. (See https://youtu.be/tIgONIbYSyY for the original song.)

Here are my notes about this transcription:

  • The most-glaring omission from this transcription is the organ part; it's featured in the second verse and in other places, and I didn't bother to transcribe it because - I didn't want to. So there.
  • I tried to dial in the piano part, but even I can tell that it's not perfect. To be honest, this transcription was more about the guitar/bass/drums.

FWIW - I originally transcribed this song several years ago, but I was thinking about it the other day, and I decided to revisit it. After making a bunch of changes, I decided to post the revised version as a blog, which will hopefully help someone in the future.

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Transcribing Black Flag by King's X

I had this song stuck in my mind for a few days, and occasionally the best way to get a song unstuck is to transcribe it. With that in mind, here's my transcription of the King's X song "Black the Sky" from 1994. (See https://youtu.be/OtOb2_3YOCE for the original song.)

This piece is a perfect illustration of how cool "Drop B" tuning can be... and transcribing it made me seriously regret selling my 7-string guitar. Winking smile

Once again, my transcription is pretty faithful to the original, and here are the main differences that I can think of:

  • Ty Tabor used a wah pedal to play the guitar solo, but I used an autowah for my transcription playback. That's because I didn't feel like manually notating all of the wah pedal wizardry that Ty was doing. Was that laziness on my part? Perhaps. But the autowah sounded good enough for me.
  • At measure 14, Ty changes the chords on the first pass and the second pass through the chorus. However, I wanted to make the transcription a little easier to read/write, so I notated the chords from the second pass through the chorus. Was that laziness again? Perhaps. Deal with it.
  • I have to admit, there are parts of my bass arrangement that lend themselves to Tim Starace's excellent bass cover of this song on YouTube. (Tim plays it much better than I would, though.)

On a related side note, I have transcribed a few pieces by King's X, and one thing that I've learned to appreciate is Jerry Gaskill's drumming. I grew up listening to guys like Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Mike Portnoy, etc. In other words, I predominantly grooved to the giants of the Progressive Rock genre. But there are certain drummers - like John Bonham - who lay down a steady groove that underscores a lot of cool stuff that's going on in the rest of the piece. (See https://youtu.be/UvOm2oZRQIk.) With that in mind, Gaskill's drum parts are never mind-blowing, but they definitely create a solid foundation. (And of course, Jerry sings harmony while playing, so he's got that going for him, too.)

Choosing the Right Guitar Strings

I've shared a lot of Rick Beato's videos on social media before, but humor me. The following video has a great explanation and demonstration of the difference that the gauge of string will make.

I'm not sure which string gauges my fellow electric guitarists use, but long ago I settled on two off-the-shelf sets that go on all of my electric guitars:

That being said, I experimented for several years trying to find the gauge that I was most satisfied with when playing electric guitar. In the late 70s, I was fortunate enough to have a guitar store nearby that sold individual guitar strings. (The long lost "Sunshine Music.") So I experimented with buying specific strings and finding what worked best for me. I eventually settled on a custom set that ranged from .008 to .038, which - of course - sounds like the range for a stock .008 set, except that I had altered a few of of the the middle strings for specific tone/strength differences. Once that store folded, I was forced to go back to off-the-shelf sets.

Back in the day, I loved the Ernie Ball .008 to .038 gauge; they were bright and easy to abuse with multi-note bends. But they had one glaring problem for me: in the early 1980s I used the whammy bar - a LOT. (Hey, it was the 80s.) But with that in mind, I completely destroyed all of the strings in a gauge that light; those strings simply could not stand up to the whammy bar abuse. I eventually switched to .009 gauge just to reduce the frequency of broken strings. But the main weakness that I was running into was where the string wrapped around the ball end; that was the primary culprit for most of my string breaks. At one point in my life I would break at least one string per gig, and since I never kept the spring cover on the back of my Strats, the ball end would shoot off like, well - a bullet, which should not be confused with the Fender strings I would later use.

And that makes a great segue, because I soon discovered the Fender Super Bullet Light .009-.042 strings, which had a molded end instead of a ball end. That design change meant that I could abuse the heck out of those strings with a whammy bar and they could stand up to everything I threw at them. Since I was predominantly playing Strats and Kramers that both could use Super Bullets, they became my string of choice until sometime in the early 2000s.

All things change over time, and I eventually drifted away from my Strats and Kramers, which was primarily due to my wanting to shift back to the sound of double-coil humbucker pickups. (And yes, I could have mounted humbuckers on my Strats, but I decided to change back to Les Paul guitars... 'cause - you know - they're Les Pauls. Oh, and an Explorer, too.) However, the Super Bullet strings did not fit into the Gibson stop tailpieces, so I needed to find a new set of strings. After trying several sets, I decided on the D'Addario EXL120BT .009-.040 strings, because I wanted the strength of the .009-.015 high end strings with the lighter .022-.040 low end strings.

So, there you have it - 40+ years of electric guitar string choices condensed into a few paragraphs.

Transcribing Lost in Germany by King's X

It's been a few months since I posted a guitar transcription, but that doesn't mean that I haven't been working on transcriptions - I just haven't been posting transcriptions. That being said, I decided that I was long overdue, so here's today's offering: "Lost in Germany" by King's X. (See https://youtu.be/hoyuCg-Exjs for the original song.)

Once again, my transcription is pretty faithful to the original, here are the main differences that I can think of:

  • The primary artistic license that I took was to remove some of the extraneous repeats from the outro, and I added an ending chord since the original recording fades out. That being said, I thought that the A (add 11/no 5) chord that I ended with matches the song quite well.
  • In measure 17, Ty Tabor changes up the guitar line for that single measure. However, I elected not to include that because I wanted to use the four repeats to simplify my transcription work. Yeah, that's kind of lazy on my part, but this is a free transcription so deal with it.
  • I think I do a pretty good job of nailing Jerry Gaskill's drum parts throughout the song. During the extra repeats in the outro he changes his fill at the end of each four-measure passage, and since I shortened my transcription you lose those.
  • I listened carefully to Doug Pinnick's bass parts, and I think my transcription of his parts are pretty close to what he's playing; I couldn't hear anything overly complex, though his groove/timing are really cool.

That's it for now. I have a few other transcriptions in the works that should be surprises, but I have no idea when I'll deliver on those, so don't hold your breath.

My List of 20 Most Influential Albums

I was recently challenged by two good friends (on the same day, no less) to post a list of the 20 albums that had the greatest impact on me. To be honest, I usually do not go in for that sort of thing. However, seeing as how I've already posted blogs for My Top Ten Favorite Rock Songs, A Few of My Favorite Guitar Solos, and My Thoughts About Rush's Studio Albums, I thought this was the kind of challenge that warranted a response - with one caveat: I'm too impatient to spread my list across 20 days. With that in mind, you get the whole list in one heaping serving of musical goodness.

Before I go any further, I want to establish a few particulars about the way I write my lists that I have used for the other lists that I have posted. First and foremost is that I only allow myself to have a single entry for each band/artist, otherwise I could easily fill an entire list with only two or three of my favorite bands. Second, you might find it interesting that some of the bands/artists who show up in my list of favorite rock songs or favorite guitar solos are not on my list of influential albums; for example: the Who. While "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are two of my all-time favorite songs, I cannot point to any single album by the Who that I would consider as having had an influence on me. In addition, I would like to point out that several of the bands/artists listed here I haven't listened to in decades; these bands/artists were influential when I was starting out, but I abandoned them later as I progressed as a musician.

With all that being said, let's jump into the list - which is not necessarily in order. (Except #1 - which always belongs there.)

#1

Moving Pictures by Rush

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has known me for any length of time that I am a huge fan of Rush, and I can name no other band that has had as enormous of an impact on my guitar playing. I spent more time trying to learn songs from Rush's albums than from any other band or artist in my lifetime, and my guitar skills improved dramatically as direct result of all that effort. Learning Alex Lifeson's complex chord phrasing and mastering the skills of shaping my sound by playing through dozens of guitar effects profoundly changed me as a guitarist. In addition, Alex's tone on songs like "Limelight" was next to perfect; I spent dozens of hours trying to dial in a sound that was close to his.

In fact, the most difficult part for me was choosing which album from Rush to show on this list, because several of their albums would easily foot the bill for having some of the greatest influence in my life. With that in mind, the following albums easily bubble to the top: 2112, Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, and Moving Pictures. That's not to say that I wasn't influenced or didn't love other albums by Rush; this list simply had the greatest impact. With that in mind, it was tough to choose which album to pick as having the greatest degree of influence on my life, with the two frontrunners being Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. I have played the song "Spirit of Radio" from Permanent Waves more than any other song in my lifetime, but in the end, listening to Moving Pictures and watching Rush perform it live on their subsequent tour had the greatest impact on me.

#2

Fragile by Yes

As with some of these bands/artists, I could name several albums from Yes that have had an impact on me, but Fragile is by far the most influential. When I first heard the opening notes of Roundabout in the early 1970s, I was amazed by both the clarity of the instruments and the adventurous complexity of the ensemble. Here was a band where every member was playing to their utmost ability, yet not competing with each other; instead, they blended into a wall of sound that was greater than the sum of their individual parts. I undoubtedly spent as much time trying to master Steve Howe's guitar parts as I did for Alex Lifeson or Eddie Van Halen. When I first started playing guitar, the music of Yes seemed untouchable; but as I improved as a musician, I eventually began to learn some of Yes' songs.

Howe eventually left Yes for a decade or so, during which time he was replaced by Trevor Rabin (who hates being referred to as "Steve Howe's Replacement"). Nevertheless, Trevor Rabin quickly emerged as one of my favorite members of Yes; there are times when I prefer Trevor Rabin playing some of Steve Howe's parts more than I like Steve Howe's personal interpretation. However, it should remain in everyone's mind that Steve Howe originally wrote all of those amazing parts, and Trevor Rabin just made a few improvements here and there. But at the end of the day, Steve Howe had a great deal of influence on my foundation as a musician, and Trevor Rabin came along many years later.

#3

Van Halen I by Van Halen

Like many guitarists in my day, Van Halen's eponymously-named first album blew me away. Eddie Van Halen's guitar work was unparalleled, and I spent more time than I would care to admit trying to learn how to do the amazing things that he was doing. It is by no stretch of the imagination that I can honestly say that something from Van Halen probably shows up every time I play the guitar, although this is more about how I phrase or arpeggiate chords than mad lead guitar skillz. That being said, I spent dozens of hours trying to learn the various sections of "Eruption" on the guitar; that's still a killer piece to play.

There were several other albums from Van Halen that also impacted my playing, but hands down it's the first album from them for the greatest influence. (See Rick Beato's great lecture called "The Van Halen Effect" for more about that. For that matter, you should simply watch any video from Rick Beato. They're all worth it.)

#4

The Wall by Pink Floyd

While I love several albums by Pink Floyd, there is only one album that had a great deal of influence on me, and that is easily Floyd's Magnum Opus The Wall. Trying to learn David Gilmour's guitar parts were difficult enough, but trying to match his sound was even more difficult. There was a point in my development as a guitarist where a great deal of what I was playing through echo units resembled David Gilmour.

There are songs off The Wall - like "Comfortably Numb" - which remain in multiple lists of my favorites.

#5

Back in Black by AC/DC

Yeah, I know... AC/DC... I've got to be kidding, right? Well, the truth is - when I first started out on the guitar, I was a big fan of AC/DC, and the first album that I owned from them was Back in Black. I spent a lot of time trying to learn the songs off that album, and in so doing I learned how to play barre chords, a lot of solos, integrate arpeggios in chord phrasings, etc. I learned a lot from that album, but then a few years later I sat down and learned everything that AC/DC had ever written in one weekend. Yup... Every. Single. Song. It was all too easy, and I realized that music had to be much harder. So I abandoned AC/DC for good, and I began to focus on Progressive Rock bands like Yes, Rush, Pink Floyd, etc. That being said, to this day I still credit AC/DC as having made me a better guitar player, if for nothing else than to teach me that music can be much, much better what AC/DC writes.

#6

1971-1976 (Did You Hear Me?) by Leo Kottke

In the early 1980s, the older brother of the keyboard player for one of the bands I was in introduced me to Leo Kottke's "Morning is the Long Way Home," which is the opening track off Leo's 1971-1976 (Did You Hear Me?) album. I was completely blown away by what I heard; I had seen and heard amazing classical guitarists before, but I had never heard anything like the pyrotechnical fingerstyle prowess of Leo Kottke before.

I have spent a lot of time over the past 40 years trying to learn various pieces by Leo Kottke, and I should be ashamed that I can only count two songs of his in my repertoire. Nevertheless, Leo Kottke's 1971-1976 (Did You Hear Me?) album had a profound impact on me, and made me want to seriously study fingerstyle guitar.

#7

Blizzard of Ozz by Ozzy

Like many young guitarists in 1980, I was hooked on Randy Rhoads' guitar skills from the moment I first heard the song "Crazy Train." Randy was daring, imaginative, skilled, and an amazing song writer. I had the privilege of seeing Randy Rhoads twice in concert with Ozzy before his untimely death, and I have to say that each time was amazing; Randy seemed like he could do just about anything on the guitar. (He reminded me of Ritchie Blackmore in that respect, but I digress.) I learned a lot of techniques from seeing Randy in concert, and I learned a lot about the guitar while learning songs off this album.

To this day I wonder what would have happened to Randy Rhoads if he hadn't died so young. With that in mind, once Randy Rhoads was killed, I stopped listening to Ozzy completely - because the only reason I listened to him at all was because of Randy Rhoads.

#8

Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani

This was the first album which - for me - proved that a guitar could own an entire album. No vocals - just guitar. Joe Satriani's songwriting was amazing, but his technical prowess was off the charts. I spent a lot of time struggling to learn a lot of Joe's signature pieces off that album, with varying degrees of success. (Primarily "Satch Boogie" and "Always with Me, Always with You"). But in the end, the entire experience made me a better guitar player.

I love several other shredders like Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, Tony MacApline, Gary Hoey, Yngwie Malmsteen, Neil Zaza, etc., but Joe Satriani's ground-breaking foray into guitar-oriented instrumentals is the album that had the most impact on me.

#9

Double Live Gonzo! by Ted Nugent

When I was first starting out on the guitar in the 1970s, Ted Nugent was at (or near) the height of his popularity. I played several songs by "Uncle Ted" in my first few rock bands, and it was a struggle for me to learn those parts at the time. This live album was a great compilation of all the Ted Nugent songs that I wanted to learn, so it's the only album of his that I purchased.

That being said, by the early 1980s I didn't really listen to Ted Nugent anymore. (He's far too crude... that was amusing when I was a teenage boy, but now it's just annoying.) That being said, every once in a while I might find myself playing a groove that owes its origin to "Uncle Ted."

#10

Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd by Lynyrd Skynyrd

I learned a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs when I was starting out in the 1970s; for example: "Gimme Three Steps," "Simple Man," "Tuesday's Gone," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Call Me the Breeze," "Saturday Night Special," etc. However, there was one song that every guitarist at my high school had to know before they were taken seriously: "Free Bird." Not just the rhythm parts, you had to know how to play the lead parts, and often you would play those live with another guitarist with whom you were in competition; sort of a "last man standing/trial by fire" contest.

So if I have to pick just one Lynyrd Skynyrd album, I have to pick the album that introduced "Free Bird" to the world.

#11

Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin

Like I mentioned about Lynyrd Skynyrd, I learned a lot of Led Zeppelin's tracks when I was first learning to play the guitar back in the 1970s. And much like Lynyrd Skynyrd's song "Free Bird," the famous/infamous "Stairway to Heaven" was a song that every guitarist at my high school had to know how to play before they could be taken seriously as an up and coming axe slinger. That being said, that album also produced other memorable pieces that I learned back the day: "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll," "Going to California," and "When the Levee Breaks."

While I owned several other albums by Led Zeppelin, this album stands out above the rest. That being said, I stopped listening to Led Zeppelin in the mid-1980s, and now I would go so far as to say that I have developed a serious dislike for the band. (For lots of reasons, although their unabashed plagiarism of other people's music is the primary reason.)

#12

October by U2

This may seem a bit out of place for die-hard U2 fans who flock to albums like The Joshua Tree, but U2's second album - October - is when I first learned about the band, and their post-punk, melodic rawness was kind of cool. That being said, like many of my fellow guitarists - I was particularly enamored by the Edge's sound.

"Gloria" was the song that got me hooked at first, and other songs like "I Threw a Brick Through a Window" followed thereafter, but I have to say, if it hadn't been for "Gloria" off the October album, I'm not sure when (or if) I would have decided to like U2. (OK, yeah, sure - I would have loved "Where the Streets Have No Name" when it came out. And who doesn't love that song?)

#13

Boston by Boston

Boston's first two albums - the eponymously-named Boston and Don't Look Back - were both enormous hits. But still, it was their first album that put Boston on the map, spawning such hits as "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," "Foreplay/Long Time," "Rock & Roll Band," "Smokin'," and "Hitch a Ride." For a young guitarist as I was at the time of its release, Tom Scholz's guitar sound was amazing. His distortion, tone, echo, etc., everything was spot-on perfect. I used to have a setting on the Electro-Harmonix graphic EQ that I used when playing live that would work in combination with my Rat distortion unit to recreate Tom Scholz's guitar sound from that first Boston album.

#14

Leftoverture by Kansas

In my early days as a Prog Rocker, one of the bands that I was in for a few months had a few songs by Kansas in their setlist. I already liked Kansas, and I had seen them in concert a few years earlier, but apart from learning the song "Dust in the Wind" as a fingerpicking exercise, I had never taken the time to learn anything else from them. The songs that I had to learn were: "Portrait," "Point of Know Return," and "Carry On Wayward Son." All three of those songs were a difficult challenge to master; Kerry Livgren's guitar parts were so unlike anything else that I was currently playing. Two of the songs that I learned were from Point of Know Return, with the remaining song from Leftoverture. However, "Dust in the Wind" is the only song that I still play to this day, and that one song had a greater impact on my finger-picking than almost any other song. With that in mind, Leftoverture beats out Point of Know Return for having a greater influence on me.

#15

Abacab by Genesis

I have to admit, Genesis probably wouldn't have made this list if it had not been for an audition that I had in the mid-1980s. Here's the story: there was a band in town that featured a couple of really talented musicians that I knew from another group that had recently disbanded, and they were looking for a new guitarist. Through one way or another, I was given the chance to audition, and the bulk of the songs that they gave me were from the Abacab album by Genesis. I had listened to Genesis before, and I even might have had one or two of their albums, but I hadn't taken the time to learn anything from them, and as such - I had zero appreciation for them. But as I struggled my way through the parts that I had to learn, and by the time that I passed my audition, I had a newfound appreciation for the band, but I also was stretched in a different direction from the other Progressive Rock bands that I had been focusing on.

#16

Ah Via Musicom by Eric Johnson

I have a confession to make: I first heard "Cliffs of Dover" from Eric Johnson's Ah Via Musicom album on the military's AFN radio network when I was driving through Germany in 1990. I was headed into the mountains, where I knew that I was going to lose radio reception, so I pulled my car off the road so I wouldn't miss any of that piece. Like my initial reaction to hearing "Eruption" by Van Halen and "Satch Boogie" by Joe Satriani, I was blown away by Eric Johnson's musicianship. Even more than that, when I began to learn "Cliffs of Dover," I was amazed at how deceptively difficult it was to play. To this day, however, there are a few tricks here and there from Eric Johnson's style that show up in my playing.

#17

Progressions of Power by Triumph

I was a big fan of the Canadian power trio Triumph in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the first album that I bought by them was 1980's Progressions of Power. There were a few things that stand out as having impacted my playing:

  • First of all, Rik Emmett's "Fingertalking" solo was an amazing flamenco/fingerstyle piece that I had mastered at one time or other, but it was quite a struggle for me to do so. In learning that one piece, I perfected my rasgueado picking style, (only to learn a few years that I was doing it backwards when I studied classical guitar).
  • The second piece off this album that got my attention was "I Live For The Weekend," which was a straight-ahead rock piece. That song had little to speak for it - it was actually rather simple, but it was important in my development as a guitarist, because I learned the minor pentatonic scale from all of Rik Emmett's solos on that piece.

I eventually purchased several of Triumph's albums and learned a bunch of their music, but I would have to say that Progressions of Power had the most-lasting impact.

#18

A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band by Rich Mullins

Most people have probably never heard of this album, but it was where I first heard Rich Mullins play the Hammered Dulcimer on the song "Creed." I instantly fell in love with the instrument, which led to my wife buying a dulcimer for me for Christmas, which led to meeting with a whole host of absolutely wonderful dulcimer people throughout the Mid-American and Eastern regions of the United States at various dulcimer festivals. (See HammerOn for some of those folks.) I eventually realized one of my musical bucket list items by playing Rich Mullins's "Creed" live with an orchestra several years ago.

So, yeah - in terms of a single album having a profound effect, I think Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band has got to be on my list, because it literally changed the course of my life.

#19

Empire by Queensrÿche

I wasn't quite sure if I would leave this album on my list; I would add it to my list, then bump it off when I added something else. Nevertheless, it managed to survive the cut. I was introduced to Queensrÿche by the same two friends who challenged me to create this list, and Queensrÿche was my initial foray into the heavier world of Progressive Metal. (Which I would also consider King's X a member, but more about them later.)

I would have to say that at one time or other I learned to play nearly all the songs off this album on the guitar, and giving credit where it's due, this album helped shape some of my songwriting for a season. That being said, I haven't really listened to Queensrÿche in decades.

#20

Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix

This was the album where I was first introduced to Jimi Hendrix, whom everyone I knew hailed as the greatest guitar player who ever lived when I was first learning to play the guitar. Depending on whether you had the US or the UK version of this album, you received different songs, but I managed to learn "Purple Haze," "Manic Depression," Foxy Lady," and "Are You Experienced?" from this album, and I spent a lot of time trying to perfect Jimi's tone and his dizzying array of odd guitar sounds. Nevertheless, as I purchased more albums from Hendrix, my interest in his style waned, and I eventually gave away all my albums of his.

To be honest, I almost entered the Woodstock Soundtrack for Jimi Hendrix, although the only reason why I bought the Woodstock Soundtrack was because I wanted to own Jimi Hendrix's amazing performances of the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Purple Haze" from that album. That being said, almost all of the rest of the Woodstock Soundtrack album is crap. Seriously. While I realize that a lot of the musicians were probably drunk or stoned, that doesn't mean that I have to forgive them for some really, really bad performances. (And of course, you can read about what I think of hippies.)

Conspicuously missing from this list are a few bands/artists whom I should honorably mention:

  • King's X - I love most of their albums prior to Tape Head, (which was a bit of clunker in my opinion). Ty Tabor's guitar parts are amazing, and while I have taken the time to learn a few of their songs, I cannot honestly say that any of their albums had any serious impact on me.
  • Queen - I loved Queen, Brian May's guitar work is amazing, and I certainly learned how to play several of their songs. But once again, I cannot point to any of their albums and say that it had any impact on my playing.
  • Aerosmith - I learned several songs of theirs over the years, although I was never a full-fledged fan of theirs. Joe Perry was an amazing guitarist, and I picked up a few things from him, but I can't point to any single album as being influential in my life.
  • Stavesacre - I believe that I have seen Stavesacre more times in concert than any other band. (Well, maybe a couple times less than Rush.) And even though I have learned how to play several of their songs on the guitar, I can't say that they helped me develop as a musician. (Stavesacre came along after I'd already been playing for decades.)
  • The Who - As I mentioned in my introduction, I love the Who; I've seen them in concert, and I've learned a lot of their songs over the years. But still, I cannot say that any single album from them had a profound impact on me. (Although their album Who's Next almost makes the cut.)
  • Gary Moore - As both a solo artist and as a member of bands like Thin Lizzy, I learned several pieces from Gary Moore, and a few of his guitar pyrotechnics used to show up in my live guitar solos. (Just the flashy bits.)
  • And last but not least - Styx, Journey, Zebra, and 38 Special also had small degrees of impact on me as a guitarist.

That wraps it up for this post.


UPDATES

As time goes on, I'll add any glaring omissions from my list of honorable mentions as I think of them.

  • The Police - I wasn't crazy about Sting's voice when I first heard The Police; I couldn't figure out why a former British punk rocker had such a weird accent. But as a guitar player, I was amazed at Andy Summers' tone and chord structures; I still get arthritis just thinking about playing some of Andy Summers' rhythm guitar parts from songs like "Message in a Bottle," "Every Breath You Take," etc.
  • Stephen Bennett - I saw Stephen Bennett in concert at one of the Hammered Dulcimer festivals that I attended, and I was amazed at his fingertyle skill; he played Scott Joplin rags on the guitar, he played harp guitar, he played an amazing/ancient steel guitar, etc. As I attended other festivals, I was able to take workshops with Stephen, and I picked up some great techniques. Some years later I arrived early to one of Stephen's concerts; he recognized me, and stopped by to say "Hi." We began talking about guitar, of course, and as we were discussing some of the Scott Joplin pieces that I was working on, Stephen took me backstage where the two of us had an impromptu 1:1 guitar lesson. (Stephen was the teacher, of course.) Stephen had a lasting impact on my playing, but on top of that - he's a class act.
  • Mark Hanson - I made an amazing discovery one day: a lot of fingerstyle guitar transcriptions that I had been learning from over the years, as well as several of the books about playing fingerstyle guitar that I had working through, were all written by the same guy - Mark Hanson. Then I made another amazing discovery: Mark lived in Portland while I lived in Seattle, and Mark would frequently travel up to Seattle to teach workshops at the Dusty Strings store in Fremont. I was able to attend several workshops with Mark, and I will freely admit - his 1:1 instruction has helped my fingerstyle playing improve dramatically. (And I play several of his arrangements to this day.)
  • Steven Saulls - I cannot possibly overstate the following admission: Steven Saulls impacted my guitar playing more than any other guitarist in my lifetime. Period. Steven was my classical guitar tutor in the early 1980s, but most-importantly - Steven showed me everything that I was doing wrong on the guitar. Until I met Steven I was predominantly self-taught, and as a result - I had formed a lot of bad habits. Steven gave me a whole list of extremely tedious exercises to work with, and challenged me to completely relearn how to play my instrument. I felt like a high school student going back to kindergarten, but I followed Steven's suggestions to the letter, and ultimately I became a much better musician because of it.

When Your Heroes Grow Old

I grew up listening to Yes - they were some of my original music heroes, long before I got into bands like Rush. That being said, I am profoundly aware of that fact that as I grow older, my heroes are growing older, too. But some of us aren't aging that gracefully.

Just the other day I saw the following photo of Steve Howe from a recent Yes tour:

Steve-Howe

I hate to say it, but the first thing I thought of was the Crypt-Keeper from the old Tales from the Crypt television series:

Crypt-Keeper

Now that you've seen that, you cannot unsee it. You're welcome.

Surprised smile Open-mouthed smile

My Top Ten Favorite Rock Songs

Lists of favorites artists and favorite songs are a dime a dozen, but still - I thought that it might be a worthwhile endeavor to jot down a list of rock songs that were significantly important to me over the years. These are the songs that I would pull my car off the road to listen to over the radio, or I struggled to learn on the guitar when I was first starting out as a musician, or they had an indelible affect on my playing.

Trying to compile a list such as this was difficult for me, because some of the artists - like Rush - have dozens of songs that I would consider among my list of favorites, so I had to limit myself to just one song per artist. In addition, a few of these songs are not necessarily what I would consider to be the best songs by their respective artists, but they were the songs that made me initially fall in love with that artist's music.

Presented in alphabetic order (as opposed to order of precedence):

There are some artists - like Queen, Triumph, Journey, Styx, and Genesis - who are conspicuously missing from this list, even though I saw many of those artists in concert and several of their songs might be on my top 100 list of favorites. There are two reasons for their omission: 1) I eventually ran out of room on this list, and 2) there was no single song by those artists that I would consider as a milestone in my musical upbringing.


Note: One song in the above list - Dust in the Wind - probably needs a bit of explanation, since it might seem a little out-of-place in a collection that is otherwise dominated by straight-ahead rock pieces.

To be honest, I didn't like Dust in the Wind when I first heard it; I thought it was interminably boring. But as I continued to learn the guitar, I forced myself to learn the song, and I quickly came to appreciate its educational value when learning Travis Picking (and fingerpicking in general). I eventually taught that song to nearly all of my guitar students in order to help get them started.