Friday, 20 September 2013

The Pollock and Pillock of Guitar Effects

When I first got into electric guitars in the early 80's, the sound I was searching for always harked back to a previous golden age. The guitar sounds that predominated in the early part of Thatcher's decade were the heavily compressed and chorus infested tones of Goth bands such as the Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and Simple Minds - to name but a handful of that particular guitar playing genre (I'll get to U2 later).

Running alongside these more mainstream and Radio 1 friendly bands were the long haired berserkers of what was, and still is known, as the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). Saxon, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Diamond Head; These guys had all ingested the dark bile of Zeppelin and Sabbath and gone on to create their own 'variation on a theme' as it were.

As a fourteen year-old adolescent in 1980, bedecked in denim, Rush and AC/DC patches and topped off with 'longish' hair, I was kidnapped and ravaged by this huge behemoth called 'Rock' and had little time for the TOTP's guitar bands of the U2 variety, and still don't to be honest.

Of course, everybody knows now how Punk came along to slay the fat and puffy Prog Rock dragon, using its rotting carcass to stitch a few chords together and bang out a tune. I was a little too young to appreciate Punk; In that famously hot summer of '76 I was only 10 years-old and had only ever been as far as Wales on caravan holidays, never mind the big bad capital city.

Punk seemed to come from nowhere, and then, by the time I was twelve/thirteen, it had fizzled out to virtually nothing. In its wake came New Wave, Goth, Industrial, Electronic (Gary Numan, Kraftwerk), Heavy Metal, New Romantic, and all sorts of other strange and exotic stuff.

My guitar trajectory kind of went backwards as I got older. In the mid-eighties I got into Punk bands like The Clash and the Pistols. This was my kind of revolt against the over produced guitar sounds and production slickness that seemed to stifle the sound of many of the bands that I had worshiped in the early days. I'd crank the amp up to the max and play barre chord riffs until the cows came home - simplicity overrode technique and musicianship. Being a twiddly 'guitar god' was a bit passe in the decade of synthesizers and MTV soft-rock ballads.

The most high profile guitar player of that decade, at least in the popular consciousness, was 'The Edge' from U2. He made it okay to do twiddly bits on the guitar as long as the original signal was passed through nice, clinical (and sterile) modulation effects, with all the raw edges electronically sanded off.

I had a real downer about effects for a long time after being bombarded with The Edge's chiming axe from every available media portal at that time. Slowly it dawned on me, it wasn't the effects themselves that were the problem, it was the creative imagination of the artist using them. Guitar effects have been used since the age dot, most famously by Hendrix of course - think of the Roger Mayer Fuzz Face and the Cry Baby. Effects are just colours on the sonic palette. The guitarist, like the painter, has to know when to leave out the red or yellow, match the complimentaries together and balance the shadows and highlights.

The problem with The Edge I think, was (and is) the emphasis on the mid-tones with no light or shade, no quirkiness or depth of colour. It's possible to be a Jackson Pollock or a Rolf Harris with guitar effects - which one are you?

~ H-Allen

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