2013-11-07

Two Approaches To Modern Music

There seem to be two philosophies regarding guitar tone, and I alluded to them the other day. In that post, I suggested that the landscape of guitar and amplifier modeling technology seems to be focused on (1) outboard modelers that connect to a traditional electric guitar, and (2) "modeling guitar" technology such as the Line 6 Variax or the Fender/Roland G-5 VG Stratocaster.

How (2) differs from (1) is that these modeling guitars utilize a different kind of pickup which produces a different kind of electronic response, positioning the signal to be better-suited for sonic synthesis. The technologies of the Variax and the Roland synth guitars or synthesizers themselves are similar, even if the specifics of the software and audio processing are different.

Anyway, as I was saying, there appear to be two philosophies here.

Some people seem to approach all this fancy technology from the standpoint that it enables them to recreate any classic tone or classic instrument they may have in mind. That is to say, they want to replicate a set of existing sounds: a Les Paul through a Marshall stack, a Jerry Jones electric sitar, a Resonator guitar, and so forth. Any pickup combination, any great amp, any great tone they may have heard before is at their fingertips for instant replication. By far, this represents the most common view.

A few people out there - not many, as far as I can see - embrace the more revolutionary aspect of all this technology. That is to say, they're not interested in merely replicating a cornucopia of classic tones. They want to create new tones. Have you ever heard a resonator guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo playing sweep-arpeggios in unison with a xylophone? Only if you've been listening to 80s-era Zappa, right? How about a nylon string guitar through digital distortion? What other unlikely combination can you think up?

These two philosophies about guitar tone seem to extend to philosophies about music in general. The vast majority of people who are interested in making music want to make music that sounds like something. They want to use a palette of classic sounds to recreate the musical tones and feelings associated with their favorite records. They want to repeat what has previously been written. They write a lot of great songs, but they break no new ground.

Then there are those who are interested in exploring what other sorts of musical ideas exist out there. Writing a thrash metal song to rival the material on Master of Puppets holds absolutely no appeal for them. Following a modern music verse/chorus framework is similarly unappealing. What they're looking for is something new, something unheard. While much of their experimental music meets with critical objection, they are the only ones pushing art forward into new directions.

There is a relationship between these groups, and it's not often a good one. I think the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of people want to hear time-tested sounds indicates that the innovators have an uphill climb. It's easy for an innovator to look down his nose at artists who are unoriginal or audiences who are interested in unoriginal art; but it is far easier for an unoriginal, majoritarian, paint-by-numbers society to look down their collective nose at anything different.

But this kind of antagonism is part of human society. As a collective, we want to protect traditional institutions and push away ideas that are too revolutionary for comfort. Naturally, the difficulty is knowing in advance which new ideas contain hidden treasure, and embracing them early and enthusiastically, while protecting the time-tested ideas that ought not be reversed.