Hey Kids! This may be news to you, but aside from the radio, old geezers like myself - anyone over 40 - once had to either 1.) buy a vinyl record; 2.) check a vinyl record out from our local library if they had what we wanted; 3.) borrow a friend's vinyl record if they had what we wanted to hear...in order to listen to what we wanted to in the privacy of our own homes. Okay, cassette tapes were around, too. We could record vinyl records onto cheap blank cassette tape, but these things had the propensity to become stuck inside the machine, and then...spaghetti. They really sucked. (Or I guess you youngins would say "suck ass"?)
I remember when the Walkman was a new thing. (I know, I know: I'm leaving out 8-track tapes, which were often played in cars.) The trendiest people walked around town with these gigantic (now they are, right?) players, with headphones on. That was...just a few seconds ago on the tech-scale timeline.
What I want you to realize: there was once no digital music available for consumers. Zero. I remember the first time I saw a CD: are you tryna tell me...do you mean that tiny record (it looked like a micro-version of a vinyl record to me, only it was silver, not black) is supposed to be "better" sounding than my old records? I suppose I have to buy a new fangled machine to play those things, eh? Indeed.
Wikipedia tells me that audio CDs and CD players became commercially available in 1982, but my friends and I weren't sold on them until 1987. By 1988 we had become Converts. At that time, if you told me there would be little computers everyone would personally own, they would hook into some Net that we were all hooked into, and you could obtain digital music FREE from this thing, I would have thought you were high, or had been reading too many bad science fiction stories, or you were off your meds. Maybe all three.
But enough about the material conditions of the music we listen to.
The Way A Few Players Have Played, c.1961-2012
Now: I know you don't have to be a musician to understand what I'm going to note here, but maybe it would help: once certain jazz soloists who played treble-clef instruments achieved such a dazzling level of technical virtuosity, the music started to get "out" there, for a lot of people's ears.
Some would argue that the 1940s invention, in New York in after-hours clubs, of be-bop, by the finest players in the world, was when all this started. They soloed a lot. They played faster than anything ever heard. They were willing to use more chromatics (notes that don't belong the scale and key proper, but served to "color" their solos), more dissonant intervals (especially diminished substitutions for 7th-type chords), and they were willing to exploit anything their particular instruments could do (mostly saxophones and other horns, but the clarinet too). They got really good at playing the highest pitched notes.
By 1959, Ornette Coleman's group was playing way-out "free jazz" and...if you got it and liked it you were in the minority.
When artists are completely devoted to their craft, they know what's gone before them. They know who the Greats are. They want to do something no one had ever done before; they want to stand outside the shadows of the Greats that came before them and maybe be Great themselves. If only a small, devoted audience "got it," then so be it.
Now: I grew up playing guitar, wanting to be a great rock player. And later I became influenced by all kinds of non-rock music, including jazz, classical, bluegrass, and Indian ragas. I listened and listened and tried to incorporate what I heard in those musics with my rock playing. Lots of rock guitarists did this. Now here's my point: when I finally started listening to John Coltrane, who I think is the greatest sax player ever, I heard the most fantastic heavy metal soloing imaginable. I knew jazz purists - who seemed to at best loathe heavy rock - would think I was crazy for perceiving things this way, so I kept my mouth shut. Only a few other metal guitarists I knew understood where I was coming from.
What we were seeking to do, in the shadow of Edward Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads and Uli Jon Roth, was to play extremely fast, but with a singing melody, all the while exploiting our instruments for what they were capable of doing. When I heard Coltrane play a familiar tune from 1961 (I'm not sure exactly when the following clip was recorded), I flipped-out when I heard him solo! Check it out, Coltrane on soprano sax:
Out of England, a jazz fusion guitarist. I read an interview with Edward Van Halen, and he mentioned a jazz guy that played with a rock sound, on a Stratocaster, and he thought this guy was the best he'd ever heard. His name? Allan Holdsworth. Of course I had to go out and buy Holdsworth's latest vinyl record. (It was I.O.U. and I didn't "get" the singer.) I had no idea what Holdsworth was doing when he played chords, but when he soloed? Our jaws dropped off our faces and rolled around on the floor! He was playing really "outside" but still: gorgeous melodic lines which seemed like extensions of the chords he was playing over, but maybe some odd scales we hadn't acquainted ourselves with, plenty of dissonance and odd intervals. He was doing wide stretches and playing just an uncanny legato style, as if he's not picking the strings; his left hand was so large, flexible and dextrous he sounded to us like Coltrane he was so fluid...only with a sort-of rock sound! I couldn't believe it.
Here's Holdsworth playing "Devil Take The Hindmost." After all these years I've grown to appreciate his chordal playing much more too. Note: Holdsworth has experimented with all kinds of fancy guitars since I first discovered him. Here he plays a small-bodied thing with no headstock. He's also become known as the finest Synth-Axe player. The solo starts around 1:50.
Note that the solo flight here may seem quite abstract. I argue this is inevitable when a player is trying to distance himself from others playing around and before him. I know of no other electric guitarist who ever played like Holdsworth before him.
A friend of mine who knows far more about the newest, youngest metal bands told me, when I asked him who the guitarists were being influenced by, replied after a moment...Allan Holdsworth. I thought he was going to say John Petrucci or Paul Gilbert. I should've known.
Here's my favorite metal guitarist - I also think he's the best metallist in the world, although he's still relatively unknown: Ron Jarzombek. From his solo recording Solitarily Speaking of Theoretical Confinement, here's a 2 and half minute series of little metallic bagatelle that evinces Jarzombek's place in this long line of virtuoso legato - smooth, fast, clean and connected - soloists. The picking is off the charts. His left hand is godly:
From Jarzombek's band Blotted Science, here's "Synaptic Plasticity." The solo at 3:04 - after all those mathematically-challenging time-changes, abrupt shifts, and odd harmonic sequences he suddenly drops into what I call "Holdsworth Mode" - and it's a striking mood shift. Note the solo at 3:55 is much more in the classic metal "shred" style. This guy can do it all.
So, in ending, I've tried to argue that, as much as its hardcore adherents would like to try to refute it, jazz player Coltrane, fusion player Holdsworth and metal player Jarzombek all meet in this rather abstract area in which the best players find common ground: extremely fluid and effortlessly fast line playing, which is both melodic while straying outside the ordinary confines of garden-variety scale playing. In Ben Ratliff's 2007 book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he notes Coltrane's considerable influence on metal players.
Here's a pic of Holdsworth and Ron Jarzombek, looking at the former's chord-solo charts. Ron looks as baffled as I was when I looked at similar stuff in Holdsworth's Melody Chords For Guitar. Holdsworth has a very idiosyncratic way of thinking about his note selections...and Jarzombek is a Frank Zappa-level total theory-freakazoid!, but how can you "think" when you play that fast and with such freedom and abandonment?:
In case anyone's wondering how far out Coltrane went, here he is, not long before he died, on "Mars." I personally have not heard a guitarist play this far out there. It's impossible for me to describe: