Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Great Guitarists of Michael Jackson

Ever since he went solo, Michael Jackson managed to work with some of the world’s greatest guitarists. Do you still remember them?

By: Ringo Bones

One of the great bonuses of being older is the opportunity of enjoying Michael Jackson’s great musical works without being overshadowed by the various scandals that made him a case study for the US legal system. Though his untimely passing last June 25, 2009 probably made everyone around the world remember Michael Jackson for the musical legacy that he left behind, but how many of us – including his die-hard fans – still remember the great guitarists who worked with him?

After embarking on his solo career, many have wondered back then whether Michael Jackson can assemble a group of musicians that are as good – or even better – than his Jackson 5 stable-mates. And assemble he did – especially his scores of session guitarist – though good as they are, Michael Jackson did rescue some of them from relative obscurity. Not only that, Michael Jackson’s studio sessions probably – for better or for worse – revolutionized the way in which we put the sound of the electric guitar onto tape since the days of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Paving the way of the MTV-style Heavy Metal Music revolution of the late 1980s.

After Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough from his Off The Wall album became a dance-floor staple during the “Golden Age of Disco”, Michael Jackson introduced a Gibson ES-355 wielding Jazz guitarist named Larry Carlton into the Billboard charts. Which also popularizes the recording studio practice of off-axis miking of guitar amps soon after Michael Jackson scored his first batch of funk / rock hits at the start of the 1980s. A technique mostly associated with one of Jackson’s primary recording engineers Bruce Swedien.

By the time Michael Jackson released his Thriller album – which eventually became the biggest selling album of all time on a worldwide basis. The guitar-heavy track Beat It only made 2 already successful guitarist even more famous. LA studio session ace and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather played the rhythm guitar parts while the scorching guitar solo was done courtesy of “then” Heavy Metal guitar god Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen’s particular tone on “Beat It” almost became the de rigueur timbral roar of the 1980s-style rock tunes championed by MTV back then.

At the time Michael Jackson released Bad, most of his fans began to notice and wonder about his “weird physical transformation”. Though bad can never equal the scale of success that Thriller managed to earn, it did gained the curiosity of some Heavy Metal music fans due to it’s guitar content. I mean it sounds like a FM radio-friendly pop album trying to compete with Castle Donington Monsters of Rock heavy metal musical extravaganza – i.e. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

Jackson’s Bad also introduced guitar mavens Steve Stevens and Jennifer Batten into the Billboard Chart radio airplay mainstream. Though Steve Stevens is well known to us guitar fans for tuning-down his guitar – i.e. the low E string is tuned down to D, while Jennifer Batten probably championed women who want to play guitar as good as Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani. Plus Batten’s flamboyant stage costumes and guitar playing probably influenced “some” Riot Grrl bands to play guitar with technical precision – i.e. Lunachicks.

Though Michael Jackson did follow Bad with Dangerous back in 1991, which he then took Slash – the then lead guitarist of the then infamous band Guns N Roses – in Give It To Me. Michael Jackson's judicious choice of session musicians - especially guitarists - is probably one of the secrets why his musical compositions are sure-fire hits. This is probably the last time when Michael Jackson’s excellent musicianship and stage performance were not eclipsed by his outrageous lifestyle choices. We can only hope that Michael Jackson will be remembered more for his musical contribution than the scandals that plagued him after September 14, 1993.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Can a Guitar Make a Guitarist?

Given that an overwhelming number of famous guitarist owe their fame to their trusty and very particularly distinctive guitar, can a guitar – especially very good ones – make a great guitarist?

By: Ringo Bones

From B.B. King’s Lucille to Junior Brown’s Guit-Steel guitar slingers - made famous either by talent or by frequent MTV appearance - from every genre imaginable are often remembered for their “personalized” and particularly unique guitar. And the particular guitar that makes them famous is more often than not the one they primarily use. Either in the recording studio or in live concerts.

Now 83 years old and still thrilling audiences in his European Summer 2009 Tour. B.B. King is probably unique among the famed “Blues Gods” because he uses only one trusty guitar – the famed Lucille. Either in the studio or on stage, his very distinctive playing technique had influenced legions of guitar players from Blues, Jazz and even Heavy Metal. From my perspective, it seems that B.B. King had long ago become one with his trusty Lucille.

Though not as well known on a global basis, if you’re lucky enough to be a Junior Brown fan, then you’ll know what I mean that his primary instrument is indisputably one of a kind. Brown’s primary guitar – known as a Guit-Steel – is a double-necked melding, thanks to a hefty helping of modern polymer resin and fiberglass, of a six-string electric and pedal steel guitars. Legend has it is that this unique instrument was envisioned by Junior Brown in one of his dreams. Created and designed by Junior Brown himself with the help of Michael Stevens back in 1985, the instrument for all intents and purposes is what made Brown the “unique artist” he wanted to be. This unique instrument was even updated by Brown and Stevens back in 1995 and since was named “Big Red” which made Junior Brown truly a unique sounding guitarist currently in the touring circuit.

But famously unique looking – and sounding – personalized guitars do not all look pristinely beautiful like B.B. King’s Lucille or Junior Brown’s Big Red Guit-Steel, or those 8,000 US dollar PRS dragon inlay electric guitars or equally as expensive Martin & Co. Acoustic guitars. Some do look like something being sold in a garage sale for less than a hundred bucks. Like L7 guitarist Donita Sparks’ Gibson Flying V-based monstrosity which she named as the Flying Vagina. Which eventually became one of Guitar World magazine’s featured articles back in July 1992 when her band was catapulted into fame after scores of touring dates across America. Friends of mine who are forever rabid L7 fans say that particular article prompted them to check out what this L7’s Flying Vagina stuff is all about back then.

Even though a very good and unique looking guitar can always inspire every guitar virtuoso to the very pinnacle of creativity. Some “Guitar Gods” sometimes try to prove the point that it is their talent – as opposed to their guitars – that made them into a Guitar God. Jeff Beck demonstrated this years ago by playing a 75 –dollar entry-level / beginners electric guitar and managed to make it sound like one of his trusty 3,000 US dollar Fender Stratocaster. Although Jeff might be certainly much happier “test driving” one of those 8,000-dollar guitars from PRS, just to see if they are really the “wellspring of creativity” some owners tout them to be. Or maybe it is the guitar amps that make a guitar god? So it's good news then to EL34 vacuum tube manufacturers in Russia, especially when our current global recession won't be going away any time soon.