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.