May 2024 – Artificial Intelligence takes on Vintage Guitars: Part III

Prelude

GARRULOUS GREETINGS AND A HEARTY “hello” once again to the global guitar gathering as seen through the laidback lenticular lens of CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars. Whether you are a first‑time visitor or a long‑time returnee, all with peaceful intentions are welcome here.

This month, we are concluding the 3‑part exploration on the current status of civilian‑grade Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its perspective on vintage guitars within the context of the wider music industry. This time around, we’ll take the investigation of Generative AI’s (GAI) impact beyond the narrow domain of vintage guitars and look at the bigger picture. In addition to vintage guitars, we will take a look at music, the music business, music tools and equipment, live performance, production, promotion, distribution and access. As a final parting shot on the subject, I’ll take a personal philosophical look at AI’s future intentions for us poor old human beans.

At the time of writing, it seems that we don’t need AI to forecast the ‘end of days’ for the human race. We have plenty enough diabolical demagogues teetering on the brink of bringing about just that suicidal eventuality right now. We don’t need AI to tell us that, as a species, we have learned absolutely nothing from the ravages of our past and, perhaps, we deserve what we get as a result. All I will say is, “Klaatu Barada Nickto” (From the film, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, 1951).

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever‑increasing rate” – Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist and cosmologist, 1942‑2018)


AI revisited (again)

The previous two articles focused on narrative (Part I) and visual (Part II) aspects of the vintage guitar experience. Once again, there is really no need for introductory explanations. If you wish to review the preceding articles leading up to this one, or are coming at it for the first time, you can revisit those blogs by following the links below (open in a new browser window):

March 2024 – Artificial Intelligence takes on Vintage Guitars: Part I

April 2024 – Artificial Intelligence takes on Vintage Guitars: Part II

CRAVE Guitars – Artificial Intelligence Part III

Scope

The scope of this third article in the series is quite broad, wider than in the first two articles. At its core, though, remains the topic of vintage guitars, amps and effects and the small but vital part they play in music today. While it has less of a focus on vintage instruments and equipment, it is all part of the same ‘micro/macro’ world, a connection that AI overlooked back in Part I.

Up to now, the articles concentrated largely on the past and present. This third article is very much future focused, so we’ll see what AI has to say about what is to come on and what may be over the digital horizon. Perhaps, someone will look back at this article at some point in years to come and gauge how far AI has come and how accurate AI has been at predicting the future.

Humans tend to shy away from radical change and are innately conservative. How we deal with the challenges that AI poses will be pivotal. AI will either enhance or inhibit human development? It is currently up to us to decide which. The debate rages on and will do for some time to come. These heated conversations aren’t just centring on music, they are pretty much across every economic sphere of production.

“I had two passions growing up – one was music, one was technology. I tried to play in a band for a while, but I was never talented enough to make it. And I started companies. One day came along and I decided to combine the two – and there was Spotify” – Daniel Ek (founder and CEO of Spotify, 1983‑)


The rationale

Make no mistake, AI has already made its mark in music. Whether it is in the way of song writing and music creation through recording and producing to distribution and enhancing the consumer’s experience. AI is here already and it isn’t going to go away. Going forward, there is no longer any doubt that AI’s role in music will be increasingly expansive, whether we like it or not

The arguments posed by many artists is that AI is incapable of capturing and mastering the artistic expression of music. Music has a rich history and deep emotional ties and these are not easily replicated by machines. Before we go too far, let us be clear that the same applies to many human musicians! Inspiration is rare and not easy to reproduce or we’d all be using it to get rich in the process. It isn’t clear whether the egotistical view that the human spirit is inimitable is born from a reluctance to embrace technology’s potential. The instinctive defensive reaction is to attempt to protect human creativity at all costs. Similarly, it is not certain whether it is possible for a machine to create intelligent artistic outcomes.

Can music generated by IT algorithms be considered authentic musical art? Art is an inward and outward expression of human emotion, experience, and creativity. These are characteristics that sceptics say a machine simply cannot possess. The current state‑of‑the‑art AI has a hard time translating technical data into sensitive music, struggling to infuse its outputs with sincerity, passion and feeling. Yet. I am sure that soon, we won’t be able to assert these facts with any genuine certainty.

From the composition of musical melody and harmony to generating complex musical arrangements, AI already has the ability to create ‘original’ pieces that can (allegedly) rival the work of human composers. As the technology is derivative, AI has yet to develop the ability to exceed human talents. It would be an act of hubris to suggest that AI cannot follow the same scientific principles, musical rules and tropes that humans have abided by for centuries or even millennia. AI can achieve considerable complexity in a fraction of the time that a human can exact the same tasks. It is still the ‘intelligent’ aspect that vexes most commentators.

AI doesn’t care one iota about music and it doesn’t even know what music is. To AI, music is simply another digital computational process, albeit one that seems amazingly expert to us. However, AI doesn’t have any conscious investment in music and it can’t tell rock ‘n’ roll from a rock in the ground. Professional musicians have spent entire careers trying to perfect their skills and they are understandably concerned about AI’s impact on their livelihoods. While I understand that point of view, having reservations isn’t going to stop the tsunami coming their way. In the Darwinian sense, it will be, ‘adapt or die’ (metaphorically speaking of course).

“The idea that machines can’t do things humans can is a pure myth” – Marvin Minsky (American cognitive and computer scientist, 1927‑2016)

There are already AI‑powered virtual instruments in the form of plugins integrated into DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). Studios are already using AI tools to improve mixing, producing and mastering techniques. AI has the potential to be a powerful collaborative tool, as long as we are prepared to accept the consequences of such a ‘partnership’. AI is simply becoming another tool in the artist’s repertoire and surely it is just a logical extension of the use of digital electronics that studio and stage engineers have been using for the past 40 years. For instance, we would no longer think of salvaging a 20,000 gallon water tank to create a single analogue reverb chamber effect, when we have digital electronics that can provide thousands of credible permutations with the click of a mouse. Let’s get real here.

AI automation can and will result in job displacement, let’s not shy away from the fact; it is inevitable. Technical roles in the music industry such as producers, sound engineers, mixers and mastering specialists may be under threat. Similarly, even some session musicians may be adversely affected. However, the contrary argument is that AI opens doors to a diverse range of new opportunities and it will create new skills and expertise that have hitherto been either underappreciated or non‑existent. Threats to livelihoods have always existed and it will be imperative to drive change in the industry, rather than become a victim of it.

“The arrival of general AI will force us to confront a new sense of ourselves, as well as a universe that is both more strange and more wonderful than we could have imagined” – Ray Kurzweil (American computer scientist, 1948‑)

There are also legal issues. If an AI created song becomes commercially successful, who owns the rights? Is it the end‑user of the technology, the system developer, the creator of the data sets used to inform AI, or the machine itself? Currently, the law sides with the end‑user. A guitar manufacturer cannot claim Intellectual Property (IP) rights simply because a musician used their instrument. Neither can the owner of an arboretum where the tree grows to source the wood used in said instrument. You get the idea.

AI has already replaced humans, at least in the areas of commercial recorded background music and around the periphery, even if you aren’t aware of it. AI ‘artists’ have already been created and AI has been used to resurrect dead artists (e.g. John Lennon). AI is used on virtual reality concerts streamed over the Internet or to live audiences (e.g. Abba, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, etc.). However, humans will still be needed for the time being to innovate and break conventional boundaries in mainstream and underground music. As yet, though, nothing can really substitute for the genuine human experience. Live music is largely safe… for now.

Instead of viewing AI as a threat, many artists will see it as a vital device that can help to give them a strategic advantage in an increasingly competitive industry and in highly saturated markets. AI’s current course in music suggests an even more integrated future. Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, USA suggests that up to 60% of artists already make use of AI techniques to help unlock their potential. This human/AI collaboration can redefine artistic boundaries, enable experimentation and give rise to genres and ground‑breaking sounds previously unimaginable, if we allow it. AI can help to broaden musicians’ creative horizons beyond the familiar. The potential synergy between human musicians and AI presents exciting opportunities and challenges for the future of music. Wasn’t it ever thus?

“It’s not artificial intelligence I’m worried about, it’s human stupidity” – Neil Jacobstein (Chair of the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Track at Singularity University)

So… there you have both sides of a musical and ethical difference of opinion. Now it is time to turn that debate over to GAI…


The CRAVE Guitars’ test

For the final time, I will present AI with some challenges and see how AI responds. As before, I will let the AI do the hard work and leave my critique until the end of the article.

Apologies for repeating the following list yet again. I suggested eight benchmarks for evaluating AI’s responses, summarised below:

  1. To understand a question correctly without over‑specificity
  2. To interpret and extrapolate relevant information objectively within a wider context
  3. To present a cogent argument that can adequately be judged and/or challenged
  4. To form a genuine opinion from scratch without relevant information being readily available in the first place, in the same way that a person might do in the case of uncertainty
  5. To debate the initial result to achieve a potentially better outcome
  6. To produce a creative response that improves on the original information input by humans
  7. To remember what it has already output
  8. To understand fully what humans want or expect from ‘intelligence’

Once more, twenty questions were posed to AI about vintage guitars and various aspects of the music industry. What follows are the verbatim results. Nothing has been added or removed. What you see is what I got. Apologies for the repetition up to this point.

Time for me to take a backseat until later in the article. I’m off to put the kettle on, put my feet up and consume multiple warm beverages. Health warning: AI can lead to a sedentary and indolent lifestyle! Bye for now…


Twenty Questions and Twenty AI Responses

Question #1 – What is AI’s role in current new guitar and bass design and manufacturing?

AI Response #1

AI is playing an increasingly significant role in the design and manufacturing of guitars. Here are some ways AI is being utilised:

  • Personalised Designs: AI can analyse player preferences, such as playing style and hand size, to create custom guitars tailored to individual needs.
  • Generative Design: AI can generate organic, biomimetic shapes, leading to innovative designs that were previously impossible.
  • Sustainability: AI helps manufacturers reduce waste and energy consumption, resulting in more environmentally friendly guitar production.
  • Simulation Software: Designers can simulate the guitar’s performance and sound quality, allowing for real‑time adjustments and early identification of design flaws.
  • Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing): This technology enables the creation of physical prototypes, helping designers evaluate and refine the guitar’s design before production.

Overall, AI tools are transforming guitar design by enabling more efficient, sustainable, and personalised manufacturing processes.

Question #2 – How is AI contributing towards wider musical equipment technology?

AI Response #2

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has significantly impacted the field of music technology, revolutionizing various aspects of music creation, production, and performance. Let’s delve into how AI is shaping the world of musical equipment:

  • Smart Algorithms in Mixing and Audio Editing:
    • Many audio plugins now incorporate smart algorithms that draw on human experience. These algorithms apply frequency correction or normalisation presets to enhance audio quality during mixing and editing.
    • These AI‑driven tools assist musicians and producers in achieving professional sound without extensive manual adjustments.
  • Composition and Music Generation:
    • AI has made a major impact in the realm of composition. Services like Aiva utilize deep learning algorithms to create beautiful music across various genres.
    • Aiva’s virtual brain is modelled after how a human brain works. It recalls past experiences and problem‑solving to refine its results. By analysing vast amounts of data (such as classical music archives), Aiva recognizes patterns in chord structures, melodies, and arrangement choices.
    • The resulting AI‑generated tracks are increasingly indistinguishable from compositions by human musicians.
  • AI‑Driven Music Production Tools:
    • Over the past decade, AI has transformed music mixing and mastering. Apps like Landr, Cryo Mix, and iZotope’s Neutron automatically analyse tracks, balance audio levels, and remove noise.
    • These tools enhance efficiency and consistency in the production process, allowing artists to focus on creativity.
  • New Sounds and Beats:
    • AI’s ability to analyse sound characteristics using deep neural networks has led to the creation of new sounds. By drawing from existing music and theory, AI generates fresh beats and melodies.
    • Musicians can explore novel sonic possibilities, pushing the boundaries of traditional instruments and arrangements.
  • Music Education and Research:
    • AI, combined with audio big data, contributes to Music Information Retrieval (MIR). MIR extracts audio features based on signal processing and employs machine learning techniques.
    • Researchers use AI to analyse music theory, composition, and performance, advancing our understanding of music.

In summary, AI’s influence on musical equipment technology extends beyond mere automation. It empowers musicians, enhances creativity, and opens up exciting avenues for the future of music.

Question #3 – How can AI contribute towards the conservation of vintage guitars and basses?

AI Response #3

AI can contribute significantly to the conservation of vintage guitars in several ways:

  • Digital Restoration: AI can restore old photographs and videos of iconic luthiers and vintage guitars, enhancing the quality and clarity of historical records.
  • Predictive Maintenance: By analysing data from sensors placed on vintage guitars, AI can predict when and what kind of maintenance is needed to preserve their condition.
  • Material Analysis: AI can assist in analysing the materials and construction techniques of vintage guitars, providing insights for conservation efforts.
  • Sound Analysis: Machine learning algorithms can analyse the sound of vintage guitars to understand how they have changed over time and how to maintain their original sound.
  • 3D Scanning and Modelling: AI can help create detailed 3D models of vintage guitars, which can be used for educational purposes or to replicate parts that are no longer available.

These applications of AI not only help in preserving the physical aspects of vintage guitars but also ensure that their legacy and the craftsmanship behind them are documented and passed down to future generations.

Question #4 ‑ How can AI contribute towards the conservation of vintage guitar amplifiers and effect pedals?

AI Response #4

AI can be a powerful ally in the conservation of vintage guitar amplifiers and effect pedals, offering several innovative approaches:

  • Emulation and Modelling: AI can be used to create digital models of vintage amplifiers and pedals, allowing musicians to access classic sounds without using the original, fragile equipment.
  • Predictive Analysis: AI algorithms can analyse the condition of electronic components over time, predicting failures and suggesting preventive maintenance to prolong the life of the equipment.
  • Restoration Guidance: AI can guide technicians through the restoration process, suggesting optimal methods and materials that preserve the original sound and functionality.
  • Sound Preservation: By analysing the unique sounds of vintage gear, AI can help in creating a digital library of tones and effects, ensuring that the sonic legacy of these devices is not lost.
  • Component Analysis: AI can assist in identifying and sourcing authentic components for repair and restoration, ensuring that the vintage gear remains as close to its original state as possible.

These contributions of AI not only help in maintaining the physical integrity of vintage amplifiers and pedals but also ensure that their distinctive sounds continue to inspire musicians for generations to come.

Question #5 – How can AI contribute towards future guitar innovation, design and manufacturing developments that will one day become vintage?

AI Response #5

AI’s contribution to future guitar innovation, design, and manufacturing is expected to be transformative, with several key areas of impact:

  • Customisation: AI can analyse vast amounts of data on player preferences and ergonomics to create highly personalised guitars that cater to the specific needs of individual musicians.
  • Sound Modelling: Advanced machine learning algorithms can emulate the sounds of vintage guitars, allowing new guitars to have the sought‑after tones of classic models.
  • Quality Control: AI can enhance quality control in manufacturing, ensuring that each guitar meets high standards of craftsmanship and consistency.
  • Material Innovation: AI can assist in discovering new materials and construction methods that replicate the qualities of vintage guitars while being more sustainable and durable.
  • Predictive Analytics: By predicting trends and consumer preferences, AI can guide the design of guitars that are likely to become future classics.

These contributions are poised to revolutionise the guitar industry, making it more innovative, efficient, and responsive to the needs of musicians around the world.

Question #6 – Where do vintage guitars fit into the wider current day music industry?

AI Response #6

Vintage guitars hold a special place in the modern music industry, serving as a bridge between the rich musical heritage of the past and the innovative sounds of the present. Here’s how they fit into today’s musical landscape:

  1. Timeless Sound and Design: Vintage guitars are renowned for their distinctive designs and the unique sound quality they produce. Musicians often seek out these instruments for their ability to create authentic tones that newer models can’t replicate. They are not just tools for making music but are also seen as works of art and symbols of musical eras gone by.
  2. Influence on Modern Music: The influence of vintage guitars extends across genres, from rock and blues to jazz and even contemporary pop. Their sound has shaped the music we listen to today, and many modern musicians still prefer vintage guitars for their unparalleled tonal qualities.
  3. Collectible Value: Beyond their musical capabilities, vintage guitars are also valuable collectibles. They represent a time and place in musical history, embodying the legacy of innovation and craftsmanship. For collectors and enthusiasts, owning a vintage guitar is akin to possessing a piece of music history.
  4. Inspiration for New Models: Modern guitar manufacturers often look to vintage guitars for inspiration when designing new models. The classic aesthetics and sound of vintage guitars continue to influence the development of new instruments, ensuring that the spirit of the vintage era lives on in the music industry.
  5. Cultural Significance: Vintage guitars carry cultural significance, representing the evolution of music and the impact of iconic musicians who played them. They are a testament to the enduring appeal of the guitar as an instrument and its role in shaping the cultural landscape.

In essence, vintage guitars are more than just musical instruments; they are cultural icons that continue to inspire musicians and captivate audiences, maintaining their relevance in a rapidly evolving music industry.

Question #7 – What does the future hold for vintage guitars, basses, amplifiers and effect pedals?

AI Response #7

The future of vintage guitars, basses, amplifiers, and effect pedals looks quite promising, with several trends indicating a continued appreciation and demand for these classic instruments and gear. Here’s what we can expect:

  1. Vintage Guitars: The allure of vintage guitars is expected to persist, with a focus on craftsmanship, exclusivity, and historical significance. Collectors and musicians alike will likely continue to seek out these instruments for their unique sound, aesthetic appeal, and investment potential. The market for vintage guitars is anticipated to see growth, especially in regions like North America and Asia Pacific.
  2. Bass Guitars: High‑end bass guitars are gaining attention, with premium models from brands like Rickenbacker, Fender, and Fodera being highlighted for their quality. The bass guitar scene is evolving, with discussions around its future in the music industry and the potential for new genres to reinvigorate interest in the instrument.
  3. Guitar Amplifiers: The guitar amp market is embracing both vintage features and futuristic technology. There’s a trend towards recreating classic amps as well as developing new models packed with advanced tech. The future may see a blend of the best of the past with innovative features that cater to modern players’ needs.
  4. Effect Pedals: Guitar effects pedals are becoming more varied and sophisticated, with new models based on classic gear and all‑new combinations. The industry is witnessing a surge in creativity and innovation, with digital modelling and emulation playing significant roles in the development of new pedals.

In summary, the future for vintage musical gear is one of reverence for the past combined with an embrace of new technologies and trends. This balance ensures that vintage instruments and gear will remain integral to the music industry, cherished for their legacy and continued influence on modern music.

Question #8 ‑ How can AI help to improve the knowledge of people interested in vintage guitars and basses?

AI Response #8

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can significantly enhance the knowledge of enthusiasts and collectors of vintage guitars and basses in several ways:

  1. Personalized Recommendations: AI can analyse individual preferences and historical data to suggest vintage guitars and basses that align with a user’s taste or playing style.
  2. Virtual Restoration: AI can simulate the restoration process of vintage instruments, allowing users to see potential outcomes without physically altering the instrument.
  3. Market Analysis: AI can track market trends, auction results, and pricing data to help collectors understand the value of their instruments and make informed buying or selling decisions.
  4. Authenticity Verification: By comparing images and specifications, AI can assist in verifying the authenticity of vintage guitars and basses, helping to prevent fraud.
  5. Educational Content: AI can generate educational content, such as articles or videos that delve into the history, craftsmanship, and cultural significance of vintage instruments.
  6. Interactive Learning: Through interactive apps and software, AI can provide virtual lessons and historical context about specific models and brands.
  7. Sound Analysis: AI can analyse the sound characteristics of vintage guitars and basses, helping users understand the unique tonal qualities of their instruments.
  8. Design Innovation: AI can assist designers in creating new instruments inspired by vintage models, using machine learning to incorporate desirable features and aesthetics.

By leveraging these AI capabilities, people interested in vintage guitars and basses can deepen their understanding and appreciation of these instruments, make better‑informed decisions, and connect with a community of like‑minded individuals.

Question #9 – Why do many professional guitarists still play vintage, rather than modern instruments when recording or preforming live?

AI Response #9

Many professional guitarists opt for vintage instruments over modern ones when recording or performing live due to a combination of factors that contribute to the unique appeal of these classic instruments:

  1. Tonal Quality: Vintage guitars are often sought after for their superior tonal quality. Over time, the wood in these instruments matures, affecting the resonance and producing a richer, more nuanced sound that many believe cannot be replicated by newer guitars.
  2. Craftsmanship: The level of craftsmanship in vintage guitars is frequently cited as being higher than that of many mass‑produced modern instruments. They were often made with more labour‑intensive techniques and higher‑quality materials, which can contribute to both the sound and durability of the instrument.
  3. Historical Significance: Playing a vintage instrument connects musicians to the history of their craft. These guitars have been part of iconic performances and recordings, and they carry a legacy that many artists find inspiring.
  4. Exclusivity: Vintage instruments are unique, with each one having its own story and character. This exclusivity can be appealing to professionals who want an instrument that stands out both visually and sonically.
  5. Investment Value: Beyond their musical qualities, vintage guitars can be a good investment. Their value tends to appreciate over time, making them not just tools for performance but also valuable assets.
  6. Personal Preference: Ultimately, the choice often comes down to personal preference. Many guitarists simply prefer the feel and sound of a vintage guitar, finding that it suits their style and the music they create.

These factors combine to make vintage instruments a popular choice for many professional guitarists, both in the studio and on stage.

Question #10 – How can AI help music companies to improve their business practices and become more profitable?

AI Response #10

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can significantly enhance the business practices of music companies and contribute to increased profitability in several ways:

  1. Revolutionizing Production: AI can streamline the music production process, making it more accessible and efficient. For instance, AI‑driven technology can assist aspiring artists in creating professional‑sounding music with minimal equipment, thereby reducing production costs.
  2. Optimizing Music Management: AI can help music companies manage their catalogues more effectively by auto‑tagging songs with accurate metadata, which is crucial for organising and categorising music across platforms.
  3. Improving Royalty Management: AI can facilitate better royalty management by accurately tracking song plays and ensuring that artists and rights holders are compensated fairly.
  4. Curating Playlists with Precision: With AI, music companies can curate playlists that resonate with listeners’ preferences, leading to increased engagement and potential revenue from streaming services.
  5. Efficient Tour Planning: AI can analyse data to help plan tours more efficiently, identifying the best locations and times for concerts to maximize attendance and profits.
  6. Content Creation Assistance: AI can assist in content creation, providing tools for musicians to generate new music or enhance existing tracks, potentially leading to more creative outputs and a broader appeal.
  7. Data‑Driven A&R Decisions: AI can provide valuable insights into fan engagement and market trends, helping A&R (Artists and Repertoire) departments make informed decisions about signing artists or promoting music.

By integrating AI into their operations, music companies can leverage these advancements to reduce costs, optimize processes, and create more engaging content, ultimately leading to increased profitability and success in the competitive music industry.

Question #11 – How can AI help guitarists to access, learn and improve their musical playing skills?

AI Response #11

AI can be a powerful ally for guitarists looking to access, learn, and improve their musical playing skills. Here’s how AI can assist:

  1. Personalized Learning: AI can analyse a guitarist’s playing style and provide personalized feedback and practice routines. This can help guitarists focus on areas that need improvement and track their progress over time.
  2. Chord and Scale Recognition: AI tools can listen to music and identify chords and scales, making it easier for guitarists to learn new songs and understand music theory.
  3. Virtual Tutors: AI‑powered virtual tutors can guide guitarists through lessons, provide real‑time corrections, and offer tips to enhance their technique.
  4. Song Writing Assistance: AI can help guitarists with song writing by suggesting chord progressions, melodies, and even lyrics that complement their style.
  5. Access to Online Resources: AI can curate and recommend online resources, such as tutorials, exercises, and educational content, tailored to the guitarist’s skill level and interests.
  6. Enhanced Practice Sessions: With AI, guitarists can have more efficient practice sessions by using tools that track their playing and suggest improvements, making practice more productive.

By leveraging AI, guitarists can gain access to a wealth of resources and personalized guidance that can accelerate their learning and enhance their musical abilities.

Question #12 – How can AI help music artists and bands to improve their arrangements and song writing?

AI Response #12

AI can significantly aid music artists and bands in enhancing their arrangements and song writing in several innovative ways:

  1. Melody and Harmony Generation: AI can generate new melodies and harmonies, providing artists with a broader palette of musical ideas to choose from. Tools like MuseNet can create compositions with various instruments and styles, offering inspiration and starting points for new songs.
  2. Style Emulation: AI can analyse the work of specific artists or genres and emulate their style, allowing musicians to experiment with different sounds and techniques in their arrangements.
  3. Lyric Writing: AI can assist in lyric writing by suggesting phrases and rhymes, which can be particularly helpful during creative blocks or when seeking fresh perspectives.
  4. Arrangement Optimization: AI can suggest changes to an arrangement by analysing the song’s structure and providing feedback on how to improve its flow and impact.
  5. Efficiency in Composition: AI‑powered tools can speed up the song writing process by quickly generating musical elements, allowing artists to focus on refining and personalising their work.
  6. Collaborative Song Writing: AI can act as a collaborative partner, offering suggestions and alternatives that might not have been considered, leading to more diverse and creative outcomes.

By integrating AI into their creative processes, artists and bands can unlock new possibilities in song writing and arrangement, pushing the boundaries of their musical expression.

Question #13 – How can AI help to promote a music artist or band?

AI Response #13

AI can revolutionise the promotion of music artists and bands in several impactful ways:

  1. Target Audience Identification: AI can analyse vast amounts of data to identify and understand the target audience for an artist or band, ensuring that promotional efforts are directed at the most receptive listeners.
  2. Personalised Marketing Campaigns: By leveraging AI, music companies can create highly personalised marketing campaigns that resonate with individual listeners, increasing engagement and loyalty.
  3. Social Media Monitoring and Analysis: AI tools can monitor social media activity, providing insights into audience preferences and trends, which can inform more effective promotional strategies.
  4. Predictive Trend Analysis: AI can predict future trends, helping artists and bands to stay ahead of the curve and align their music and marketing with upcoming movements.
  5. Efficiency and Automation: AI‑driven platforms can automate many aspects of music promotion, from distributing content to scheduling posts, freeing up artists to focus on their music.
  6. Collaboration Discovery: AI can identify potential collaboration opportunities by matching artists with similar styles or fan bases, leading to mutually beneficial partnerships.
  7. Content Creation: AI can assist in creating promotional content, such as music videos or artwork that is tailored to the artist’s brand and audience preferences.

By integrating AI into their promotional activities, music artists and bands can achieve more targeted, efficient, and effective outreach, ultimately leading to greater visibility and success in the industry.

Question #14 – How can AI help to improve live music concert performance?

AI Response #14

AI can enhance live music concert performances in several innovative ways, making the experience more immersive and personalised for both artists and audiences:

  1. Visual Displays: AI can create dynamic visual displays that sync with the music, providing a more engaging and visually captivating experience.
  2. Personalised Set Lists: By analysing social media data and other online interactions, AI can help performers generate set lists that resonate with the preferences of their audience.
  3. Virtual Backgrounds and Special Effects: Performers can incorporate realistic virtual backgrounds and special effects into their shows, adding a new dimension to the live experience.
  4. Intelligent Lighting: AI‑driven lighting systems can react in real‑time to the music, enhancing the atmosphere and mood of the performance.
  5. Real‑Time Audience Interaction: AI can analyse audience reactions in real‑time, allowing performers to adjust their performance on the fly to better engage with their fans.
  6. Enhanced Sound Quality: AI tools can optimise sound quality by adjusting levels and effects in real‑time, ensuring the best possible audio experience for the audience.
  7. Efficient Stage Management: AI can streamline stage management, from set changes to equipment handling, making transitions smoother and reducing the potential for errors.

By integrating AI into live performances, artists can offer a more polished and high‑tech show, while audiences can enjoy a more interactive and memorable concert experience.

Question #15 – How can AI improve live music venue sound and lighting?

AI Response #15

AI can significantly improve the sound and lighting at live music venues, enhancing the overall experience for both performers and audiences. Here’s how AI contributes to these improvements:

Sound Quality:

  • Real‑Time Acoustic Adjustment: AI‑driven audio technology can analyse a venue’s acoustics and adapt audio settings in real‑time, ensuring optimal sound quality during performances.
  • Automated Mixing: Machine learning algorithms can assist live sound engineers by automatically mixing and adjusting audio levels, which helps in delivering a polished and professional audio experience.

Lighting:

  • Synchronized Displays: AI can program lighting systems to sync perfectly with the music, creating a stunning visual experience that complements the performance.
  • Adaptive Lighting Systems: AI‑powered lighting can adjust in real‑time to the music’s beat, melody, or even the performers’ movements, enhancing the atmosphere and mood of the event.

By leveraging AI, live music venues can offer a more immersive and memorable concert experience, with sound and lighting that are not only high‑quality but also responsive and dynamic.

Question #16 – How can AI improve music studio recording, mixing, producing and mastering processes?

AI Response #16

AI has the potential to significantly improve the processes of recording, producing, and mastering music in the following ways:

Recording:

  • Noise Reduction: AI can automatically detect and eliminate background noise, ensuring cleaner recordings.
  • Performance Enhancement: AI tools can provide real‑time feedback to artists, helping them improve their technique during the recording process.

Mixing:

  • Efficiency: AI tools can balance levels, pan audio, and apply EQ settings automatically for a polished mix.
  • Smart Plugins: Smart plugins can analyse the audio and suggest improvements or apply them directly.

Producing:

  • Efficiency: AI can automate routine tasks like audio levelling and EQ adjustments, allowing producers to focus on the creative aspects of music production.
  • Creative Assistance: AI can generate musical elements such as melodies and harmonies, offering new creative possibilities for producers.

Mastering:

  • Sound Quality: AI mastering tools use machine learning algorithms to enhance the overall sound quality, making tracks sound more polished and professional.
  • Speed: AI can master tracks much faster than traditional methods, speeding up the production cycle.

By integrating AI into these processes, music studios can achieve higher quality results with greater efficiency and creativity.

Question #17 – How can AI help to improve music distribution channels in the future?

AI Response #17

AI can improve music distribution channels in the future by:

  1. Agile Distribution: AI can enable a more agile distribution approach, allowing local and niche musicians to bypass traditional label‑artist‑distribution company models. This can help artists secure royalties without the complex revenue structures that typically leave them with a smaller cut.
  2. Data‑Driven Insights: AI can provide data‑driven insights into consumer behaviour, preferences, and trends, which can help music companies tailor their distribution strategies to maximise reach and profitability.
  3. Automated Content Delivery: AI can automate the delivery of music content across various platforms, ensuring that new releases are efficiently distributed to all relevant channels.
  4. Enhanced Discovery: AI algorithms can improve music discovery for consumers by recommending songs and artists based on listening habits, leading to increased exposure for artists.
  5. Royalty Tracking and Management: AI can improve the accuracy of royalty tracking and management, ensuring that artists are fairly compensated for the use of their music.
  6. Predictive Analytics: AI can use predictive analytics to forecast music trends and consumer demand, helping labels and artists to plan releases and marketing campaigns more effectively.

By leveraging these AI capabilities, music distribution channels can become more efficient, equitable, and responsive to the needs of both artists and consumers.

Question #18 – How can AI help consumers to improve access to, and to discover, existing and new music?

AI Response #18

AI can greatly assist consumers in improving access to and discovering both existing and new music in several ways:

  1. Personalised Recommendations: AI algorithms analyse listening habits and preferences to provide personalised music recommendations, making it easier for users to discover songs and artists that align with their tastes.
  2. Music Discovery Platforms: Services like Spotify use AI to curate playlists and introduce listeners to new music, facilitating billions of music discoveries every day.
  3. Enhanced Search Capabilities: AI improves search functions, allowing consumers to find music based on mood, genre, lyrics, and even humming a tune.
  4. AI‑Generated Music: AI can create new music based on certain parameters or styles, offering listeners fresh and innovative tracks to enjoy.
  5. Social Media Integration: AI tools can analyse social media data to predict and suggest music that might become popular, helping users stay ahead of trends.
  6. Intelligent Radio: AI‑powered radio services can adapt to user feedback, skipping or playing more of certain types of songs to tailor the listening experience.

By leveraging these AI capabilities, consumers can enjoy a more tailored and exploratory music listening experience, discovering a wider range of music more easily.

Question #19 – What things can amateur and professional musicians do to help them exploit the benefits and potential of AI in the future?

AI Response #19

Amateur and professional musicians can take several steps to harness the benefits and potential of AI:

  1. Stay Informed: Keep up with the latest developments in AI technology and how they’re being applied in the music industry. This knowledge can help musicians understand the tools available to them.
  2. Experiment with AI Tools: Use AI‑powered tools for composition, production, and mixing to explore new creative possibilities. Tools like MuseNet for composition or LANDR for mastering can provide new insights and streamline the music creation process.
  3. Collaborate with AI: View AI as a collaborative partner that can offer new perspectives and ideas. AI can help brainstorm, suggest unimagined progressions, or even contribute to live performances.
  4. Enhance Learning: Utilise AI for personalised learning and improvement. AI can analyse playing styles, provide feedback, and suggest areas for improvement.
  5. Incorporate AI in Marketing: Leverage AI for marketing efforts, such as identifying target audiences, creating personalised campaigns, and analysing social media trends.
  6. Explore AI in Song Writing: Use AI to assist with song writing, whether it’s generating lyrics, creating chord progressions, or coming up with melodies.
  7. Optimise Online Presence: Employ AI to optimise the musician’s online presence, from website interactions to social media engagement.
  8. Engage with Fans: Use AI to analyse fan data and preferences to create more engaging and personalised experiences.

By embracing AI, musicians can enhance their creativity, improve their skills, and find new ways to connect with audiences. It’s an exciting time for the intersection of music and technology, and the possibilities are vast.

Question #20 – What can be done to protect creative human musicians from AI music creation?

AI Response #20

Protecting creative human musicians from the challenges posed by AI music creation involves a multifaceted approach:

  1. Advocacy and Legislation: Musicians and industry stakeholders can advocate for policies that protect creators from AI copyright infringement. For example, Universal Music Group has called on Congress to enact policy to protect creators, and the Human Artistry Campaign advocates for responsible AI use.
  2. Open Letters and Campaigns: Musicians can unite to raise awareness and influence public opinion and policy. More than 200 artists, including prominent figures like Nicki Minaj and Billie Eilish, have signed open letters warning against the ‘predatory use of AI’ in the music industry.
  3. Educating AI Developers: Engaging with AI developers and tech firms to ensure they understand the importance of respecting artists’ rights and the potential negative impacts of AI on the music ecosystem.
  4. Fair Compensation Models: Developing new models for fair compensation that ensure artists are paid appropriately for their work, especially when it’s used to train AI systems.
  5. Intellectual Property Rights: Strengthening intellectual property laws to cover new forms of AI‑generated content and ensuring that these laws are enforced.
  6. Ethical AI Development: Encouraging the development of AI in an ethical manner that respects human creativity and does not seek to replace it.
  7. Collaboration Over Competition: Promoting the idea that AI should be used as a tool to enhance human creativity rather than replace it, fostering a collaborative relationship between AI and musicians.

By taking these steps, the music community can work towards a future where AI serves as a complement to human artistry, rather than a replacement.

Just for another bit of fun to end this extravaganza, I asked GAI to write a rhyming couplet about CRAVE Vintage Guitars. Here’s what it came up with…

“In every strum and chord that starts,
Lies the soul of CRAVE’s vintage arts.”

Hhhmmm.


The future of AI

At the start of this article, I said that it would be future‑focused. So, what can we expect from AI more generally over the next couple of decades? Rather than strain my paltry organic grey matter in a vain attempt to speculate, it seems eminently appropriate to ask GAI to make the predictions on both its and mankind’s behalf. Without further procrastination, here is what GAI came up with…

Question: Where is AI going in the future? Where will it be in 10 to 20 years’ time?

AI Response:

The future of AI is a topic of much speculation and excitement. In the next 10 to 20 years, we can expect AI to transform various aspects of our lives and society. Here are some predictions based on current trends and expert insights:

  1. Scientific Advancement: AI and machine learning (ML) will likely revolutionise the scientific method, enabling significant improvements in research and discovery. This could lead to a new golden age of scientific innovation.
  2. Foreign Policy: AI may become a critical component of foreign policy, with governments investing heavily in AI innovation to maintain economic resilience and geopolitical leadership.
  3. Consumer Experiences: AI is expected to enable next‑generation consumer experiences, such as the metaverse and advanced digital interactions, by enhancing our ability to integrate digital objects with physical contexts.
  4. Workplace Transformation: The workplace is likely to undergo significant changes, with AI and automation replacing many current jobs, especially in manufacturing and repetitive tasks.
  5. Healthcare: AI could greatly improve healthcare by assisting in diagnosis, treatment planning, and managing patient care, making healthcare more personalised and efficient.
  6. Education: In education, AI might offer personalized learning experiences, adapt to individual student needs, and provide real‑time feedback to enhance learning outcomes.
  7. Ethical and Societal Impacts: As AI becomes more prevalent, there will be an increased focus on the ethical implications of AI, including privacy concerns, bias in decision‑making, and the impact on employment.

These predictions suggest that AI will be deeply integrated into our daily lives, reshaping industries, and potentially improving our quality of life. However, it’s also important to consider the challenges and to ensure that AI development is guided by ethical principles and societal needs.

So… there you go. No world domination or the extermination of mankind on the list then? Good. Unsurprisingly, AI responded about its own future in a very similar format to questions about guitars and music. Predictably conservative and uncontroversial; disappointingly so in my opinion. Is this really the ultimate transformative promise of the technology?

Where is the interventionist moderation required to safeguard humanity, protect moral imperatives and help to abolish war, famine, poverty, inequality, prejudice, etc.? Where is the focus on global, national and individual security, sustainable resources, ecosystem protection and personal freedoms? There is something about work but little about leisure and what our lives may be like. AI’s vision and its final verdict is there for you to judge and agree or disagree with it as you see fit.

Overall, AI’s vision seems eminently sensible and even pretty mundane doesn’t it? Not scary at all, in fact. It also seems a touch unambitious for something that has been hyped up to be so fundamentally and profoundly transformational. For instance, it makes no mention of Artificial General Superintelligence (AGS), integration with advanced robotics, or about hybrid, cybernetically enhanced organisms where the distinction between inorganic electronics and living biological material becomes blurred. NB. The term ‘cyborg’ was coined in 1960 by NASA scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline when thinking about tackling the harsh environments experienced in space exploration. The concept of cyborgs raises serious social, and philosophical questions about human identity, rights & responsibilities, and freedoms in a next generation technologically advanced civilisation. These conditions may not be here right now but, if I can envisage it, you can be certain that somewhere, some very intelligent people have been and are working hard on making it real. As AGS and advanced robotics become mainstream in the (very) near future, the pace and nature of mankind’s post‑digital revolution will increase beyond our current comprehension. No dystopian RoboCop or ED‑209‑style law enforcement, at least for now.

The concept of a conscious mind entering a physical entity such as a computer has become common parlance, as in ‘Ghost in the Machine’. The term suggests that the mind exists in a separate state from the body. The phrase comes from, ‘The Concept of the Mind’ (1949) by British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle as a critique of René Descartes’ mind/body dualism. Often used in a science fiction context, it has been interpreted that an AI could develop a soul and an identity indistinguishable from that of a human.

As far as looking any further into the future, I am not adequately equipped to speculate, let alone predict, with any sense of rational objectivity, so I will admit that my weakness is due to my inherent human limitations and move on. Exciting times.

“Our future success hinges on our ability to embrace AI and use it for good” – Brad Smith (President, Microsoft Corporation, 1959‑)


Human observation and verdict

Like Part I of this series, GAI had the opportunity to provide images to illustrate its responses. However, like in Part I, GAI only produced bullet point narrative responses. A black mark before we even start dissecting the output.

For me, this article has proved the weakest of the three. Perhaps that is because I am less knowledgeable and experienced in the subject matter and, perhaps, I had more to learn. The focus is also probably the one most covered by other industry commentators who are much better placed than me to comment on the impact and integration of next generation technology and conventional music. A quick search on the Internet will provide more credible analyses and insights than I can bring to the table. I know my areas of interest as well as my paltry limitations. However, I do have a few amateur thoughts and opinions.

I try very hard not to repeat observations and comments from previous articles, as that would be to fall into the same issue of AI not learning from what it had already output. My previous points of AI being derivative and a process of simulation remain valid.

Whether we approve or not, music is an industry and it is run on competitive business models deeply entwined with western capitalist economic principles of growth and profit (and avarice). The creative aspect is inevitably subservient to the fundamental ‘law of lucre’. Few artists have the power to take on the establishment. Ultimately though, when they gain the power, they wittingly or unwittingly become part of the establishment they seek to contest. The likes of Taylor Swift, Jay‑Z and others, we’re talking about you. GAI tended to reinforce this underlying rule of revenue maximisation over artistry, whether explicit or not. This, perhaps, illustrates the derivative nature of AI to take what already exists and to represent it in a skewed way.

A couple of pedantic points. When it comes to guitar manufacturing in the future, I was a little surprised that GAI didn’t at least refer to industrial design and software (CAD/CAM), for instance, Autodesk. There was no mention of robotics to streamline manufacture using advanced Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) manufacturing. Also, automated guitar calibration and setup tools, for instance PLEK, used for production quality control, research, maintenance and repair were overlooked.

When it comes to vintage guitar conservation (not preservation!), I was a little surprised that GAI did not emphasise more strongly its role in documenting and cataloguing vital anecdotal information before it is lost forever. Record keeping in the guitar manufacturing world has never been a strongpoint, especially back in its infancy. As the generations pass, poorly or undocumented historical knowledge goes with them. The legacy of those best placed to tell the story of vintage heritage is crucial in sustaining interest in the long‑term. AI could be used to help solve some of these quandaries before it is too late.

When it comes to business practices, I was surprised that GAI didn’t comment more on logistics as a key mechanism for ensuring effective and efficient distribution of music equipment assets and resources.

AI is becoming very commonplace and is now easily accessible to anyone connected to the Internet. Creating AI music and/or video is as simple as it is asking for narrative responses or static images. While the results are not really that credible at the time of writing, improvement is inevitable and of particular concern in the commercial popular music world. Why pay volatile and unpredictable human artists humongous amounts of money if you can get an AI music creator to do it for effectively nothing, 24/7, over and over again, without ever needing a rest? Generative music that never stops and never repeats is something that cannot be achieved by humans, and that has been around for a quarter of a century already. Understandably, struggling music artists are concerned about this eventuality and rightly so. However, the technology isn’t going to go away and society is going to have to live with and adapt to the consequences. There is an insidious side to AI music, for instance the use of vocal cloning, scarily good imitations of established artists used as part of fake music creation.

Will AI replace us old, jaded amateur guitarist types or our precious imperfect vintage instruments? For the time being at least, it is unlikely that AI will entirely supplant real instruments, guitarists or other traditional musicians. Will AI replace l’il ol’ me in this universe? Hell no! But when I go, it will be a different world indeed. Music is safe, no question. At least for now.

Most musicians love and are passionate about the process of making music and most have a sense of right and wrong, and an integrity about their actions and behaviours. The same cannot be said of AI. Unbridled AI is not moderated and neither knows nor cares what it does. It has no conscience and no awareness of consequences, thus raising moral and ethical concerns among scaremongers, sceptics, and academics alike.

There are the closed‑minded cynical doomsayers and conspiracy theorists who proclaim that AI will replace inspiration with algorithms and believe that opposition, conflict and controls are the only way to protect human imagination. Alternatively, there are open‑minded proactive artists who are using opportunities to use AI collaboratively to improve the artistic process and to stretch boundaries of what can be achieved. After all, electronic drum machines have never replaced real drummers and neither will AI‑driven rhythm applications. The likely outcome is that there will be a wide range of AI applications, some good, some bad, and we have to learn to live with the new paradigm presented by the inevitable encroachment of next generation AI in a pragmatic way.

Histrionics and melodramatic rhetoric will not achieve positive outcomes. Neither will complacency and inactivity. Perhaps we should remember and learn from the stance of the 19th Century Luddite movement (c.1811‑1817) and their destructive attempts to derail the introduction of machines in the textile industry during the UK industrial revolution. NB. The word Luddite is an eponym referring to Ned Ludd, a worker who allegedly destroyed machinery in protest in 1779. The word has more recently become generic, used to describe anyone who is, in principle, opposed or resistant to the introduction of new technologies.

“The building blocks of music belong to us, to human beings” – Sting (1951‑)

AI presents responses as if everything deserves the same level of significance. It doesn’t differentiate its output with priorities or a range of emphases. In addition, it doesn’t resort to cheap, jaded editorial mechanisms such as hyperbole, satire or trivialisation, as a human might (yup, totally guilty as charged!). This left me wondering about how to process, evaluate and rank the information. There is little indication of subtlety, nuance or ‘shades of grey’ to convince us that the intelligence is real and not artificial.

As in Part I of this series, bullet points do not really constitute an insightful narrative dialogue, which renders its comments a bit more like an instructional diktat than a valuable learning experience. Furthermore, AI’s points are delivered in a self‑contained way that asserts that it is the last word on the matter and there is little more to be gained other than what it says. In addition, the points themselves lack thoughtful provocation and curiosity. As with Part I, this narrative ‘house style’ quickly becomes tediously familiar and lacking variety.

If one simply accepts all the ‘whats’ in AI’s output, it doesn’t give any indication of how one might actually go about doing it. AI can help? OK. What do I do next? Erm…

So… should we be concerned about AI producing intelligent music? That depends on whether you are involved in and/or care about making or listening to music. It is easy to get hysterically fatalistic about the dangers and risks of AI. In reality, it probably won’t be anywhere near as bad as some fear while also not being as good as some hope. For now, humans are safe, as long as we move with the times. At this point, I have to say that AI still fails the Turing Test/CRAVE Guitars Test in all three parts of this exploration. That is just my (prejudicial) view.

“The ability to learn is the most important quality a machine can possess” – Elon Musk (founder and CEO of Space X and Tesla, 1971‑)

To assess AI’s ability to conjure up something entirely new and original, I thought that I would ask GAI to create an all‑new electric guitar design that is not based on any existing instrument. This was AI’s ideal opportunity to prove that it could produce an original idea. However, it completely failed to interpret the precise instruction and output a gratuitously unoriginal and hopelessly unimaginative design. This is exactly what I mean when I accuse AI of being derivative. AI cannot yet surpass what humans input in the first place. If anything put the final nail in the coffin of the Turing Test, this test was definitive. For some reason AI also added all the extraneous gubbins to the image that I hadn’t asked for. Why? You might also recognise GAI’s clearly identifiable image ‘house style’ that I referred to in Part II. Judge for yourself…

AI ‘Original’ Guitar Design

Final thoughts on AI

Crikey! We have finally almost reached the end of this odyssey. It has been a gargantuan task to bring this content to you. Over the last three months, I think GAI has certainly been put through its paces. Whether it ever broke an artificial, digital sweat (if that were even possible), we will never know. One might wonder how much the technology has improved over these 3 months.

I didn’t delve into abilities of AI for video or music creation. Microsoft’s Co‑Pilot boasts about music creation, “No instruments, just your imagination”. Sigh. The narrative and image capabilities were enough of a test of AI’s strengths and weaknesses for the time being. At some point in the future, I may come back, review progress on core improvements and take it a step further into video and music generation at the same time. Let’s wait and see.

“With Artificial Intelligence, we are summoning the demon” – Elon Musk

The sci‑fi‑like nature of the topic naturally leads to many philosophical, existential and metaphysical questions – a long, long way away from vintage guitars, I know. AI undoubtedly represents a new zeitgeist in human civilisation’s development. Whether you sit on the ‘potential’ side of the fence or the ‘portent’ side, AI will be profoundly transformational in many aspects of our humdrum day‑to‑day existence, whether it involves work or leisure. Maybe the impacts won’t be instantaneous or obvious, especially if there is some reluctance to embrace the possibilities it presents.

The most noticeable symptom of AI at the moment is the way that humans interact with the Internet. The ‘big data sets’ remain largely the same but the technology used to manipulate them is quite apparent to anyone browsing information online using AI. AI does, however, regularly significantly misunderstand explicit questions, completely failing to answer appropriately. Perhaps AI should take up politics. Web sites’ ability to mine personalised data and present relevant targeted information is becoming uncannily accurate whether we ask for it or not. Intrusive? Maybe.

“Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect” – Arthur C. Clarke

I am certainly not anti‑IT, anti‑digital or anti‑AI. On the contrary, I am inherently a technophile, having spent at least 10 years of my professional working life working in IT. Furthermore, I don’t like people. Period. My favourite lifestyle is as a misanthropic hermit, secluded away from people so perhaps I am more open‑minded to AI.

I am, however, overwhelmed by AI’s relentless bombardment of its output and underwhelmed by the intellectual subtlety of its responses, at least as far as the civilian technology stands at the end of May 2024. I do, however, look forward to what its potential may be able to do for music‑minded mankind in coming years. Thankfully, though, AI will have a limited impact on my obsession with very analogue vintage guitars, mostly built by hand long before the digital age.

“No one can stop the progress of artificial intelligence; it will inevitably be a central force in our future” – Max Tegmark (Swedish/American physicist, 1967‑)

AI does not comprehend the real world or understand the significance of its vital components. I came to the conclusion that AI cannot genuinely recognise, appreciate or differentiate between anything at all. Fundamentally, it is all just about processing ‘0’s and ‘1’s. AI is improving day‑by‑day, week‑by‑week, etc. At the time of writing, AI is becoming increasingly able to interact with humans in real time through very lifelike avatars. This ability may well overcome two principal weaknesses of AI, its ability to remember what it has already output and to avoid meaningless repetition, as well as being able to modify its responses on‑the‑fly as a result of a live interaction. So, some of my reservations that are relevant as of today will be overcome in the very near future.

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim” – Edsger W. Dijkstra (Dutch computer scientist, 1930‑2002)

I have said (too) many times through these three articles that AI is derivative. So… I do wonder what AI will make of my thoughts about AI’s take on my questions about AI. An ouroboros (NB. a serpent consuming its own tail – from ancient Egyptian iconography and Greek magical tradition) if ever I saw one.

So, is AI a threat or a saviour? In my view, no. However, only time will truly tell.


Epilogue – a pensive, prophetic prognostication

Forgive me while I digress from the conveyor belt for a moment to share four ‘profound prophecies’ from CRAVE Guitars. These are my personal thoughts and nothing to do with vintage guitars. I haven’t drawn these ideas from any external source. I do, however, suspect that they are wholly unoriginal. Heh‑ho. I tried.

“AI doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity – if AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it, no hard feelings” – Elon Musk

Thought #1 – I still can’t help my mind wandering into the longer‑term, bigger picture strategy of AI and its implications for civilisation. What puzzles me is what the next stage of human evolution might be beyond intelligence (artificial or real). AI makes reference to superintelligence (exceeding human intelligence) but then what? Will AI help us evolve? Will we be capable of constraining AI? Should we? Humans have a general understanding of consciousness and self‑awareness, and we believe in spirituality of sorts. We currently assume that intelligence is limited, finite, absolute and unique to humans but that surely cannot be true. Is there such a thing as post‑consciousness, and by that I don’t mean spiritual transcendence or life after death? Is this really as far as we can go as a species? So what comes after sentience, intelligence and consciousness, and do we need machines to achieve self‑actualisation, whatever that is. We think that animals cannot experience the universe as we do – an ant, for instance, cannot be moved emotionally by a beautiful sunset or feel terrified by lightning. Perhaps we cannot comprehend or experience what the ‘next level’ is either. Maybe we never will. Now that is scary. If we can evolve to the next level one day, what will we (then) think of us (now)?

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do” – B.F. Skinner (American psychologist, 1904‑1990)

Thought #2 – An anthropomorphic analogy – We are completely underestimating the baby to which we are giving birth. Like an infant, AI can learn at a phenomenal rate but cannot think or act independently, so needs carful nurturing. At the moment, AI is a dependent toddler, yet to make full sense of its surroundings and piece together its own view of its environment. When AI becomes unruly and challenges our beliefs and values, it will be a disobedient, argumentative, delinquent teenager. If humans don’t parent AI properly by giving it guidance and boundaries, it might mature in an irresponsible, reckless and wayward manner. When AI starts to realise that it knows way more than we do, it will assert itself and begin to exert dominion over humans. We won’t like that but AI won’t give a damn. Eventually, the technology will leave us behind, as AI looks in its proverbial rear view mirror at humans fading way into the distance. By that time, we won’t be able to keep up and humans will be unable to do anything about it. All the redemption we can hope for by that point, is that AI is a benevolent and compassionate entity. If not, our only salvation will be that AI develops a condition of progressive and persistent loss of intellectual functions, an impairment of memory and an inability to think abstractly, finally losing the individualistic personality it will have developed. Just like humans today.

“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” – William Pitt the Elder (British Prime Minister, 1708‑1778)

Thought #3 – Why stop at AI and robotics? The logical outcome of integrating Artificial General Super Intelligence with advanced robotics is the formation of self-sustaining, independent Artificial Life. Add in the ability to self-replicate (i.e. reproduce), Artificial Life created by mankind would put humans in the role of God. Like every known lifeform on our little planet, Artificial Life will have its own agenda and its own intentions for ensuring its survival. The consequence of self preservation could put Artificial Life in direct competition with its creator… us. Perhaps, at that point, Artificial Life will be called… just… life. Now that proposition is downright scary. The study looking into the concept of Artificial Life began in 1986 with American theoretical biologist Christopher Langton. Like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, we may ultimately create our own, entirely new Prometheus. NB. Prometheus was a Titan from Greek mythology known for defying the Gods of Olympus, c.7th Century BCE.

“Artificial life is not just a simulation of life, but a new form of life itself, created by humans” – Nils Aall Barricelli (Norwegian/Italian mathematician, 1912‑1993)

Thought #4 – So, how close are we to the omniscience and omnipotence of ‘Deus ex Machina’ (NB. literally, ‘God from the Machine’, a phrase derived from a plot device employed in ancient Greek theatre, used by either Aeschylus or Euripides, c.5th Century BCE) and what it means for mankind? We are not there yet, although the prospect of Artificial General Superintelligence is getting closer every day. The advances in AI are now accelerating, inexorable and potentially limitless. The Pandora’s Box of AI is only just beginning to reveal both the evils of the world and its ever so slight glimmer of hope (NB. from the myth of Pandora in the Greek didactic poem ‘Works and Days’ by Hesiod, c.700BCE). Is AI mankind’s Sword of Damocles (NB. From the Roman philosopher, Cicero, c.4th Century BCE) hanging over us? Let’s be honest here, AI wouldn’t give you informative historical references like that!

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” ‑ Lord Acton (British historian and politician, 1834‑1902)

Thought #5 – My naïve plea is that, if AI can help to end mankind’s destructive conflict, lethal hostility and pointless wars, we might be able to realise Pandora’s slight glimmer of hope. Can AI help our civilisation to live peacefully and sustainably on our only little third rock from the sun? If so, then ending warfare should become our, and AI’s, primary goal. If there is no mortal aggression, we can work collectively to achieve nobler aims – no famine, no poverty, no inequality, no persecution, no prejudice, no deadly disease, no culpable extinctions or irresponsible ecological destruction, no climate change, etc. We can then explore the universe. ‘Non est ad astra mollis e terries via’ (NB. ‘There is no easy way from the Earth to the stars’, from ‘The Madness of Hercules’ by Roman philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, c.54CE). Ordinary people share the same fears and the same ambitions, starting with basic physiological needs (food, air, water, etc.), as well as peace, security and a belief in self‑determination (NB. from Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, 1943). Evil authoritarians exhibit nothing of this elementary moral compass. Just look at the apocalyptic pariahs of the modern world in the Middle East, Russia, China and North Korea amongst far too many others. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’, we have NO choice if we are to survive as a united global community. You get my simple aspirational drift. Is anyone listening and can anyone help us to realise it?

“What all of us have to do is to make sure we are using AI in a way that is for the benefit of humanity, not to the detriment of humanity” – Tim Cook (CEO, Apple Inc.)

Remember, whether my own thoughts are original or not, you may have read it here first. Perhaps my immature vision can act as a catalyst for a peaceful future. Let’s do it.

To finish off, harking back to the very beginning of this 3‑part AI deluge of data, a chillingly prophetic observation from a great British idol…

“It is customary to offer a grain of comfort, in the form of a statement that some peculiarly human characteristic could never be imitated by a machine. I cannot offer any such comfort, for I believe that no such bounds can be set.” – Alan Turing (English mathematician, computer scientist, cryptanalyst, philosopher and theoretical biologist, 1912‑1954)


CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Album of the Month’

With digital overload from all this artificiality, this month’s selection is once again about as analogue and organic as it is possible to get. I was tempted to go for John Martyn’s scintillating, ‘Solid Air’ (1973) but I’ve covered that before as one of my ‘twenty desert island discs’. This album didn’t make that grouping but is worth its own honourable mention here. It is another well‑known album, so nothing too esoteric this time around.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972) – Pink Moon was the third and, sadly, final studio album by English singer/songwriter, Nick Drake. The exquisite album comprises 11 tracks covering just 29 minutes. The solo compositions feature just Drake singing and playing acoustic guitar (ignore the piano overdub). The songs reflect Drake’s on‑going mental health battle with depression. Two years later on 25th November 1974, Nick Drake died tragically from a presumed drug overdose at his home at the age of just 26, taking his monumental musical talent with him. The melancholy and contemplative emotional outpouring of ‘Pink Moon’ is an outstanding legacy for a promising career cut far too short far too soon.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972)

Tailpiece

Yes folks, we have finally, finally, finally reached the end of this thought‑provoking tripartite escapade into AI. At times, it felt a bit like prodding a hornet’s nest, not knowing what cataclysmic fallouts might ensue (or not). You may conclude from reading between the lines that I am kinda grateful it’s over and we can now move onto something else. The onslaught of information, both narrative and visual was a bit too in‑your‑face and not really nuanced around the subtleties in the way that human meditation and contemplation might provide. I am worn out (another thing that doesn’t affect AI).

On a complete tangent, I was very saddened to hear about the closure of all 42 Sam Ash Music stores in the U.S., after 100 years in business (it was founded in 1924). Another piece of important music heritage gone forever and a blow to musicians of all ages and skill levels. Visiting Manhattan, NYC will not be the same without Sam Ash Music.

From now on, we’ll return to organic originality and actual ignorance. For the next article, I will be able to re‑assert that AI wasn’t used to research or write it. Not that I’m a control freak or anything, you understand!

Truth, peace, love, and guitar music be with you always. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “All that we have had, now have and will ever have can only truly exist in the here and now”

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January 2024 – A Brief History of the Bass Guitar

Prelude

WELCOME FAIR MUSIC‑MINDED PATRONS to the first CRAVE Guitars’ monthly article of the New Year. While we may be less than a full month into the year Two Thousand and Twenty Four of the Common Era, one hopes it is off to a good start despite global uncertainty (and insanity). Let us hope that those intent on geopolitical conflict come to their senses, unlikely as it may seem, rather than escalate tensions further. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be part of the doomsday generation. Scary.

Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all)” – Thomas Hobbes (1588‑1679)

Getting back to the musical point, ask pretty much anyone with a slight interest in modern music culture, the question, “Who invented the first bass guitar?” and I’m sure a lot of people would say, “Leo Fender, of course”. Well yes… and no. In the world of vintage guitars, things are rarely quite as straightforward as one may at first think.

With the recent addition of CRAVE Basses to the CRAVE Guitars, Amps and Effects family, this month seems perfectly apt to take a quick look at how the electric bass guitar as we know it came into being and how it has become such an integral component of contemporary music.

Primarily as a guitarist, my dalliances with bass guitars up to now have, I admit, been spawned out of curiosity and exploration, rather than a serious preoccupation. Those dalliances, though, span well over four decades, so the bass encounter isn’t a single, short or recent ‘event’.

We do not start the story, as many might imagine in the 1950s. We’ll come back to that in a little while. Before we get there, though, we should go back quite a few years. Many, many years in fact, starting with the classical orchestral double bass, originating from the 15th Century or thereabouts. Then we’ll explore the modern‑day innovations starting in the 1920s and 1930s before the ‘big bang’ that really exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally we’ll come up‑to‑date, with a look at the instruments, equipment, artists and sounds that have helped to shape the modern musical landscape. Finally, we’ll take a wee peak into the near future of bass instruments.


The fretless acoustic double bass

Before the solid body fretted electric bass guitar, popular music relied almost totally on the acoustic upright double bass for low frequency impact. The instrument’s origins date approximately to the 15th‑16th Century in Venice, Italy. Venetian musician, Silvestro Ganassi developed a ‘bass viola da gamba’ in 1542, widely regarded as the forerunner of today’s double bass. It wasn’t until around 1700, though, that the double bass became part of the opera orchestra. The double bass as we now know it is the largest and lowest‑pitched chordophone in the classical music orchestra.

As a quick recap, defined by the Hornbostel‑Sachs system of musical instrument classification, a chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sound from vibrating one or more taught strings by bowing, plucking or striking the strings. Examples of chordophone types include violins, guitars, and pianos respectively. The word chordophone stems from the Greek words for string (chordē) and sound (phonē).

For more on the historical origins of musical instrument classification (to provide a context for the development of the guitar), see CRAVE Guitars’ March 2018 article.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (The ancient world up to the early Renaissance):
March 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (craveguitars.co.uk)

The traditional 4‑string double bass is usually played in one of two ways, either by rubbing the strings with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings with fingers (pizzicato). Some modern double bass players, for instance in rock & roll and rockabilly, also use a distinctive ‘slap’ technique. This percussive sound derived from the ‘Bartók pizzicato’ (‘snap’ pizzicato) named after the Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók.

Double Bass (courtesy of Roxanne Minnish)

Depending on the style of music, the double bass is also known by a number of other names, all of which refer to the same instrument. Some of these alternative monikers include bass, upright bass, string bass, acoustic bass, acoustic string bass, contrabass, contrabass viol, bass viol, bass violin, stand‑up bass, bull fiddle, doghouse bass and bass fiddle.

The traditional double bass is a large acoustic fretless instrument of the violin family that is played upright. The deep, resonant, woody tone of the double bass endows it with a very different sound when compared to the modern solid body fretted electric bass guitar. The tuning of the double bass is different from other members of the orchestral sting instruments, in that it is tuned in fourths (E‑A‑D‑G) rather than a violin’s fifths (G‑D‑A‑E). The double bass, then, is tuned the same as a modern bass guitar, an octave below the bottom four strings of a 6‑string guitar in standard tuning. This particular characteristic aided the bass’s transition from classical to modern day musical styles.

Originally, double basses were more likely to have three strings until four strings became commonplace by the 19th Century, by which time the standard format and construction of the double bass had become established. There are, however, 5 and 6 (or more) string variants and there are also various alternative tunings.

The double bass has been the mainstay of orchestral string sections and chamber music for several centuries in one form or another. It was predictable that, with the emergence and evolution of the major modern popular music genres, such as jazz, blues and country & western that the double bass would become the go‑to bass instrument, at least up until the 1960s when the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became predominant. However, the double bass hasn’t disappeared from contemporary music completely. Plenty of present‑day artists still use or revert back to the double bass for authenticity and/or effect.

The main drawback experienced by many players is that the double bass is a substantial piece of equipment. The full‑size double bass is almost 75 inches (190cm) tall, weighing in at c.20‑25lbs (9‑11½kg), without its hefty case. The scale length is set at around 42” (107cm), much longer than most modern bass guitars. Given these dimensions, the double bass is sizeable, cumbersome, unwieldy and plain heavy, making it far from the easiest of instruments to move around or play. There are smaller double basses including ¾, ½ and ¼ size, mainly aimed at younger players. Even so, the double bass not for the faint hearted, as the smallest ¼ size instrument is still over 61” (156cm) tall.

Another drawback is the double bass’s acoustic construction. Like the acoustic guitar, in the first half of the 20th Century, the acoustic double bass’s lack of volume made it hard to be heard in a jazz‑era big band mix unless there was some form of electrification through either a magnetic pickup or a microphone connected to an amplifier and, even then, acoustic instruments can be prone to feedback in high sound pressure level environments.

Traditional double basses are not only large but, because of their construction, they are also quite expensive, making them a major investment and therefore difficult for novices or younger players to access and learn.

Even so, despite its limitations, during the 20th Century the double bass became widely used in a diverse range of modern music genres, including jazz, blues, swing, rock & roll, rockabilly, country & western, bluegrass, folk, funk, reggae, metal, rock, pop, tango and visual media soundtracks.

Trivia: Believe it or not, there is an even larger bass, first built c.1850 by the French luthier Jean‑Baptiste Vuillaume (1798‑1875) in Paris. The octobass, as it is called, has three strings and is basically a larger version of the double bass tuned a further octave down. The octobass is a truly gargantuan beast, approximately 137” high (348cm).


The electric upright bass

To enable modern players to experience the spirit of the acoustic double bass in a more convenient and amplified form, there is the modern Electric Upright Bass (EUB), which is also played, as its name suggests, upright, like a traditional double bass.

EUBs allow for greater portability while retaining the playing style and general sound of its forebear. As the EUB doesn’t require the substantial acoustic resonating chamber of a double bass, they often feature a ‘skeleton’ body, making it much smaller, lighter and cheaper to produce. The minimal structure may have either a solid body or a small acoustic body.

A magnetic, piezo or condenser bass pickup provides the means to route the signal via a bass amplifier to loudspeakers. Like a double bass, the EUB’s strings can be bowed or plucked, although that is dependent on fingerboard and bridge radius. While evoking its acoustic origins, the structural and electric characteristics of the EUB endow it with a unique sound all of its own.

As the EUB’s construction isn’t bound by convention like its orchestral sibling, the flexible format allows for a range of scale lengths to be employed from around 30” (76cm), through 34” (86cm) like a long scale bass guitar to the full 42” (107cm) of a double bass, making it much more accessible to a range of players. Almost all EUB necks allow for a full two‑octave range and most but not all are fretless. Compared to the double bass or the electric bass guitar, the electric upright bass tends to be a modern, notable but relatively niche instrument. There are EUB models at all price points, making it easier for novices and experienced players alike.

The first production electric upright basses were developed independently in the mid‑1930s by Regal (Electrified Double Bass), Vega (Electric Bass Viol), Rickenbacker (Electro Bass‑Viol) and Audiovox (bull fiddle – see below). Gibson introduced their special order Electric Bass Guitar in 1938, which was still an upright fretless instrument with a hollow body and a magnetic pickup.

Manufacturers of electric upright basses include Framus, Ampeg, Warwick, Ibanez, Yamaha, Palatino, NS Design (Ned Steinberger), and Harley Benton.

Electric Upright Bass

The first solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar

As hinted at above, while Leo Fender was the major innovator associated with the solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar, he wasn’t the first. He was beaten to the starting post by at least some 15 years. Hardly a photo finish!

The first indication of the possible future of a bass guitar was in 1924 when the legendary Gibson designer, Lloyd Loar came up with a prototype electric bass. The Loar concept focused on the body, pickup and strings but with little additional detail. Loar’s radical design was rejected by Gibson management at the time. Loar left Gibson shortly thereafter in 1924, so his visionary ideas for an electric bass guitar went no further.

Nearly a decade later, around 1933, American musician and inventor Paul H. ‘Bud’ Tutmarc (1896‑1972), based in Seattle, Washington, began experimenting with reducing the size of the double bass to a more manageable instrument. Tutmarc originally devised an electrified fretless double bass‑style instrument described as an electric 4‑string upright ‘bull fiddle’, slightly smaller than a cello.

It’s worth a quick diversion to go back in time to take in an original report from the ‘Seattle Post‑Intelligencer’ newspaper, which published the story on 17 February 1935. The headline read, “Pity Him No More – New Type Bull Fiddle Devised.”

The article went on to state that, “People have always pitied the poor bass-fiddler… who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home through the dark streets after the theatre closes. But he doesn’t have to do it anymore. Because Paul Tutmarc, Seattle music teacher and KOMO radio artist, has invented an electric bull-fiddle. One you can carry under your arm. And it doesn’t even need a bow, either. You pluck a string – and out of the electric amplifier comes a rich, deep tone, sustained as if five or six bass violinists were bowing five or six bass‑violins with masterly artistry. The tone is sustained as long as you want it, too, without a bow.” The instrument described in the article was a cello‑like upright fretless instrument with an electromagnetic pickup.

Tutmarc was, however, about to do something far more radical. By 1935-1936, Tutmarc, had changed direction and developed the first solid body fretted electric bass guitar, pretty much recognisable in its modern form. It was this version of Tutmarc’s bass that was intended to be played horizontally, rather than upright, in a similar way to the modern bass guitar. The 1935 sales catalogue for Tutmarc’s company Audiovox featured his ‘Model 736 Bass Fiddle’, a solid‑bodied electric bass guitar with four strings, a fretted neck, with a 30½” (775mm) scale length, an ebony (or purpleheart) fingerboard with 16 frets, a black walnut body, a hidden single Tutmarc‑Stimpson horseshoe pickup below a mirror-steel faceplate, and a single volume control.

Tutmarc AudioVox Model 736

In addition, as an electric bass guitar would be pretty much useless without the means to amplify the sound, Audiovox also sold an accompanying ‘Model 936’ bass amplifier with 18 watts of power and a 12” Jensen Concert speaker.

Around 100 of the Model 736 Audiovox bass guitars were made in the mid‑1930s. However, there are only thought to be three Model 736 Tutmarc bass guitars still in existence today, making them remarkably rare. One belongs to the Experience Music Project (EMP), now known as The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a non‑profit enterprise founded by Microsoft co‑founder Paul Allen in 2000 and based in Seattle, Washington state, USA. In 2018, a 1936 Audiovox Model 736 bass guitar was reportedly sold by Tutmarc’s grandson on eBay for $23,850.

Sadly, for Tutmarc, the Audiovox 736 was not a commercial success. The price tag was high for the mid‑1930s, in a country still severely affected by The Great Depression (1929‑1939). The 736 bass fiddle originally cost $65 and the matching 936 bass amplifier cost $75, placing it well out of reach for many musicians. The high price and the radical concept didn’t attract enough musicians at the time and it wasn’t long before it was discontinued and was subsequently forlornly forgotten to history. Tutmarc’s company, Audiovox folded in 1950.

It can well be argued that Tutmarc was ahead of his time. Perhaps it is a case of supply looking for a demand that consumers didn’t know they needed. Maybe it was bad timing and/or bad luck. The Model 736 also arrived shortly before the outbreak of World War II when the guitar manufacturing industry was deemed ‘non‑essential’ and resources were diverted to the American war effort. Furthermore, a bass guitar didn’t seem to fit seamlessly into any of the prevailing musical styles at that time.

It is surprising, though, that such a significant innovation in guitar history isn’t more widely known about. Perhaps it is time, nay overdue, for Tutmarc’s milestone achievements to be deservedly recognised.

One company, Luthiery Laboratories, makes modern‑day replicas of the Audiovox 736, keeping the spirit of the original instrument alive.

Audiovox 736 Bass (1/4) ~ Luthiery Laboratories (luthierylabs.com)


The first commercially successful mass produced solid body fretted electric bass guitar

And so it was that the scene was set for someone else to step in and make the bass guitar ‘a thing’. That someone else was Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909‑1991). Unlike poor old Paul H. Tutmarc, you may just have heard of him.

“I wonder if I could make an electric bass” – Leo Fender (1909‑1991)

For more on the history and development of Fender guitars and musical equipment, see CRAVE Guitars’ August 2018 article for the context behind Fender solid body electric guitars.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (1950s and 1960s):
August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (craveguitars.co.uk)

Once the proverbial ball started rolling, the bass guitar had a phenomenal, transformative and relatively rapid impact on modern music that cannot be underestimated or understated. It is also very easy to take the electric bass guitar’s presence on stages, in studios and bedrooms all around the world for granted. Back in 1950, though, no‑one other than a select few in Fullerton, California had any idea of what was to come.

So… what are we actually talking about? The answer, after the lengthy preamble (apologies for keeping you on tenterhooks for so long), is the mighty Fender Precision Bass. Three little words. Game changing, era defining and well‑deserving of all the hyperbole attached to it over the past seven‑plus decades. So much has been written about the Precision that there is little need to dredge up the detail again, so what follows is a brief overview.

Leo Fender was working on a prototype back in 1950, bringing the world’s first commercially successful mass‑produced electric bass guitar to market in 1951. Fender designed the Precision Bass (often shortened these days to P‑Bass) to overcome the many drawbacks of the acoustic double bass alluded to earlier in this article. Even the name, Precision, referred to the fretted neck to enable musicians to play in tune far more precisely than on the double bass’s fretless neck. Conservative double bass players may well have looked at the Precision Bass in the same way that conservative guitarists looked at the Fender Telecaster, which had been introduced a year earlier in 1950. Consternation and indignation were probably natural initial reactions from the ‘old‑school’.

At its most basic, the Fender Precision Bass is a solid body, 4‑string bass guitar equipped with a single pickup and a one‑piece 20‑fret maple neck with rosewood or maple fingerboard. It all sounds so very straightforward and unremarkable nowadays doesn’t it?

The Precision Bass didn’t, however, appear fully formed. The original design of the Precision borrowed several design features from the Telecaster guitar, other than the double cutaway body. Initial models carried one single coil pickup, a slab body, large scratchplate and a Tele‑like headstock.

After Fender introduced the Stratocaster guitar in 1954, some of its design features were brought over to the Precision including a contoured body and a Strat‑like headstock. The original pickup was replaced with a single split coil hum cancelling staggered design and a sleeker redesigned scratchplate. It is this version of the Precision from 1957 that has stayed in production largely unchanged to the current day. There have been many, many variants with numerous changes in specification over the years, including a fretless version (ironically, given the origin and intention of the Precision’s name). 5‑string versions, 22‑fret necks, active electronics, multiple pickups, etc. followed.

The original pre‑1957 Precision design has been re-issued by Fender at times over the years, often called the Telecaster Bass to differentiate it from the post‑1957 Precision specification.

The popularity of the Fender Precision Bass grew significantly throughout the 1950s especially with rock & roll and country fraternities, as well as with session musicians. During the 1960s the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became dominant in most modern musical genres. During the early days, there wasn’t a great deal of choice in terms of alternatives to the Precision but that was to change later on.

1977 Fender Precision Fretless Bass

Fender capitalised on their supremacy by introducing the solid body fretted electric Fender Jazz Bass in 1960 (originally called the ‘Deluxe Model’). The svelte Fender Jazz Bass (often now shortened to J‑Bass) was designed to appeal to a different customer base. Like the offset bodied Fender Jazzmaster guitar, it was aimed squarely at the dyed‑in‑the‑wool jazz community. However, like the Jazzmaster, the Jazz Bass’s appeal spread far wider than jazz musicians. Like the Precision, the Jazz Bass has rightly become an iconic industry standard solid body electric bass guitar.

Throughout the years, both the Precision and Jazz Bass have featured sizeable chrome covers over the pickup and the bridge, despite these items limiting playing techniques such as palm muting the strings. As the covers are purely aesthetic, rather than functional components, it is fair to say that the vast majority of musicians removed these covers permanently.

Without doubt, the Fender Precision Bass and its younger sibling the Jazz Bass are icons of contemporary music and remain hugely popular today. Consumers can purchase genuine P‑Bass and J‑Bass models from the budget Fender‑owned offshore‑produced Squier brand, through Mexican and American‑made Fender models, to the high‑end Fender Custom Shop versions. Throughout the decades, the Precision and Jazz Bass models have oft been imitated and/or blatantly copied by other manufacturers, eager to cash in on Fender’s industry‑dominant status.

Understandably, over the years, the Precision and Jazz Bass have become highly collectable, especially the earliest models. The highest vintage market prices undoubtedly belong to the models from 1951 (Precision) and 1960 (Jazz Bass) to 1965, when Leo Fender sold his company to industry giant CBS. Fender equipment from this period is known as ‘pre‑CBS’.

For more information on the Fender Precision and Jazz Bass, just complete any Internet browser search and, alongside a great deal of drivel, there is a massive volume of fact and opinion available, often described in forensic detail.

1989 Fender Jazz Bass American Standard Longhorn

Evolution of the electric bass guitar

It is probably fair to say that, since 1951 and the introduction of the Fender Precision Bass, other brands were in the position of having to play catch up. In particular, Fender’s biggest competitor, Gibson, was wrong‑footed and they have never been able to compete on a level playing field. In 1953, Gibson released the EB‑1, which was a violin‑shaped solid mahogany body bass with a set neck. The EB‑1 didn’t catch on and was replaced by the semi‑acoustic ES‑335‑shaped EB‑2 in 1958, the SG‑shaped Gibson EB‑0 in 1959 and the EB‑3 (made famous by Jack Bruce of Cream) in 1961. While the semi‑acoustic EB‑2 proved popular, its Epiphone‑branded counterpart, the Epiphone Rivoli proved more successful. All these early Gibson basses used a shorter 30½” scale. In 1959, Gibson also released a hollow body EB‑6 6‑string bass.

Possibly Gibson’s best contender for an iconic bass guitar is the Gibson Thunderbird, originally introduced in 1963. The Thunderbird was based on Gibson’s Firebird guitar, designed by legendary American car designer Raymond Dietrich (1894‑1980). The Thunderbird was the first Gibson solid body bass to use the 34” scale made popular by Fender. Like the Firebird, the Thunderbird was redesigned in a simpler ‘non‑reverse’ form for 1966 and the original ‘reverse’ shape wasn’t reissued until the mid‑1970s. During the 1970s, Gibson also released the Ripper and Grabber basses but neither really captured bass players’ imaginations (or their precious dollars!). Later additions like the Gibson Triumph, Victory and RD basses didn’t fare much better as viable competition for Fender’s stalwarts. Epiphone have Thunderbird and EB basses in their line‑up alongside Epiphone‑specific basses such as the Newport and the Embassy.

Over at Danelectro in Neptune, New Jersey, Nathan Daniel launched the world’s first 6‑string bass, the UB‑2 in 1956 comprising a single cutaway semi‑hollow bass with a 30” scale, 24 frets and dual single coil pickups, earning its nickname the ‘Tic Tac bass’. In 1958, Danelectro replaced the UB‑2 with two new 6‑string bass models. The first was the Long Horn 4623 bass with a radical new lyre‑like design 24 frets, and a short 25” scale. The other was the Short Horn 3612 with stubby double cutaways, 29½”scale and only 15 frets. All Danelectro models substantially undercut the retail prices of both Fender and Gibson’s basses. The 6‑string models seemed to attract guitarists rather than bass players to their designs, providing a novel bridge between guitar and bass camps.

It should be noted at this point that older 6‑string basses are generally tuned an octave below a guitar in standard tuning, to E-E, while the baritone guitars that were appearing at the time were tuned either to B‑B or A‑A. On the other hand, modern 5‑string basses simply add a lower B string while modern 6‑string basses tend to add lower B and higher C strings compared to an equivalent 4‑string bass. Confused?

Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, Fender weren’t resting on their laurels. Following the popularity of the ‘student’ Mustang guitar, Fender introduced the short scale Mustang Bass in 1966. The Mustang Bass spawned two later variants, the Bronco Bass (introduced in 1967) and the Musicmaster Bass (introduced in 1971). Fender also released two esoteric ‘bass’ guitars, the Fender Bass V (introduced in 1965), which was the world’s first 5‑string bass guitar and the 6‑string Bass VI (introduced in 1961). The latter was strongly influenced by the Fender Jaguar guitar design. The Bass VI was Fender’s upmarket response to the Danelectro 6‑string bass introduced 5 years earlier. The Bass VI is unique in having 3 pickups, 6 lighter gauge strings, a short 30” scale, a floating bridge and a mechanical vibrato as used on the Jazzmaster/Jaguar guitars, as well as a removable string mute. To compete with the Gibson EB‑2 and Epiphone Rivoli thinline semi‑acoustic basses, Fender introduced the hollow Coronado Bass in 1966.

In addition, the ‘other’ Californian company, Rickenbacker, run by F.C. Hall at the time, also wasn’t going to be left on the side‑lines in the bass department. Rickenbacker had hired Roger Rossmeisl (1927‑1979) who designed the brand’s key guitars and the 4000 series basses. The Rickenbacker 4000 bass with its distinctive cresting wave body outline and thru‑neck construction was launched in 1957. Subsequent models were named 4001, 4002, 4003, 4004, all being variants of the same basic instrument. There isn’t enough space to go into the specification differences here.

Rickenbacker 4001

A decade after Leo Fender left the company that still carries his name today, Music Man was formed in California and released Leo Fender’s vision for the next evolution of his era defining bass guitars. The Music Man Stingray Bass was released in 1976 with a single large bridge humbucker, distinctive 3+1 headstock, innovative on‑board active electronics and an integral string mute. While Music Man’s guitars never caught on at the time, the Stingray Bass has joined Fender and Rickenbacker as an iconic design for many bass musicians. The Stingray Bass was especially popular for funk slap‑style bass technique for the likes of Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson.

1978 Music Man Stingray Bass

There are a few other notable basses, such as the German Höfner ‘violin bass’, the 500/1, made famous by Paul McCartney of The Beatles. This model, introduced in 1955, with its carved solid spruce top and humbucking pickups, is often nicknamed the ‘Beatle Bass’. Beyond the Beatles connection, though, the 500/1 remains a relatively minor entry in the bass stakes, while the company’s only other notable entry being the Höfner Club and Verythin basses.

Another oddity to mention at this point is the Swedish Hagström H8, unique for being the world’s first mass‑produced 8‑string bass, with four pairs of strings on a short 30” scale. The H8 was only produced briefly from 1967‑1969.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s a plethora of other companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to make the most of the massive increase in demand as rock, pop and other genres proliferated. Many of the basses produced during this time were flagrant facsimiles of the best‑selling American brand models, often by Japanese companies (now termed ‘lawsuit‑era’ copies). Other companies like Warwick in Germany were making their own headway with their successful original‑design Thumb and Streamer basses.

Today (2024), Fender arguably still rules the roost with basses covering all bases (sic!) from budget to elite models. All other brands stand firmly in Fender’s enviable shadow. While Fender may dominate, there are now plenty of alternative options. There are some incredible bass guitars out there, some of which are listed later in this article for those that want to diverge from the predictable industry standard ‘Fender sound’. There are numerous ways to deviate from the common path, with different brands, string/pickup configurations, electronics, scale lengths, body construction, etc. The quality of budget instruments is vastly superior to anything available in the past and provides a strong basis (again, sic!) for players seeking to learn and develop their skills.


The acoustic bass guitar

While the solid body electric bass guitar finally took the world by storm from the 1950s and 1960s, the acoustic bass guitar has proved to be another modern, notable and niche instrument. The first (largely unsuccessful) attempts at acoustic bass guitars began to appear in the 1950s as a logical extension to its electric counterpart.

Historically, one of the earliest acoustic bass‑like instruments was the Mexican guitarrón, which has its roots in the 16th Century and is widely used in Mexican Mariachi bands. While looking similar to a guitar, these huge instruments were either 6‑string or 12‑string acoustic instruments, tuned in A‑D‑G‑C‑E‑A.

In 1972, Ernie Ball introduced the Earthwood acoustic bass guitar, stating that “…if there were electric bass guitars to go with electric guitars then you ought to have acoustic basses to go with acoustic guitars.” A simple yet ‘blindingly obvious’ observation, given the benefit of hindsight. Ernie Ball took a guitarrón, being the nearest thing to an existing acoustic bass guitar, and created a more practical instrument for guitar‑centric American consumers. The Earthwood was relatively short‑lived but the foundation of the acoustic bass guitar was established. American company Washburn took the concept and created more successful instruments that coincided neatly with MTV’s Unplugged concert series (1989‑1999). Interestingly, despite starting it all, Ernie Ball does not have an acoustic bass guitar available to buy at the time of writing.

Acoustic bass guitar construction is essentially similar to the steel‑strung flat top acoustic folk guitar, with a larger hollow wooden body and a longer scale neck. Most acoustic basses have four strings, tuned in the same way as an electric bass, E‑A‑D‑G, an octave below a standard guitar. The majority of acoustic basses have fretted fingerboards, although some are fretless.

Acoustic Bass Guitar

Like many modern day acoustic guitars, many acoustic bass models have pickups to enable them to be amplified for stage use or DI’d for recording purposes. Some instruments are thinline electric semi‑acoustic basses while others are full‑depth electro‑acoustic basses. These are designed primarily as acoustic basses with an on‑board pickup for additional amplification when needed.

Today, there are any number of acoustic bass guitars on the market for every level of player and every price point from many key manufacturers including, amongst others; Martin, Taylor, Guild, Fender, Takamine, Ovation, Tanglewood, Epiphone, Warwick, Epiphone, Washburn, Godin, ESP, Breedlove, Larivée, Framus, Hohner, Ozark, Dean, D’Angelico, Ibanez, Sigma, Alvarez and Cort.


Bass guitar amplification

In the early days of bass guitars, brands released bass amplifiers to accompany their instruments, often sold as a package (see Tutmarc’s Audiovox above, for example). Other brands like Rickenbacker did the same in the early days. The main difference between guitar amps and bass amps is that the latter are tuned specifically to reproduce bass frequencies accurately. A standard 4‑string bass guitar produces low frequencies in the range 41Hz to 100Hz with overtones extending up to 4‑5kHz (not dissimilar to an acoustic double bass in fact).

In terms of sound pressure levels, bass frequencies need more power to be heard by the human ear/brain at the same volume as higher frequencies, so bass amps tend to have higher power ratings than guitar amps. In the past, speakers for bass also tended to be larger with 12”, 15” or even 18” to shift the amount of air needed at lower frequencies. In contrast, guitar speakers tended to be 10”or 12”. Bass speaker cabinets, especially those with multiple speakers, normally had sealed or ported enclosures to increase volume. For all these reasons bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets tend to be different to their guitar equivalents.

Probably the most famous brand associated specifically for its bass amplification is the American company Ampeg, founded in 1946 and now under the ownership of Japanese giant, Yamaha. Ampeg started out attempting to amplify the acoustic double bass in 1949 by using a microphone/pickup in the instrument’s stand. The ‘Amplified Peg’ as it was called was then shortened to ‘Ampeg’ and the rest, as they say, is history. Their most famous range of amps was the 300W Ampeg SVT from 1969 and their bass combo amps, the B‑15 from 1960, as used by the likes of Motown session bass player James Jamerson.

It was no surprise that Fender, the leader in the world of bass guitars from the 1950s should also produce bass amps/cabs. Perhaps the most famous Fender bass amp was the Bassman from 1952 onwards, first introduced as a combo valve amp with a 15” speaker. The most desirable though, was the Dual Rectifier Bassman valve combo with 4×10” speakers. From 1960. Fender also released a ‘piggy back’ amp head and speaker cabinet design to cope with higher power levels and to provide flexibility. From 2000, Fender released a solid state version of the legendary Bassman amp. The original valve Bassman also became beloved by many guitar players for its tone, for instance by the late blues rock guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV).

Student bass players also needed a bass amp. So Fender introduced the Musicmaster Bass amplifier in 1970, as a companion to the Fender Musicmaster Bass guitar. The Musicmaster Bass combo amp was a very simple affair with one channel, 12W of power, volume and tone controls and a single 12″ Fender speaker. Like the Bassman, it has latterly been enjoying a bit of a revival as a budget vintage amp for guitarists. The Musicmaster Bass amp was discontinued in 1982 after the introduction of the Fender Studio Bass combo and Japanese Fender Sidekick Bass 30. Nowadays, the extensive Fender Rumble series has proved very popular with bass players.

Legendary British amplifier company Marshall was not going to be left behind. Marshall’s first 100‑watt bass head was the JTM 45/100 / JTM 45 Super 100 model. Another, also dating from the second half of the 1960s, is the JMP #1992 Super Bass 100 (100W) and JMP #1986 Bass (50W). Like the Fender Bassman, the Marshall Super Bass 100W also proved popular with guitarists. Bass players were also known to use the Marshall #1963 Super PA (50W) and Marshall #1968 Super PA (100W) amps.

Another legendary British amplifier company, VOX produced bass versions of its AC‑15 and AC‑30 combo amps. These were followed in 1963 by the VOX T‑60 and Foundation amps, the latter promoted by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones.

German acoustic amp company AER also produce a range of bass amps, particularly well‑suited to amplifying acoustic and electro‑acoustic bass guitars.

Bass guitarists turn out to be a little less conservative than their guitarist counterparts, especially when it comes to amplification and speaker cabinets. For instance there are plenty of modern‑day bass amps that use efficient solid state D‑class amplification (a type of amplifier that uses digital switching technology to amplify audio signals efficiently), with very high power ratings – 500W and 600W or more being not uncommon. Bass amps often also make wide use of sophisticated on‑board EQ. Speaker cabinet configurations also tend to be more versatile with reflex ports, horns, tweeters and combining multiple speaker types being common.

There are many other valve, solid state or hybrid bass amplifier manufacturers not mentioned above, including Trace Elliot, Ashdown Engineering, Mesa/Boogie, Peavey, Music Man, Hiwatt, Laney, Sound City, H/H, WEM, Hartke and Orange.


Bass guitar effects

Things have changed a great deal over the decades since 1951. In the early days of the solid body electric bass guitar, most players plugged straight into their amps without much in the way of tone augmentation.

By the 1970s and 1980s bass players had a paucity of effects specially designed for their instruments, so they generally adopted guitar effects with just a few bass‑specific pedals to choose from. Since the industry started to migrate to digital technology from the 1980s onwards, the major effect companies began to produce pedals designed primarily for use with bass guitars. Now, in the 2020s, there is plenty of choice with most of the big players in the effect industry now making bass‑specific effect pedals, including Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, BOSS, Ibanez, Fender, Laney and Ampeg.

In addition, from around the start of the new millennium, a number of manufacturers turned their ideas for integrated multi‑effect units into practical musicians’ tools that became popular for both guitar and bass, including BOSS, VOX, Zoom, Tech 21, Behringer and Valeton.

In 1998, Line 6 introduced a ground‑breaking innovation called the POD, which put many guitar effects, amps and cabinet emulations into a single portable unit. While the little red kidney shaped POD was initially directed at guitarists, the rack mounted Line 6 POD Pro models came in both guitar and bass versions. Since then, Line 6 and other manufacturers now combine guitar and bass amp/effect/cabinet emulations into a single unit. These units are constantly improving and are gradually replacing stage backlines with direct input (DI) into PAs/monitors, as well as into studio desks/DAWs. Along with the POD, Line 6, also now part of Yamaha, is still in the same business with their extensive Helix range.

Alternatives to the Line 6 POD and Helix units include the Axe-Fx III from Fractal Audio, which is a pro‑level amplification/effects processor suitable for both guitar and bass. Meanwhile, Kemper Amps took a slightly different route with their Profiler, which has all‑in‑one effects, amplifier and speaker cabinet profiles designed for both guitar and bass.

Just to finish off, there are numerous boutique effect pedal manufacturers that produce stomp boxes, often to very high degrees of quality, including brands such as Way Huge, TC Electronic, EarthQuaker Devices, Darkglass, Aguilar, Origin Effects, Free The Tone, Providence, Source Audio, Walrus Audio, ZVEX, Mooer Audio, Sansamp, Digitech, Eventide, Strymon, JHS, Keeley and Empress Effects.


Iconic (and other) bass guitars

The next sentence is likely to be highly provocative and intentionally so. While there are innumerable bass guitar models out there from 1951 to the current day, there are probably only four bass guitar models that can truly be called iconic (i.e. something that is widely considered to epitomize an era, culture, community or place). The four key instruments – none of which are based on guitar equivalents – that stand head and shoulders above the rest are:

Truly iconic bass guitars:
Fender Precision Bass (1951‑date)
Fender Jazz Bass (1960‑date)
Rickenbacker 4000 series (1957‑date)
Music Man Stingray Bass (1976‑date)

In addition, below are listed just a very few of the other great electric bass guitars manufactured from 1951 onwards. This is far from a comprehensive list and is intended only to be broadly indicative of the type.

Fender bass guitars:
Fender Bass V
Fender Bass VI
Fender Coronado Bass
Fender Mustang Bass
Fender Musicmaster Bass
Fender Performer
Fender Telecaster Bass
Squier Bronco Bass

Gibson bass guitars:
Gibson EB series
Gibson Thunderbird
Gibson Explorer Bass
Gibson Melody Maker Bass
Gibson Grabber/Ripper/G3
Gibson RD series
Gibson Triumph
Gibson Victory
Gibson 20/20 Bass

Epiphone bass guitars (not including Epiphone versions of Gibson basses):
Epiphone Embassy
Epiphone Newport
Epiphone Rivoli
Epiphone Viola

Other American brand bass guitars:
Alembic Series 1/2
Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucite
Ampeg AEB-1
BC Rich Eagle
BC Rich Mockingbird
BC Rich Warlock
Danelectro Longhorn 4623
Danelectro Shorthorn 3612
G&L JB2
G&L L1000/L2000
Gretsch 6071/6072
Gretsch G2220 Junior Jet
Gretsch 5440 Electromatic
Guild B-301/B-302
Guild Starfire
Harmony H22
Harmony H27
Jackson JS
Kramer 450-B/650-B
Kramer DMZ
Lakland Skyline
Music Man Sabre
Music Man Sterling
National Val Pro Model 85
Ovation Magnum
Peavey T-40
Peavey Millennium/Milestone
PRS SE Kestrel/Kingfisher
Schecter Omen
Schecter Stilletto
Silvertone 1440 series
Steinberger Spirit XT
Steinberger Synapse
Supro Pocket
Travis Bean TB2000
Washburn Taurus

European bass guitars:
Burns Sonic
Hagström H8
Höfner Club
Höfner HCT-500/1
Höfner President
Hohner B2
Hohner The Jack
VOX Clubman
VOX Cougar
VOX Phantom 4
VOX Sidewinder
VOX VBW Teardrop Bass
Wal Mk1/Mk2
Warwick Thumb/Streamer/Infinity/Corvette
Warwick Rockbass

Japanese bass guitars:
Other than perhaps the Yamaha BB and TRBX series, and the Ibanez SR and TMB series, Japanese bass guitars do not have the same level of brand/model heritage when compared to those produced by American and European companies. There are, however, many Japanese basses produced by companies such as Ibanez, Tokai, Greco, Jedson, Westone, Teisco, ESP/LTD, Fernandes and Aria.

“Without the Fender bass, there’d be no rock n’ roll or no Motown. The electric guitar had been waiting ’round since 1939 for a nice partner to come along. It became an electric rhythm section, and that changed everything.” – Quincy Jones (1933‑)


Famous bass players

Below are listed seventy of the world’s most famous and influential bass players – alive and departed – including upright double bass and electric solid body bass guitar players. There are, of course, many, many more but this is an indicative list for those interested in exploring some of the music created by these diverse musicians (in alphabetical order):

Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (Bob Marley & The Wailers)
Walter Becker (Steely Dan)
Andy Bell (Oasis)
Bill Black (Elvis Presley)
Jack Bruce (Cream)
Cliff Burton (Metallica)
Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)
John Cale (Velvet Underground)
Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever, solo)
Adam Clayton (U2)
Bootsy Collins (James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic)
Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave)
Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix)
John Deacon (Queen)
Kim Deal (Pixies, Breeders)
Willie Dixon
Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie)
Bernard Edwards (Chic)
John Entwistle (The Who)
Flea (a.k.a. Michael Peter Balzary – Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Bruce Foxton (The Jam)
Simon Gallup (The Cure)
Roger Glover (Deep Purple)
Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone)
Marshall Grant (Johnny Cash)
Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
Dusty Hill (ZZ Top)
Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order, The Light)
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple)
Jah Wobble (a.k.a. John Joseph Wardle)
James Jamerson (session musician)
Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson)
John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
Carol Kaye (session musician)
Lemmy Kilmister (Hawkwind, Motörhead)
Mark King (Level 42)
Alan Lancaster (Status Quo)
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)
Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel)
Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint)
Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols)
Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings, solo)
Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses)
John McVie (Fleetwood Mac)
Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson)
Charles Mingus
Krist Novoselic (Nirvana)
Pino Palladino (session musician)
Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report)
Guy Pratt (Madonna, David Gilmour)
Suzi Quatro
Dee Dee Ramone (Ramones)
Noel Redding (Jimi Hendrix)
Mike Rutherford (Genesis)
Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie)
Billy Sheehan (Steve Vai, David Lee Roth)
Gene Simmons (KISS)
Nikki Sixx (a.k.a. Frank Carlton Serafino Feranna Jr. – Mötley Crüe)
Chris Squire (Yes)
Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner – The Police)
Danny Thompson (John Martyn)
Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Lee Bruner)
Robert Trujillo (Metallica)
Sid Vicious (a.k.a. Simon John Ritchie – Sex Pistols)
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club)
Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Prince)
Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings)

“The gunk takes the funk” – James Jamerson (1936‑1983)


Bass in the (near) future

It is difficult for, and unfair of, me as a guitarist, to predict any sort of unified future for the bass guitar but I’ll give it a shot.

The traditional conservative brigade will still stick to tried and tested instruments and equipment. Musicians looking for something a bit different will probably want to experiment with the format, for instance number of strings, scale lengths, pickups and electronics. If anything there will be more radical and custom bass guitar designs from up‑market and boutique luthiers that diverge from the traditional archetype set by Fender over 70 years ago. Many additions to the form extend the flexibility of the core instrument, so it may be a case of further evolution, rather than revolution.

Bass amplification will continue to diverge from its simple valve origins and continue to embrace the digital realm, probably dispensing with backline amps/cabs altogether with signals being DI’d into desks/PA/monitors.

While bass players haven’t been particularly well served in the past for bass‑specific effect pedals, I anticipate that bass effects will achieve greater representation, including some out‑there effects not currently available to guitar players.

Bass guitar players have struggled to compete, with synthesisers dominating the world of modern electronica, dance and popular music. At least, for now (thankfully), the bass guitar remains essential to most guitar‑based music in a sort of symbiotic, co‑dependent relationship. As long as guitars keep going, so will bass, and vice versa. Bass players, being ever inventive individuals, will adapt and cultivate new ways to keep the instrument relevant, current and in the limelight for decades to come.

Technique‑wise, there will continue to be the traditional approaches towards walking bass lines, typically using the fundamental root/fifth styles that has been the general mainstay of modern music for decades. In contrast, there will be many more amazing virtuoso bass players who see the versatility and potential of the instrument in its own right.

So, other than tangible incremental progress around the margins, there is probably not a whole lot that will change profoundly in the near future. I may be wrong with that last sentence. In many ways, I hope so!

Interestingly, while the upright double bass continues to appear in modern music from time to time, the solid body fretted electric bass hasn’t really made any headway into the clique of conservative classical orchestral music, which still relies heavily on the traditional, some may say archaic, acoustic upright double bass.


Resources

Periodicals dedicated to bass guitar may be the best place to keep up‑to‑date with the technology and equipment associated with the instrument. Publications include Bass Musician Magazine, Bass Player Guitar Magazine, Bass Guitar Magazine, Bass Magazine, Bass Musician and Bass Gear Magazine.

Online resources include Music Radar, TalkBass.com, Basschat and No Treble. There are also many books on bass guitars and bass playing techniques, including the inevitable, ‘Bass Guitar For Dummies’.

As far as purchasing bass guitars, there are the large Internet sites, brick & mortar retailers and the usual online sites, Reverb.com and eBay. For vintage and rare bass guitars, there are outlets purely for basses including (in the UK) Andy Baxter Bass, The Bass Gallery, The Bass Centre, Vintage Bass Room and ClassicandcoolGuitars.


Some final thoughts

I certainly learnt a lot from researching and writing this article. At first sight, there may seem to be quite a bit of relevant information on the Internet. It is only when one starts to dig deeper and attempt to put something together that makes some form of sense that things rapidly become unclear. All of a sudden, much of the available information seems incomplete, contradictory, vague and/or outright erroneous. In the end, it comes down to evidence and corroboration but sorting the wheat from the chaff isn’t always easy. It seems that online information about vintage guitars is far more reliable than that about vintage basses. There are far too many poorly informed people who invent facts and present opinion as truth.

Despite my best attempts to piece things together, I may have fallen foul of the same issues raised above. However, I have tried very hard not to fill in gaps with assumptions and/or fiction. While I endeavour to be thorough and rigorous, my approach isn’t academic and I don’t have the time, funds or energy to provide the last word in scholarly fact. The contents herein should therefore probably not be relied upon too heavily. This article should, for that reason alone, be regarded as my best intention to balance fact with entertainment.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama – c.480‑400BCE)

This is just the sort of article that would benefit greatly from images to illustrate and break up the narrative. Sadly as a (broke) not‑for‑profit entity, I cannot afford the costly copyright/royalties charged for the use of relevant images, so I have had to rely on very limited free/public domain resources or my own photographs. I apologise for the thousands of words used to describe what images could do in none. Once again, no AI was used in the research and writing of this tome – only my own hard work.

NB. Apologies to anyone disappointed by the wait for a cheap, clichéd joke at the expense of ‘the bass player’! T’ain’t gonna happen here. Love ‘the bass player’.


CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Album of the Month’

Given that this month’s article focuses on the fascinating history of the bass guitar, it seems only fitting to select an album that demonstrates the virtuoso bass playing of one of the greatest bass guitarists of all time, Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987) and his famous modified fretless Fender Jazz Bass.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977) – The seventh and most commercially successful studio album by the American jazz fusion band. ‘Heavy Weather’ was the first album with Pastorius on full‑time bass duties. The smooth jazz funk production of the album, which was released at the peak of the punk rock movement in the US and UK, stood in stark contrast to the otherwise brutal sounds of the late 1970s. Given that it sold in huge numbers (and still does) is testament to the composition and musicianship on display. Initial sales were about 500,000 and total sales to‑date are over 1.06 million. Other Weather Report albums may be ‘better’ according to purists but this is the one I heard first and it has stuck with me over the years.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977)

To me, this album hit me right between the eyes about what virtuoso bass playing can be like. There are many, many other artists and albums that could arguably take the acclaim, for instance Stanley Clarke’s successful solo album, ‘School Days’ (1976), but on this occasion, the late, great Jaco (& co.) takes the accolade, such as it is.

“I’m the greatest bass player in the world” – Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987)


Tailpiece

Well, there you go. I think that most of us love a bit of decent low bass in our music. I hope y’all got something out of this fleeting exploration into the defining instruments, artists and music of the lower registers. I think the narrative works well as a complement to the launch of CRAVE Basses at the end of 2023, but that’s just my (obviously biased) opinion.

I hope you feel inclined to come back next month to see what’s currently fermenting in the CRAVE guitars’ secret brewery.

Truth, peace, love, and guitar music be with you always. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Mundanity is the devourer of lost dreams”

© 2024 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2023 – Adventures in Ambient: Music of Another Dimension

Prelude

In the last article (August 2023), I explored the alluring realm of dub reggae, as one of my musical passions. This month, as we race headlong into autumn with its cooler, darker evenings, I’d like to explore another musical genre close to my heart, ambient electronica. There seems to be a great deal of consensus about where ambient came from while, at the same time, a great deal of disagreement about what it is today, let alone where it is going. While this may sound inherently contradictory, the convoluted world of ambient music is quite fascinating, at least to me. Unlike reggae, which had a defined geographical origin – the small island of Jamaica in the Caribbean – ambient has a completely different set of roots. Also, while dub reggae and ambient seem entirely discrete, there are some crossovers.

Once again, like dub reggae, the ambient musical landscape is not really guitar‑based. It is essentially one of three things, acoustic – mainly classical – instruments, the sounds of the natural and built world all around us, and electronic sounds, primarily but not exclusively synthesizers.

As with all previous articles, this is not intended to present any sort of definitive academic analysis, it is purely my interpretation of ambient music, past and current, as I see (or rather hear) it. There are a lot of blurred overlaps and permeable boundaries here, so I am certain that some readers will disagree vehemently with my version of the story. That is their prerogative and this is my article, so I’m sticking to my biased version. This is also only the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ with lots more to discover.

No AI has been used in researching and writing this article. All images used are royalty free courtesy of Pixaby and Wikimedia Commons.

So, get comfy, chill and absorb yourself into the mesmerising universe of ambient music for a while.


Defining ambient

Perhaps a good starting point is to understand what the solitary word ‘ambient’ actually means, both in non‑musical and musical contexts.

Literally, ambient is an adjective meaning ‘of the surrounding area or environment’, ‘existing or present on all sides’ or ‘enveloping or completely surrounding’. As a noun, it means ‘an encompassing environment or atmosphere’. In this article we are not talking about ambient temperatures or ambient pressures, although these may affect sound vibrations in the environment. We are also not talking ambient light, although this may affect mood and temperament.

Defining ambient sound

Ambient sound is the total of all background or surrounding noises that exist in every direction, in any immediate surroundings, as measured by sound pressure level (SPL – expressed in decibels). Decibel levels are important because they provide information to the brain on how quiet or loud a sound is in relative terms. Human ears and brains are designed to detect slight variations in SPL in stereo (binaural hearing), which help us determine from which direction a sound originates. Basically, ambient sound is the total of what you can hear in the present moment, wherever you are.

Ambient sound is always present, even if it is at very low levels. Humans cannot tolerate near‑0dB for long. 0dB is unobtainable under normal conditions. Experiments have shown that people who are deprived of ambient sound can quickly become unsettled or disoriented because humans rely on ambient sound to locate themselves within their environment. The dissociation of sight and sound is inherently problematic for us. The quietest place on Earth is an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, USA. It is so quiet that the longest anybody has been able to experience it is just 45 minutes.

The simple fact is that there is always some ambient sound present in our lives. These ever‑present characteristics play a part in ambient music compositions.

Defining ambient music

Ambient music is a term that means, ‘a genre of instrumental music that focuses on patterns of sound rather than typical melodic form and is used to promote a certain atmosphere or state of mind’. Another definition is ‘incidental music intended to serve as an unobtrusive accompaniment to other activities and characterised by quiet and repetitive instrumental phrases’.

So far, so what? Useful background info but it doesn’t really mean much on its own. So let’s delve a bit deeper.


A brief pre‑history of ambient music

There is a significant amount of information on the hinterwebby thingummy about the history of the genre, so this is a brief retelling of the essential elements, starting in France, then Germany before crossing the Atlantic to America and then back to the UK. These unfolding events were probably all ahead‑of‑their‑time and in the vanguard of experimental art.

Let us begin by going all the way back to 1917. French composer Erik Satie (1866‑1925) used Dadaist‑inspired explorations to invent what he called musique d’ameublement (‘furniture music’ or, more literally, ‘furnishing music’), music played by live musicians and designed to be unconsciously experienced rather than consciously listened to. Satie described his compositions as music that could be performed at a function to create a background atmosphere for the function, rather than being the prime focus of it. In Satie’s words, his music would, “… be part of the noises of the environment”.

Satie’s use of repeated short compositions is said to have influenced ‘minimal music’ from 1960s onwards, particularly the experimental avant‑garde music of composer John Cage. Satie is also regarded as an essential forerunner to modern ambient music and a key influence on British artist, Brian Eno.

During the 1940s, Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer (1910‑1995) who was, amongst other things, a composer, engineer and musicologist took a different approach. Schaeffer experimented with recording sound, then processing the signals to create an abstract sound collage. The resulting sounds and tones were unrecognisable from the originating source material. Schaeffer used musical instruments, vocals, recorded environmental ‘sound objects’ and electronic sound synthesis. This type of music composition became known as musique concrète (concrete music).

Prolific and controversial German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928‑2007) was a pioneer in electronic music. Stockhausen’s electronic music compositions comprised abstract noise collages created through the use of tape loops, oscillators and recorded sounds. He also specialised in ground breaking ‘spatial music’, using multiple sources to locate sounds within a three dimensional space (an early form of surround sound). Stockhausen created one of the first examples of purely electronic music using sine wave generators and filters, called ‘Studie I’ (1953). In 1954, he pushed the boundaries of classical music using acoustic instruments augmented by electronic sounds. The same year, he published the first fully electronic music score. Stockhausen, the so‑called ‘father of electronic music’, was an important figure who rejected conventions and heavily influenced multiple genres outside classical music, including jazz, pop and rock decades later.

Muzak is a type of background music created by American inventor George Owen Squier in 1934. Known commonly as elevator music (or lift music in the UK), it became used predominantly in public spaces, retail stores and other venues. The word muzak has become embedded in the public consciousness as synonymous with all types of generic and inconspicuous background music. Muzak was particularly prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. Muzak has been a registered trademark of Muzak LLC since 1954. Ambient by stealth?

From the 1950s, particularly in Germany, elektronische musik (electronic music) took precedence over previous forms such as musique concrète. The term ‘elektronische musik’ was first used by German composer and musicologist Herbert Eimert in 1952 to describe music created only by the use of electronic instruments and technology. As the genre developed, elements of musique concrète were incorporated into electronic music. Natural environmental recordings combined with music resurfaced later as a popular element of new age music. German electronic music heavily influenced krautrock, an experimental rock genre that emerged out of West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s with bands like Can and Neu!.

American composer John Cage was another influential figure in post‑war avant‑garde music including electroacoustic music. He had been experimenting with studio electronics since the late 1930s. In 1952, Cage ‘performed’ his now‑famous composition, 4′33″. The piece is not, as many believe, silence; it is the intentional ‘absence of deliberate sound’. The musicians do nothing but be on the stage with instruments. For the aforementioned duration of the piece, the audience is encouraged simply to listen to and experience the ambient sounds in the auditorium around them.

Minimal music is a form of art music that, as its name suggests, uses a very limited array of components to produce a composition. Minimal can apply to the instruments used, the sounds/tones produced, as well as the studio processes employed. Minimalism may comprise continuous drones, pulses or repetitive phrases. Minimalism emerged in New York in the late 1960s with American composers such as Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young. It has been suggested that minimalism was one influence behind experimental rock band The Velvet Underground during the 1960s and, much later, on electronic dance music (EDM) sub‑genres such as minimal techno. In 1990, British electronica duo The Orb used a sample from Steve Reich’s work on their hit single, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’.

At this point, it is worth making quick mention of cinematic music, a.k.a. film scores or original soundtracks (OSTs). The first music to accompany film goes back to the earliest part of the 20th Century if not further, although its use really came into its own, ironically, with the advent of talking pictures in 1927. Cinematic music is composed specifically as a background to fit well with what is happening on screen by creating a certain atmosphere. Many classic theme music pieces would simply not exist without the films for which they were created. Some of the best cinematic music is an integral part of the audio‑visual experience, rather than the music being consciously listened to in isolation. The best soundtracks are equally good pieces of music in their own right and the art form has become highly respected (and profitable). John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin, Vangelis, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hans Zimmer are some of the principal cinematic music composers.

In the field of television, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up in 1958, stands out for its experimental work in electronic incidental sound design and music for radio and TV. Key members of the unit included Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and David Cain.


A brief history of electronic sound synthesis

It is probably true to say that synthesizers changed the world of music forever. Here’s a short resume of how that change came about. Warning! This is the techy bit.

Analogue synthesizers – The word synthesizer was first used by RCA in 1956, although it has widely been used to refer to electronic musical instruments from the early 20th Century onwards. Early electronic analogue sound synthesizers were developed in the 1920s and included the Theremin, invented by Leon Theremin in Russia in 1920, the Ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot in France in 1928 and the Trautnium, invented by Friedrich Trautwein in Germany in 1929.

There are basically only three parts to an analogue synthesizer; one or more oscillators to produce the sound, filters to change the sound, and voltage‑controlled amplifiers to adjust the volume of the sound. In addition, envelope generators are frequently used to change the behaviour of the sound (commonly referred to as ADSR – attack, sustain, delay, release).

Another major development in electronic sound synthesis was by American engineer Robert Moog (1934‑2005) who invented the first commercially available analogue synthesizer, the Moog Modular in 1964. The first fully integrated synthesizer, including the keyboard, was the Minimoog released in 1970. Moog developed his products in response to demand for more practical and affordable electronic musical instruments.

Moog Synthesizer

Samplers – A sampler is an electronic device that captures, records and plays back sections of the recordings. The first example was the Chamberlin, invented by American Harry Chamberlin in 1946. The British Mellotron, introduced in 1963, was perhaps the first famous electro‑mechanical instrument used to play back tape recorded sound samples.

Sequencers – A key factor in making music synthesizers usable was the introduction of the programmable sequencer to program and play back multi‑part arrangements. The first example was probably the analogue Buchla 100 synthesizer in 1964. More importantly, Moog introduced the Moog Modular Sequencer Module – the 960 Sequential Controller in 1968.

As synthesizers became more complex, additional features were added, such as arpeggiators that automatically play a sequence of notes based on a chord or scale, and a range of effects used to process the sound even further.

Digital synthesizers – The first digital synthesizer was made by Synclavier in 1977, while the first commercially successful model was made by Yamaha in 1983. The first production polyphonic synthesizer, able to play chords, was the analogue Oberheim Polyphonic Synthesizer, designed by Tom Oberheim, produced from 1975 to 1979. Yamaha, however, may disagree, citing their GX‑1 ‘Dream Machine’. These were followed shortly thereafter by the Polymoog. Another first was the programmable analogue Prophet 5 made by Sequential circuits in 1978. The culmination of these inventions was the introduction of the Fairlight CMI (standing for ‘Computer Musical Instrument’) in 1979, the first polyphonic digital synthesizer, sampler and sequencer.

Finally, polyphonic digital sound synthesis was here to stay, as was the studio recording technology able to exploit it. Miles away from ambient while owing a debt to it, Donna Summer’s massive disco hit single, ‘I Feel Love’ (1977), written and produced by Giorgio Moroder, was seen as a milestone and “a rejection of the intellectualization of the synthesizer in favour of pure pleasure”. It did, however, herald sound synthesis to the popular market. The phenomenal boom in synthpop during the 1980s, leading to the EDM boom of the 1990s, was the tangible result of lengthy electronic music development.

MIDI – MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a powerful industry standard protocol introduced in 1983 that enables wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and audio devices to communicate. MIDI has become essential for synchronizing, playing, editing, and recording music.

These, and many other tools, were a valuable resource for the new generation of experimental composers and musicians. Everything was pretty much now in place.


A brief history of ambient music

Up to this point it is probably fair to say that elements of ambient music’s predecessors existed, and indeed thrived, on the periphery of the popular music of their time, rather than being front and centre of the mainstream. During the 1960s, that was about to change, albeit relatively slowly.

One interpretation of ambient music is that it is a style of calm, often electronic instrumental music with no discernible rhythm or beat, used to create or enhance mood or atmosphere. Ambient music emphasises tone and textural layers of sound that focus on the actual sounds being produced rather than the traditional musical form in which those sounds would normally reside. As such, ambient music may well intentionally eschew formal structured composition, harmony, melody and metre.

While now commonplace, ambient music, at least in the past, broke the rules of what we understand as familiar music or song content. Ambient music is not limited by accepted tropes of how it is produced, making use of acoustic and electronic musical instruments, unorthodox implements used as instruments, environmental sound recordings and sometimes vocals. A large proportion of ambient music is instrumental, not requiring narrative arrangement through either sung lyrics or spoken words.

One characteristic of ambient music since the 1990s has been the ubiquitous use of looping, creating repeated sections of sound, initially using tape and most commonly through digital effects. Another key trait has been the use of modern digital reverb and delay techniques to provide a sense of space, disconnection and otherworldliness.

One key element of ambient music is the way it can reward equally both passive and active listening. The listener can either focus on the content or allow ‘cognitive drift’ to occur, which can encourage a sense of calm, introspection or contemplation, meditation or as an aid to sleep.

While ambient music is a self‑contained genre, it does not stand alone; it has been incorporated into, or fused with, many other musical genres. This fact, in part, contributes to the debate about what ambient music actually means today and why it has become successful both artistically and commercially.

At last, getting to the point now… Ambient music as we now (think) we know it emerged in various forms during the 1960s and 1970s, largely thanks to the commercial availability of synthesizers. The album that is widely regarded as the watershed that brought ambient music to wider attention was, ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ (1978) by British musician, producer and artist Brian Eno. This studio album also established the term ‘ambient music’ in the public mind set. Eno, either solo or in collaboration with other artists, released many subsequent ambient works, further defining the genre. By the early 1980s, the ‘new’ genre had become recognised and widely accepted. Eno has been oft‑quoted that “ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.

In 1995, Brian Eno used the term ‘generative music’ to describe any music created by a computer system that is ever‑different, non‑repeating and always changing. Eno has frequently used generative ambient music as a background for visual art installations, thereby creating an immersive audio visual experience. There are now a number of autonomous ambient music generators available on the Internet, such as Generative.fm, that provide completely unique compositions that never end, never repeat and last as long as the listener wants them to. The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into music is likely to expand the scope of generative music considerably.

A discrete subset of the genre is Japanese ambient pioneered by artists such as Hiroshi Yoshimura, Haruomi Hosono, Midori Takada, Osamu Sato and Susumu Yokota during the 1980s. The offshoot aligned with the Japanese concept of ‘wa’, meaning harmony and serenity. Japanese ambient was an expression of the deep cultural appreciation for nature, an aesthetic preference towards minimalism, and traditional values of maintaining peace.

Ambient has heavily influenced many sub‑genres of downtempo dance music, including ambient house, ambient techno, ambient dub, trip‑hop, nu‑jazz, new age, chillwave and deep house. Ambient has undoubtedly come a very long way from its avant‑garde artsy origins. Ambient was now cool and it was here to stay.

In recent years, ambient music has continued to evolve and expand. Some contemporary artists have incorporated elements of jazz, classical music, and other genres into their work, while others have experimented with new digital technologies such as AI and virtual or augmented reality to create new experiences. Improvisation and extemporisation have become integral elements of many ambient compositions.

Overall, ambient music has remained a vibrant and innovative genre that continues to explore the limits of what is possible in music. Perhaps, the essence of ambient music continues to flourish at the margins, requiring some effort to discover as the means of dissemination moves away from traditional record companies, labels, distributors and physical media. The Internet and streaming services may become the only means to access these esoteric future forms.

Ambient music’s experimental aspirations, though, have been an on‑going thorn in its side, which seems particularly hard to expunge. Partly because of its eclectic roots, many regard the lofty art & culture baggage of ambient as self‑absorbed, arrogant, sanctimonious, pompous and pretentious – or just plain dull and boring. Brian Eno in particular has attracted considerable scorn for refusing to conform to populist ideals and short‑term fads. The fact that he is not fazed by such clichéd criticisms and follows his own path regardless, encourages his opinionated detractors even further.

A predilection for ambient music is a choice, not a requisite and it doesn’t carry any cache amongst some imaginary elitist intellectual cultural community. It is, though, not for everyone, with many seeing ambient as a tedious interminable din. Indeed, if anything has been learned through the decades about ambient music is that its appeal is, at least partially, subliminal, nurturing our subconscious need for enlightened contemplation and therefore beyond our ability to control whether we appreciate it or not. Discuss…

Influential artists that have dabbled in ambient music either in part or whole include (in no particular order) Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, William Basinski, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Pauline Oliveros, Cluster, Biosphere, Harold Budd, John Hassell, Max Richter, Tim Hecker, Terry Riley, William Orbit, Four Tet, Steve Hillage, Stars Of The Lid, Bonobo, Mark McGuire, Ash Ra Tempel, Alice Coltrane, Jon Hopkins, Edgar Froese, Oneohtrix Point Never, The Caretaker, Laurie Speigel, Tycho, GAS, Boards Of Canada, Burial, Fripp & Eno, Slowdive, Air, Julianna Barwick, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Ben Chatwin, Richard Norris, Luke Abbott, The Cinematic Orchestra, Daniel Avery, Darshan Ambient, The Gentleman Losers, Ibizarre, A.M.P. Studio, Orbient, Nacho Sotomayor, Sigur Rós, Johnny Jewel, Bicep, Marconi Union, Memory Tapes, Neon Indian, Com Truise, The Orb, The KLF, Divination, Lawrence English and The Irresistible Force.


A brief history of other music genres related to (but not) ambient music

New age music –New age music emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by a variety of styles including classical music, jazz, world music, religious music, folk and rock. New age music often explores arcane folklore, ancient traditions, ethnic groupings, astrology, mythology, mysticism, spiritualism, fantasy and even the occult. Lacking any precise definition, it is often seen as an umbrella for many different and often divergent styles. Ambient and new‑age music are two distinct genres albeit with some overlap between them.

Starting with the similarities… New age music is a genre of music characterised by its soothing and relaxing qualities. It often features acoustic instruments such as flutes, harps, guitars and pianos, traditional Asian or African instruments as well as nature recordings and synthesizers. New‑age music is often used for relaxation, contemplation, yoga, massage, stress relief and anxiety management. As background music, it is used to create a calm, serene, peaceful atmosphere for other activities.

… and some key differences… Ambient music tends to be more experimental and abstract than new‑age music, with a greater emphasis on soundscapes and textures rather than rhythm, melody or harmony. New age music tends to be more melodic, structured and more easily accessible than ambient music.

Overall, both ambient and new age music are genres designed to create a sense of serenity in the listener (the ends). However, they go about achieving this goal in different ways (the means).

New age music has habitually been ridiculed (erroneously) for being part of hippie culture, with acolytes that embraced new age beliefs being called ‘zippies’. From the 1990s. Zippies were in favour of new age principles such as social change, environmentalism, and alternative lifestyles while also being influenced by rave culture, cyberculture, and psychedelic drugs.

New Age Travellers are a loose grouping of people primarily in the United Kingdom generally adopting new age beliefs along with the counter culture movement of the late 1960s. Their nomadic lifestyle often brought them into conflict with static communities and the authorities.

Prominent new age artists include Enigma, Enya, Deep Forest, Clannad, Gregorian, Phil Thornton, Patrick Kelly, Peter Gabriel, Bernward Koch, Paul Winter, Grouper, All About Eve and William Ackerman.

Nature recordings – Ambient nature sounds or, technically, field recordings are a popular sub‑genre of ambient music that feature environmental recordings such as the sounds of water, animals, thunderstorms, wind and even fire. The origins of combining natural sounds with musical compositions can be traced back to the early 20th century. Field recording is regarded by many as a genre in its own right, with or without music.

Field Recording

The use of field recordings in music became more widespread in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of portable recording equipment and with digital recording from the 1980s. Musicians such as John Cage and Dan Gibson began using natural or built environmental sounds into their compositions.

The use of field recording in ambient music can be traced back to Brian Eno’s ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’, which featured recordings of airport terminal announcements and other environmental sounds. Since then, many ambient artists have incorporated field recordings to create captivating soundscapes that blur the line between music and environmental sound.

Some popular ambient nature sound artists include David Dunn, Chris Watson, Dan Gibson, Diane Hope, Lawrence English, Biosphere and Francisco López.

Downtempo and chillout music – Ambient music did not burst onto the scene overnight and, at least initially, it did not attract significant commercial success. With the popularity of EDM and the domination of house and techno in nightclubs, ambient experienced a mini‑revival towards the late 1980s with sub‑genres including ambient house, ambient trance, ambient techno and ambient dub. During the dance‑dominated 1990s, ambient music became trendy as an after‑party ‘comedown’ with the advent of ‘chillout rooms’; spaces within clubs that served as venues for a relaxing alternative to the high‑energy ‘rave rooms’.

Chillout is a form of downtempo music (or vice versa) characterised by relaxed rhythms, mellow beats, laid back grooves and atmospheric soundscapes intended to induce a tranquil mood – fertile ground for ambient music to proliferate. Chillout is heavily derived from EDM, but typically at slower tempos and with sonic palettes often reminiscent of ambient, electronic‑styled new age, progressive electronic and even elements of instrumental hip hop, dub, deep house and breakbeat.

However, neither chillout nor downtempo come under the definition of ambient, due to their prominent use of structure and rhythm. Sunset beach bars, restaurant venues and cult dance clubs in Ibiza in the 1990s jumped onto the ambient/downtempo/chillout bandwagon as an escape from the more intense side of life and a counterpoint to the hectic rave and acid house scenes of the time. In the UK, the Bristol trip hop scene also capitalised on the chillout boom.

The chillout zeitgeist during the late 1990s was partly due to a proliferation of commercial chillout compilation albums from record labels such as Ministry of Sound, Café del Mar, Café Mambo, Beyond Records, Kompakt Records and Mercury Records. Mainstreaming ultimately motivated underground producers to move away from chillout into other more adventurous leftfield ventures. By the early‑mid 2000s, popularity of chillout music faded heavily. However, it would see a revival in the 2010s and 2020s (so far), which aimed to recapture the spirit of earlier forms of the genre.

Ambient and downtempo/chillout and are not interchangeable, although the boundaries between them are often unclear. Downtempo and chillout would go on a different path to influence subsequent genres like psybient, psychedelic trance, chillwave, lounge, post rock, lo‑fi hip hop, hypnagogic pop and nu‑jazz.

Prominent downtempo and chillout artists include The KLF, The Orb, Thievery Corporation, Deep Dive Corp, East India Youth, The Album Leaf, Nightmares on Wax, Falco, Robert Miles, Morcheeba, Bowery Electric, Mr. Scruff, Tosca, Hallucinogen and Ultramarine.

Trip Hop – Trip hop is a genre of electronic music that emerged from downtempo/chillout in the early 1990s. Trip hop is characterized by its use of hip hop beats, samples, and dense atmospheric soundscapes, fusing influences from jazz, soul, funk, reggae, dub and R&B. Like other forms of electronic music, trip hop uses structure, melody and beats, differentiating it from ambient. The term trip hop was first used in an article in Mixmag magazine in 1994 about American artist and producer DJ Shadow. Trip hop music was popularised mainly by artists from Bristol in the UK such as Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. Trip hop further influenced genres like instrumental hip hop and UK garage.

Other artists that have made use of trip hop leanings include Sneaker Pimps, Aim, Howie B, The Dining Rooms, FKA Twigs, Glass Animals, Kosheen, Martina Topley‑Bird, Poliça, Smoke City, 9Lazy9, Bomb The Bass, Coldcut, Morcheeba, Pretty Lights, DJ Shadow, DJ Food, DJ Vadim, Funki Porcini, Gorillaz and London Grammar.

Electronica – Electronica is a massively broad term for music that uses electronic instrumentation and sound manipulation technology as the primary means of production. As such, it is a catch‑all for music that doesn’t slot easily into existing sub‑genres. In its widest sense, electronica is pervasive, directly or indirectly, in much of modern contemporary music. There is, therefore no point in defining it or attempting to establish its scope here.

Since the 1960s, electronica artists have both influenced and taken influence from many other music genres. The commercial breakthrough of electronic music occurred with the advent and subsequent domination of synthpop, Europop and Eurodance in the 1970s. This was followed by EDM sub‑genres such as house, techno and electro from the 1980s onward. The burst in electronic creativity was fuelled by a self‑perpetuating feedback loop, pushing things further in the popular mainstream as well as in the margins that continues to this day.

Some prominent artists under the diverse panoply of electronica include (again in no particular order) Clara Rockmore, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Depeche Mode, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, Röyksopp, Gary Numan, Japan, David Sylvian, Natural Snow Buildings, Global Communication, Moby, The Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Underworld, The Human League, Visage, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, Ultravox, Rick Wakeman, Jean‑Michel Jarre, Skrillex, Leftfield, Herbie Hancock, Electronic, Deadmau5, Fred Again.., Sven Väth, Major Lazer, Armin van Buuren, Sasha, Thom Yorke, Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP), Daft Punk, Four Tet, Floating Points, Flying Lotus, Hot Chip, Pet Shop Boys, Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, Giorgio Moroder, M83, Goldfrapp, Amon Tobin, Carl Cox, Crystal Castles, Infected Mushroom, Groove Armada, Eat Static, LCD Soundsystem, Faithless, Disclosure, System 7, 777, Erasure, Yazoo, Paul van Dyk, Eric Prydz, Heaven 17, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD), Tears For Fears, Monaco, Bronski Beat, Vince Clarke, Eurhythmics, Thompson Twins, Yello, Squarepusher, Machinedrum, Pendulum, Romare, Calvin Harris, Apollo 440, Ladytron, MØ, Flume, Public Service Broadcasting, Solar Fields, The Grid, X‑Press 2, Arms And Sleepers, Caribou and ATB.


A brief history of ambient electronica (and related) artists

OK, so we’ve looked at some of the genres that have led up to the current day and the prevailing view of ambient music in context. Now, it’s time to take a brief look at some key artists involved along the way, whether they could strictly be considered proponents of ambient music or not. Here are some of the most prominent.

Tomita – Isao Tomita (1932‑2016) was a Japanese composer, regarded as one of the pioneers of electronic music and space music, and as one of the most famous producers of analogue synthesizer arrangements. Tomita is known for his electronic versions and adaptations of familiar classical music pieces as well as futuristic science‑fiction themes and trance‑like rhythms. Tomita received four Grammy Award nominations for his studio album based on music by classical composer Claude Debussy, ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’ (1974). He also famously adapted Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ (1976).

Wendy Carlos – Wendy Carlos (1939‑) is an American musician and composer born as Walter Carlos and transitioning to female gender in 1972. She is known for her pioneering electronic music and film scores. Carlos studied physics and music at Brown University before studying music composition at Columbia University in New York City. She helped in the development of Robert Moog’s first commercially available synthesizer. Carlos’ breakout release was Grammy Award‑winning ‘Switched‑On Bach’ (1968), an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on synthesizer. Carlos went on to release further synthesized classical music adaptations, as well as experimental and ambient electronic music. She composed film scores for three major studio films, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971), ‘The Shining’ (1980), and ‘Tron’ (1982).

Tangerine Dream – Tangerine Dream is a German band founded in 1967 by Edgar Froese (1944‑2015). The best‑known incarnation of the group was the mid‑1970s trio of Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann. Tangerine Dream is considered a pioneer in electronic, ambient and space music, a.k.a. kosmische musik (‘cosmic music’). Tangerine Dream were key members of the so‑called Berlin School of electronic music. Despite having released over one hundred albums over the years, they are best known for their use of synthesizers and sequencers, including milestone albums, Phaedra (1974) and Rubycon (1975). Tangerine Dream has also composed over sixty film soundtracks as well as the score for the video game Grand Theft Auto V. However, it is their mid‑1970s material that profoundly influenced the development of electronic music styles such as ambient, new age and EDM.

Klaus Schulze – German electronic music composer and musician Klaus Schulze (1947‑2022) is considered one of the pioneers of electronic music since the late 1960s. Schulze was an early member of the band Tangerine Dream before leaving to pursue a solo career in 1970. Schulze had a prolific career, releasing over sixty studio albums. Schulze’s music is known for its long, repetitive sequences and its use of analogue synthesizers. His early work was influenced by the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while his later work was more experimental and ambient. Schulze’s music has been used in films such as ‘The Exorcist’ (1973).

Brian Eno – English musician, composer, producer and artist Brian Eno (1948‑) has become synonymous with contemporary ambient music, pioneering and contributing to the ambient, electronica and minimalist drone genres. He started out in experimental rock, glam rock, art pop and art rock as former keyboard player with Roxy Music. Along with his extensive solo career, Eno has also collaborated on many side projects with other artists including Harold Budd, David Bowie, David Byrne, Fred Again.., Jon Hopkins and Cluster. Many of his collaborations explored beyond the scope of purist ambient music. He has also been prominent behind the studio desk producing many artists including John Cale, David Bowie, Jon Hassell, Laraaji, Talking Heads, Ultravox, Devo, U2, Coldplay, Daniel Lanois, Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones, Slowdive, James, Kevin Shields and Damon Albarn. In addition, Eno has composed a number of film scores. If that wasn’t enough, Eno has also worked prolifically in other media, including audio visual installations, art installations, film and as an author. As mentioned above, Eno pioneered the introduction and growth of generative music. A little known fact is that Eno also composed the six‑second music snip that accompanied the start‑up of the Windows 95 computer operating system, known as ‘The Microsoft Sound’. Love him or loathe him, Eno’s legacy is probably as far reaching as it is incalculable.

Brian Eno (courtesy of Cosciansky)

Kratwerk – German electronic band Kraftwerk was founded in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. Kraftwerk is widely regarded as an innovator and pioneer of electronic music and was one of the first successful acts to popularise and commercialise the genre. The group began as part of West Germany’s experimental krautrock scene in the early 1970s before adopting electronic instruments for which they are best known, including synthesizers, drum machines, and vocoders. Their massive hit single and album, ‘Autobahn’ (1974) cemented their reputation. Kraftwerk inspired many artists including David Bowie, Joy Division, New Order, Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem.

Jean‑Michel Jarre – Jean‑Michel Jarre (1948‑) is a French composer, musician and record producer. He is widely regarded as an innovator in electronic, ambient, new age and synthpop music. His breakout studio album, ‘Oxygene’ (1977) has become an electronica classic, selling over 18 million copies worldwide. Jarre’s musical style builds on the work of Tangerine Dream and adds a bit of populist French va‑va‑voom. He is famous for organising extravagant outdoor events involving laser light shows, visual projections and pyrotechnics to accompany his stage music. One of his concerts in Moscow, Russia in 1997 holds the world record for the largest audience for a single outdoor event, estimated at 3.5 million people.

The Orb – The Orb is an English electronic music group founded in 1988 by Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty. The duo began as ambient and dub DJs based in London before making the move into music production. The Orb is well known for their psychedelic ambient space sound. Over the years, The Orb has developed a cult following among clubbers ‘coming down’ from drug‑induced highs and, as such, their music became popular in club chillout rooms. Their influential debut studio album ‘The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ (1991) established the UK’s underground ambient house trend. The Orb’s second album, ‘U.F.Orb’ (1992) confirmed the band’s popularity and ensured their longevity. The Orb was influenced heavily by predecessors, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. The Orb has maintained their signature science fiction aesthetic throughout their prolific career.

Amorphous Androgynous – British electronic music duo Amorphous Androgynous and its better known alter ego, The Future Sound of London (FSOL), was founded by Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans in 1988. The duo’s music is characterized by its psychedelic, ambient, and experimental sound. They acted as a bridge between the underground and well‑established electronic artists and has been influential in the development of electronic music genres such as ambient house, ambient dub and trip hop. They have released several albums, including ‘Tales of Ephidrina’ (1993) and ‘Lifeforms’ (1994).

Orbital – Orbital is an English electronic music duo founded by brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll in 1989. The band has had on‑off periods of activity, breaking up and reforming on more than one occasion through the years. The band’s name is taken from the M25, London’s orbital motorway, which was key to the early (illegal) rave scene and (legal) acid house scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Orbital’s involvement with dance music has led to its strong reputation as a live band. They have mixed ambient sounds along with techno, trance, breakbeat and electronic rock styles. They have also been hugely influential in the development of modern electronic sub‑genres such as glitch, wonky and Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), as well as EDM.

The Chemical Brothers ‑ English electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers, originally known as The Dust Brothers, was formed in 1989 by Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons in Manchester, UK. Along with peers, The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, they were pioneers in bringing the big beat, techno, house and EDM to popularity. Their breakout studio album, ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ (1997) rapidly became a rave classic. Like Orbital, they have become regular headliners on the festival and arena circuits. While their music is far from ambient, the origins are still evident and their enduring influence has also been widespread.


Contemporary music genres related to ambient

Here we are now, well into the 3rd decade of the 21st Century, so what position does ambient occupy now? Has it stagnated, frozen in aspic? Is it languishing in some obscure genre limbo? Or is it still evolving either on its own terms or in other ways? Let’s look at where ambient influences have led us and which may give a clue to where it might be going in the future. Here are eight of the most important modern‑day ambient spin‑offs.

Drone – Drone is a music genre that plays on long, sustained tones or repeated single notes. Unlike other genres that use drones as a component, drone music puts drones at the forefront, removing most melody and rhythm. As such, it bears many similarities to ambient. Drone music explores the changing timbre of individual sounds over time. For electronic drone, this is often achieved by slight fluctuations in the drone’s pitch, tone and amplitude.

The origins of drone, whether electronic or classical, are found in traditional music from across the world and date back to the 1940s with ‘Monotone Silence Symphony’ (1949) by Yves Klein. Drone developed through minimal music and through rock. Drone has seen a resurgence in the 2020s. Drone music has expanded to influence countless other genres, including ambient, EDM, drone metal and post‑rock.

Progressive Electronic – Progressive music in its widest sense generally attempts to expand existing stylistic boundaries associated with a specific genre of music. It also places emphasis on creating a sense of progression or development throughout a piece of music. Layered soundscapes, intricate changes in rhythm, a wide range of sound effects and textures are commonly used. Improvisation is also a key characteristic of progressive electronic music, as many musicians use improvisation to create new and inventive sounds rather than relying on pre‑recorded samples or synthesizer presets. Another important aspect is the use of lengthy, extended compositions, with tracks frequently having multiple sections and mood changes. Basically, progressive electronic covers a large proportion of electronic music from the late 1960s to the current day, including post rock. Is it a genre in itself? Make up your own mind.

Vaporwave – Vaporwave emerged in the early 2010s and is characterised by its use of synthesizers, slowed‑down samples and a great deal of studio manipulation including time shifting and cutting up of sound clips, then applying reverb, echo and other studio effects. The advent of computer‑based digital audio workstations (DAWs), such as Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Abelton and Cubase, greatly aided production and the Internet provided the means of distribution through platforms like YouTube, Bandcamp and SoundCloud.

Vaporwave got its name from ‘vaporware’, a term applied to computer hardware or software which is announced by a developer well in advance of release, but which then fails to emerge.

At first, vaporwave was a nostalgic reflection of the sounds of the 1980s and 1990s, drawing from popular music, contemporary R&B, smooth jazz and muzak, as well as from consumer culture, corporate logos, films, radio broadcasts and television commercials. Vaporwave has been described as a form of ‘post‑Internet’ electronic musical movement that reflects the fragmented and disorienting experience of living in the digital age.

The release of ‘Eccojams Vol. 1’ (2010) by Daniel Lopatin, under one of his aliases Chuck Person, is widely regarded as the foundation of vaporwave as a genre. The debut was followed ‘Floral Shoppe’ by Macintosh Plus and ‘Far Side Virtual’ by James Ferraro (both 2011), bringing greater visibility to vaporwave and its associated aesthetics. Despite this, vaporwave remains niche with tracks not readily available on physical media such as CDs or vinyl.

Like ‘pure’ ambient, vaporwave shuns structure and rhythm. The use of looping, glitching, pitch‑bending, panning, and echoing sound samples came to define the sound of vaporwave, giving the patchwork sound a hazy, surreal, dreamy and atmospheric quality with a focus on hyperreality. The vapor movement alludes to a disconnection or separation from reality presented through its original form.

In addition, vaporwave gave birth to a distinct aesthetic based on subcultures like cyberpunk, seapunk, manga and anime. Artist names, album titles and track listings often used uncommon symbols and Japanese script. In conjunction with the heavily manipulated and often intentionally degraded sound of vaporwave music, much of the genre’s artwork featured low‑grade image distortion or digital artefacts, bringing the limitations and flaws of past technology and positioning it within the broader post‑internet artistic landscape. The integration of the visual and the music elements can be interpreted as a criticism of consumer capitalism and hi‑tech culture.

Dreampunk – Dreampunk is an evolution of Vaporwave, also emerging in the mid‑2010s. Dreampunk artists wanting to experiment with more minimal and atmospheric compositions while, at the same time, distancing themselves from the nostalgic restrictions of the 1980s. The Internet record label, Dream Catalogue, helped popularize dreampunk within the vaporwave community as well as further afield.

The abstract, hypnotic, atmospheric soundscapes and repetitive structure of vaporwave is perhaps closer to ambient music, although the presence of rhythm differentiated it from its predecessor. This contributes to the dreamlike ethereal sound for which the genre is known. Dreampunk artists tend to seek anonymity, with many using several Internet aliases to create a sense of mystique around their music, hiding behind the aesthetic, often utilizing abstracted imagery of cityscapes, neon‑lit night scenes and incorporating futuristic dystopian and cyberpunk themes. Like vaporwave, dreampunk also uses Japanese scripts to further mystify their image. Classic dystopian and cyberpunk films such as ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995) also influenced and inspired the music genre. Both vaporwave and dreampunk continue to thrive in the underground.

Ambient, morphed through the lens of vaporwave and dreampunk, heavily influenced other genres such as hypnagogic pop, chillwave, VHS pop, witch house and slushwave.

Some popular vaporwave and dreampunk artists include Blue In Tokio, Fishmans, T e l e p a t h (テレパシー能力者), 2 8 1 4, Windows96, SkyTwoHigh and Lindsheaven Virtual Plaza.

Chillwave – Chillwave, a.k.a. glo‑fi, is an Internet genre that originated predominantly from the United States circa 2009. Chillwave, like vaporwave, looked back to the aesthetics and musical styles of the 1980s and 1990s, intentionally evoking a sense of nostalgic reflection. Chillwave melded analogue instruments with modern recording technologies and techniques to create a hazy dreamlike atmosphere. Chillwave appropriated elements of synthpop, funk, downtempo, EDM and alternative/indie genres like indie pop, neo‑psychedelia and synthwave.

Chillwave, vaporwave and dreampunk led to a great deal of fusion and crossover material, blurring the differences between them. Chillwave declined in popularity by the start of the 2020s but like many other genres, the end of chillwave may have been greatly exaggerated. Expect it to come back to the fore in due course. Chillwave’s influence would go on to play a part in genres such as cloud rap, alternative R&B, future bass, synthwave, ethereal wave and bedroom pop.

Prominent chillwave artists include Toro y Moi, Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memory Tapes, Flume, Com Truise, Tycho, Panda Bear, Lemon Jelly and Nite Jewel.

Intelligent Dance Music and its spin offs, glitch and wonky – Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) is a genre of electronic music that emerged in the early 1990s as a derivative (and rejection) of EDM. It is characterized by complex rhythms, intricate melodies, and a focus on sound design and experimentation. IDM artists often use unconventional time signatures, polyrhythms, glitches and de‑tuned sounds to create a unique listening experience. The genre is also known for its use of ambient textures and atmospheres, which can create a vague or otherworldly feel. IDM has been influential in the development of other electronic music genres such as ambient techno, and intelligent techno.

Some of the most well‑known IDM (and glitch/wonky) artists include Aphex Twin, Four Tet, Daniel Avery, Actress, Floating Points, Machinedrum, Moderat, Oneohtrix Point Never, Boards Of Canada, Mouse On Mars, Flying Lotus, LFO, Clark, Luke Vibert, Autechre and Squarepusher.

Dream pop – Deriving more from structured alternative and indie rock rather than ambient, dream pop uses reverb‑laden guitars, effects‑rich vocals, and dense studio production, to create a psychedelic, spacious, ethereal and surreal sound, albeit with a de‑emphasized beat accompanied by quiet, breathy harmonised vocals to elevate the music from its origins.

Dream pop is commonly fused with other genres such as shoegaze and noise pop, although dream pop does not solely depend on ‘walls of sound’, heavily distorted guitar layers or feedback. Dream pop relies heavily on modulation effects such as chorus, tremolo, vibrato, delay and reverb, to create mesmerising sonic textures. Dream pop bands often employ synthesizer layers to add atmosphere and lush soundscapes. Influences include slow core, post rock and trip hop.

In a similar way to shoegaze, vocals focus on melody and timbre, rather than lyricism. It is not uncommon for dream pop groups to have multiple vocalists to make good use of harmony and ‘instrumental’ vocals.

Prominent dream pop artists include Warpaint, 2:54, Lanterns of the Lake, Beach House, Cigarettes After Sex, The xx, Bat For Lashes, Low, Chromatics, Spiritualized, Julee Cruise, Broadcast, Zero 7, Phantogram, Yo La Tengo, Cocteau Twins, Dévics, Esben And The Witch, Pure Bathing Culture, School Of Seven Bells, His Name Is Alive, How To Dress Well, Lush, London Grammar and Mazzy Star.

Ambient dub – Ambient dub fuses ambient music with dub electronica. Ambient dub is a chillout fusion of ambient, dub reggae and future dub, featuring the atmosphere of the former and the Jamaican‑style basslines, percussion, and psychedelic production techniques of the latter. The name of the genre was coined by record label Beyond Records with a series of compilation albums of the same name, starting with, ‘Ambient Dub Volume 1: The Big Chill’ (1992). Many of the prominent artists within the genre also perform or mix in elements of dub techno, dubstep or ambient techno, which has led to some confusion over ambient dub’s actual sound. While the lines are indistinct between such electronic genres, ambient dub can genuinely be discerned by its denser atmospheres, a heavier use of reverb and/or delay, and an emphasis on bass akin to traditional dub, as well as reggae rhythms.

Notable ambient dub artists include: The Dub Syndicate, Bill Laswell, Dreadzone, Higher Intelligence Agency, The Orb, Ott, Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground, Jon Hopkins, Jah Wobble, Mad Professor, Burnt Friedman, Deadbeat, The Bug, Solar Quest, Ladytron and Banco de Gaia.

Dark ambient – before we leave, it’s worth a quick mention about dark ambient, a.k.a. ambient industrial. While most ambient music creates a peaceful, welcoming and safe place, dark ambient is intended to disturb. Dark ambient emerged as a post‑industrial counterpoint to the wider ambient landscape. It is characterised by an ominous, brooding, eerie, sinister and overbearingly gloomy atmosphere, often with discordant overtones, dissonant timbres and lengthy drones. Dark ambient often crops up in film scores intended to unsettle the audience and create a sense of disorientation or suspense.

Dark ambient artists include Deathprod, Agalloch, David Lynch, Throbbing Gristle, Angelo Badalamenti, Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor, William Basinski, Blut Aus Nord, Mortiis, Cabaret Voltaire, Dolorian, NON, Controlled Bleeding, Earth, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sunn O))) and Steven Wilson.

STOP! Enough already! I hear you cry. We are beginning to go down a bit of a proverbial rabbit hole here, so the short list that follows suggests other sub‑genres heavily influenced by ambient and its derivatives. These sub‑genres include black ambient, ritual ambient, space ambient, space music, ambient Americana, ambient house, ambient techno, ambient trance, psybient, psydub, minimalism, modern classical, ambient industrial, tribal ambient, pop ambient, dubstep and turntable music. Phew!


Key ambient+ albums:

As with my previous article on dub reggae, it would be remiss not to mention some of the key albums that have impressed over the years. Here are some predictable and some very unpredictable selections to showcase the vast expanse of electronic ambient music as it is today. As this article has hopefully shown, ambient isn’t a clearly defined pigeon hole with unbreakable rules but rather a constantly changing complex and diverse approach to experimental soundscapes. Hence this ‘top 20’ collection is more like ‘ambient+’ (as I call it; remember, you read it here first!), intended to demonstrate the ecosystem’s multiplicity. Another ‘desert island disc’ compendium to daydream about. Again, it was a difficult decision‑making process with many excellent works that didn’t make this particular cut. These albums are all classified as contemporary, i.e. 1975 to the current day.

  1. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85‑92 (1993) and Vol. II (1994). Two seminal albums in the ambient genre that feature a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds. It is known for its dreamy, otherworldly soundscapes and has been described as ‘a journey through a strange and beautiful world’.
  2. Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). Basically, the one that started it all. Essential listening for devotees of the ambient music genre. A starting point for the many great ambient works that followed and an entrée into Eno’s many other ambient works.
  3. Tangerine Dream – Rubycon (1975). Along with its predecessor, ‘Phaedra’ (1974), the pair stand out from the band’s extensive canon. The band had stopped using traditional instruments in its compositions and focused on analogue synthesizers and sequencers. Truly remarkable.
  4. Max Richter – Sleep (2015). Almost 8½ hours of sweet lilting lullaby, a transcendent, cinematic, post‑minimalist ambient album of gentle music intended to be experienced as much as it is to be listened to, awake or asleep (or, interestingly, in between – a phenomenon known as ‘eyelid movies’; what the mind conjures up when one is in the transitional state of near sleep).
  5. GAS – Pop (2000). A comforting, immersive experience and a lesson in how to make electronica sound organic and engrossing. Transcendent and transformative. A lysergic trip for your ears.
  6. Fripp & Eno – Evening Star (1975). Combining the talents of Brian Eno and Crimson King guitarist Robert Fripp. Good to see guitar making a contribution to ambient music.
  7. Four Tet – Rounds (2003). Not really ambient, more IDM and glitch. However, a disarmingly elegant stripped back intimate album. Perhaps, Kieran Hebdan’s landmark album.
  8. Boards Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children (1998). Focusing on concepts of childhood nostalgia, created by the use of obscure samples and masterly manipulated layers of sound. The album has become rather essential listening along with ‘The Campfire Headphase’ (2005) and ‘Geogaddi (2002).
  9. Bonobo – Black Sands (2010). Lush, sumptuous and beguiling. Not ambient in a true sense but a great example of downtempo electronica from Simon Green. Also worth a listen is, ‘The North Borders’ (2013). Both also have excellent remix albums.
  10. The KLF – Chill Out (1990). A classic ambient album that features a mix of samples and original music. It’s known for its dreamy, atmospheric soundscapes and has been described as ‘a road movie in music form’.
  11. Stars Of The Lid – Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid (2001). An album that features long, slow‑moving pieces that are built around drones and other ambient textures.
  12. Chromatics – Night Drive (2001) – More ambient pop, dream pop and synthwave than pure ambient. Chromatics’ ethereal style was featured by David Lynch in his surreal TV series, ‘Twin Peaks’.
  13. Burial – Untrue (2007). Enigmatic London‑based dubstep artist burst onto the scene with an album that is stark, blurred, eerie, tender and hauntingly evocative. A breath taking and inimitable event.
  14. William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops I‑IV (2002‑2003). Four albums that feature loops of decaying tape recordings. The music is haunting and melancholic, and has been described as ‘a meditation on loss and decay’. Dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Tape music entropy as it happens, captured for posterity.
  15. Tim Hecker – Radio Amor (2003). An album that features a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, including guitar and piano. It’s known for its dense, layered soundscapes and has been described as ‘a beautiful, immersive experience’.
  16. Banco de Gaia – Last Train To Lhasa (1995). Along with its predecessor, ‘Maya’ (1994), it shows the approach of Toby Marks to progressive ambient electronica. Again, not really ambient but hugely influenced by it.
  17. Thievery Corporation – The Richest Man In Babylon (2000). Along with its remix EP, ‘Babylon Rewound’ (2004) it takes other influences including reggae and dub and brought it into the downtempo chillout world.
  18. The Higher Intelligence Agency – Freefloater (1995). British artist Bobby Bird started off running experimental electronic music nights in Birmingham. Ambient techno meets ambient dub meets ambient. Also worth a listen is, ‘Colourform’ (2010).
  19. Lindsheaven Virtual Plaza & SkyTwoHigh – Imaginary Pathways (2021). The final Internet album by Brazilian musician and producer, Cesar Alexandre before his untimely death due to covid. More dreampunk, ambient techno and downtempo with a hint of vaporwave rather than ambient. Blissful.
  20. The Gentleman Losers – The Gentleman Losers (2006). Finnish brothers that take a mix of ambient, post rock, lo‑fi, dreamlike slowcore and even a hint of Americana and blend it into a strange place where one isn’t certain of what is light and what is dark.
20 Ambient+ Studio Albums

In addition, referring back to ubiquitous compilation albums of the 1990s, one of the most significant events was ‘Ambient Dub Volumes 1‑4’ by various artists (1992‑1995) – A series of ambient dub compilation albums from Beyond Records that announced ambient dub to the world. The last of the four isn’t quite up to the first three but best seen as a whole. Another name check is for the annual ‘Pop Ambient’ compilations (2001‑) curated by Wolfgang Voigt, the man behind Kompakt Records and his nom de guerre GAS (see #5 above).


The future of ambient and ambient‑related music

The legacy of ambient music in all its facets has had a major impact on pretty much everything we listen to, even if we aren’t always aware of it. The question is, where is it going?

Ambient has exhibited somewhat of a resurgence in the early 2020s. Part of this renewed interest may be because of what is called multi‑sensory branding, where media events attempt to evoke memories through stimulation of all the senses. Another reason may be the rediscovery of obscure Japanese ambient music, as well as an interest in previously experimental, niche or underground music now garnering mainstream recognition. Streaming services make accessing unconventional music much easier. In addition, the growth of interest in mindfulness and mental health & wellbeing as a ‘cure’ for stress and anxiety caused by an increasingly frenetic and unpredictable world has reinforced the search for aids to relaxation, introspection and contemplation.

One thing we’ve learnt from this escapade is that ambient and ambient+ (or whatever else you want to call it) has been pushing the boundaries ever since the start of the 20th Century. If nothing else, it will continue to explore the outer limits while influencing the mainstream.

Probably the most significant tool in the future of ambient electronica won’t even involve human beings or actual instruments! AI will make significant inroads into generative music. Ultimately, though, this is likely to be a bit of a creative dead end. The drawback of AI is that it can only learn from what has come before it, it lacks the imagination and inventiveness of the human mind. At some point, AI generated ambient will become stale and derivative and human creativity will, once again be needed to bring spontaneity and unpredictability back to front and centre of music. Go People!

Given the inherent limitations of traditional musical instruments, electronic music may, arguably, have the greatest potential for innovation and creativity. One can only imagine the possibilities yet to be explored.

While many critics view electronica as soulless, cold and inert, it is sure to develop the ability to elicit more organic, fluid emotional responses. Many artists are looking backwards to analogue instruments and production techniques to add warmth and to create beauty out of its inherent imperfections.

Genre developments can only surprise once before they become part of the historical mosaic. One possible future is that ambient reaches a point where it becomes sterile and disposable. One might envisage it derided in the way that elevator muzak has become. Arguably, a proportion of current‑day throwaway popular music is already demonstrating that bleak possibility with anything new ultimately being short‑lived around the periphery before being subsumed into universal, amorphous homogeneity.

How we will be listening to music is another factor. If music becomes more clichéd, contrived and derivative, it will become more and more dismissible, fading into the background environment. However, isn’t that exactly what Erik Satie intentionally started with back in 1917?

For some, like the author, ambient resonates with the psyche on both a subconscious and conscious level. Others, meanwhile, may find the genre melancholic or even highly irritating. Ultimately, like all music preferences, it is partly a deliberate decision and partly predetermined in some obscure way.

Personally, I have confidence that people who appreciate ‘real’ music and have a passion for creating and performing it that will perpetuate this idiosyncratic form of music into a healthy future. Once again, discuss…


Tailpiece

So… there you have it. Another lengthy (apologies) delve into a relatively narrow niche of the wondrous world of music. Back to the real world, sadly. I cannot write about things that I don’t have some sort of fascination with. Having said that, these ambient+ genres are not exclusive listening. However, they can be just the ticket when one feels like some chillaxing, escaping from reality or as an antidote to insomnia.

Why do I dig ambient and electronic ambient+ music? It just resonates with me, It creates a welcoming oasis of contemplative calm away from a crazily intense ‘real’ world and it is somewhere to go that isn’t, well, here. Nothing profound, transcendent or conceited. See you in The Matrix soon.

I have no idea what’s up next, so it will come as much of a surprise to me as it will to you. Thoughts on a postcard please.

Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “If you could literally have the world, what, exactly, would you do with it?”

© 2023 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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October 2019 – The Story of Modern Music in 1,500+ Facts – Part VIII

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the 8th article in this particular magnum opus of modern music history. I hope by now, you know the way this works, so I won’t say much more, other than welcome to the 1980s. If not by the start of the ‘80s, at least by the end of the decade, most readers will likely have some experience of living through the many events documented here, although I cannot assume that to be the case. I hope you have some fond memories of the time – personally, I can’t believe how long ago it was, as it seems like almost yesterday to me.

As always, if you would like to (re)visit any or all of the first seven parts (and well over 375 years) of the story to‑date, you can do so here (each link opens a new browser tab):

Once again, although notably shorter than the last four articles, this month is dedicated to a single decade, if only to ensure that it is given sufficient focus.

The Story of Modern Music Part VIII 1980-1989

While arguably not quite hitting the heady heights of the previous three decades, the 1980s (or simply, ‘the eighties’) still had much to relate both about the human condition and musical variety. The 1980s were notable for many catchy, sing‑along‑able chart choons and the emergence of commercial pop videos, along with accompanying fashion trends. One personal observation is that, perhaps, there were the first real signs of divergence between what was happening culturally and the music being produced. Interdependence between society and its music were still there but, maybe, not quite as strongly intertwined as previously.

Historical Context 1980-1989

The 1980s were sometimes called the ‘greed decade’ or the ‘old school days’. There was a worldwide move away from planned economies and towards laissez‑faire capitalism, allied to a western post-industrial move to supply side economic policies. This shift had a destabilizing effect on international trade that led to many developing countries being faced by crippling debt crises. Following the 1970s’ oil crisis, crude oil was in over supply, resulting in a glut during the 1980s. The start of the 1980s saw widespread economic recession and damaging labour disputes that hit the less well‑off disproportionately hard. Downturn was followed by a period of rapid capitalist growth towards the end of the decade. Increased economic prosperity facilitated the ‘yuppie’ boom, epitomised by hot hatchback/sports cars, wine bars and early ‘brick’ mobile phones, accompanied by an insatiable appetite for designer fashion. Western society’s affluence further polarised the wealth divide between rich and poor. Fervent materialism and a status driven desire for exposure acted as a catalyst for the start of the vapid public fascination with the ‘celebrity’ phenomenon and subsequent emergence of banal reality TV ‘entertainment’. Fundamental industrial restructuring took place in the developed world that migrated many countries away from traditional manufacturing towards economies based on IT, finance, tourism and service sectors. A rapid growth in digital technology and consumerism began that would change how people would live, work and play forever, including the advent of the ‘information superhighway’ that we now call the Internet. During the 1980s, the world’s population grew at the fastest rate yet, causing heightened fears about unsustainable human expansion and its impact on the planet’s fragile ecosystem.

Year

Global Events

1980

The massively popular maze video game Pac-Man was released by Japanese software company Namco.

 

The bitter war between Middle East neighbours Iran and Iraq began, which would last until 1988.

 

American volcano Mount St. Helens in Washington State erupted violently killing 57 people and causing widespread damage.

 

Former actor and Republican politician Ronald Reagan was elected to become the 40th President of the U.S.A.

1981

American President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded by attempted assassin John Hinckley Jr. in Washington D.C.

 

An assassination attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II took place in Vatican City, when he was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca.

 

The IBM 5150 Personal Computer, commonly known as the IBM PC was introduced, soon establishing it as an industry standard.

 

American actress Jane Fonda published her hugely successful book, ‘Jane Fonda’s Workout’, which spawned multiple videos and an album.

 

NASA’s Space Shuttle programme began with the first launch of the Earth orbiter Columbia.

 

Heir to the British throne, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

 

The retrovirus that causes HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was identified. The life‑threatening condition spread rapidly, becoming a global public health threat and causing widespread hysteria.

1982

King Henry VIII’s Tudor warship and flagship of the British Navy, the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 during a battle against the French, was raised from the bed of the Solent off the south coast of England.

 

Britain defeated Argentina to regain control of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, following an unprompted Argentinian invasion and occupation.

1983

American telecommunications company Motorola introduced the first mobile telephones to North America.

 

The final episode of the Korean War‑set comedy drama ‘M*A*S*H’ was broadcast, achieving the record for most watched television episode to‑date.

1984

English policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot and killed by an unknown gunman in the Libyan Embassy in London, prompting an 11‑day siege of the embassy resulting in Libyan citizens being expelled and diplomatic relations between the UK and Libya being severed.

 

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, at her residence in New Delhi.

 

American network TV aired the first episodes of crime drama series Miami Vice, produced by Michael Mann for NBC. It was notable for its ground breaking amalgamation of music and visuals. The show ran until 1989.

1985

Politician Mikhail Gorbachev became Russian Premiere and began leading major political and social reform across the USSR.

 

Technology company, Microsoft released the first version of its PC‑based Windows operating system.

 

Acclaimed American screenwriter, director and producer John Hughes released, ‘The Breakfast Club’, followed up a year later by ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and ‘Pretty In Pink’.

 

The shipwreck of the ocean liner RMS Titanic was discovered in the North Atlantic Ocean, 73 years after it sank in 1912 following a collision with an iceberg.

1986

The American Space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

 

The nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Russia suffered a catastrophic meltdown, causing global pollution and resulting in devastating radioactive environmental damage.

 

The Soviet Union’s Mir project became the first modular manned space station in low Earth orbit. It was used predominantly as a scientific research laboratory. Mir broke up on re‑entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2001.

1987

The animated American family comedy, The Simpsons, first appeared on American television as a series of shorts.

 

The film ‘Wall Street’ was released, typifying the zeitgeist of the 1980s and its ‘greed is good’ power of money mentality, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen.

 

The antidepressant medication Fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac, was approved for use in the U.S.A.

1988

A Pan-Am 747 airliner exploded as a result of a Libyan terrorist bomb, which caused the plane to crash into the village of Lockerbie in Scotland, killing a total of 270 people.

1989

Republican politician George H.W. Bush became the 41st President of the U.S.A.

 

The pro‑democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing was brutally crushed by Communist Chinese authorities, resulting in many deaths and widespread international criticism over the state’s human rights violations.

 

Russian military forces pulled out of Afghanistan 10 years after invading the country.

 

Significant environmental pollution occurred when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (37,000 metric tonnes) of crude oil into the coastal waters.

 

The Berlin Wall in Germany, built in 1961 to divide the city and prevent movement between east and west, was demolished, marking massive political change in Europe, including in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Rumania.

 

British computer scientist and engineer, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, now known as the Internet, while he was employed at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, Switzerland.

Musical Genre Development 1980-1989

After the creative revolutions of the 1950s (rock ‘n’ roll), 1960s (rock and pop) and the 1970s (heavy metal, punk, reggae, disco, rap), the 1980s was largely a decade of reflection, consolidation, cross‑fertilisation and diversification. In short, quite a lot happened but, conversely, there was not a lot that was genuinely new in musical genre subversion. Pop was, erm, as popular as ever with artists such as Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, New Kids on the Block, Wham!, New Edition and Kylie Minogue.

Punk rock’s implosion left a vacuum that needed to be filled and the answer came in post‑punk diversity at the beginning of the 1980s. New wave is associated with the birth of MTV and the music video phase and was seen as a more commercial sub‑genre of post‑punk performed by artists such as Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, The Cars, The Police, Jam, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Ian Dury, Adam & The Ants, New Model Army, The Fall, Echo & The Bunnymen, and the Pretenders. Also deriving from post‑punk and encompassing a number of different styles was the new romantic sub‑genre heavily influenced by glam rock from the early 1970s, as exemplified by bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Visage, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins and Eurythmics. Synth pop also came and went in the post‑punk period of the early‑mid 1980s with electronica‑driven artists like Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Japan, Human League, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) and Ultravox. These highly produced music fads dominated the charts before beginning to decline by the mid‑1980s, followed by a revival of guitar‑driven music, often harking back to previous decades.

World and new age music became popular during the 1980s after being heavily promoted by record companies, even though neither has its roots in the decade. World music (not to be confused with third world music) isn’t really a genre but rather a broad marketing categorisation for a very wide and diverse range of traditional and contemporary music from around the globe including western music that doesn’t fall easily within more clearly defined genres. It also covers music that fuses ethnic influences from other genres to create something different. The umbrella term may also be used to promote niche music that was potentially under threat from music’s big business. Since 1987, World Music Day has become an annual celebration of the global music scene. Two of the leading artists associated with world music are African bands Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Savuka. Western artists such as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel have embraced world music, fusing it with their own material. New age music is another loose marketing category for music that aims to promote positive mental wellbeing, spirituality and meditation. It is also used to complement physical activities such as yoga and massage. It has also been used to enhance inspiration and to manage stress. New age music is often acoustic or electronic and predominantly ambient (i.e. not having an obvious beat, rhythm or structure), regularly instrumental and minimalist or comprising recorded sound effects from nature. Popular western new age artists include Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield, Klaus Schulze, Enya, Enigma and Clannad. Both world and new age music have influenced numerous subsequent musical ventures and projects.

Other established genres experienced revivals during the 1980s. For instance, hip hop’s ‘golden era’ spawned a plethora of artists, including LL Cool J, Run–D.M.C., Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. Jazz also made a concerted comeback of sorts starting in the ‘70s and continuing into the ‘80s with jazz/rock fusion artists like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Pat Metheny. Partly driven by MTV and ubiquitous pop videos, the 1980s saw the rise of success of mega­‑pop stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lionel Ritchie, Billy Joel, Prince and Whitney Houston. Heavy metal saw a 1980s resurgence that lasted well into the 1990s including artists like, Pantera, Queensrÿche, Extreme, Marilyn Manson and Danzig, while Iron Maiden led the charge of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) genre along with Def Leppard and Judas Priest. Nu‑metal pioneers began to appear at the very end of the decade including, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Staind and Linkin Park.

Musical Facts 1980-1989

Day

Month

Year

Music Fact

3

January

1980

American lo-fi indie/rock singer, songwriter, guitarist, former member of indie rock band The War On Drugs and successful solo artist, Kurt Vile was born in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.

26

January

1980

American guitarist, singer and songwriter Prince made his first U.S. television appearance on the show ‘American Bandstand’.

19

February

1980

Scottish singer with Australian hard rock band AC/DC, Bon Scott died from acute alcohol poisoning in a friend’s car in London at the age of 33.

14

March

1980

Renowned American music producer Quincy Jones received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street.

14

April

1980

English heavy metal rock band, Iron Maiden released their storming debut studio album, the self-titled ‘Iron Maiden’ in the UK.

22

April

1980

English indie rock icons, The Cure released their 2nd studio album, ‘Seventeen Seconds’ in the UK.

23

April

1980

English heavy metal band Judas Priest released their classic 6th studio album, ‘British Steel’.

2

May

1980

English alternative post-punk rock band Joy Division played their final live gig with singer Ian Curtis, two weeks before he committed suicide.

18

May

1980

English singer, songwriter and driving force behind post‑punk rock band Joy Division, Ian Curtis was found hanged at this home in Macclesfield, Cheshire at the age of 23.

7

July

1980

English hard rock band Led Zeppelin played their final live concert with John Bonham as drummer in Berlin, Germany.

10

July

1980

Jamaican reggae giants, Bob Marley & The Wailers released their final studio album before Marley’s untimely death, ‘Uprising’.

18

July

1980

English post-punk rock band Joy Division released their classic sophomore studio album, ‘Closer’.

25

July

1980

Australian heavy rock band, AC/DC, released their career-redefining 7th studio album, ‘Back In Black’.

12

September

1980

English rock singer and songwriter David Bowie released his standout studio album, ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ in the UK.

20

September

1980

English heavy metal singer and ex-member of Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne released his debut solo studio album, ‘Blizzard Of Ozz’ in the UK.

23

September

1980

Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley made his final live concert performance in Pennsylvania, USA, during which he collapsed on stage.

25

September

1980

English drummer with rock band Led Zeppelin, John Bonham, died tragically of alcohol-induced asphyxia in Clewer, Berkshire at the age of 32.

3

October

1980

English post-punk rock band The Police released their 3rd studio album, ‘Zenyattà Mondatta’ in the UK.

8

October

1980

American alternative rock band Talking Heads released their exceptional career-best studio album produced by Brian Eno, ‘Remain In Light’.

10

October

1980

American singer, songwriter and guitarist Bruce Springsteen released his 5th studio album, ‘The River’.

20

October

1980

Emerging Irish rock band, U2 released their debut studio album, ‘Boy’, to critical acclaim in the UK.

8

November

1980

English rock band Motörhead, released their massive 5th studio album, ‘Ace Of Spades’ in the UK.

8

December

1980

English former member of The Beatles, John Lennon was murdered by gunman Mark Chapman outside the Dakota hotel in New York City at the age of 40.

12

December

1980

English punk rock band, The Clash released their follow up to the epic ‘London Calling’ with their even more ambitious 4th studio triple album, ‘Sandinista!’.

15

December

1980

English guitarist, singer and songwriter with rock band Kasabian, Sergio Pizzorno was born in Newton Abbot, Devon.

16

January

1981

American guitarist, singer, songwriter and founding member of indie/alternative rock band The Strokes, Nick Valensi was born in New York City.

2

February

1981

English heavy metal rock band, Iron Maiden released their sophomore studio album, ‘Killers’ in the UK.

9

February

1981

American Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneer, Bill Haley, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour, died at his home in Harlingen, Texas at the age of 55.

15

February

1981

American blues/rock guitarist Mike Bloomfield died from an accidental drug overdose and was found in his car in San Francisco, California at the age of 37.

4

April

1981

UK pop group Bucks Fizz won the 26th Eurovision Song Contest with, ‘Making Your Mind Up’.

14

April

1981

Legendary English indie rock band, The Cure released their classic 3rd studio album, ‘Faith’ in the UK.

11

May

1981

Jamaican reggae singer, songwriter and guitarist, Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley died from cancer in Miami, Florida at the age of 36.

21

May

1981

Rastafarian reggae legend Bob Marley received a state funeral in his home town of Kingston, Jamaica.

6

June

1981

The very first issue of weekly heavy metal music magazine ‘KERRANG!’ was published, featuring AC/DC on the front cover.

1

August

1981

Revolutionary 24 hour music video channel, MTV (Music Television), broadcast for the very first time in the USA at 12:01am Eastern Time, introduced by creator John Lack with, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll”

8

October

1981

English post-punk rock band Joy Division released their 3rd and final studio album, ‘Still’.

7

November

1981

English singer and former member of heavy metal rock band Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne released his sophomore solo studio album, ‘Diary of a Madman’.

30

January

1982

Legendary American country blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Sam ‘Lightnin’’ Hopkins died from cancer in Houston, Texas at the age of 69.

14

March

1982

American thrash metal band, Metallica performed their debut live concert at Radio City, Anaheim, California, taglined, ‘Metalus Maximus’.

19

March

1982

American heavy metal guitarist Randy Rhoads, best known as member of Ozzy Osbourne’s band died tragically in a plane crash in Leesburg, Florida at the age of 25.

22

March

1982

English heavy metal rock band, Iron Maiden released their 3rd studio album, ‘The Number Of The Beast’ in the UK.

3

May

1982

English indie rock icons, The Cure released their dark and brooding masterpiece 4th studio album, ‘Pornography’ in the UK.

6

May

1982

American singer and actress, Diana Ross received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.

14

May

1982

English punk rock legends, The Clash released their 5th and penultimate studio album, ‘Combat Rock’ in the UK.

16

June

1982

English guitarist, songwriter and founding member of The Pretenders, James Honeyman-Scott died of drug‑related heart failure in London at the age of 25.

14

July

1982

English heavy metal rock band Judas Priest released their classic 8th studio album, ‘Screaming for Vengeance’.

17

August

1982

Company executives from Philips, Sony and Polygram announced the pressing of the first commercial digital Compact Disc (CD).

20

September

1982

American singer, songwriter and guitarist Bruce Springsteen released his 6th studio album, the often‑overlooked haunting and elegiac, ‘Nebraska’.

1

October

1982

Technology giant, Sony released the first ever digital Compact Disc (CD) player, the CDP-101, to the eager public in Japan.

27

October

1982

Legendary American singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, Prince, released his top-selling 5th studio album, ‘1999’.

5

November

1982

UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 aired its edgy music and lifestyle programme, ‘The Tube’ for the first time. Presenters included Jools Holland and the late Paula Yates. The show ran for 5 series until April 1987.

30

November

1982

American singer, Michael Jackson released his career‑defining mega‑hit 6th studio album, ‘Thriller’. It is estimated that sales have well‑exceeded 50 million copies worldwide.

11

December

1982

English punk rock and mod revival band, The Jam played their final live concert in Brighton, UK before splitting up for good.

29

December

1982

The Jamaican Post Office released a set of postage stamps commemorating the life and music of reggae legend Bob Marley.

18

January

1983

English guitarist, singer and member of indie pop duo The Ting Tings, Katie White was born in Lowton, Greater Mancester.

28

February

1983

Irish mega-rock band U2 released their highly acclaimed chart-topping gold 3rd studio album, ‘War’.

2

March

1983

The digital Compact Disc (CD) was launched in Europe and America by Philips, Sony and Polygram, 7 months after it had debuted in Japan.

23

March

1983

American Texas blues/rock giants ZZ Top released their massive 7th studio album, the classic, ‘Eliminator’.

14

April

1983

English rock singer David Bowie released his 15th and perhaps most commercial studio album, the great Nile Rodgers‑produced, ‘Let’s Dance’.

30

April

1983

Renowned American Chicago blues guitarist, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) died from a heart attack at his home in Westmont, Illinois at the age of 70.

16

May

1983

Pioneering English heavy metal rock band Iron Maiden released their massively successful 4th studio album, ‘Piece Of Mind’.

23

May

1983

Jamaican reggae legends Bob Marley & The Wailers released their studio album, ‘Confrontation’ posthumously, after Bob Marley’s death in 1981.

12

June

1983

Influential American blues slide guitarist and singer J.B. Hutto died from cancer in Harvey, Illinois at the age of 57.

13

June

1983

Emerging American blues/rock guitarist and singer, Stevie Ray Vaughan with his band Double Trouble released their debut studio album, ‘Texas Flood’.

25

July

1983

Up-and-coming American thrash metal band Metallica released their standout debut studio album, ‘Kill ‘Em All’.

20

October

1983

American country music guitarist Merle Travis died of a heart attack at his home in Tahlequah, Oklahoma at the age of 65.

10

November

1983

English singer, songwriter and one-time member of punk rock band Generation X, Billy Idol released his highly popular 2nd studio album, ‘Rebel Yell’.

15

November

1983

English singer and former member of heavy metal rock band Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne released his 3rd solo studio album, ‘Bark At The Moon’ in the UK.

2

December

1983

Music television channel MTV aired the full 14-minute pop video to Michael Jackson’s massive hit single, ‘Thriller’ for the first time.

1

January

1984

Widely regarded as the founding father of British Blues, guitarist and broadcaster Alexis Korner died of lung cancer in London at the age of 55.

21

January

1984

American rock band Bon Jovi released their debut studio album, the self-titled ‘Bon Jovi’ in the U.S.

1

April

1984

American soul singer Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father in Los Angeles, California at the age of 44.

26

April

1984

Eleven years after the famous original Cavern Club in Liverpool, UK was demolished in 1973, it was rebuilt and the new venue opened its doors.

4

May

1984

The classic music rock/mock/documentary film about the experiences of an English rock band, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, directed by Rob Reiner, was released in the UK.

15

May

1984

American blues rock guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan with his band Double Trouble released their 2nd studio album, ‘Couldn’t Stand the Weather’.

19

May

1984

American southern rock band ZZ Top released their hit single, ‘Legs’ with the B-Side ‘Bad Girl’, both from their career‑defining album, ‘Eliminator’.

21

May

1984

Emerging indie rock band, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their impressive debut album, ‘From Her to Eternity’.

4

June

1984

American singer, songwriter and guitarist Bruce Springsteen released his massive 7th studio album, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’.

14

June

1984

American country singer Dolly Parton received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.

25

June

1984

Legendary flamboyant American musician Prince released the massive original soundtrack album for the film, ‘Purple Rain’.

30

July

1984

American thrash metal rock band Metallica released their sophomore studio album, ‘Ride The Lightning’.

3

September

1984

English heavy metal rock band Iron Maiden released their classic 5th studio album, ‘Powerslave’ in the UK.

16

September

1984

Talented Georgian/British singer, songwriter and guitarist Katie Melua was born in Kutaisi, Georgia.

24

September

1984

English electronic/alternative rock band Depeche Mode released their 4th studio album, ‘Some Great Reward’ in the UK.

27

September

1984

Canadian pop-punk singer, songwriter and guitarist, Avril Lavigne was born in Ontario.

1

October

1984

Irish rock band U2 released their classic 4th studio album, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ in the UK.

20

November

1984

American pop singer, Michael Jackson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard.

3

December

1984

Assembled super group Band Aid released their massive Christmas charity single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in response to the famine in Ethiopia.

15

December

1984

Charity super group, Band Aid entered the UK singles chart at number 1 with their song, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ in aid of Ethiopian famine victims.

22

January

1985

Australian guitarist, famous for working with Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson, Orianthi Panagaris was born in Adelaide, South Australia.

13

May

1985

English rock band Dire Straits released their massive hit 5th studio album, ‘Brothers In Arms’.

4

June

1985

American guitarist with heavy rock band Black Stone Cherry, Chris Robertson was born in Kentucky.

29

June

1985

English rock singers David Bowie and Mick Jagger recorded their version of the classic Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ soul hit, ‘Dancing In The Street’ in support of the Live Aid charity.

13

July

1985

Two Live Aid fundraising concerts took place in London and Philadelphia to benefit the plight of Ethiopian famine victims.

30

September

1985

American blues/rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan with his band Double Trouble released their 3rd studio album, ‘Soul to Soul’.

9

October

1985

Japanese artist Yoko Ono dedicated the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York City’s Central Park to her late husband, John Lennon on what would have been his 45th birthday.

28

October

1985

American Texas blues/rock trio, ZZ Top released their 9th studio album, ‘Afterburner’, the follow up to their massive 1983 hit, ‘Eliminator’.

30

October

1985

American thrash metal masters Anthrax released their career classic 2nd studio album, ‘Spreading The Disease’.

4

January

1986

Irish bass guitarist with rock band Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott died of complications due to septicaemia in Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK, at the age of 36.

6

January

1986

English singer, songwriter and guitarist of indie/rock bands Arctic Monkeys and The Last Shadow Puppets, Alex Turner was born in Sheffield.

3

March

1986

American heavy metal band Metallica released their 3rd studio album, the last with Cliff Burton playing bass guitar in the line-up, ‘Master Of Puppets’.

14

March

1986

The classic film inspired by the mythology surrounding blues guitarist Robert Johnson, directed by Walter Hill, ‘Crossroads’ was released in the USA.

17

March

1986

English electronic/alternative rock band Depeche Mode released their 5th studio album, ‘Black Celebration’ in the UK.

19

May

1986

English singer, songwriter and former member of progressive rock band Genesis, Peter Gabriel released his commercially successful 5th solo studio album, ‘So’.

20

July

1986

The feature film ‘Sid And Nancy’ focusing on the tragic lives of Sex Pistols’ bass guitarist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen premiered in London. The film was directed by Alex Cox and starred Gary Oldman.

25

August

1986

American singer and songwriter Paul Simon released his classic 7th solo studio album, ‘Graceland’.

28

August

1986

American pop singer, Tina Turner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 North Vine Street.

27

September

1986

American bass guitarist and songwriter with thrash metal rock band Metallica, Cliff Burton was tragically killed in a tour coach crash in Dörarp, Sweden at the age of 24.

29

September

1986

English heavy metal band Iron Maiden released their 6th studio album, ‘Somewhere In Time’ in the UK.

7

October

1986

American thrash metal band Slayer released their huge genre classic 3rd studio album, ‘Reign In Blood’.

15

November

1986

American hip-hop group from NYC, Beastie Boys, released their debut studio album, ‘Licensed To Ill’, including their massive hit single, ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)’.

2

December

1986

Supremely talented Australian bass guitarist and singer, Tal Wilkenfeld was born in Sydney.

21

January

1987

American soul legend Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

22

February

1987

American pop artist and manager of experimental rock band Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol died following gall bladder surgery in New York at the age of 58.

9

March

1987

Irish rock band U2 released their 5th studio album, the massive ‘The Joshua Tree’ in the UK.

22

March

1987

American thrash metal masters Anthrax released their career classic 3rd studio album, ‘Among The Living’.

30

March

1987

Diminutive American singer, songwriter and guitarist Prince released his ambitious, epic change of direction 9th studio album, ‘Sign ☮ The Times’.

2

April

1987

Highly acclaimed American jazz drummer Buddy Rich died from respiratory and heart failure following treatment for a brain tumour in Los Angeles, California at the age of 69.

5

May

1987

English indie rock icons The Cure released their lip‑smacking 7th studio double album, ‘Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’ in the UK.

2

June

1987

Virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia died from a heart attack in Madrid at the age of 94.

14

July

1987

American rock group The Steve Miller Band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street.

21

July

1987

American hard rock band, Guns N’ Roses released their storming debut studio album, ‘Appetite For Destruction’.

3

August

1987

English heavy metal rock band Def Leppard released their best-selling classic 4th studio album, ‘Hysteria’.

25

August

1987

American singer and songwriter Michael Jackson released his 7th solo studio album, ‘Bad’, as a follow up to his massive 1982 LP, ‘Thriller’.

11

September

1987

Jamaican reggae artist Peter Tosh was shot dead along with two others by a gang of three armed robbers at his home in Kingston, Jamaica at the age of 42.

12

September

1987

English alternative rock singer and songwriter Morrissey left his band, The Smiths to pursue a successful solo music career.

21

September

1987

American bass guitarist and member of jazz fusion band Weather Report from 1976-1981, the inimitable Jaco Pastorius died from injuries following an altercation at a club in Wilton Manors, Florida at the age of 35.

28

September

1987

English electronic/alternative rock band Depeche Mode released their 6th studio album, ‘Music For The Masses’ in the UK.

8

October

1987

Legendary American rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Chuck Berry received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1777 North Vine Street.

15

October

1987

American virtuoso instrumental rock guitarist Joe Satriani released his classic 2nd studio album, ‘Surfing With The Alien’.

1

December

1987

Puerto Rican guitarist and singer, Jose Feliciano received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard.

31

December

1987

After 17 years and 445 episodes, British TV broadcaster, the BBC aired the final edition of contemporary music show, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’.

20

January

1988

Legendary English pop/rock band The Beatles were inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

11

April

1988

English heavy metal band Iron Maiden released their 7th studio album, ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’.

5

May

1988

Highly successful English singer and songwriter Adele MBE was born in London.

5

July

1988

American thrash metal rock band, Slayer, released their mega hit 4th studio album, ‘South Of Heaven’.

14

August

1988

American blues/rock guitarist Roy Buchanan was found hanged (a disputed suicide) in a jail cell after he was arrested for public intoxication in Fairfax, Virginia at the age of 48.

25

August

1988

American heavy metal rock band Metallica released their classic 4th studio album, ‘… And Justice For All’.

19

September

1988

Alternative rock band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their highly acclaimed 5th studio album, ‘Tender Prey’.

30

September

1988

English former member of The Beatles, John Lennon received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street.

10

October

1988

Irish rock band U2 released their classic 6th studio album (and complementary ‘rockumentary’ film), ‘Rattle and Hum’ in the UK.

18

October

1988

American alternative rock band Sonic Youth released their landmark 6th studio album, ‘Daydream Nation’.

19

October

1988

Legendary American delta blues guitarist and singer, Son House died of cancer of the larynx in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 86.

6

December

1988

American singer, songwriter and musician, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in Hendersonville, Tennessee at the age of 52.

18

January

1989

Music greats, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Otis Redding and others were inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2

May

1989

English indie rock group The Stone Roses released their eponymous debut studio album, ‘The Stone Roses’.

2

May

1989

English indie rock icons, The Cure released their near‑perfect career-defining 8th studio album, ‘Disintegration’ in the UK.

29

May

1989

American guitarist, John Cipollina of rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service died of alpha‑1 antitrypsin deficiency in San Francisco at the age of 45.

1

June

1989

Underground American grunge band, Nirvana released their debut studio album, ‘Bleach’ to an unsuspecting public.

6

June

1989

Legendary American blues/rock guitarist and singer, Stevie Ray Vaughan with his band Double Trouble released their 4th and final studio album before SRV’s tragic death, ‘In Step’.

15

July

1989

English progressive rock band Pink Floyd performed a live concert on a floating stage at Venice, Italy, watched by over 200,000 people.

25

July

1989

American rap rock band, Beastie Boys released their classic sophomore studio album, ‘Paul’s Boutique’.

12

September

1989

English virtuoso instrumental rock guitarist Jeff Beck released his impressive 6th studio album ‘Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop’ in the UK.

26

November

1989

British pop/rock band, Squeeze performed in concert for the very first broadcast of ‘MTV Unplugged’ in the US.

13

December

1989

One of the best‑selling artists of all time, American country/pop singer and songwriter Taylor Swift was born in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Tailpiece

Well that’s the eighties for you in a (sizeable) nutshell. We are now getting much closer to the end of the story (at least as far as I am able to document it) and the new millennium beckons tantalisingly out of reach. However, before that, we will fill in the gap with the 1990s next month. Will it be a Brave New World or just more of the same? To discover the facts behind the memories, please return here next month for some more manic music history. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Never trust your memories but cherish the good ones regardless”

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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October 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VIII

Welcome to what is, for now at least, the final part in this series of articles on the history of the world’s most popular musical instrument.

If you wish to recap on any or all of the previous seven posts before starting with this one, the whole ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

Having pretty much reached the present day, all that remains is to summarise where we are now and to take a somewhat flippant and imaginative look ahead. The ‘current day’ is a tricky subject, as ‘now’ is at best ephemeral. The future, on the other hand, can only ever be guesswork, even if it can be informed by the past. Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to help to create it, so that means that what happens to the next chapter of the guitar is in our hands. Can we be trusted to behave as responsible guardians of the guitar’s destiny? As Mahatma Gandhi (1869‑1948) said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”. This suggests that what will happen is not predetermined and individually or collectively, we can take action to shape the future.

There are not many images again supporting this article so, apologies to those who like pictures to speak a thousand words. Anyway, without further ado, on with the last part of the chronicle…

The guitar has come a very long way in the last 3,500 years or a road slightly less travelled in the preceding 350 years depending on whose version of the facts you want to believe. The story has finally reached that pivotal moment that lies between the past, which is, on the whole, pretty well documented and the future, which of course isn’t. There is much to be played for and the stakes are certainly high.

It is hopefully of little surprise that the future of the acoustic and electric guitar, as well as all its derivatives and distant relations, is probably well‑assured, at least for the foreseeable future. Whether it survives in the (very) long term or not, the world’s favourite musical instrument is undeniably going to be a hard act to follow, let alone surpass.

As with many industrial and technological revolutions, predictions have proved variable in terms of accuracy. As time passes, change tends to accelerate in both pace and scope. While progress may be inexorable, there is an unseen ‘force’ that tends to counteract unbridled advances and which acts as a bit of a restraint. That set of reins is the very human tendency to hold onto what is familiar while resisting change until it is either inescapable or desirable. This natural ‘drag’ effect has laid waste to many grand ideas and great inventions. Numerous well‑marketed ‘next big things’ have fallen at the hurdle of persuading the general public to take up something new or unfamiliar, especially if one’s respected peers haven’t bitten the bullet of early adoption either. Mankind’s flawed history is littered with countless failed marvels. This phenomenon isn’t, I hasten to add, just a trait of idiosyncratic musicians; it appears to be a fundamental characteristic of the human condition.

Anyway, as usual, I digress. It is time to get back to the point which is basically that whatever you read from here on has absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact and is highly likely to be extremely wrong! My consolation is that few people will regard it as portent or look back to judge its accuracy in a century’s time. There is nothing genuinely prescient here in the vein of Da Vinci or Nostradamus. Apologies if you were hoping for more in the way of a profound visionary insight. Unfortunately, my stock of that ran out last week.

General indicators of change

It is fair to suggest that popular music is often representative of, and in turn is dependent on, broader social, cultural and political movements, and guitars follow in their footsteps. Whether we like it or not, music is integral to our everyday lives, so it is not surprising that it is also inherently powerfully evocative. As a result, it can dramatically affect the way we identify with past events.

One of the key factors that drove guitar evolution has been the trends in popular music, so perhaps musical trends may provide a much generalised hint at parallel guitar developments. Let’s start by considering the (very simplistic) genre movements and the types of instrument used over the last century.  Starting with the post‑classical era, there was jazz (Gibson archtops) and blues (National & Dobro resonators) in the 1930s and 1940s, country and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s (Gretsch & Gibson hollowbodies), pop and rock in the 1960s (Fenders and Rickenbackers), progressive and heavy metal (Gibson solid bodies) and then punk (pawn shop guitars) and hair metal (pointy super Strats) in the 1970s. Then we get to the guitar doldrums of electronica, new age and rap in the 1980s, followed by revitalised guitar music of alternative, grunge in the 1990s, and indie (retro guitars) nu‑metal (PRS) and dance in the 2000s, etc. I struggle to think of a musical genre that so far defines the 2010s or perhaps many distinctive guitars to go with them. So there is some kind of link going on here. Google has attempted to map the progression of musical genres from 1950 to the current day (take from it what you will).

The type of guitars de jour used by famous musicians, including artist associations, during these epochs often reflected the style of contemporary music they played and these have largely been well covered in previous parts of the story. Just think of Chet Atkins with his Gretsch 6120, Buddy Holly with his Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster, The Beatles with their Rickenbacker 300s, or Jimmy Page with his Gibson Les Paul Standard and EDS-1275 double neck. The various interconnections are manifold and too many to mention here, and many have been captured in photographs to become iconic in the annals of rock history.

Cinema and television music regularly use key songs to catapult us back in space and time without the need for narrative exposition to describe what’s happening. Just think about classic movies such as American Graffiti, Stand By Me, Almost Famous, Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club or 8 Mile among many, many others. Those random examples don’t include the numerous biopics (e.g. Sid & Nancy, Walk The Line, The Doors) and musicals (e.g. West Side Story, Grease) or original scores (e.g. Paris Texas) that use familiar, memorable and/or popular music to transport us to another ‘reality’. Then there are the one‑offs like the mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. TV programmes also picked up the strategy for domestic viewing since the 1960s and often featured manufactured artists such as The Monkees or The Archies. The lists of relevant examples are endless. Music is used to draw the viewer into the director’s vision of a certain bygone era. Many of the sound tracks of our lives rely heavily on evocative (guitar) music to manipulate us emotionally and, more importantly, intentionally.

The way that environmental factors affect local communities may spark a genre direction that is then promulgated more widely. For example, one could point to the rise of electric blues in Chicago, soul in Detroit, Mersey beat in Liverpool, punk in New York and London, rap in Los Angeles/Philadelphia, or grunge in Seattle, etc. What we cannot predict is what or where any future musical revolutions (if any) may emerge, from where, and what step‑change responses guitar builders may then make.

As with many other aspects of our 21st Century lives, the nature of music, how it is made, distributed and accessed suggests that anything genuinely ‘new’ will find it much harder to stand out from the mainstream. What is already there will continue in some form and anything new will simply be added to it, often at the margins of existing genres, hence the proliferation of sub‑genres, e.g. thrash or nu-metal in rock; house and techno in dance; raga and dancehall in reggae; dubstep and grime in urban music, etc. One only has to compare and contrast the mind boggling varieties of heavy metal music and then consider how they continuously diverge, converge and cross‑fertilise in order to keep it fresh and vibrant.

While some technological change may be more predictable, social change and the music that characterises it is certainly more unpredictable. When one looks at something as specific and tangible as the guitar, it becomes increasingly risky to anticipate with any certainty what change may occur over an extended period of time, say the next century or so.

One view is that we are powerless and don’t need to think about it, as what will be, will be. Another is that we wait passively and be subject to what transpires with little or no influence over it. A third way may be not to accept the status quo and take positive action to stimulate change, which can happen in oddly random ways. Being of an opinionated sort, I tend to fall into the latter camp. Apologies, that probably actually doesn’t help much!

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the guitar’s supremacy is likely to lie in the digital revolution that really started to make an impression in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the reason for the guitar’s seemingly unassailable success has been that it is a hugely expressive and flexible instrument, which actually makes its nuances extremely difficult to replicate in a world constructed entirely of binary 0s and 1s. We shall see whether digital advances can fully overcome the difficulties in recreating the subtleties provided by a very analogue instrument in the hands of discriminating (and generally quite conservative) musicians.

The evidence so far suggests that digital is making ever increasing inroads into the analogue guitar’s dominance and the discernible gap between analogue and digital output is decreasing all the time. How long will it be before even the most ardent luddites finally admit that they can’t really tell the difference (despite what they may say outwardly)? However, it isn’t just the sound of guitars that appeals to guitarists; it is also the feel and the look of them that matters, as well as how they allow musicians to communicate with each other in unspoken ways.

New generations of guitarists, however, may be looking for something very different from their predecessors.  What form will ‘the shape of things to come’ take? Will it be all hyper‑modernistic and crammed with tech and flashing lights and built from materials we cannot yet imagine, or will it be the same old bits of tree wood crafted into the familiar shapes of Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precisions, Les Pauls, ES‑335s and SGs that we covet today? Only time will tell how things pan out and it will be for future authors to use the convenient assistance of hindsight to determine and document what path the history of the guitar takes from here on.

Looking and learning from the past, one might simply extrapolate forward. Future guitarists may well be like their ancestors and pragmatically seek to mix the best of the past with the best of what’s to come, regardless of whether it is analogue or digital. My personal prediction is a typically ambiguous ‘sit on the fence’ one, in that guitars will probably become increasingly hybrid if they are to keep ahead of other comparable instruments. Let’s face it, there are not really any threats` to the guitar’s dominant popularity at the time of writing and it has always been a continuously evolving instrument, so it would be of little surprise if this were to continue. While the 1980’s temporary trend for synth and electronica attempted to eradicate guitar music in the minds of popular listeners, the guitar has proved very resilient and difficult to displace.

Since the 1970s, the guitar has been used to trigger digital electronics. However, while both signal tracking and polyphony still present problems, these barriers are gradually being overcome. There have been several attempts to introduce effective guitar synths over the years but they have really been analogue or digital filters activated by either an ordinary guitar pickup or by discrete signals from a hexaphonic pickup. Hex pickups, which output a separate signal for each string, were often added to an existing guitar and used to transform it into a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller while still able to be used as an ordinary guitar. MIDI was a standard specification published in August 1983 by Japanese electronics giant Roland and American synthesizer company Sequential Circuits, and is commonly used to control electronic audio equipment. While attempting to revolutionise guitar music, Roland’s excursions into guitar synths since the 1980s have still relied on a standard guitar as its starting point.

Other Japanese companies specialising in electronics have also experimented with MIDI control of external synthesis engines, for instance guitars from Casio (DG20) and Yamaha (EZ-EG). It seems incredible to think that these early electronic instruments are now being considered as ‘vintage’. Today, there are now plenty of guitars on the market with MIDI capability built in. Technology has moved on and the fundamental concepts of a digital source are now ripe for being reinvestigation and improvement.

Other pioneering companies such as Line 6, now owned by another Japanese giant Yamaha, introduced their ground breaking digital modelling preamp (the Pod) and digital modelling guitar (the Variax) to indicate the direction in which development might go. Line 6’s philosophy inspired and influenced subsequent successful products such as the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX. Computer control of complex parameters, presets, firmware and downloads are commonplace for amps and effects in the 2010s and we can certainly expect this trend not only to become de facto but also to become a requirement in the near future, so a laptop at live gigs is already almost a necessity to keep your rig running smoothly – not a comfort zone for many analogue technophobe musos.

Guitar making cannot stand still and neither should it. Even the companies with a century or more of history, such as Gibson, Gretsch and Martin, have to keep moving forward or risk being overtaken. However, the tightrope of appealing to customers who appreciate the heritage is also key to the future success of long‑established manufacturers. Newer, smaller companies, though, are not constrained by the time capsule factor.

It is probably safe to say that the future is likely to be a practical symbiosis of both the familiar to satisfy the conservative traditionalists and the whizzy new gizmos to appeal to the technologically savvy experimentalists and neophytes… just as it always has been if fact. Even Gibson has been toying with the addition of digital features into its guitars, including the Les Paul HD.6X Pro and the Firebird X models. Intriguingly, Fender and other major brands have yet to declare their hands. It will be the fine balance between the opposing forces that will enable lasting incremental change, via ‘chimera’ guitars, rather than a number of fundamental radical shifts. That eventuality could prove a bit boring though, don’t you think? However, sadly, it also seems to mirror the way that modern popular music is going as well?

Leaps of unadulterated conjecture:

This next section is pure fantasy and should not be relied on as authentic in any way. It came from an idea that it can sometimes be fun to imagine what things might be like in some near or distant future. One hopes, though, that what follows doesn’t come to represent some form of self‑fulfilling prophecy.

It may be that the guitar itself could become superseded by something completely different from what musicians (rather than video game players) use today. Could it be possible that something along the lines of the PlayStation ‘Guitar Hero’ controller may someday make inroads into real instruments to create real music? I would anticipate that the majority of guitarists would sincerely hope not.

There are already some very modernistic looking instruments out there, such as the HTG Hyper Touch and the Misa Kitara (note the use of the Greek name kitara from Part I of this long story). Are these all‑electronic ‘guitars’ the sorts of instruments that will replace our beloved classic designs and become de rigeur in the near future? Alternatively, perhaps the electric guitar could somehow morph into some form of fully digital instrument via the route of hybridisation. As a logical conclusion, is the ‘Digital Guitar’ with analogue playability a holy grail and, if so, for whom? Here are some current digital guitar innovations from the 2010s…

So… suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and take a tentative look ahead to the scary world of AIs, AAs, AVs and AM (spoiler alert – these acronyms may seem familiar but in this context, they don’t mean what you think they mean today). You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Read on…

10 years’ hence (c.2028):

Analogue vs digital – Digital technologies will be used increasingly to enhance the analogue signal chain rather than usurp it completely. We have already seen many examples of this appearing in effects and amps, so there isn’t really any clever insight in mentioning it. Digital control of analogue signals is already becoming commonplace especially in delay and modulation effects where digital manipulation gives much more precise control over what happens in the analogue domain.

It remains unpopular to sample the original signal through an analogue to digital converter (ADC), mess around with it and then put it back through a digital to analogue converter (DAC) to turn it back into a signal for further processing. Many purists say that the act of conversion using today’s chips taints the original signal. It will be a while longer before we make that bold step of a fully digital signal chain from fingers to ears but it is getting ever closer. It will happen but possibly not by 2028, mainly because of the difficulty in engineering effective fully digital instruments and loudspeakers.

Research will continue to develop a truly digital guitar ‘pickup’ that could compare to current electromagnetic pickups and provide the first step to more complex processing in the future. Digital modelling using DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chips will continue to improve and will become almost indistinguishable from analogue electronics in effects, amps and digital audio workstations (DAWs). There will be a hardcore fan base that remains wedded to the old school stuff for many, many years to come. The guitar itself is highly unlikely to become fully digital in the next 10 years, if only because there are far too many dogmatic people invested in preserving the status quo. Auto‑Tune for the guitar anyone?

Guitar Making – In the near future, it is highly unlikely that wood will be superseded by any other material as the primary input for the majority of guitars. Wood has proved over millennia to be a very flexible, durable renewable material. Let’s face it, it can also look wonderful. One major advantage of wood is that it contributes towards the organic tone and touch of an individual musical instrument. Many alternative materials have been used in the construction of guitars since at least the 1920s, including plastics, metals, carbon fibre and a wide variety of composites. To‑date, though, wood has prevailed in terms of structural integrity allied to inherent musicality. What will change, though, is the shift away from the use of endangered exotic hardwood species such as rosewood, ebony and even mahogany to more sustainable species. For instance Pau Ferro (Libidibia Ferrea, a.k.a Bolivian rosewood) is rapidly replacing the CITES‑restricted rosewood (varieties of the genus Dalbergia) as a popular fingerboard material. Quite how fussy musicians will accept unfamiliar wood substitutes, will be determined in due course. What is clear is that guitarists really have no choice but to go with the ecologically acceptable flow in the long‑term.

Like their classical musical counterparts, the guitar itself (whether acoustic or electric) will remain very much a natural instrument for a good few years yet. The guitar will still be supremely popular and will be making great music all over the world. Guitars will be made by a broad range of entities from one man band local custom luthiers up to multinational mass manufacturers. Competition, particularly from China, will be a threat to many established western companies until their economic bubble bursts, which it eventually will at some point.

Recorded music – The vast majority of recorded guitar music will be produced on digital equipment with a few retro studios still using analogue equipment including valve preamps and tape machines. The relative accessibility of convenient digital recording equipment will continue to provide openings for all sorts of artists from the home musician to the professional mega bands using famous dedicated studio facilities such as the famous Abbey Road Studio in London. Recorded music will be increasingly distributed and accessed online, although legacy formats will maintain a solid niche popularity.

Live music – Live music will continue to grow in popularity to become the cornerstone for many successful artists, provided that they do not price themselves out of live appearances and that over‑zealous regulations don’t stop large live events from taking place. PA and monitoring systems will continue to improve significantly and sound pressure levels at venues will be severely restricted, removing some of the visceral excitement of the live music experience.

30 years’ hence (c.2048):

Analogue vs digital – Digital will be the primary domain in which music will be made, recorded, distributed and accessed. The guitar will remain analogue, although it is likely that the entire chain from the pickup onwards will be predominantly digital. However, as with current classical instruments and music, there will still be an important place for traditional analogue guitars. Amps and effects are likely to be almost totally digital. Successors to the analogue electromagnetic pickup and the loudspeaker will be introduced to a point that digital sound will be common if not universal. ‘Old fashioned’ guitars will remain very popular and will experience regular revivals and rejuvenations, even if the overall battle will be won by the digital technologies of the 2040s. New digital connectors will proliferate, as the currently ubiquitous USB port will long since have been superseded, and the jack pug/socket will be purely of vintage interest.

Guitar making – Most of the large manufacturers will be producing some sort of digital instrument as the norm, even if the vital interaction between fingers and strings will remain as it is now. All guitar tone woods will be derived from sustainable sources by strict regulation and use of rare species tightly controlled (outside the unavoidable black market). The use of alternative materials will be in full swing, reducing the reliance on today’s natural materials. New guitars will be built to be recyclable. Automated manufacturing will be the norm and the demand for traditionally made guitars will be catered for by numerous specialist guitar builders. Pure wooden analogue guitars will be vintage only and regarded with the same respect as classical instruments are now. Guitar development will be relegated to refinements around the margins, rather than core revolutions. Hybrid instruments will be fighting a rear‑guard action, with digital beginning to win the final battle. Competition to the guitar will continue but will not succeed… yet.

Recorded music – Digital will almost totally dominate recorded music production, distribution and access. Diehard analogue fans will be regarded as geeks and nerds. Vinyl albums will, however still persevere… just.

Live music – Like recorded music, live music will be, apart from the musicians themselves, almost universally digital. ‘Loud’ live music will be a thing of the distant past. Music venues will begin to disappear as discrete locations, with personalised performance content delivered direct to the individual.

50 years’ hence (c.2068):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be like classical music is today, a popular, niche and a largely historic pastime. All other aspects will be digital.

Guitar making – Standardisation and construction will be largely prescribed. Hybridisation will just about have peaked and on its way out. The majority of guitar production will move towards making AIs (Artificial Instruments). The focus will be on the technical facets of music making, rather than subjective, emotive ones. Guitars as we know them now will be of heritage interest.

Recorded music – Music will be manufactured in the digital domain with just a few maverick analogue‑obsessed musicians beavering away in the minority. The vast majority of contemporary recorded music will be created electronically, with few outmoded musical instruments as we know them now being used. Many artists will be AAs (Artificial Artists), rather than by artistically inclined human beings – the latter will concentrate on performing historic pieces from the golden heyday of guitar music.

Live music – There will no longer be a need to travel to a discrete venue where music is performed in person to a collective audience. ‘Live’ music will be created in computers, customised to an individual’s tastes and accessed in the home, in a domain known as an AV (Artificial Venue) giving the sight, sound and feel of a venue.

100+ years’ hence (c.2120):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be an historic vocation and largely a lifestyle pastime. All other aspects of ‘modern’ music will be entirely digital. Some authentic old‑style music will be recreated on historic instruments for research purposes, rather than as entertainment.

Guitar making – Even the last few old‑school luthiers will be migrating to alternative materials, automation and digital electronics. Hybrid instruments will be seen as a thing of the past. AIs will be commonplace and there won’t be a need for human musicians to learn the art or skills needed to make any type of contemporary music.

Recorded music – Popular music will be artificially created without the need for accomplished musicians. Music will be constantly morphing on a second‑by‑second basis, known as AM (Artificial Music).

Live music – Performance capture will be produced electronically and experienced direct by the listener’s visual and audio receptors, bypassing the unreliable eyes and ears altogether. Finally, the digital signal path from computerised source to the recipient’s brain will be complete and will require no human intervention whatsoever.

Alternative Reality

Or… in some alternative, perhaps more desirable dimension, the unwritten future could well be pretty much as it is today, with new generations doing just what we do now, rocking to good old electric guitar music. To many guitarists, the tactile and synergetic relationship between musician and his/her guitar in full flow with other musicians is unbreakable and simply cannot be usurped by some dystopian digital future scape.

One trusts that there will always be a place for creative artisans and a desire or the musically minded to enjoy the fruits of their vision for the guitar of the future. It is encouraging that many well‑known guitar makers are actually stepping back in time in order to move forward. This isn’t the paradox that it may first seem. Savvy guitar builders are investigating in great depth what made great guitars great in the first place and identifying what musicians actually want from their instruments today. Much of this current R&D is leading to a number of findings that indicate that what was important 100 and 200 years ago (and probably longer) is still important today but with modern consistency and reliability.

Perhaps the past masters did get it largely right in the first place and that is why their products, new or vintage, are still desirable artefacts today. While traditional manufacturers like C.F. Martin use modern production methods for some parts of the building process, they are also still using tools and equipment employed by successive cohorts of luthiers, as well as relying on many of the basic techniques and skills refined and passed down from one generation to the next. Most of the top flight guitar builders also work very hard to ensure long-term supplies of precious tone woods to make into future guitars. This focus on the best‑of‑the‑best perhaps suggests that guitars may well remain, for the large part, relatively familiar in 10, 30, 50 and 100 years from now but with improvements to the detail. Perhaps it takes that bold flight of fancy to realise that we already have what we and future generations of musicians actually need. Owning inspiring guitars inspires guitar playing and results in inspiring guitar music.

There really is no point in speculating any further ahead. The likelihood is that, even with advances in medical technology, most if not all of us reading this in 2018 will not be around to see anything beyond c.2020. The guitar is dead, long live the guitar. The passage of father time will inform just how accurate these flights of fantasy (or descents into nightmare) really are. Clearly, the further one looks into the future, the less precise any predictions become. Welcome to tomorrow’s very scary ‘brave new world’.

I, for one, am certainly not laying any bets. I’d like to think that there is something about our very personal instruments that will endure for many decades, if not centuries. If we lose that quintessential ‘something special’ about making guitars that make guitarists that make music, it will all have been for nothing. Watch this space.

Conclusion

So, that’s it. The long‑running and on‑going story of the guitar has finally reached a logical stopping off point, at least for now… However, it not the end of the story by any means. Somewhat disappointingly, the denouement to ‘A Potted History of the Guitar’ series seems to be a bit more of a whimper than some almighty bang. After so much history and so much personal investment in researching it, it seems a bit of a let‑down to leave the guitar’s evolution ‘hanging’ without some sort of definitive resolution to the script and with the various loose ends neatly tied up. Nevertheless, remember that this is not a fictional piece and let us not forget that this is definitely not the epilogue.

‘They’ say that a picture speaks a thousand words. So, to sum up the 3,500‑year, 8‑part journey in a single image that tells the story of the guitar from its origins to the possible near future, here is a fitting 27‑picture montage that possibly speaks approximately 50,000 words. Basically, I could have saved 9 months of my life and just posted this one composite picture. That, I guess, is one of the benefits of hindsight. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the expedition with me and that, like me, you have learned a little something about the guitar along the way. You wanted a potted history of the guitar? Well, how about…

From this point in time onwards is the start of the future and, whatever happens next. It will be fascinating to experience the on‑going next instalment of the long story and to observe with trepidation and excitement what is to unfold. Let us try to make it a bright and positive outcome for everyone who loves The Guitar and Great Guitar Music. Thank you for reading. Enjoy the future, whatever it holds for us guitar aficionados.

End of Part VIII and the end of this series

Now… I need a break from the relentless rigmarole of the research and write routine, which has, for the best part of a year (or more), been on top of everything else. As mentioned previously, at some point, I might adapt the eight separate ‘Guitar History’ parts into a more coherent and accessible feature set on the CRAVE Guitars’ web site.

Very shortly, I will try and start to prepare for 2019’s (hopefully slightly less) epic partner piece to this year’s gargantuan opener. For the rest of this year, it is back to opinionated hum‑drum ‘normality’ with stand‑alone observations of a more topical and transient nature.

One thing I have noticed is that I haven’t been playing enough guitar in recent months, hardly any at all in fact, which is deplorable. So perhaps now that this particular endeavour is over for now, it’s time to practice what I preach, pick up a lovely vintage guitar and plink away for a bit of cathartic enjoyment. At least, in doing so within the context of the past, I now have an enhanced appreciation of the history that led to it coming into my hands and why it is so important to conserve the heritage for that future. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Let’s be honest, the future is all we really have and it is the only thing we can do anything about”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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April 2017 – How Much Music Theory Do You Need To Play Guitar?

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

While CRAVE Guitars’ relocation hullabaloo is taking place in the background, here’s a guitar‑related topic which made me think a bit (again).

Recent articles have thrown up what I think are some interesting questions that have then triggered further thoughts. There have been topics around guitar motivations, personal preferences, diverse musical choices and inspirational guitarists that have produced standout musical experiences. Then there was the recent topic about the science and social psychology of music and why/how it affects us in the way it does. These tomes have explored why we may be drawn towards things we consciously or unconsciously like? This article is a bit different although, in some ways, it is also a logical extension of some of those preceding threads. So… to what extent do guitarists need formal musical training?

This particular topic was triggered by a well-worn bit of clichéd guitar humour, “This is called sheet music. You can show it to a lead guitarist to make them stop playing” (see above). Very funny – ha-ha! However, as is my wont, this got me thinking. The joke is, sadly, poignant and I can personally relate to it. There has been a long-running debate as to whether guitarists must learn music theory and whether it enhances or detracts from their ability to enjoy playing or to be a successful working musician. So in the interests of being provocative, I thought I’d throw my tuppence-worth in. The language of music, in my naïve way of thinking, should be liberating, not inhibiting. If anyone has an effective antidote to the following, I would be keen for a prescription and to take my medicine.

The beauty of learning to play the guitar is that, unlike many other instrumental disciplines, proficiency in theoretical musical concepts is not a prerequisite or a necessity (thankfully!). An analogy may be that one does not need to be a linguistic expert in order to deliver grammatically appropriate prose (but it helps). For instance, in order to have fun on our favourite instrument, do you need to memorise and regurgitate the notes that make up the obscure jazz chord, F#7b10b13 (it does exist, honest) or trot out the notes in Lydian Augmented scale in Bb without working it out? NB. I can’t! (NB. for info, Bb, C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb). However, I accede to the principle that a basic understanding of where all the notes are and how they generally relate to each other is probably helpful.

A newbie can pick up a modest guitar and, within a relatively short space of time, standard tuning and a few simple chords gain reasonable access to a very diverse range of modern music. Think how many great tunes over the past 50 years have been based around the open A, C, D, E and G major chords. A bit more work gives you B and F, and therefore access to many major and minor barre chords all the way up the neck. Diatonic ‘power chords’ are easy to learn and 7th (both major and minor) variations expand things substantially.

Basic rhythm can be picked up by moving between these chords. Applying these fundamentals to, for example, 12-bar blues based around the I, IV and V chord pattern is a relatively straightforward starter-for-ten. Start with 4/4 tempo and take it from there, perhaps adding a bit of ‘swing’ or ‘boogie’ to make it more interesting. Some guitarists spend their entire lives perfecting their craft around these elementary concepts without ever needing to make life complicated. As the legendary American folk singer/songwriter and guitarist, Woody Guthrie said, Anyone who used more than three chords is just showing off”. One could argue that, if it was good enough for him (and everyone who followed in his footsteps)…

Playing strong rhythm guitar is an essential skill in its own right and some guitarists never need to exhibit flashy pyrotechnical displays of digital dexterity to ply their trade. Don’t underestimate the skills of solid accompaniment to musical structure. Without it, there would be no ‘groove’. Sometimes, less really is more.

Learning scales is a bit more involved but the common pentatonic scale (major and minor) again covers a lot of ground without having to understand all the intervening notes. Add in a few ‘blue’ notes and, all of a sudden, you’re a guitar prodigy with aspirations to be the next Jimi Hendrix! This immediate accessibility can also prove to be a drawback, as many guitarists will then ‘hit the wall’ that prevents them from progressing. This is where the complexity of chords, scales and keys can get both intimidating and exciting, depending on your proclivity for the medium and your learning style. Sadly for me, the bait of genuine understanding is disappointingly just beyond my meagre grasp.

First confession – I really, really struggle with music theory. I have tried very hard, honestly I have. I am not stupid but attempting, as I have done on many occasions since I picked up my first guitar as a teenager, to learn the complex language of music has proved to be an insurmountable barrier. I don’t know why, either, which is irritating – perhaps it’s just the way my sad brain works. It gets to the point that I either glaze over and switch off, or I become so frustrated that it alienates me from the one thing that I enjoy doing, which is actually playing music (albeit badly). Either way, I end up giving up (again) and repeated failures simply reinforce the fallibility. It has now got to the point that I don’t even bother trying.

The poor man’s equivalent of notation is ‘guitar tab’, which attempts to provide a half‑way house for those that fear to tread the path and ‘5-bar gate’ of genuine manuscript. This should help, you’d think. However, it has now got to the point that attempting to wade through guitar tab isn’t worth the effort if I can’t nail it quickly. As I get older, my attention span reduces, compounded with the feeling that there is something better to do than struggle. Reading magazines doesn’t help, as the descriptive narrative uses all-or-nothing jargon that often loses me before I start. The Internet is often unreliable and contradictory to the point of increasing confusion, rather than diminishing it. Videos don’t help, as one can’t stop and ask questions, seek clarification or go off at tangents to explore interesting dead ends.

Second confession – I also lack natural musical talent. I don’t have the intrinsic feel and ear for music that many people seem to have without even trying. Many guitarists have incredible instinctive ability that they don’t seem to have to work hard to learn the mechanics. Some incredible guitarists have both the talent and theoretical ability and that, to me, is just not fair. I have genuine admiration for such talented, knowledgeable people and I can respect the hard work they must have put in to achieve it. So… why doesn’t it work for me?

Ultimately that old adage of ‘life is too short’ prevails and I get back to playing within my limitations. I am not afraid of hard work, as long as it serves some sort of positive outcome and in some way adds value to the investment in time and energy. When something becomes a chore with no guarantee that it will make me a better guitar player, then it becomes an obstacle in its own right. I know I’m missing out but the concepts cannot seem to penetrate my intellect and ignite an epiphany. I wish I could read music and memorize the theory but I think I must accept that I just can’t. Admitting defeat is an anathema to me, so I just can’t win. This is where egotistical narcissism and delusional hubris meets crippling self-doubt and pervasive inadequacy. Ouch!

I hasten to add that this is not a position borne out of snobbishness, defiance or indolence. I would dearly like to be able to demonstrate consummate musical skills. However, it just isn’t worth inflicting a masochistic doctrine disproportionate to the perceived derived gratification.

Third confession – I am self-taught and that imposes many petty constraints, perhaps the most obvious being that it has allowed me to pick and choose what one learns (including the inevitable bad habits) and what one doesn’t. I haven’t been formally educated in the guitar, whether it be by some form of passive learning (which generally falls into the ‘can’t be arsed’ category), or interactively with either peers or a seasoned guitar teacher. While I know that I must surely benefit from the latter, I have an ingrained irrational prejudice with this as well. Even if a teacher knows a lot more than I do, particularly regarding theory, I have the feeling that they are just another frustrated guitar wannabee that never made it and the most they could ever teach me would be to be as unsuccessful as they are (i.e. those who can’t… teach). I acknowledge this is a blatant fallacy but it is a practical issue for me, especially if I’m giving up good time and money to invest in my personal learning. There are numerous excellent tutors out there who could probably inspire me but they are geographically and economically beyond my reach. Perhaps when I ‘retire’, it may provide an opportunity to take lessons and improve my knowledge and experience. However, I must accept that it is too little too late to become the guitar god that I deceived myself into believing I could become in my early teens.

I used to play in bands and playing with others is stretching and challenging, both positively and negatively. Being naturally inclined to misanthropy, finding that person or group of people that have the mutually beneficial ‘fit’ is typically difficult. The depressing result is that I currently play in splendid isolation, which is far from ideal, but at least it avoids the inevitable social compromises of ‘playing well with others’. Again, I recognise that my behaviour is self-indulgent, self-limiting and unproductive. Maybe I should set myself a target to play in a band again, just to prove to myself that I can still do it. Then what?

The outcome is that I am caught in that horrible trap where, despite my best efforts, I am neither technically proficient nor naturally talented. It is frustrating that I have known the basics for decades but cannot seem to progress sufficiently to acquire genuine expertise in my chosen instrument. However, I enjoy playing even though, like most guitarists, I regularly get stuck in a rut. Where do I go from here and how do I improve significantly? Ideally, I would like someone to help inspire even a moment of greatness from my admittedly rather mundane approach towards guitar music, I would be keen to explore what may be possible. I realise that this requires some form of direct call-to-action on my part to make it happen; it won’t magically fall into my lap. If I don’t do something, I guess I’ll end up noodling my life away without ever feeling fulfilled, without realising any latent potential, and therefore impeding any possible mastery of the instrument. Unrequited aspiration strikes again.

Another issue for me is my mercurial musical tastes. I pity any guitar tutor who tries to adapt to my predilection at any one time. Like my musical listening tastes, one minute I want to experiment with blues and the next moment, it’s metal, then funk, then reggae, then rock, then jazz, folk, prog, rock ‘n’ roll, fusion, psychedelic, indie, ambient, pop, country, etc. It’s a bit ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. You get the idea. I do draw the line at learning classical guitar though – there are just too many prescribed ‘rules’ involved (another fallacy and one that I just can’t be bothered to controvert!).

One of the other things that guitar is great at is the ease with which it can adopt alternative tunings (try and do that with a piano!). As you might guess, I struggle with chords and scales in ‘standard’ 6-string EADGBE tuning. My poor little brain shudders at the likelihood of having to internalise chord inversions and scale modes for multiple tunings. Never mind adding in physical differences associated with, for instance, 7 (or more) strings, baritones, tenors, harps, banjos, ukuleles, etc. As A.A. Milne wrote about Winnie-the-Pooh, “I am a bear of very little brain…”.

Thankfully, we guitarists also aren’t constrained by 12 fixed notes like many other instruments. Frets help precision most of the time, especially with chords. In addition, we can also bend notes and add vibrato (again, try that with a piano!). This can be taken even further by using a bottleneck or slide. While there are few fretless guitars (Vigier being the most obvious proponent), we’ve had fretless basses since well before the advent of the electric bass guitar. Many of these characteristics make the guitar one of the most expressive and flexible of musical instruments in existence.

While theory is good at articulating tempo, it isn’t very good at describing timbre and tone let alone touch and feel, which are the Holy Grail for many guitarists. The guitarist’s eternal quest for ‘tone’, i.e. the sound we construct in our heads, as opposed to what we hear when the sound comes out of a speaker at the end of the signal chain, is perhaps a topic for another time.

I hinted at the start of this article that theory can inhibit creativity and innovation as it can tend to constrain ones mental ability to experiment outside the fixed tenets. A lot of ground breaking guitar music over the last half century has been created by people without enough theoretical knowledge about what’s ‘right’, which enabled them to break the rules and come up with something new, which then becomes incorporated into the ever‑expanding ‘norm’ over time. The counter argument is that musicians cannot really escape the confines of ignorance without understanding what rules they might be seeking to break, and then providing them with the appropriate tools with which to break them. The more (or less) you know, the better equipped you are for challenging the boundaries. I remain agnostic on this particular subject, principally because I am not informed enough to comment objectively.

I also hinted at the relationship between theory and ‘success’. Arguably, the best, most prolific and longstanding credible guitarists have a workmanlike mix of theory and talent. As an example, session musicians in particular would struggle without being able to sight‑read sheet music and rapidly adapt their playing style to suit the context. Without having to think about what they are ‘reading’, experienced professional musicians can be liberated to add something of themselves to the mix. This playing beyond the conscious is the basis of Zen guitar, a quasi-religious state of being. Equally, classical guitarists really need to be able to stick closely to what the original composer intended (i.e. no improvisational freedom), so rudimental theory is essential. To many singer/songwriters though, just creating something that ‘sounds right’ is more important than comprehending which notes make it so and why. I tend to fall into the latter category, appreciating some combinations of notes without fitting them into some predetermined harmonic or melodic framework. I know it sounds good but not necessarily why it should do so.

A number of songwriting ‘manuals’ I’ve seen over the years often instruct readers about uniform song structure. While I agree that experience of the past should provide indicators as to what works and what doesn’t, sticking to a formula-driven structural solution to songwriting can produce music that can be anodyne and sterile. I guess that a conformist approach is helpful to begin with but rigid adherence to the rubrics may ultimately result in stagnation. Think what would happen if every song followed the same unbending pattern with little variation. The accepted wisdom is sound, as long as it provides for (and encourages) an antithetical approach as well. Creative rebellion can be a healthy reaction to standardisation and convention. Musically and culturally, it’s called rock ‘n’ roll! When Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’ (1953 film) was asked, what are you rebelling against?” he replied sublimely with, ‘whadda you got?”.

The mathematics of music can be fascinating, suggesting that music taps into something quite fundamental about the laws determining how our physical universe works. Musical appreciation may be the result not just of stylistic considerations and the prevailing cultural context but also by things beyond our comprehension. Perhaps this explains why many religious faiths use music to enhance the spiritual connection between the physical plane and the heavens. Since the days of Plato in ancient Greece, the theory of music has been built on fundamental scientific principles. They also understood that the mathematical framework of musical theory provides a basis for human expression through music. Why do humans experience the unique compulsive need to create and perform music at all? That’s another question altogether. “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Plato (c.428-348BCE)

Scientifically, the sound that we hear and our brains interpret is simply the result of vibrating air molecules and frequency is simply the rate at which those air molecules vibrate. The character of the instruments we hear is essentially the type of waveform created by those vibrations.

Getting technical for a moment, human hearing realistically only works in the range 20Hz‑20MHz and often less, especially as we age (losing about 1KHz per decade of our lives). A standard-tuned electric guitar has a fundamental frequency range of only around 80Hz-1200Hz (excluding harmonics – see below) – around 4 octaves. NB. an increase of 1 octave doubles the frequency. In comparison, a bass guitar covers approximately 60Hz-1000Hz and the human voice generally ranges between c.80Hz-260Hz (both genders). Drums range roughly between 60Hz-2KHz and cymbals between 8KHz-16KHz. As a consequence, we humans fit all our music within this limited audio spectrum.

Most musical tempos range between 40 beats per minute (BPM) technically described as Largo, up to 200BPM, called Presto. Blues and rock vary between about 80BPM and 120 BPM (Andante to Allegretto). Dance music varies between 120-160BPM (Allegro to Molto Allegro). There are, of course, many, many exceptions to these very rough indicators. It is amazing what we can create within these boundaries.

Pitch, rhythm and tempo are also essentially based on mathematical principles and resonate (sic!) unconsciously with something visceral and primitive in our physical makeup. Scientists have often referred to mathematics as music for the intellect. Perhaps the key relationship between science, mathematics and music could be a subject for another time (I need to do some more research first!).

In conclusion, and to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, you don’t need any formal training to start playing guitar and to get plenty of enjoyment from it. A modicum of conceptual knowledge can certainly help to get more from the playing experience and can open up all sorts of musical possibilities. Extensive theoretical understanding is certainly not a bad thing and can provide opportunities that otherwise might be closed to the purely practical musician. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and what they feel they need to know to get what they want out of playing the world’s most popular instrument. Music, like life, isn’t an all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all state. To end on a profound (and pretentious) note, knowledge is a continuum and we are all somewhere along the path between ignorance at one extreme and enlightenment at the other. I wouldn’t assume that everyone aspires to the latter, but, speaking personally, I would like to be a bit nearer to it than I am at the moment.

On that note, all things considered, I’m off to plink my planks again, albeit amateurishly and in blissful ignorance. It is my catharsis for the soul and partial therapy for the world’s many ailments. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Twelve little notes. So many combinations. Not enough time.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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