Between May and July I was Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Musician-in-Residence. On August 20th the music I composed during this residency will be premiered online in the form of pre-recorded videos. I composed a two movement piece for multiple guitars called 'Dún Laoghaire Guitars'. In advance of this premiere I've prepared Spotify and Youtube playlists of some of my previous compositions, arrangements and collaborations that relate in some way to the music styles found in Dún Laoghaire Guitars. Listening to these playlists will help set your ears up for the new music. Some words about the music on the playlists follows.
1. Collaborations with Ciarán Swift
The 2nd Movement of Dún Laoghaire Guitars features Ciarán Swift and students of his Guitar Training Centre playing with alongside me. Ciarán and I have been friends for 25 years, meeting first whilst studying at the famous 'Rock School' at Senior College Ballyfermot. The playlists feature Ciarán and I playing some Irish trad guitar duets and a trad ensemble piece 'The Tempest in Mali' which we put together with Mick Dunne, Liz Coleman and Conan McDonnell. There's also a couple of tracks from our cross-genre band D.F.F. which feature brilliant guitar solos from Niwel Tsumbu.
2. Polymetric Chamber Music
The 1st movement of Dún Laoghaire Guitars 'Dún Laoghaire Dart' is built upon a technique called Polymetric Cycles that I use sometimes in my compositions. This involves rhythms in different time signatures repeated against each other in cycles. If music theory isn't your thing, then the best way to relate to it is to imagine it is like 4 or 5 different people of different heights walking together. To stay together the people with shorter legs will have to walk faster and use more footsteps. That is kind of how a Polymetric Cycle works in music. It can produce really nice sounds and it's a different way of thinking about rhythm. On the playlists you'll hear these techniques in the piece 'Polymetric Cycles', played by my old college ensemble The Dave Flynn Collective (with Bjorn Bantock conducting). I also use them in the middle of the piece 'Shadowplay', which features flautist Aisling Agnew, who also plays in 'Polymetric Cycles'.
3. Guitar Quartets
Dún Laoghaire Guitars is a piece for 8 guitars, which equals two guitar quartets. I have been a member of two different guitar quartets over the years, The Dublin Guitar Quartet and The Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet. Several years after I'd left The DGQ they recorded my composition 'Chimurenga', inspired by Zimbabwean music. The Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet was a group I put together for a few concerts in 2011 with jazz guitarist Hugh Buckley, classical guitarist John Feeley and Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu. We had a great time performing together at the Inishowen and Clonakilty Guitar Festivals. The youtube playlist shows a clip of us playing a composition of Niwel's at Inishowen. This composition is in the 8/8 rumba rhythm that is also used in 'Dún Laoghaire DART'.
4. Solo guitar compositions
Over the past few months I've recorded videos of some of my own compositions and improvisations for guitar. I've included a few of these on the playlist that hint at some of the harmony styles I use in Dún Laoghaire Guitars.
5. Trad guitar arrangements
Dún Laoghaire Guitars is not in any way a trad guitar piece, but there are some subtle influences from Irish trad in it. I've included some of my arrangements of Irish trad like 'Paddy Fahey's Reels', 'Christmas Eve' and the haunting slow air 'Gol na Mbán san ar'.
The recent, sudden passing of my Irish composing colleague Eric Sweeney got me thinking that it's such a shame that the media only tends to give less famous artists a big PR push when they pass away. It happens all the time and it's very strange!
So I've decided I'm going to do a weekly post about a LIVING composer or musician I admire who maybe doesn't get the press attention they deserve, just to show the media how it can be done! It will be called Dave's Discoveries and it'll go on this blog.
Before I start on that I thought I'd just write a post about Eric Sweeney's music.
Eric was a real pioneer in Irish composition, one of the first, if not THE first 20th century Irish composers to move away from the European avant-garde towards American minimalist music. That was a very brave decision at the time as it was really not the popular thing to do for a 'serious' composer to write music that, well, might become popular!
My favourite work of his is his 1981 guitar piece 'Figurations' which John Feeley Guitar recorded brilliantly. Though it isn't strictly a 'minimalist' piece, it does show how Eric was heading in that direction when he composed it. I played several of Eric's pieces in his presence including 'Comhrá' with Aoife Ni Bhriain and 'Song' and 'Prism' with the Dublin Guitar Quartet. These pieces are excellent examples of Eric's distinctive style of minimalism. Audiences always enjoyed those pieces, they mix a lovely sense of melody with the rigour of minimalist processes.
Eric was also very fond of traditional Irish music and though his approach to using ideas from trad was quite different to mine, I think his work in merging ideas from minimalism with Irish trad is very important in the history of Irish composition, as basically no one did it before he did!
Eric has a really vast output of music and I must admit I've only heard a small amount of it. I wonder why his Symphonies and other orchestral works weren't played more by orchestras? I wonder why more guitarists don't play 'Figurations'?
Honestly, I think the main reason is because he is but one of many talented composers who didn't get the media attention they deserved in their lifetimes. The digital age has been a time when gimmicks and PR stunts seem the only ways artists can get media coverage. Maybe it's time to rethink how we consider our artists, give them more time of day, take our composers more seriously, feature a different composer at least once a week in the national news, devote a radio programme each DAY to discovering new music, like WNYC's brilliant New Sounds.
There's lots of great composers out there who, like Eric Sweeney, compose music that combines artistry, invention and accessibility. If they were only given more national support their music could appeal so much more widely. (God forbid I know, we 'modern' composers aren't supposed to appeal to an audience!) 😕
RTÉ lyric fm, RTÉ TV, TG4, Irish Times and other media outlets occasionally do great features on Irish composers, but they are all too rare. Is the same true in other countries? I'm not so sure. The BBC once had Irish composer Gerald Barry on prime time TV chatting with Stephen Fry, Thomas Adès and Fiona Shaw about his music! Can you imagine ever seeing anything like that on Irish TV?
Anyway, I do hope more people listen to Eric's music after reading this and I also hope more people of influence will help elevate the status of LIVING composers in creative ways, not just treat us like curiosities who need occasional watering in the public sunshine!
#RIP Eric and thank you for your music and kindness.
Please check out more about Eric's music on his website
As my Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown music residency comes to its conclusion I thought I'd share a final playlist featuring some of my favourite classical composers, as they have been played on guitar. Prior to the 20th Century, very few of the 'great' classical composers composed for guitar. Two great 19th Century composers, Schubert and Berlioz, were guitarists, but they never composed anything for the instrument! So the music that follows is for the most part not written for guitar. Nothing much needs to be said about most of the composers on my list below, their legacies speak for themselves. I just write a few words about my interest in them and their relationship to the guitar.
Simply the greatest composer of all time, few would dispute that. The breadth of Johann Sebastian Bach's accomplishments is unlikely to ever be topped. Though he never composed for guitar, his music has been adapted very successfully for the instrument, especially solo guitar transcriptions of his Lute, Violin and Cello works. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet take it a step further by transcribing his orchestral works like the Brandenburg Concertos. Their virtuosity and musicianship makes it sound like the piece was written for guitars!
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Perhaps the greatest innovator in classical music history, Beethoven's music is as legendary as his personality. Everyone knows his famous opening to his Fifth Symphony, whether that be in its original version or the 70's disco version! His Ode to Joy in the 9th Symphony, Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata are equally famous. He never composed for guitar and there are far less arrangements of his music for guitar than there are of Bach's. Nonetheless, a few interesting arrangements exist, including an astonishing 5th Symphony by a young Japanese guitar orchestra and the Egmont Overture, played beautifully by the Texas Guitar Quartet.
I would have Anton Bruckner next on this list, but I can't find any good guitar arrangements of his music. So we skip on to French composer Debussy, sometimes described as the father of modern music. His impressionistic tone poems are sensual masterpieces of orchestral sound, quite different to any orchestral music that came before him. His piano works and chamber pieces are equally important. Another composer who didn't compose for the guitar, but some of his music works beautifully on guitar, such as his famous Claire de Lune, especially when played by Julian Bream and John Williams.
Debussy's compatriot tends to be less acclaimed, although I prefer more of Ravel's music. I think he was a lot more innovative than given credit for. When I was a student at the DIT Conservatory of Music in Dublin I was in the college guitar ensemble. We played a great arrangement of Ravel's suite Ma Mere L'oye which I always enjoyed. A few years ago I arranged Ravel's famous Bolero for my Irish Memory Orchestra, I included a guitar in it as it lent the piece a more authentic Spanish flavour. Ravel never wrote for guitar, which is odd, given he was Basque and loved flamenco music!
It took me a while to appreciate the music of Finland's greatest composer Sibelius. Eventually I got to like him so much I named my dog after him! On first listen his music might sound like 19th Century Romantic music, but delve deeper into his music, especially his symphonies, and you'll hear it is very distinct and visionary. He sometimes makes time and space seem to stand still, yet move at the same time! He is the first composer on this list who actually wrote something for guitar, although it is just one minor work, a Shakespearean song for Baritone and Guitar called Come Away Death'. His works aren't often arranged for guitar, but Finnish guitarist Timo Kaakkolammi made a very nice arrangement of the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony. In this arrangement the almost minimalist sound of mature Sibelius really comes through.
One of the great musical revolutionaries, Stravinsky changed the world of classical music with his wild orchestral masterpiece The Rite of Spring. The first time I heard this live was in an incredible 2001 performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Gerhard Markson. The music blew me away! Stravinsky only once composed for guitar, in his rarely played Four Russian Songs for mezzo, flute, harp & guitar (1954). Several attempts have been made to arrange his orchestral music for guitars. Generally they aren't hugely successful because Stravinsky's orchestrations are so colourful and detailed. The Seattle Guitar Trio made a damn good attempt at The Rite of Spring though. Perhaps most impressive though is Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita's amazing arrangement of The Firebird Suite.
One of the most tormented composers in music history, Dmitri Shostakovich lived under almost constant fear for his life in Stalin's Russia after he was denounced publicly. He outlived Stalin and had his reputation redeemed, yet his demons, cynicism and insecurities stayed with him to his grave and are heard in his music. His symphonies and string quartets are among the finest in the classical repertoire. I've seen some astonishing performances of them, including a really memorable performance of his 11th Symphony in London's Barbican under Valery Gergiev. When it comes to composing for guitar he is slightly more prolific than those composers already mentioned. There are small guitar parts in his nostalgic Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra and Suite for Variety Orchestra. Some decent attempts have been made at arranging some of his music onto the guitar. I've arranged of one of his piano pieces but never played it in concert.
Now I skip forward in time a bit, although not too much, what I am doing is skipping an entire generation of classical music which generally leaves me cold. Modern classical music in the mid-20th century was dominated by composers of atonal and twelve-tone music. It got really extreme by the 1950's with the idea oftotal serialism, which is more maths than music. The music really alienated audiences and modern classical music almost died a death. Then in the '60's young American composers started rebelling against this essentially European trend and stripped music to its bare, tonal, essentials to create a hypnotic music of repetition often labelled 'minimalism'. Chief among these 'minimalists' was Philip Glass. He is now perhaps the most famous living composer of classical music, though he remains controversial. Some people really can't stand his music, they find it boring and too repetitious. I disagree though, in his best works he is really inventive and never repeats himself exactly. Indeed a lot of these pieces are quite rhythmically complex. I arranged several of his string quartets for guitar quartet nearly 20 years ago when I was in the Dublin Guitar Quartet. Mr. Glass liked the arrangements so much he signed the DGQ to his label. I wasn't in the quartet anymore at this time, but I did once get to join them in playing the arrangements in Mr. Glass' presence. It was great to meet the man and I found him to be very, very nice indeed. He has composed very little for the guitar, but I really enjoy his use of an almost 'surf guitar' sound in the piece Osamu's Theme from his soundtrack to the film Mishima.
It seems unlikely that two of the most influential composers of the 20th Century might have worked together in a furniture-moving company before they became famous, but that is the truth about Glass and his fellow minimalist pioneer Steve Reich. For a time in the 1960's they played each other's music in ensembles and toured Europe in 1971. Then, for reasons never explained, they fell out, only to reconcile many years later. Of all the composers in this list, no one has composed more important guitar music than Steve Reich. His 1987 masterpiece Electric Counterpoint was composed for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and is now considered one of the great works for guitar ensemble. He also uses guitars in his works2x5 and Nagoya Guitars. Reich's music has influenced me quite a bit and you can hear hints of his pulsing music in a few of my pieces, including my latest work Dun Laoghaire Guitars.
Being named after a famous American president can't be easy for a young composer with ambition, but that didn't stop John Adams rising to become America's most performed living orchestral and opera composer. I first discovered Adams' music on a compilation of minimalist music. It included his looping orchestral pieces The Chairman Dances and Shaker Loops. There was a time in my mid 20's when I considered Adams my favourite composer and some of my compositions from that period are strongly influenced by him. I very briefly met him in September 2001 after a concert in London. When I was leaving the concert at one point I looked behind and there he was strolling purposefully behind. I took the opportunity to say a quick hello and to tell him I'd recently sent in a guitar duo arrangement of his piano piece China Gates to his publisher. He nodded and said, 'Oh yes, they mentioned that to me, is that you? I think that will work very nicely'. That came just before the European premiere of his symphonic piece Naive and Sentimental Music, which features a beautiful extended guitar solo in its second movement. Five days after that uplifting experience the infamous 9/11 attacks changed the world forever. Though Adams has never composed a solo guitar work, he has used electric and acoustic guitars quite a bit in works like Scratchband, El Nino and his recent opera Girls of the Golden West. Scratchband contains a fiendishly difficult guitar part which switches between funky acoustic strumming to wild Zappa-esque electric guitar sounds.
Addendum - Why are my favourite classical composers all white men?
Though there are hundreds of thousands of composers of classical music, only a very small number of these get lifted to the status of 'great composers'. In the majority of cases the composers are deserving of this status, yet there are also some very overlooked composers. Nonetheless when it comes to my list of favourite classical composers I had to go with those composers who I return to again and again for listening pleasure and artistic inspiration. My list is governed purely on this principle, as a result my top ten composers are all white men. In the context of classical music that is pretty normal though, google any top 10 list of classical composers made by classical music critics and they'll all be white men! Even a top 100 list like the one at this link https://digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-comp.html contains just one composer who isn't a white man!
Nonetheless most people, including me, could do with expanding their classical music listening habits beyond white male composers. With that in mind I've done separate playlists featuring composers I admire who are not white men. I'd be lying if I said any of these composers were in my top ten, nonetheless they are brilliant classical music composers and, frankly, it'd be much better for the health of classical music if they and others like them featured more often in concerts, rather than just hearing Mozart, Brahms and Mahler all the time! Yes, play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but why not pair them with Boulanger, Buckley and Björk?!
Hildegard Von Bingen
The medieval Saint Hildegard Von Bingen has an unusual place in music history as she is considered the greatest composer of her era. No other female composer has come close to being elevated to this status by the musical literati in subsequent eras. Her choral music is performed as much as any male composer of the medieval era. Her music is monodic and religious, if that's your kind of thing you will love her music. Being honest, medieval choral music is not my favourite kind of music, so I don't listen to her music very often. In the right context though it can be really beautiful to hear.
Had Lili Boulanger not passed away tragically aged 24 she may have developed into one of France's most important composers. She was the first female composer to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, when she was only 19 and she then landed a publishing contract with Ricordi. The small amount of music she left behind is exquisitely composed and hints at a composer who could have matched Debussy and Ravel had fate allowed her to. Her music is as distinctively different to Debussy and Ravel as those leading men of French impressionist music are to each other. Her last work, the symphonic poemD'un matin de printemps is a perfect concert opener, joyous and sumptuously scored. A darker orchestral poem D'un soir triste is a lushly and virtuosically orchestrated masterpiece. Magnifique!
Though mainly associated with developing the jazz big band, Duke Ellington was also a composer of classical orchestra works. I saw the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland perform his fantastic piece Harlem under conductor William Eddins in 2003 and wondered why the piece wasn't played more often. I haven't seen it programmed since! Generally The Duke's orchestral works are sadly neglected in the symphonic concert hall. His last work Three Black Kings deserves more hearings as does the ambitious suite Black, Brown and Beige.
Fela Sowande is considered the first major classical composer from Africa. His fine orchestral and melodic composing skills are clearly heard in his most recorded work African Suite. Unfortunately I know little of his music beyond that work as it remains largely unpublished. He did receive an MBE though in his lifetime and held prestigious teaching positions in the USA, so he gained more official recognition than any other African composer. HIs music is due a renaissance.
Japanese 20th Century master Toru Takemitsu was probably the first Asian composer to achieve wide acceptance within Western classical music circles. His music can be a challenging listen as a large part of his output comes from the atonal, modernist mid-20th century aesthetic. In his later years his music became more sensual and almost tonal. He's often been described as a Japanese Debussy. This is clearly heard in his later works like Dreamtime, although I detect a hint of Debussy's successor Messiaen in there too. Whilst it's easy to dismiss him as an imitator of French composers, his originality and place in history lies in the way he fused these modern French influences with Japanese culture. Several of his works, including Eclipse and November Steps, use traditional Japanese instruments. This fusion of Asian instruments within Western classical music was very unusual and ground-breaking then. He also composed some of the most significant classical guitar music of the 20th century, some of which is strangely beautiful.
Like Duke Ellington, Ravi Shankar is more associated with his non-classical music, nonetheless the Indian sitar master left behind a legacy of important compositions that fit within the western classical tradition. His collaboration with Philip Glass Passages, is a wonderful fusion of Carnatic music and New York minimalism. His sitar concertos are exhilarating and ground-breaking. I've also enjoyed performing his flute and guitar work L'Aube Enchantee with Aisling Agnew. It is one of the most significant works ever composed for classical flute and guitar.
From the 1960's to the present day, New York has developed into the world's centre for progressive, new classical music. One of the most important composers from this scene is the extraordinary Meredith Monk. She has created a repertoire of music unlike any other composer before her, based primarily on experimental vocal textures. In the wrong hands such techniques can either come across as pretentious or unintentionally funny, but Monk is different. Listen to Dolmen Music and enter a hypnotic world of vocalisations that sounds at once utterly modern and like a forgotten ancient music.
In Linda Buckley I feel like I have a kindred spirit in the Irish composition scene. Her music is nothing like mine, yet we share a liking for tonal/modal music and Irish traditional music. We both also occasionally compose dissonant music, so our music tends to work well together in concert. Her beautiful song-cycle O Iochtar Mara was written for the sean nós singer Iarla O'Lionaird to sing with the Vanbrugh String Quartet and I think this is the best work that has been composed for Iarla. Linda works often with electronics and you can hear her masterfully merge electronics with bowed Double Bass on the haunting Sheancheann. Her masterpiece though, in my opinion, is the orchestral work Chiyo, an ethereal study of orchestral textures. One of the best new orchestral works I've heard in the past 20 years. More orchestras need to play it!
Jane O'Leary was born in the USA, yet moved to Ireland in the 1970's where she established herself as one of Ireland's foremost modern composers. She founded Ireland's first contemporary classical ensemble, Concorde in the 1970's and they are still going strong today. I first came to know Jane's music through her Four Pieces for Guitar. Subsequently Concorde performed my music and Jane was my PhD Supervisor. I've heard her music many times over the years and I've always admired her commitment to discovering new sounds and instrumental techniques. Though she composes in a very different style to me, we have a mutual respect and friendship that I value a lot. For her 70th birthday I composed a short string quartet piece called 70 Bars for Jane, which is based on her Four Pieces for Guitar.
A choice that might surprise some, but I think Björk deserves consideration as an essentially 'classical' composer. No less than the renowned soprano Renée Fleming agrees with me, as she has recently taken to performing Björk's music as 'art songs' with orchestras. All over Björk's output there are references to modern classical music and her work is as original and innovative as any modern 'classical' composer. She even famously interviewed the avant-garde composer Stockhausen. Her biggest claim to being a modern classical genius is her 2004 album Medúlla, which is essentially a large experimental composition for voices in several movements, not too far removed from Meredith Monk. Medúlla was later turned into an opera. In years to come Björk's music will be part of the classical canon. I'm sure of that!
In a previous blog post I mentioned how influential Andy Summers, from The Police, was to me. This post is about a group of guitarists who could be classified in the same category as him, 'textural' guitarists. They are more interested in finding the right sound for a song than showing off with virtuoso solos, often layering guitars to create dreamy soundscapes. The heyday of textural guitar playing was in the 1980's when effects pedals like chorus, flanger, reverb and delay helped these guitarists define a new kind of rock and pop guitar world. Bass players were also hugely important to these kind of songs, some even being more like lead guitarists. I start though with The Beach Boys, because it was on their classic 1966 album 'Pet Sounds' that the concept of textured, multi-layered guitars probably originated.
The Beach Boys (with the Wrecking Crew)
The Beach Boys' driving force Brian Wilson wrote out most of the parts of 'Pet Sounds' for the legendary session musician collective 'The Wrecking Crew' to read in studio. The Wrecking Crew included such guitar legends as Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel and Carol Kaye. They play the beautiful textured guitars on songs like 'You Still Believe in Me' , 'I Just Wasn't Made for these Times' and 'Caroline, No'. Whist guitars are not very prominent on 'Pet Sounds', if you listen closely you'll notice there are chiming, textured guitars all over the album. In that, 'Pet Sounds' became a blueprint for a new way of constructing pop songs with layered guitars. My wife and I saw Brian Wilson and his amazing band perform 'Pet Sounds' at Galway Arts Festival in 2017. It was a very special, joyous night that brought a few tears to my eyes!
Roxy Music (Phil Manzanera)
I include Roxy Music here mainly for one album, 1983's 'Avalon'. Phil Manzanera's textured guitar playing on this album is masterfully constructed. Early Roxy Music doesn't appeal to me much, it's really their later period music that I enjoy, especially songs like 'Avalon', 'More Than This' and 'True to Life' where Manzanera shines in a very understated way. Put on headphones and listen to how he layers multiple guitars on these tracks. I suspect Manzanera was influenced by Andy Summers on 'Avalon' as he played in quite a different way on previous Roxy Music albums, and by 1983 The Police were the biggest band in the world. Manzanera has toured in the band of Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd. Bringing things full circle, Gilmour stood in Manzanera's shoes at Live Aid when he played with Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry.
New Order/Joy Division (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook & Gillian Gilbert)
Peter Hook couldn't be more aptly named as his bass lines were often the main instrumental 'hook' of the songs of Joy Division and New Order. Playing a six-string bass, he is more like a lead guitarist than a bassist. Alongside guitarist/singer Bernard Sumner, Hooky created some of the greatest guitar-based music of the late 70's and 80's. With New Order's other two, Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris, they pioneered a style of electronic dance music with guitars that is hugely influential to this day. I'd known their hit songs throughout the 80's and became a huge New Order fan by the mid 90's. Then I started exploring the music of Joy Division, the band New Order came out of after the death of Ian Curtis. In Joy Division they invented a new kind of alternative guitar music, some of which sounds to me like it influenced grunge. In New Order Sumner, Hook and Gilbert produce some magnificent textures on their guitar-based songs, with a mix of single line melodies, arpeggios and funky chord progressions.
In the late 2000's I contacted New Order's manager to see if they might be interested in an idea I had to orchestrate their music. To my surprise they replied and a meeting was arranged between Bernard Sumner, the manager and I. I met them in Manchester before a concert where one of my classical pieces was being performed. I found Bernard to be a lovely, humble fella with a great knowledge of music. As we chatted he mentioned references to Ennio Morricone and Prokofiev in his music. Ultimately it never led to anything, but it was fantastic to chat with one of my music heroes. The only regret I have from the day is that I missed a chance to have a photo taken with him. He stayed around for the classical gig and came up to me afterwards where I was chatting with the soloist. After a few pleasantries a photographer took me and the soloist aside, probably oblivious to who Bernard was! I should've got him into the photo, but I didn't want to burden him. Bernard left soon after and that was the last I ever saw of him...!
Big Country (Stuart Adamson, Bruce Watson & Tony Butler)
Big Country were huge in the 80's, famed for their very Scottish take on guitar rock. Using a device called an E-Bow, along with reverb, chorus, distortion and delay effects, guitarists Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson made their guitars sound like bagpipes, whilst bassist Tony Butler laid down some great grooves with master drummer Mark Brzezicki. I love their debut album 'The Crossing' which has some fantastic textured guitar playing. I saw them live a few times, the last time being just before Stuart Adamson's tragic suicide. At one gig I caught a drumstick that Mark threw into the crowd. He looked disappointed when I caught it, I think he was aiming it at someone in particular. I didn't care though and still have the drumstick! They were a fantastic live band and I cherish the times I saw them at the Olympia in Dublin.
The Smiths (Johnny Marr)
Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr is perhaps the ultimate anti-guitar hero as he rarely does guitar solos. The solos he does are textural sound sculptures. He was a very unusual guitar hero in the 80's, layering jangly, effects-laden guitars on classic tracks like 'William it was Really Nothing', 'Ask' and 'How Soon is Now'. After The Smiths he did some great session work with bands including The The (Beaten Generation) and Talking Heads (Nothing But Flowers). He also formed a supergroup in the 90's with New Order's Bernard Sumner called 'Electronic'. I've always loved their song 'Get the Message' and Marr's guitar playing on it is beautifully simple.
The Cocteau Twins (Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde)
The Cocteau Twins were a magical, ethereal Scottish band who created some of the most distinctive music of the 80's and 90's. Firmly independent, they pioneered the 'Dream Pop' sound that gained increasing popularity into the 2010's with groups like Beach House. Central to the 'Dream Pop' sound is the multi-layered, heavily effects-laden guitar textures of Robin Guthrie. Bassist Simon Raymonde added some great bass counterpoint to Guthrie's guitar, in a style influenced, like so many 80's bassists, by Peter Hook. I can't leave the Cocteau Twins without mentioning their extraordinary vocalist Liz Fraser, who has been called 'The Voice of God'. Though The Cocteau Twins was her main band, she's best known for singing 'Teardrop' with Massive Attack and lending her otherworldly voice to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Fraser's voice is at its most stunning though on The Cocteau Twins 1990 album 'Heaven or Las Vegas', the title track of which I once used as my ring-tone! Guthrie and Raymonde are at their textured best here, on an album that sounds like nothing else on earth.
Simple Minds (Charlie Burchill and Derek Forbes)
Though they are best known as a stadium-filling 80's band who once rivalled U2 in popularity, prior to that Simple Minds were quite an odd, experimental New Wave band. Their early albums feature some of the strangest pop songs of the 80's. Their 1982 masterpiece 'New Gold Dream' was their commercial breakthrough, it sees the band reach a perfect point between experimentalism and accessibility. Guitarist Charlie Burchill is clearly influenced by Andy Summers on this album, nevertheless he developed his own take on Summers' compressed, chorused, echoing guitar sound and in doing so influenced The Edge. Bassist Derek Forbes' funky style was quite distinctive at the time and he is considered one of the best rock bassists of the era. I kinda met Charlie Burchill once. I was recording an album with my band D.F.F. in Peter Gabriel's amazing residential 'Real World Studios', one of the best experiences of my life! At Real World, anyone who is working there gets their meals cooked by an in-house chef as part of the deal. So there's a dining room there where people congregate for delicious food. One day I was heading towards the door, looking at the floor, when I nearly walked into someone else heading the same way. I looked up and said "sorry" and so did the other person, who happened to be Charlie Burchill. It only dawned on me it was him after he'd gone through the door and sat at a table with someone he was working with there. I didn't have the nerve to go up to him and tell him I admired his guitar playing. I was in the same dining room a few times that week, and never uttered a word! The band Kaiser Chiefs were there too and chatted a little with the D.F.F. members. I don't feel right interrupting people who are minding their own business, whether famous or not, as a result I've maybe missed out on chatting with some very interesting folks!
U2 (The Edge & Adam Clayton)
I've an admission to make, I think U2 are past their sell-by date. However I did go through a long enough period of listening to them and learning how to play a lot of The Edge's textured guitar parts. The thing about The Edge is what he plays is technically quite simple, yet no one else can play it like him. He's one of those rare guitarists who has found a sound that is uniquely his own. I once saw his guitar tech saying that even he couldn't sound like The Edge when he played through the exact same set-up with the same guitars! My favourite U2 album by a long way is 1984's Unforgettable Fire, I think this is the peak of The Edge's textured guitar work, no doubt helped along by the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. 'A Sort of Homecoming' and the epic title track are highlights. Adam Clayton's bass playing is great on this album too, very melodic and, like almost all 80's pop bassists, definitely influenced by Peter Hook. U2 were big Joy Division fans and sat in on some Joy Division recording sessions. I was once in the same room as The Edge, at a Culture Ireland reception at the Irish Consulate in New York. It would have been easy enough to go up and say hello to him there as it was quite a private event. However, you guessed it, I couldn't get it together to go up and say hello!
R.E.M. (Peter Buck and Mike Mills)
Whilst R.E.M. really hit the big time in the 90's, it is their 80's output of sophisticated jangle guitar pop that interests me. Guitarist Peter Buck created some of the best guitar music of the 80's alongside bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry and charismatic frontman Michael Stipe. I particularly like their debut 1983 album 'Murmur' where Buck really shines and Mills' bass lines pop out to the fore too. To me their crowning achievement though is the 1986 song 'Cuyahoga', which resonates so much today with its opening line 'Let's put our heads together and start a new country up' and its themes of environmental pollution and racial discrimination. People sometimes forget or don't realise these were huge issues in the 80's. I was taught about global warming in school! There was a lot of activism then which made a lot of changes, making city smog and CFC's things of the past, in Europe at least. If it wasn't for activist voices like R.E.M. the world would be in an even worse situation that it is! Pop bands could really make a difference back then by spreading these messages in their songs. I'm not sure the same is true today. I don't think many people are making records like these anymore. If they are, I'm not hearing them! R.E.M. ended the 80's with the poptastic environmental album 'Green', a classic.
The Cure (Robert Smith, Porl Thompson and Simon Gallup)
In the 80's and early 90's you really couldn't say that you liked The Cure AND Iron Maiden. Goths and Rockers were fierce enemies! As a confirmed rocker I had to hide the fact that I liked The Cure. I never cared for The Cure's image, but beneath the wild hair and gothic makeup Robert Smith and his cohorts created some beautiful pop music, somewhere between the Dream Pop of the Cocteau Twins and New Order's indie guitar tracks. There's some gorgeous textured guitars on tracks like 'Pictures of You', 'Lullaby' and 'High', where the influence of Peter Hook looms heavily. Peter Hook dislikes The Cure because he thinks they blatantly ripped New Order off, listening to thisclever mashup, you can understand why. The bass line and drum beat are almost exactly the same!
The Go-Betweens (Grant McLennan & Robert Forster)
The Go-Betweens are one of those bands the critics and musicians love, but the general public don't know much about. They never had any huge hits, even in their native Australia. Their only mainstream success came when the opening chords of 'Streets of Your Town' got sampled for a big 90's hit dance song 'Just the Way You Are' by Milky. They are one of the great cult bands of the 80's. Their records feature some sublime guitar textures played by their singer/songwriting duo Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan. 'Cattle and Cane' is one of the best 'lost' tracks of the '80's, with its odd time signature propelled by Lindy Morrison's great drumming. 'Bachelor Kisses' is one of those songs you might have heard on the radio in the '80's but never saw on Top of the Pops. It was a radio hit, not a chart hit. 'Head Full of Steam' is another 'almost hit' that probably would've been a hit if Lloyd Cole sang it! The Go-Betweens may not have had any hit singles, but they reformed in the 2000s and toured in bigger venues then they'd ever done before. I saw them at a sold out Barbican Theatre in London and The Olympia in Dublin. Truth be told, maybe the reason they never made it so big is because they were a bit dull live, they didn't recreate the majesty of their studio sound. Sadly, their reunion didn't last very long, Grant McClennan died of a heart attack aged just 48. He was a very talented songwriter, singer and guitarist, the quieter one of the two in the band, but on balance, I prefer his songs and voice. RIP.
The Sundays (David Gavurin)
Most of the textural guitarists above came to the fore in the 80's, The Sundays formed in the 80's, but their 3 albums all came out in the 90's. Their sound lies somewhere between The Smiths and Cocteau Twins, with Harriet Wheeler's fantastic voice complimented perfectly by her husband David Gavurin's textured guitars, which owe as much to Robin Guthrie as they do to Johnny Marr. In this way Gavurin is an interesting example of how a guitarist can merge the styles of other guitarists to create their own sound. Their most famous song is the haunting 'Here's Where the Story Ends', but not in their version, in a bland 1998 cover by 90's dance band Tin Tin Out. To me, their debut album 'Reading, Writing and Arithmetic' and follow up 'Blind' are two of the best albums of the 90's. The Sunday's last album, 1997's 'Static and Silence' was aptly named as they haven't released any music since then, Wheeler and Gavurin focused instead on raising their children. They must be due a comeback soon though!
Addendum - Dave's textural guitars
The influence of these textural guitarists on my own music is at times subtle, other times blatant. D.F.F songs like 'Beauty Becomes You', 'Stone Walls', 'Skin to the Bone' and 'Lullaby' are firmly in a dream pop/jangle pop mode. Less obvious perhaps is the influence of Dream Pop on my Sean Nós Opera 'Mná Brian Boru', but the song 'Be Binn's Prophecy' was composed under the dual influence of The Cocteau Twins and traditional Irish music. There are also textural guitar soundscapes in my Symphonies and in my Winter Variations solo electric guitar album.
The piece I'm composing at the moment 'Dun Laoghaire Guitars', definitely has textural guitar moments, particularly towards the end where there are multiple guitar lines layering up and up towards the climax.
At the peak of my heavy metal teen years I remember once telling my Mum, "I hate jazz!". A few years later I heard Django Reinhardt and changed my mind. Jazz is the kind of music that takes a while to understand. Those who take the time to explore the genre usually end up loving it. It is such a vast genre though that if you are exposed to the wrong kind of jazz, you may be put off. I think that's what must've happened me. Some jazz is very ego-driven, where endless loud sax solos seem to go on forever without much reference to the tune they are supposed to be playing! I still hate that kind of jazz. There are other kinds of jazz that I love though. Here are some of the jazz guitarists that have inspired me to learn something about the genre. I'm by no means a jazz guitarist, however I've learnt a lot from observing these guitarists.
One day as a teenager, whilst visiting my Dad's family home, I browsed through the vinyl collection there and the album cover that stood out was a smartly dressed, moustached gentleman with, what was to me at the time, an unusual looking guitar. It was Louis Stewart's classic 'Out on his Own' solo album. I asked my Aunt Katy about it, she told me it was a jazz album and I immediately lost interest! A few years later I asked her if I could borrow it. I listened and marvelled at the musicality and virtuosity of this Irish guitar genius. That began a lifelong admiration for Louis' music which led me to see him many times in concert and also attend several masterclasses with him, including two wonderful weeks in 2000 and 2001 at the West Clare Jazz School in Kilbaha. There I got learn from him, and join him and a group of other guitarists on stage as part of a jazz guitar orchestra, playing some of Louis' beautiful orchestrations. Louis was a legend in his own lifetime, his sense of humour and storytelling were as good as his playing. He had a lifetime of stories from his times playing with legends like Benny Goodman, Ronnie Scott and Stephané Grappelli. Louis should be way more famous, I've seen many jazz guitarists over the years, none were as good as Louis at his peak. I was really sad when he passed away in 2016. I miss him, he's irreplaceable.
Before I listened to Louis' music I was introduced to the Parisian Swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephané Grappelli by Ciaran Swift. This was the first time I enjoyed any kind of jazz. Ciaran's enthusiasm for Django led us to jam some Parisian Swing together, such as the beautiful Django composition 'Nuages'. I got a few Django CDs and learnt to really appreciate his beautiful tone and amazing dexterity. He famously played solos with just two fingers in his fretting hand due to an injury from a fire. He could do with two fingers what most guitarists can't do with four! Though the style he and Grappelli played is associated with Paris, he was from a Belgian Gypsy family, so the style is also known as Gypsy jazz. 'Nuages' is a ballad, but he could really burn the fretboard too. Check out his modernist composition 'Rhythm Futur' for proof!
Wes Montgomery was one of the most influential guitarists of all time, a jazz guitar pioneer with a truly unique style. Whilst most guitarists pluck strings either with a plectrum or fingerstyle (with a combination of thumb and fingers), Montgomery played exclusively using the flesh of his thumb. He had a distinctive way of building solos, starting with single notes, then into octaves and ending with the complex art of chordal solos, where single lines give way to chords played quickly one after another. He composed some great tunes, now jazz standards, such as "Four on Six" and "Far Wes". He had a very diverse output, including recording Beatles songs and an album with classical musicians called 'Fusion'.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, with Hélio Delmiro and Oscar Castro-Neves
One of Brazil's greatest composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim was the most famous 'Bossa Nova' composer. His music was a Brazilian style of jazz that became hugely popular in the '60's following his hit composition 'The Girl From Ipanema'. When I discovered this music I got really hooked into the guitar style. The guitar is mainly used as a backing instrument in bossa nova, but the syncopated rhythms and chord changes opened a new world of harmony and rhythm to me. Jobim really hit the big time in 1967 when Frank Sinatra came knocking, resulting in the chill-out album par excellence 'Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim'. There are occasionally some great electric guitar parts in Jobim's records, such as those played by Hélio Delmiro on my favourite Bossa Nova album 'Elis and Tom', which Jobim recorded with Elis Regina, an extraordinary vocalist who died tragically young. I usually play a few Jobim tunes in solo concerts.
The bossa nova boom opened the world up to some virtuoso Brazilian guitarists who developed a really intricate hybrid between bossa nova, jazz and classical guitar. The best of these was a genius named Baden Powell. One of Brazil's greatest ever guitarists, he was also a wonderful composer. I've been playing his composition 'Deve Ser Amor' for many years, after first hearing it on an album by classical guitarist Gerald Garcia. He is one of a rare breed of musicians whose music is played by jazz, classical and pop musicians. His song 'Samba Triste' was a big hit. His innovative approach to guitar is demonstrated in 'Berimbau', an imitation of a brazilian folk instrument and his quirky 'Choro para Metronome'. As well as playing his own compositions, Powell peppered his albums and shows with jazz standards and classical music by composers like Bach and Albinoni. A one-of-a-kind maverick, Powell inspired the great classical guitarist Roland Dyens.
In the late 80's a satellite channel called 'Super Channel' became available on Irish cable TV. By the early 90's it was showing an eclectic programme called 'Talkin' Jazz'. It was like MTV for jazz and became regular late night viewing for me. One of the musicians often featured on it was jazz fusion maestro Pat Metheny. His brand of jazz was, to me at least, as unusual as his hair! His band featured synthesizers, Latin percussion, scat singing and his own unique guitar style, which included occasional use of a guitar synthesizer. When I first heard it I couldn't figure out whether I liked it or thought it was a bit naff. Eventually though Metheny won me over when I borrowed a couple of tapes from the library called 'Works' and 'Letter from Home'. 'Works' opens with the gorgeous, hypnotic track 'Sueno Con Mexico' which shows Metheny's melodic gifts at their best. To me this is a perfect example of how a jazz musician can create a great piece of original music without resorting to epic pyrotechnical solos. Metheny can shred with the best of them though, as demonstrated on the kaleidoscopic 'Have You Heard'. I picked the track 'It's For You' as it's one of the best examples I know of how Metheny manages to straddle the line between naff-ness and genius! On first listen I found the combination of folky guitar strums and new-agey synth sounds a bit cheesy, however as the track developed I couldn't help but be drawn into it. My musical taste-buds tell me I shouldn't like it, but once the guitar solo kicks in after 4 minutes I can't resist! Outside of his jazz fusion Metheny has the street-cred of collaborating with musicians as diverse as Brad Meldhau, Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich and David Bowie, with whom he wrote the classic hit 'This is Not America'. Metheny's keyboardist Lyle Mays, who was a vital part of Metheny's sound, sadly passed away earlier this year. RIP.
Paco DeLucia, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin
Another 'Talkin' Jazz' staple was live performances from a guitar trio called 'The Meeting of the Spirits' featuring flamenco legend Paco DeLucia alongside jazz axemen Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Their performances, from a 1980 concert, showed me a new side of jazz that was a guitar extravaganza. Al DiMeola replaced Coryell in the trio soon after that concert. He is on the trio's first album 'Friday Night in San Francisco'. The title track of their 1983 album 'Passion, Grace and Fire' is a high point in flamenco/jazz fusion. Ciaran Swift and I spent many's the hour jamming out 'Mediterranean Sundance', trying desperately to match the lightning speed of this extraordinary trio. We both had a preference for Paco DeLucia, whose flamenco roots gave the trio a distinctive Spanish take on jazz. Lately though I've come to really enjoy Larry Coryell's playing and tone. Coryell and DeLucia passed away in recent years.
Perhaps the only jazz guitarist to make it onto MTV playing solo guitar, Tuck Andress made a name for himself in the late 80's/early 90's in a duo alongside his wife, vocalist Patti Cathcart. They followed Miles Davis' inclination to turn pop songs of the 80's into jazz standards, like Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time'. Andress had solo success with his percussive cover of Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror'. No one played guitar like Andress back then, so he featured often in guitar magazines and on TV. Nowadays there are tons of guitarists imitating his percussive style, yet few of them are in his league, still it's easy to forget how innovative he was when he came out. I got a transcription of his version of 'Man in the Mirror' from a magazine back then and had a go at learning it. I can't remember it anymore, but it was fun to learn.
Not long after the 'Talkin' Jazz' days I left school to go to the famous 'Rock School' in Ballyfermot. Though we were all supposed to be there to learn how to be rock stars I ended up learning more about jazz thanks to the guitar teacher there, Hugh Buckley. Hugh is probably Ireland's finest living jazz guitarist, ever since Louis Stewart passed away. He's forged a diverse career, in the process playing with legends like Van Morrison and The Dubliners' Ronnie Drew (He produced Ronnie's final album, of jazz standards). Hugh gave me my first lessons in jazz and really helped expand my knowledge of harmony and guitar chords. I've played with him a few times, most notably in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet and the 2008 Trad Connections Tour, which also included Ciaran Swift. Hugh is such a jazz master I leave the jazz solos to him whenever we play together! I've always enjoyed Hugh's compositions too, especially 'When Wes Was', 'Miro, Miro on the Wall' and 'J.W.', dedicated to the memory of brilliant drummer John Wadham. I used to regularly go to jazz gigs at JJ Smyths bar in Dublin's Aungier St. Hugh had a residency there in a great band with Wadham, pianist Myles Drennan, bassist Dave Fleming and Hugh's cousin Richie on sax. JJ's was where my real jazz education took place. It was going there that helped me gain an understanding of the genre as a listener. I'm still trying to understand how to play it!
New York is the world's jazz hotspot. The first time I was going there, in 1998, I asked Hugh for tips of where to find good jazz. He told me to go to 'Smalls', an aptly named underground jazz club in Greenwich Village. Back then it wasn't even a bar, just a music club. You could go to the nearby off-licence and bring in a few bottles instead. I'll never forget my first night in Smalls where I got to hear some of New York's best upcoming talent jamming away til the early hours. That year I saw a group of young musicians led by sax player Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Barely known back then, nowadays they are jazz superstars. On a more recent trip to New York, perhaps 2009 or 2010, I went into Smalls to see the Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund on the recommendation of a jazz-loving friend. Lund is at the forefront of 'Nordic Jazz' and he is the most distinctive musician I've heard among the younger generation of jazz musicians. When I saw him in Smalls he stood out from the testosterone fuelled musicians who were occupying the stage with him that night. He has a really interesting approach to harmony and an angular soloing style that is always tasteful.
I was sad to see Smalls had changed a lot in just over 10 years though. It now had a bar and, Lund aside, the spirit had changed from co-operative jamming to competitive soloing. I didn't like the vibe so much there anymore and last time I went along, in 2014, there was an obnoxious door-man and an exorbitant cover charge, so I didn't bother going in. Back in '98 it was just $5 and a nice relaxed attitude at the door! Luckily my Irish Memory Orchestra colleague Neil Yates had alerted me to a place just down the road called 'Fat Cats' where it was $5 entry and there is a vibe not unlike the vibe Smalls had in the 90's. If you're ever in New York looking for some great jazz in a relaxed setting, go to Fat Cats!
These are the main jazz guitarists I've listened to over the years, there's lots more to recommend, people I should listen to more myself! Here's a few of them - Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, George Benson, Jim Hall, Lenny Breau, Charlie Christian, Lee Retinour, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Barney Kessel, Martin Taylor, Freddie Green & Ireland's Mike Nielsen.
Addendum 1 - Women in jazz guitar
There's no denying the fact that jazz guitar is a very male dominated domain. Guitar playing in general has always been male-dominated. Whilst there is a growing number of world-class female classical guitarists, jazz guitar seems to remain almost completely male dominated. Things might be different if it weren't for the tragic death of Emily Remler. She seems largely forgotten now, however In the '80's she was a really emerging jazz talent who recorded with Larry Coryell and bossa nova legend Astrud Gilberto among others. Her style was heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery which she acknowledged in this wonderful quote. "I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I'm a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery!" Things were really looking up for her by 1985 when she won guitarist of the year in the Down Beat magazine poll. Tragically she died of heart failure in 1990 whilst on tour in Australia, aged just 32. Like many jazz legends before her, she was a victim of a heroin addiction. I only heard of her very recently, so I can't say she is a guitar hero of mine, but I imagine she could very well be had she lived long enough to build on the international acclaim she was accumulating by the time of her passing.
Prior to Emily Remler, the most notable female jazz guitarist was Mary Ford, duo partner to the legendary Les Paul. Their recordings together in the 1950's were really groundbreaking for their use of overdubbed guitars and vocals. Whilst Ford mainly played rhythm guitar to her husband's virtuoso lead, Ford's place in jazz history is assured as a fine guitarist and wonderful vocalist. A real pioneer in music.
Other female jazz guitarists of note include Mary Osborne, Mimi Fox, Sheryl Bailey, Brazilian singer Joyce and Leni Stern, who I saw on my first visit to New York in 1998.
Addendum 2 - Dave's jazz forays
I don't consider myself a jazz musician at all, however I have written some jazzy songs and compositions, which jazz musicians have played with me. Examples include the songs 'Woodlands' and 'Harvest Do', (as recorded by D.F.F.) and 'Kilbaha Jazz', a jazz meets Irish trad piece that is part of 'The Clare Concerto'. Kilbaha Jazz is dedicated to Louis Stewart and I'm glad I got the chance to tell him I wrote a tune in his honour before he passed away. My album 'Winter Variations' is also somewhat in the realms of jazz, seeing as it is an hour-long improvisation around the chord A Major 9!
Some of the best guitarists I've ever seen or heard are/were from Africa. There are a huge variety of guitar styles across the African continent. In this blog post I explain a bit about some of these styles and some of the great musicians from Africa who have influenced me. Some of their music is on the playlists below. If your knowledge of the music of Africa begins and ends with Paul Simon's Graceland album, this blog post may open your ears to some amazing new music!
1. Franco, Michelino & Simaro from TPOK Jazz (DR Congo)
Congolese legend Franco Luambo Makiadi was one of the greatest musicians to come from Africa. From the 1950's until his death in 1989 he led the magnificent band TPOK Jazz to produce a legacy that no other band in Africa, or arguably anywhere, can rival. Franco recorded over 3000 songs, composing over 1000 of these, with the rest composed by other TPOK Jazz members. Many of these songs are over 10 minutes long and each contains an ecstatic instrumental climax called a sebene where the guitars chime out in glorious counterpoint. OK Jazz was an incredible band with many members through its history. At its peak in the late 70's and 80's It operated like a football team with musicians and singers substituting for others depending on the song that was being played. Franco was known as 'The Sorcerer of the Guitar' and his distinctive style has been very influential to me. Among the many great guitarists to pass through the ranks of OK Jazz my favourite is probably Michelino who is seen playing lead guitar in the Youtube clip of the song 'Kamikaze'. Franco is beside him, cutting an imposing figure whilst the other guitarist is Simaro, a wonderful composer who was Franco's right-hand man and played the rhythm guitar parts. Tracks like 'Coupe du Monde' and 'Tu es Méchante' showcase the infectious, multi-layered guitar sound of Franco and TPOK Jazz, my favourite band in the world!
2. Jean Bosco Mwenda (DR Congo)
I first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda through a recording by classical guitarist Timothy Walker of Mwenda's beautiful guitar piece 'Masanga'. Mwenda developed an intricate acoustic guitar finger-picking style that was hugely influential, likely influencing Franco and his colleagues. I don't know much about Mwenda, other than he his regarded as one of the pioneers of Congolese guitar playing and he sang beautifully to his intricate accompaniments. Famous classical guitarist John Williams has also recorded 'Masanga', although he can't get the rhythm and feel quite like Mwenda!
3. Ephraim Karimaura with Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe)
Thomas Mapfumo is probably Zimbabwe's most famous musician, a legend in Africa, he now lives in exile in the USA, after years of disputes with the Zimbabwean government. He was jailed by both the white colonial government of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, whom he once supported in the struggle for independence. In the 1970's Mapfumo developed a music style called 'Chimurenga', meaning 'struggle'. It was the soundtrack to Zimbabwean independence. Guitarists like Jonah Sithole and Joshua Dube developed a special guitar style to go with Mapfumo's new sound. They mute the strings to imitate the sound of the traditional 'mbira', what some Western musicologists might call a 'thumb piano'. I've been listening to Mapfumo's music for many years, since first discovering it randomly in the World Music section of the Ilac Centre Library in Dublin! I particularly like his albums 'Hondo' and 'Vahnu Vatema', which feature the beautiful guitar playing of Ephraim Karimaura. In 2000 I composed a piece in Mapfumo's honour called 'Chimurenga', which has been recorded by the Dublin Guitar Quartet. I've seen Mapfumo and his amazing band The Blacks Unlimited twice, Great nights of music!
4. Djelimady Tounkara and Salif Keita (Mali)
Mali's greatest band is probably the Super Rail Band, which features the incredible guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Originally known as the Rail Band in the 70's, the group has fostered many brilliant musicians including Salif Keita and Mory Kante, who both went on to successful international solo careers. Tounkara's guitar sets the Super Rail Band apart, he is one of the greatest guitar virtuosos from Africa. His style takes influences from Malian traditional instruments like the Kora and Balafon. Tounkara and the Super Rail Band played the 2007 Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire and I was lucky enough to be there for that briiiant concert. I've also had the pleasure of seeing Salif Keita in concert twice, most recently this year on his retirement tour. Now 70, his golden voice is as good as it ever was.
5. Jonah Sithole (Zimbabwe)
As mentioned before, Jonath Sithole pioneered the Chimurenga guitar sound during his time playing with Thomas Mapfumo. In the 1980's he started a solo career which brought him success and some international releases. I bought one of his CDs about 15 years ago when I lived in London. I got it at a great shop called Sterns African Music Centre, which unfortunately no longer exists other than as an online store. They used to have a café and lots of CDs to browse through that you couldn't get anywhere else. The digital streaming age ended Stern's viability. Strangely enough, Jonah Sithole's music isn't available on Spotify or other streaming services, but some fans have put his music up on Youtube. A great guitarist and his own albums are very enjoyable, in a similar style to Thomas Mapfumo.
6. Souza Vangu with Youlou Mabiala (Congo-Brazzaville)
Youlou Mabiala is a singer and composer from Congo-Brazzaville, a country beside DR Congo. He was a member of Franco's TPOK Jazz for some time, and he is Franco's son-in-law having married one of Franco's daughters. He became a solo star in the late 70's and 80's, producing some great albums with his band 'Orchestre Kamikaze', named after the song 'Kamikaze' which he composed. Orchestra Kamikaze's lead guitarist was a man called Souza Vangu, also from Congo-Brazzaville. His lead playing on the track 'Walimeya' is some of the most uplifting guitar playing I've ever heard!
7. Beniko Popolipo, Zamwangana & Jimmy Yaba of Zaiko Langa-Langa (DR Congo)
Zaiko Langa Langa come from the generation after Franco and TPOK Jazz, they developed the styles known as 'soukous' and 'rumba rock', which are generally a bit faster than the music Franco and TPOK Jazz played. The guitarists who have played with Zaiko Langa Langa over the years generally have to be able to play very fast! They are one of the most influential bands to come from Africa and their members included the late Papa Wemba, who became an international star, signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label. I haven't listened to a huge amount of their music, I don't find it as good as Franco and TPOK Jazz. However there is a great energy to some of their music from the 70's and 80's, like the song 'Antalia'.
8. Ali Farka Touré (Mali)
One of the best known musicians from Africa is the late Malian guitarist Ali Fark Touré. He gained fame through his collaborations with artists like American slide guitarist Ry Cooder and kora player Toumani Diabate. He is also featured in Martin Scorcese's documentary about the roots of the Blues, 'Feels like Going Home', where the music he played is called 'Desert Blues' and identified as the origins of the blues. Touré played in Dublin in the early 2000s and I intended to go, but it sold out fast so I missed out. I did eventually get to see him playing in London's Barbican Centre in a magical duo concert with Toumani Diabaté.
9. Niwel Tsumbu (DR Congo/Ireland)
Niwel Tsumbu is from DR Congo but has been living in Ireland for many years. Niwel is simply the best all-round guitarist I know. He can play anything! His own style seems to be a mix of Congolese styles, flamenco, jazz and contemporary music. I've worked with Niwel many times, he is a member of my ensembles D.F.F. and the Irish Memory Orchestra and in 2014 I composed a piece called Joy for Niwel and I to play with the Crash Ensemble. That piece is like a mix between Congolese Rumba and New York minimalism! Niwel has been putting some fantastic clips on youtube recently explaining various guitar styles. A recent video surprised me as he explained how the Open G tuning, that I use for Irish trad, is a tuning used in the Congo many years ago!
10. DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra (Tanzania)
In the early 2000s, with the advent of blogging, a treasure trove of rare African records were uploaded to blogs like World Service. These were records that were mostly unavailable commercially, so it was fantastic to be able to hear all this music for the first time, as most of it was unknown outside of Africa. It was on one of these blogs I discovered the Tanzanian band DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra. I can't find a lot of info about them, but it seems they were Tanzania's most popular band for many years. When you hear a track like 'Edita' that's not surprising. Towards the end of the song it seems to my ears that there are four electric guitars, which is unusual, as it is more common for these larger bands to have three guitarists. But it could be that one of the guitarists is so good they sound like two guitarists playing at once!
11. Western Jazz Band (Tanzania)
Another Tanzanian band I know little about is Western Jazz Band. I discovered their music through the beautiful song 'Rosa' on a compilation CD I bought many years ago called 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa'. There are indeed beautiful songs on this album, though they aren't necessarily 'the most beautiful' songs of Africa! I think they missed out on ten thousand or so other beautiful songs in compiling this album! An interesting aspect, to me, of the song 'Rosa' is that it has occasional odd rhythmic beat structures where a beat seems to go missing every now and again. I love the guitar playing on this beautiful record, I don't know who the guitarist is though.
12. D.O. Misiani (Tanzania/Kenya)
Also on 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa' is an artist called D.O. Misiani and his band Shirati Jazz. From what I've read Daniel O. Misiani was one of the most important band leaders in Africa during his heyday. His songs were important political and social songs that got him in trouble with the authorities from time to time. The style of music he pioneered is called 'Benga', and the album 'Benga Blast' is a great example of this style, which is a bit more pared down than the larger African 'orchestras'. I particularly like the way that the songs sometimes break down to just the rhythm guitar and drums, so you can hear the intricacy of these guitar parts that are usually in the background. Misiani passed away a few years ago.
13. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (South Africa)
Lots of people refer to Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album as being influenced by 'African' music, the truth though is that it is influenced by music styles purely from South Africa, like Township Jive and Palm Wine. Prior to 'Graceland' an album called 'The Indestructible Beat of Soweto' came out and proved hugely influential in the West. I got this album on tape in the 90's, not sure where it is anymore, I may have worn it out! There's lots of great guitar-based tracks on the album and I particularly like the tracks by Amaswazi Emvelo and Johnson Mkhalali. I don't know anything about these artists to be honest, I just enjoy the guitar sounds and distinctive vocals. Part of my composition 'The Clare Concerto' is influenced by this kind of music, 'Quilty Township Jive' mixes ideas from Irish trad and South African Township Jive and is dedicated to the Irish Memory Orchestra's South African conductor Bjorn Bantock.
There are so many other great bands and solo artists from across Africa, some more of which I've added to the Spotify playlist. This blog post only scratches the surface of the jewels to be found when you start looking for guitar music from Africa. I hope this post inspires you to discover some of this amazing music!
Traditional Irish music has been present in my life since childhood. My Mum had tapes of The Chieftains and Planxty which she played a lot, and my Dad was a huge fan of Christy Moore, whether he was singing old folk ballads or modern songs. When I was very young I heard a lot of tin whistle as my sister was learning it. I was sent for a few lessons with the same teacher, a lovely man called Piaras, but sadly he passed away very soon after I started with him. Perhaps there was something traumatic about that as I put down the whistle then and never played it again. It wasn't until my mid-teens when I began to listen again to traditional Irish music. My Mum spoke often about how much she enjoyed Andy Irvine's songs with Planxty, so one year, for her birthday I bought her a tape of Andy Irvine and Paul Brady's classic album. I ended up listening to it a lot more than she did! I soon started listening to her Planxty and Chieftains tapes and marvelled at The Chieftains almost orchestral version of The Foxhunt. Then, when I went to the Rock School in Ballyfermot after leaving school, I met Ciarán Swift and it wasn't too long before we started playing some trad guitar duets together, with a little help from Sarah McQuaid's DADGAD guitar book. Since then I've spent a huge amount of my life learning about traditional Irish music and playing it. Along the way I've been influenced by some great guitarists who I feature below in my "Celtic Guitars" playlists. My thoughts on these guitarists and their influence on me follows.
Paul Brady is best known as a hit singer-songwriter who has written songs for, among others, Tina Turner. Before he went down that path he was a well known singer and guitarist in traditional Irish music circles. He is one of the pioneers in playing Irish trad on the guitar. I first noticed how good he was when listening to his album with Andy Irvine. On that album he plays some Reels very impressively on the guitar. I'd never heard anyone doing that before and I loved the sound. He also had beautiful guitar accompaniments to songs like Mary and the Soldier and Arthur McBride. I did some research on his playing and found out he was using the same Open G tuning that I'd learnt from some guitar parts that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page played. I started learning Brady's Open G accompaniments to these songs and I liked the sound so much that I stuck with that tuning to accompany Irish trad, whilst most of my peers were using Dropped D or DADGAD tunings. I don't know anyone else who uses Open G to accompany Irish trad, which surprises me as it works really well.
In the year 2000, when I was 23, a friend of mine asked if I'd like to go to a trad gig at Dublin's National Concert Hall. I'd not heard of the musicians but Barry told me he was sure I'd enjoy it, especially because the guitarist had a really different way of accompanying Irish music. The gig was by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill and it was a life-changing event for me. Martin's fiddle playing was of course magnificent, however as a guitarist I was really drawn into Dennis' minimalist way of accompanying Martin. I loved the harmonies he used and was impressed by how he would suddenly start playing the tunes every now and again from out of nowhere. It wasn't long before I went to learn directly from Dennis at his guitar classes at the Feakle Traditional Music Festival in Clare. A few years later I went into Martin's fiddle class. Then by 2005 I'd convinced Martin and Dennis to work with me on a new composition which became 'Music for the Departed'. I've worked with them both a lot since then, and even stepped in for Dennis a couple of times to accompany Martin when Dennis wasn't available for Irish Memory Orchestra events. I spent a lot of time in my mid-20s working out how to play like Dennis, so I found it quite natural to write music for him and step into his shoes when needed. Overall I would say my trad guitar accompaniment style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill. Using Open G but a bit more minimalist in the use of chords, rhythms and harmonies than Brady is. Dennis is also a master joke teller, in fact when he speaks with you nearly every second line is a punchline!
Mícheál O Domhnaill (RIP)
I've never tried to learn how to play exactly like the legendary Bothy Band guitarist Mícheál O Domhnaill. I think this is because he mainly used DADGAD, a tuning I never really took to. Nonetheless I did play along to Bothy Band records a lot when I was younger and learnt some of his chord progressions. I saw him in concert a few times with the brilliant fiddle player Paddy Glackin. They were a magical duo to watch together. Last year I was hugely honoured to play with Paddy Glackin at the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival. I was very conscious then that I was occupying a space that Mícheál inhabited for many years with Paddy. It was a humbling and wonderful experience. Mícheál's playing is hugely influential to folk guitarists worldwide. He had a strong, innovative strumming accompaniment style which, alongside Donal Lunny and Tríona Ní Domhnaill, drove the Bothy Band's tune players to new heights of virtuosity and creativity in Irish music. He also did some beautiful finger-picking on songs and tunes like 'The Maids of Mitchelstown'. When he teamed up with Kevin Burke as a duo he also moved into jazz-influenced playing on tracks like 'The Promenade'. He passed away suddenly in 2006 aged just 54. A terrible loss for Irish music. May he rest in peace.
Steve Cooney is one of the most unique and gifted musicians in Ireland. Originally from Australia, he came to Ireland after spending time living with Aboriginals. They told him he needed to go to the land of his forefathers and to learn their language, music, poetry and way of life. He took their advice and moved to Ireland in the '80's. Soon after he was invited to join one of the biggest Irish groups of the time - Stockton's Wing. It was his next musical meeting that would really change the face of Irish music, when he teamed up with Kerry accordion player and singer Seamus Begley. With Begley, Cooney changed the nature of accompaniment in Irish music with an energetic, wild style that has proved hugely influential over the years. Steve has many imitators now, but none come close to his musicality. If you listen to him accompanying Martin Hayes on a piece like 'The Crooked Road' it is such a different style to how he plays with Begley. He's also recorded some great music with Tony McMahon, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon, Donal Lunny and many more trad greats. He was even a member of Sineád O'Connor's band for a few years and I once got a gig in his place at the Masters of Tradition Festival, when he got called to play with Sineád instead. Though he is best known for his blistering backing style, he is also a masterful fingerstyle soloist, who has a particular genius for interpreting the harp music of Turlough O'Carolan. A lovely soul and a living legend, I'm glad to have had the chance to chat with Steve a few times and also join him on stage on a couple of occasions. The energy he brings to the stage is incredible!
Arty McGlynn (RIP)
Arty McGlynn was, alongside Paul Brady, a real pioneer of Celtic Guitar playing. He was the first musician to make a solo album of traditional Irish music on guitar, 'McGlynn's Fancy' is a now legendary recording. He also made some great recordings playing Irish tunes on electric guitar, another innovation. He is best known though as a hugely popular accompanist, not only in trad, but also with songwriters as well known as Van Morrison. Arty sadly passed away last year. He was a close friend of some very good friends of mine and though I only met him a couple of times I had huge admiration for him as a man and musician. I've seen him play in numerous concerts over the years with luminaries including Liam O'Flynn, Matt Molloy, John Carty, and his long-time partner Nollaig Casey. I also saw him several times in a completely different guise, playing jazz on a Monday Night in Bogan's Bar in his home town of Omagh. He had a great sense of humour too and his stories, like his music live on. RIP Arty, you're sorely missed.
Ciaran Swift is definitely the most underrated guitarist on this list. Though I count him as one of my best friends, I can safely say he's one of the most influential trad guitarists to me, as it was Ciaran who really got me interested in exploring trad guitar when he told me about Sarah McQuaid's DADGAD book. In the late 90's we started learning tunes from the book together and worked out some arrangements that eventually made it onto my 2006 debut album 'Draíocht'. There are two guitar duets on that album and often people don't realise when they listen that it is Ciaran playing the lead melody on DADGAD steel string and me playing the accompaniment on nylon string guitar. I'm happy to set the record straight here! Ciarán has had a long diverse career working with songwriters like Fionn Regan and Roesy and touring the world in cover bands. He's at his best though when playing trad guitar and, as well as being a great tune player, he's a brilliant accompanist too with a really strong strumming technique as good as anyone on this list!
John Doyle is, like Steve Cooney, a man with many imitators and unfortunately most of his imitators do a poor job of it! John is a really versatile guitarist, however he's perhaps best known for his powerful accompaniment style with Liz Carroll and the band Solas. He's a fine singer and great tune player also. The main way he influenced me is through his work with Liz Carroll on the album 'Lost in the Loop'. I saw them in concert around the time that was released and I was really blown away by the power and chemistry of their musical partnership. I would have learnt a few of John's chord progressions at the time, without using his Dropped D tuning. Years later I'd have the honour of touring with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O'Connor. On that tour I didn't try to imitate John at all but I was definitely playing some of the chords he used with Liz! He achieved great things with Liz Carroll, nominated for a Grammy and even playing at the White House for President Obama. Their duo ended a few years ago and John moved into playing with American folk singers like Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I'm glad to see he has made it to the big time, however I feel his duo with Liz was his finest hour and would love to see them reunite.
Dáithí Sproule & Mark Kelly (Altan)
For several years, starting in the early 2000s I made an annual pilgrimage to the Frankie Kennedy Winter School in the beautiful area of Bunbeg and Dunlewey in Donegal. It was there I first saw the dynamic band Altan. I got all their albums over the first few years and spent a lot of time playing along to them, learning the chord progressions that guitarists Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule laid down with bouzouki player Ciaran Curran. I was never quite sure whether I was listening to Dáithí or Mark as they tended to alternate recording on different tracks. Dáithí usually played with Altan when they were touring the USA, with Mark touring with them elsewhere. However they'd sometimes both be at the Frankie Kennedy Winter School and sometimes they'd share the stage or alternate during the same gig. With Altan they play a similar style of DADGAD accompaniment, alternating between powerful strums and intricate finger-picking. Outside of Altan Dáithí has recorded with many other artists including Liz Carroll, with whom he was in the great group Trian. He's also a fine singer and was a member of the short lived but influential group Skara Brae with Mícheál O'Domhnaill and his sisters Máiréid and Tríona Ní Domhnaill.
It was at the same Frankie Kennedy Winter School that I first saw Seamie O'Dowd when he was playing with the fantastic band Dervish. I think they were really at the peak of their powers at that time and I remember the gig being a very special night and Seamie was on fire. A couple of years later he was back playing another amazing gig, this time with Mairtin O'Connor, Cathal Hayden, Garry O'Briain and the late Mary McPartlan. The same year I was really amazed to see him take the stage at a fiddle recital and he played the fiddle brilliantly too! Seamie is something of a genius multi-instrumentalist, equally good on harmonica, double bass and he's a great singer too. If that weren't enough he's regarded as one of Ireland's best blues rock players in the mould of Rory Gallagher. Seamie is a tough act to follow as I've learnt by playing with Máirtín O'Connor a few times over the years. Mairtin has often asked me to play 'The Road West' with him, and in that I'm directly learning from Seamie as he recorded the great guitar part on that album. I can't play it exactly like Seamie does as I'm more of a finger-style player and he's much quicker with a plectrum than I am. Maybe it's best I do my own version anyway!
I first saw Tony McManus play when John Feeley invited him to do a concert and workshop with his classical guitar students at the DIT College of Music in Dublin. We were all really impressed by his virtuoso way of playing traditional music from Scotland and Ireland on the steel string guitar. It takes a lot to impress a room full of classical guitarists, especially if you aren't playing classical guitar, so that's a testament to Tony's brilliance. A few years later I had a one-on-one masterclass with him at the Dundee Guitar Festival and it was great to spend an hour with him learning about his unique style. He showed me an open E tuning that he uses a lot to imitate the Highland Pipes. I liked the tuning, but instead of imitating it I decided the best thing I could do was forge my own way of playing trad on the guitar by finding my own tuning. Eventually I did by imitating the tuning of an Irish fiddle. One thing he does which I did learn and keep is his way of playing a treble/triplet ornament with his fingers in a way similar to how classical guitarists play a tremolo. Though Tony is Scottish he plays a lot of Irish traditional music and does it very well!
Addendum - My own trad guitar style
I've mentioned how my trad backing style is like a hybrid between Paul Brady and Dennis Cahill, though in fairness to all those listed above, I'd have been influenced by them all in some way to make my style. I'm also influenced by bouzouki and mandolin players like Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine. I do my own thing though really so here's a summary of what I do with different tunings.
Open G - DGDGBD
I always use this when backing trad in sessions and often in concerts too. On record you can hear me use it on my first album 'Draíocht' on the songs/tunes 'The Mad Magician/Mad Magician's Daughter', 'Beautiful Freaks Like Us', 'Stone Walls' and 'The Magical Reel/Cinderella's Slipper'. I also used this tuning when I accompanied Martin Hayes in Irish Memory Orchestra gigs and on tour with Liz Carroll and Mairtin O'Connor. Occasionally I'll add some influences from African guitar styles into my backing, using this tuning.
Dropped D - DADGBE
I use this tuning when accompanying Máirtin O'Connor with the Irish Memory Orchestra on the tracks 'The Cuckoo', and 'Cat Chase Mouse'. On record I use it on the Draíocht tracks 'The Tempest in Mali' and 'The Monument'. When I have two guitars with me in concert, one is my Martin steel string tuned to Open G and the other a nylon string tuned to Dropped D, which I switch quickly to Standard tuning when needed.
Standard - EADGBE
I rarely use this when playing trad, but I use it in the Draíocht track 'Drowsy Maggie/The Coming of Spring' and also with Mairtin O'Connor sometimes.
Dave's Fiddle Tunings - DGDGAE / CGDGAE / BbFDGAE / DADGAE
I developed these tunings in order to play Irish trad tunes with an authentic style derived from fiddle playing and piping. These are the tunings I use on the album 'Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar'. Each tuning has the top four strings tuned DGAE, this gives the option of playing fiddle ornaments on the same open strings as fiddle players. I change the lower two strings according to the key of the tunes I am playing in. The main reason I developed this tuning though was because I'd learnt how to play a lot of Irish tunes on mandolin/banjo and instead of relearning the fingerings in a more common tuning I figured out a way of tuning the guitar so that I could just transfer the same fingerings from mandolin/banjo, whilst adding in some bass drones like a piper would. These tunings allow me to play ornaments like a fiddle player would. As far as I know, I'm the first and only guitarist to develop these tunings and techniques for Irish trad playing! I've also used this tuning on electric guitar when recording 'Christmas Eve' from my Winter Variations album.
When I was about 14 or 15 I started listening to a tape my Mum owned of the guitarist John Williams called "Guitar Music from Spain, England, Japan, Mexico & South America". Back then I couldn't read sheet music so I started learning some of the music by ear. I'd gradually transcribe it from the tape into Guitar TAB so I wouldn't forget it. The two main pieces I learnt then were Albeniz's 'Asturias' and the Japanese piece 'Sakura Variations' by Yocoh. I still play Sakura to this day, and have even played it on tour in Japan! Hearing John Williams play so beautifully inspired me to begin a lifelong journey with classical music. Below are Youtube and Spotify playlists featuring my favourite classical guitarists and some favourite classical guitar pieces, followed by some thoughts on each guitarist.
My favourite classical guitarist, by quite a distance, is the English guitarist Julian Bream. The reason I like Bream so much is that he is, first and foremost, a musician rather than being just a guitarist. His interpretative skills are world class. The repertoire he chose to play was also very wide ranging and he was groundbreaking in the way he commissioned new works from leading composers of his time. The classical guitar world has hundreds, perhaps thousands of technically brilliant players, many of whom would have better textbook technique than Bream. However few of them come close to matching Bream's masterful musicality. Bream can bring out so many wonderful textures and colours from the guitar, there are some tones he can produce that no other guitarist can. He seems a very nice chap indeed too in the mould of the eccentric English gent, as evidenced in this documentary. The pieces I've chosen for the playlist represent some of his finest interpretations, from Rodrigo's magical 'Passacaglia', to the 'Five Bagatelles' he commissioned from William Walton and the baroque 'Fantasie' by Weiss. I never got to see Bream live, which is a great regret in life. He's now retired, but he has passed the baton on to a supremely gifted young guitarist who is my newest classical guitar hero. More of which later.
As I mentioned, that John Williams tape inspired me to explore classical guitar seriously. I have seen him in concert a few times and each time was a masterclass in almost flawless guitar playing. Williams is particularly renowned for his perfectionism. Classical guitar is extremely difficult to master and Williams surpassed the legendary Segovia to bring the level of guitar technique to the heights of any classical virtuoso. For that he is lauded the world over. I would say his output is a bit more uneven than Bream's, but when he gets it right he is magnificent, as in the recordings of Yocoh's 'Sakura', Domeniconi's 'Koyunbaba' and Sagreras' dazzling 'El Colibri'. He was the first classical guitarist I saw in concert, at Dublin's National Concert Hall in the mid-90's. Aside from his guitar brilliance I loved the fact that he wore jeans on stage!
In 1998 my Mum and I went to a concert in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery by John Feeley, who was advertised as Ireland's finest classical guitarist. By the end of the concert I said to my Mum "He's not just Ireland's best, he's as good as John Williams!". My Mum encouraged me to chat with him about maybe getting some lessons. Being self-taught 'til then I was reluctant, but eventually I contacted him and met him at the DIT College of Music in Dublin where I played for him and he agreed to take me on as a student. I studied with John for the next five years, the latter four being during my undergraduate degree studies. John is a great teacher, very much a musician and a particularly brilliant interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach. John isn't as world famous as some other guitarists on this list, but he should be. In recent years a video of him performing Bach's imposing 'Chaconne' has propelled him to Youtube fame, it has over 3.5 million views! I'm lucky enough to have had John perform some of my compositions and I really enjoyed performing alongside him in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet with Hugh Buckley and Niwel Tsumbu. The Spotify playlist features him playing some music by contemporary Irish composer John Buckley. Dr. Feeley did his doctorate in modern Irish classical guitar music and he is widely regarded as the leading expert in the area having commissioned numerous composers over the years.
It came as a shock to me when Roland Dyens, the great Tunisian-French guitarist/composer passed away in 2016, aged just 61. Dyens was a truly unique guitarist/composer, unlike anyone else in the classical guitar world. In 2000 I travelled to the Nürtingen Guitar Festival in Germany where I spent a wonderful week learning from great guitar masters including Dyens. I was part of the guitar orchestra class that he was conducting. A group of about 30 guitarists from around the world worked together under his direction on a brand new piece called "Suite Polymorphe". Dyens had a wonderful way in rehearsals, incredibly patient and he could speak in about 7 languages so he could communicate to everyone easily. He brought us all for coffee after the last rehearsal and I got the opportunity to speak with him briefly. I saw him in concert quite a few times and always loved his approach. He never announced a programme, always began with an improvisation and moved through the concert spontaneously, playing pieces as he felt might suit the occasion. One of the remarkable things about him was his ability to play jazz almost as well as he played classical music. His compositions rank among the finest 20th/21st Century guitar works. I particularly like his "Libra Sonatine" which I learnt and played in my early 20's.
Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer is a true living legend of the guitar world. His diverse body of guitar works are performed by practically all classical guitarists. Brouwer's music appeals so much because he has run the gamut of modern composing styles, from very avant-garde experimentalism to minimalism and nationalistic folk styles. As a classical guitar student I played lots of Brouwer's music, both solo and in guitar ensembles. I particularly liked his solo piece Cuban Landscape with Bells and its sister pieces for guitar ensemble Cuban Landscape with Rain and Cuban Landscape with Rumba. I've never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brouwer although I did attend a festival where he was supposed to attend but he had to pull out due to ill health, such a shame! Brouwer was, at one point, a brilliant concert guitarist, but a hand injury forced him to give up his guitar playing and instead he focuses on composing and conducting. Some recordings of Brouwer at his heyday exist and it is wonderful to hear his own interpretations of his compositions and the music of other composers, like his version of Piazzolla's 'La Muerte Del Angel' on the playlists. You can also sense him 'playing' his own music when he conducts a guitar orchestra in "Cuban Landscape with Rain".
Dusan Bogdanovic is a Serbian guitarist/composer now living in the USA. I first heard about him in the early 2000s after getting a CD by Los Angeles Guitar Quartet member William Kanengiser which had his compositions '3 African Sketches', pieces I later learnt and performed in concert. I also learnt his idiosyncratic "6 Balkan Miniatures", which, at the time, made him stand apart from other classical guitar composers due to the complex time signatures inspired by Balkan folk music. In 2004 I attended Bogdanovic's composition masterclasses at the Nürtingen Guitar Festival, which were very informative and also shattered one of my illusions! In 2001 I had a eureka moment as a composer when I thought I'd discovered a new way of composing which I called 'Polymetric Cycles'. During his workshop Bogdanovic produced a book of compositions he'd written in 1990 called " Polyrhythmic and Polymetric Studies for Guitar". Within that book he talked about polymetric cycles and demonstrated how the concept of a polymetric cycle originated in ancient African music styles. So much for my great musical invention! I soon got over that and just enjoyed listening to Bogdanovic's intellectual yet accessible thoughts on music. Later in the festival he played a double-header concert with Roland Dyens. Here he displayed truly virtuosic guitar skills and also shared a wonderful improvisation with Dyens at the end. Quite why Bogdanovic isn't better known is beyond me, he is one of the most original classical guitarists I've seen and an excellent composer.
Pat Metheny playing Steve Reich
Pat Metheny is a jazz musician, not a classical guitarist, but he did premiere perhaps the most important guitar ensemble work by a classical composer of the late 20th Century, Steve Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint'. This hypnotic work, inspired by the Banda-Linda music of Central Africa and Metheny's own brand of jazz fusion, was composed in 1987. It is now considered the definitive piece for multiple guitars. It has been played by numerous classical guitarists and guitar ensembles and it was even sampled by 90's electronic music band 'The Orb' for their hit "Little Fluffy Clouds". Metheny's version remains the finest I've heard, although my friend Niwel Tsumbu performed it a few years ago when Reich was in Cork for a festival of his music and though I wasn't there to hear it, by all accounts Niwel's interpretation could be the best.
Last year I was Composer in Residence at the Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland. Whilst there I asked two of the students who their favourite guitarist was, without hesitation both of them said Laura Snowden. I had kinda been out of the classical guitar world for about 15 years by then, so I'd never heard of her. Intrigued I decided to watch some of her Youtube videos. It didn't take me long to understand why the younger generation of guitarists were holding her in such high regard. Laura is one of a very rare number of classical guitarists, like those mentioned above, who transcend the instrument and are simply great musicians, not just great guitarists. Laura is the best classical guitarist I've seen in a long time. She is also a great composer and holds another trump card up her sleeve that none of the other guitarists on this list hold, she sings beautifully and sometimes adds wordless singing to her guitar compositions. She also plays trad guitar in a folk group! In 2019 I was curating the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival and decided to invite Laura to perform at it, for what was her Irish debut. She played solo and also joined Michael O'Toole, David Creevy and I in a new group I put together called 'The Beckett Guitar Quartet'. It was wonderful to play alongside her and I look forward to working with her again in the future. Laura has yet to make a solo album, but I'm sure she is the future of the classical guitar, and none other than Julian Bream has taken her on as his protegé. Though she has no solo album yet, a beautifully produced video of her interpretation of Benjamin Britten's epic "Nocturnal" has recently been released. I put this on the Youtube Playlist.
As a classical guitar student in my early 20's I spent a lot of time playing the music of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. There was a documentary I saw on TV about Rodrigo which featured Pepe Romero as the main guitarist. He displayed a really deep understanding of Rodrigo's music that was inspirational to me. I found an old cassette of him playing Rodrigo's guitar works in Dublin's Ilac Centre Library. The tape wasn't available on CD then, so I transferred the tape to a blank CD and listened to it many times. Pepe Romero is one of Spain's greatest ever guitarists and he is also part of the great guitar quartet Los Romeros with some of his family members. I've never seen Pepe Romero live, but his recordings are wonderful.
If you study classical guitar you will inevitably study the music of Brazil's greatest composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos is one of the very few guitarist-composers who is spoken of in the pantheon of the great 20th Century classical composers. He has a huge body of works and his piano, cello and orchestral music are played the world over. Though Villa-Lobos was never a concert guitarist, recently released recordings of him playing two of his famous guitar works are revelatory as they reveal a way of playing these works that no other classical guitarist had considered. The recordings are old and crackly private tapes, so they can be difficult to listen to if you're not used to such things, but if you can move beyond the snaps, crackles and pops you will surely enjoy hearing the man himself play his beautiful music. As a student I played all of Villa-Lobos' music. In recent years I've started playing a few of them again and I try to bring some of what I've learnt from Bossa Nova and Samba music to it, as I can hear in Villa-Lobos' playing of his Choros No.1 that the rhythm is very connected to Bossa and Samba. They are all rooted in Brazilian folk music. Beyond his own recordings the definitive recordings of Villa-Lobos' music are surely by Julian Bream, who met Villa-Lobos as a young man and gave the British Premiere of Villa Lobos' Guitar Concerto. Villa-Lobos, who was self-taught, unusually used the little finger of his plucking hand, something that classical guitarists generally don't do. Segovia was baffled by this technique and told Villa-Lobos that other guitarists couldn't play his music that demanded the little finger. Villa-Lobos' response was "If you don't use it, then cut it off!" Coincidentally I naturally learnt to use my little finger a bit when teaching myself and I've composed some pieces which call for the use of the little finger, including "Four Etudes for Five Fingers", commissioned by the late Charles Postlewate, a pioneer in Five Finger technique.
Other Guitarists, including Segovia
The guitarists above are just my personal favourites, there are many other wonderful classical guitarists worth exploring, some of whom would, in the eyes of classical guitar aficiandos, be technically better than some of those mentioned above. I will list a few other guitarists who I have enjoyed seeing, hearing and sometimes learning from, to give some more options.
Scott Tennant, David Russell, Manuel Barrueco, Sharon Isbin, The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Ana Vidovic, William Kanengiser, Zoran Dukic. Benjamin Dwyer, Avril Kinsey, Charles Postlewate, Nikita Koshkin, Pavel Steidl.
You may notice that the famous Andres Segovia isn't on my list. I did try to get interested in Segovia's playing when I was a guitar student. I bought some Segovia CDs and listened to them, however I never felt an urge to go back to them very often. Maybe his style sounded old-fashioned to me at the time. I also am put off by Segovia's very conservative attitudes which led to a famous encounter with Igor Stravinsky. When Stravinsky asked Segovia "Why have you never requested I write music for you?", Segovia responded "I do not want to insult your music by not playing it!" With those snide words Segovia robbed guitarists of a potential masterpiece from one of the most important classical composers of all time!
Ah, the 90's, remember those days? Remember the big music stars. No? Well, here's who you couldn't get away from if you turned on the radio or Top of the Pops in the 90's - The Spice Girls, Boyzone, Take That, Westlife, Steps, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, The Backstreet Boys, S Club 7, Five, Oasis, Bon Jovi, Puff Daddy, Will Smith and Bryan Adams. It was a decade filled with bad cover versions, over-ornamented white "soul" singers, cheesy boy/girl bands, commercial rap, cloying rock ballads and retro culture. I was a teenager between 1990 and 1996 and I despaired at the music I was hearing on the radio. I'll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted in the 90's - better music!
There was of course an alternative music culture that produced some good music, but by and large the 1990's were a strange time for pop/rock music, especially guitar-based music. Aside from Grunge there weren't too many guitar-based musical developments. Though I enjoyed Grunge for a while it was a brief trend that never stuck with me. Grunge was huge but now it seems a distant memory, most Grunge bands seem to have been forgotten about, perhaps rightly so.
The real 90's musical revolutions were in electronic music with Rave, Jungle, Electronica, Trip-Hop and Hip Hop. I took solace in some artists from those genres like Goldie, Missy Elliot, Bjørk and Massive Attack, but guitar music they were not! So for my rock/pop guitar fixes in the 90's, I was discovering music from previous decades.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of innovation in guitar music was because there was a big trend of 'retro' music, especially referencing the 1960's. As the decade went on the 60's revival was replaced by the 70's revival and there was even an attempt at an 80's revival as the 90's came to an end!
All that is a long way of explaining how my 90's guitar hero playlists revolve around guitarists more associated with the 60's, 70's and 80's. Here's a Youtube and Spotify playlist of some of the music I was listening to and learning from then, followed by my thoughts on each guitarist.
No guitar hero list would be complete without the greatest rock guitarist of them all. The 60's revival of the 90's brought a trend of releasing 'remastered' classic albums. Jimi Hendrix's music had a great renaissance then, especially after they produced a video for his cover of Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower'. The invention in his guitar playing was inspiring and I immersed myself in learning his music then. His diversity as a player is brilliantly illustrated in tracks like 'Castles Made of Sand' and 'The Wind Cries Mary'. His rhythm guitar playing was as inventive as his famed solos. The true rock guitar hero. Nothing more needs to be said!
The Police (Andy Summers)
It was through listening to The Police in the 90's that I really transformed as a listener and musician. Andy Summers is probably the most important influence to me for that reason, as it was his guitar playing that really expanded my musical horizons. He played extended chords like no one else in pop or rock did. It all sounded so simple, but then you'd try to play it and your fingers would get sore because they had to stretch across more frets than any other music you'd played! My fingers stretched out to be quite long mainly because I learnt how to play Andy Summers' add9 chords from Message in a Bottle, Every Breath You Take and perhaps my favourite Police riff De Do Do Do. Some of The Police's best tracks weren't singles, so they aren't as well known. 'Secret Journey' and 'When the World is Running Down' feature some of Summers' finest textured playing. I composed my first classical guitar piece when listening to The Police. I called it Homage to Andy Summers as it used a lot of add9 chords. It's now called 'Elegy for Joan' in memory of my late Mum. Summers' isn't just a huge influence on me, his influence is basically heard across the entire pop/rock history since the late 70's! He could do more with one unusual chord and an effects pedal than most can do with all the guitar tricks in the box.
The Doors (Robbie Krieger)
The 60's revival brought The Doors back into fashion in a big way, so much so that there was a big Hollywood movie about them. I was buying CDs by then and so I got all The Doors CDs. Of course Jim Morrison was an enthralling lead singer, but it was the understated and hugely versatile Robbie Krieger that really peaked my interest. He would move from screaming blues solos like in 'Peace Frog', to jazzy sitar-like playing as on 'Indian Summer' and Spanish guitar, like 'Spanish Caravan'.
Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon)
Simon and Garfunkel's music was always in the house, however as I matured as a guitarist I began to understand what a great guitarist Paul Simon is, so I started learning a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs. They are great songs to learn fingerstyle guitar and are a bit of a bridge to classical and jazz guitar. 'So Long Frank Lloyd Wright' is a strangely beautiful song sung by Art Garfunkel to Paul Simon's gorgeous nylon string guitar part. This song introduced me to the Brazilian style of Bossa Nova which I'd grow to love. Simon's version of Davy Graham's guitar instrumental 'Anji' also introduced me to the world of solo folk guitar playing, which ultimately led me into traditional Irish music. 'Punky's Dilemma' has jazzy strums using major 7th chords, which became my favourite type of chords.
When you start exploring 60's folk songwriters like Paul Simon it isn't long before you discover Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. Though the most famous Joni album is 'Blue', the album that really captured me was 'Hejira', a sprawling jazz-influenced album about life on the road with a cast of wonderful musicians including guitarist Larry Carlton and legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. It is also a great showcase of Joni's inventive guitar playing. She uses numerous alternative guitar tunings to sculpt beautiful accompaniment to her poetic lyrics. A true musical genius.
Neil Young plays harmonica on the 'Hejira' track 'Furry Sings the Blues'. In the 90's he had a big comeback and became a guitar hero to a new generation. His legendary MTV Unplugged set is perhaps the most memorable edition of Unplugged, I bought the tape when it came out in 1993. Unplugged introduced an almost forgotten 70's star to the 90's generation and he was labelled the Godfather of Grunge. The Unplugged album doesn't explain why he got this name, rather it's his work with his band Crazy Horse, with whom he played extended heavy rock jams, some featuring really epic guitar solos, like 'Down by the River', 'Cortez the Killer' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand'. Down by the River is notable for Young's 'one note solos', where he keeps playing the same note over and over before doing the same with another note. Minimalist rock guitar god!
Pink Floyd (Dave Gilmour)
In 1994 Pink Floyd made a comeback with the album 'The Division Bell'. I'd been listening to them a bit before the Division Bell came out, having been introduced to the glories of their remastered back catalog of great albums like Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Meddle and Animals. Dave Gilmour's guitar playing on these records is some of the best rock guitar there is, so he was a huge influence to me then. I never got to see Pink Floyd live, but I did see their legendary Live 8 reunion live on TV in 2005 and their performance of 'Comfortably Numb' brought a nostalgic tear to my eyes! The epic song 'Dogs' has incredible guitar playing throughout.
It's hard to believe it now, but in the late 70's and 80's The Beatles were not a trendy band at all, they were seen as a relic of the bygone hippie era that the punks, goths and metal-heads were railing against. So, as a child, I didn't hear them much on the radio and I knew a lot more about the individual member's solo work than the band. Then The Beatles had a major revival in the 90's thanks to a host of 'new' bands ripping them off (hello Oasis!) and a huge marketing campaign around their remastered 'Anthology'. It was impossible to avoid The Beatles at this point, so I began seriously listening to their music. Hearing the albums 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', 'Revolver', 'The White Album' and 'Abbey Road' made me and a lot of my generation realise they were one of the greatest of all pop/rock bands! Some of their non-album singles are among their best work, especially 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on which John, Paul and George each play different guitar lines. It was the 2000s before I got into their US equivalent, The Beach Boys, so they're not in my Retro 90's playlist.
Yes (Steve Howe)
Another 60's/70's band to get a 90's revival was the Progressive Rock band 'Yes'. I was drawn into Yes' music by their virtuoso guitarist Steve Howe. I'd known their hit 80's song 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' but it was really through the publicity around their so-so 1991 comeback album 'Union' that I began to explore their back catalog. At their best Yes produced really uplifting music which had a great balance between pop hooks and virtuoso musicianship. At their worst they were self-indulgent. The main Yes album I listened to in the 90's was the compilation "Classic Yes" which has the best tracks from their 70's heyday. Howe's guitar playing is tremendous throughout this compilation, as is Jon Anderson's distinctive singing. The epic 10 minute "And You and I" is a great showcase of their talents, moving stage by stage from a mysterious 12-string acoustic guitar intro to a folky pop song, to a psychedelic bit, a synth-orchestra interlude, a majestic vocal climax, another folky bit, some bluesy guitar, strange synth noodling from Rick Wakeman, a harmony vocal bit, another synth-orchestra bit and finally returning to gentle folkiness at the end. Genre-jumping at its finest!
The Clash (Mick Jones)
Another band to get a 90's revival were 'The Clash'. Their revival was mainly down to 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' being used for a famous Levi jeans TV ad. My sister was a big fan of the band in the 80's, but I didn't really listen to them then. With their 90's revival I started listening to them and I began to really appreciate their diversity, they weren't just another punk band. They brought in influences from Reggae, Funk and Disco to develop into the best of the Punk bands. My favourite song of theirs is 'Straight to Hell', which has strange textures including some beautifully subtle guitar lines from Mick Jones. 'London Calling' and 'Rock the Casbah' are two other classics I like that were on MTV a lot in the 90's. Jones is kind of an anti-guitar hero as he doesn't do flashy guitar solos, but his guitar playing with The Clash was just perfect for what they were doing.
Addendum - Why No 90's Guitar Heroes? Where's Kurt Cobain and Jonny Greenwood?
So in this playlist of my "90's" rock guitar heroes, none of them are artists who first broke through in the 90's. To me that's a reflection of the fact that the 90's weren't a great time for guitar music. In fact, I remember one of the key aesthetics of 90's rock music was a reaction against the very concept of a rock guitar solo. Accomplished guitar playing wasn't cool anymore! Take for example thisBest of 1993 edition of the old MTV Indie music show 120 minutes - There's a lot of guitar playing on it, but most of it is pretty basic stuff which I find uninteresting. By far the most interesting musician there is Björk, and she doesn't use a guitar! That was MTV's idea of the best alternative music of 1993. Most of those bands are forgotten now, to me it was a pretty dull time for guitar music. Some people love this era though and that's fine by me, it's just not my idea of good guitar music.
The fact that Kurt Cobain is often cited as the main guitar hero of the 90's says a lot about the state of guitar rock then. I was a Nirvana fan briefly, but I got bored by them pretty quickly and though his influence on the 90's music scene is undeniable, the truth is Kurt Cobain was a pretty average guitar player and most of the things he did had already been done by The Pixies and other '80's bands (Just listen to "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" for proof!).
The closest person to a 90's rock guitar hero I'd have would be Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. I enjoyed their big album 'OK Computer", and would have learnt some of the songs, but it wouldn't be honest of me to list Greenwood or any other 90's rock guitarist as a major influence on me.
I'd also give an honourable mention to Graham Coxon from Blur. In the mid-90's the Blur V. Oasis battle was unavoidable. I'd be firmly on the side of Blur as their music is far more creative, thanks partly to Coxon's angular guitar playing. Saying that though, I saw them at a Belgian festival called Rock Werchter a few years ago and I found their music hadn't dated very well. The same is true of 'OK Computer'. Music that seemed fresh to me in the mid-90's now sounds very stale! It's like a less interesting version of The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
The 90's weren't all bad, there was some very inventive electronic dance music and hip-hop, but it wouldn't be until the late 2000's when some new guitar bands would emerge to peak my interest and bring me back to rock music. Due to this my playlists over the next few weeks move to other genres because the late 90's and early-mid 2000s were a time when I moved away from pop and rock music and focused my attention on classical, trad, jazz and African music styles.
When I was 12 I saw Iron Maiden on Top of the Pops and thus began an obsession with Heavy Metal that lasted most of my teenage years. I don't listen to it much anymore, however I credit my Heavy Metal guitar heroes for pushing me to develop my guitar skills and opening a door into classical, folk and jazz guitar. Some of the below tracks have hints of those genres. I've deliberately picked some pieces which show the mellow side of metal, and also some thunderingly heavy tracks. The playlist demonstrates how bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer and Metallica prepared me for some of the big powerful orchestral works that I came to love. Stravinsky, Bruckner, Holst and Shostakovich have moments that sound just like heavy metal to me. Just sample some of these symphonic masterpieces, before you delve into my heavy metal playlist!
Bruckner - Symphony No.9 'Scherzo' (1894) - Pounding Metal Power Chords in the 19th Century!
Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring 'Dance of the Adolescents' (1913) Russian Metal!
Holst - The Planets Suite i. Mars (1916) - The First Wave of British Heavy Metal!
Shostakovich - Symphony No.11 (1957) - Heavy Metal Riff Extravaganza in Movement 2!
Now, on to my playlists - The Youtube Playlist tracks are described below, The Spotify playlist has a lot more pieces on it, just to give a wide overview of the variety that can be found in the heavy metal genre.
Iron Maiden - Infinite Dreams (live)
Iron Maiden were the first metal band to really grab my attention when I saw them play 'Infinite Dreams' on Top of the Pops when I was 12. The song was epic, the twin guitars of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray were straight out of the Thin Lizzy playbook and singer Bruce Dickinson a fantastic showman. I'd actually heard Iron Maiden before that without knowing, as their song 'Phantom of the Opera' was on a famous Lucozade Ad with Olympic athlete Daley Thompson. My Dad hated heavy metal, but even he liked that music!
Black Sabbath - Planet Caravan
Black Sabbath are the originators of Heavy Metal. Tony Iommi's guitar playing was the definition of heavy. Yet he could be mellow too, such as this otherworldly song, which even has a jazz guitar solo. These kind of mellow metal moments opened my ears to classical music, folk and jazz. I finally got to see Black Sabbath at an Austrian festival in 2015, they were by far the oldest band there, yet also the heaviest, they made some of the younger speed demons sound pathetic!
Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
Led Zeppelin aren't strictly Heavy Metal, but they hugely influenced the genre and their famous 'Immigrant Song' is definitely heavy metal. Despite this heavy edge they are the band that really opened my mind to acoustic music. Initially drawn in by the raw power of Jimmy Page's guitar, John Bonham's drums, John Paul Jones' bass and Robert Plant's vocals, I soon became obsessed with their largely acoustic third album. It was through this album that I began to learn about alternate tunings, like the Open-G tuning used in 'That's the Way'. I use Open-G to this day when backing Irish trad music. Possibly my favourite Led Zep song though is 'Ramble On' a song about 'The Lord of the Rings'. It shows the versatility of Jimmy Page, who plays folky acoustic guitar, melodic electric harmonies and heavy power chords.
AC/DC - Back in Black
AC/DC are one of the few bands who cross-over between pop/rock music fans and metal fans. They are heavy, yet also write pretty conventional 'boy wants girl' rock n'roll songs. In Angus Young they have a charismatic lead guitarist who is worshipped by bedroom guitarists the world over. I used to be one of them and learnt how to play all the classic AC/DC songs, including their biggest hits 'Thunderstruck' and 'Back in Black'.
Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads - Diary of a Madman
When Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath he discovered an unusual guitar virtuoso, Randy Rhoads. He was an unconventional metal guitarist at the time because he studied classical guitar. Apparently he would seek out classical guitar teachers in every town when he was on the road. The intro to 'Diary of a Madman' is hugely influenced by a classical guitar etude composed byLeo Brouwer. I learnt it as a teenager without knowing this, only discovering the fact years later when studying Brouwer's music. Lots of Metal guitarists since Rhoads followed his example and studied classical guitar, thus spawning the sub-genre 'Neo-Classical Metal'!
Guns N'Roses - Welcome to the Jungle
The late 80's were probably the high-point of heavy metal, especially when Guns N'Roses burst onto the scene with an almost punk-like attitude. They were different to any other Metal band, more about sex, drugs and rock n'roll than the fantasy and literary driven world of Iron Maiden and their like. Slash and Izzy Stradlin were a formidable guitar partnership and I still admire the way Stradlin plays off of Slash's epic leads on the album 'Appetite for Destruction'. They also did mellow acoustic ballads too, like 'Patience', which every bedroom guitarist in 1989 learnt!
Metallica - One
Another seminal Top of the Pops moment for me in 1989 was seeing the video for Metallica's 'One'. The song is a bit of a rock cliché now, but back then it was really ground-breaking. The mix between mellow, almost classical guitar lines and extremely heavy music paved the way for the Grunge revolution that would soon follow. I spent hours playing the guitar lines of Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield from then until my mid-teens. Other Metallica songs that have this mix of classical mellowness and thrash metal power include 'Battery', 'Fade to Black', 'Welcome Home - Sanitarium'' and 'To Live is to Die' which begins with an Early classical music intro, before getting very heavy indeed.
Joe Satriani - Flying in a Blue Dream
By 1990 I was fully immersed in epic metal guitar solos. I was getting Rock Guitar magazines and teaching myself all the riffs from guitar tabs. It was in these magazines I heard about Joe Satriani, then I saw him on MTV and his guitar playing blew me away. His 'Flying in a Blue Dream' album was a constant in my life back then, I had the guitar TAB book. The title track is one of the best rock instrumentals for driving down the highway. He makes beautiful use of controlled feedback here. He could rock hard but also play classical-influenced mellow pieces in his virtuoso 'finger-tapping' style, such as 'Midnight', 'Days at the Beach' and 'The Forgotten Part 1'.
Megadeth - Hangar 18
Megadeth were the next band to listen to after anyone discovered Metallica, because frontman Dave Mustaine used to be in Metallica. Their 1990 album Rust in Peace was a firm favourite of mine for a couple of years and their hit single Hangar 18 sees Mustaine and Marty Friedman playing riff after riff of metal guitar heaven! Funny story about Megadeth I heard back in the day. They played in Dun Laoghaire's Top Hat Theatre in the 80's, an audience member was badly injured when he did a stage-dive at the end of the show when everyone was leaving, no one was there to catch him!
Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss
It doesn't get much heavier than Slayer and so I guess it was natural that by the time I hit puberty and full-on teen angst at 13 I would seek out the heaviest of metal bands. When I saw 'Seasons in the Abyss' on MTV I was transfixed by the awesome power of it, and the haunting clean guitar arpeggios, straight out of Flamenco! Many years later I brought my teenage half-sister to a heavy metal festival in Austria as she had become a metal fan too. Slayer were there and they momentarily brought me back to my 13-year old self, the power of their performance was astounding!
I hope this playlist and blogpost goes some way to explaining how a heavy metal teenager could become a trad and classical guitarist and composer. I'll end with an excerpt from my 2nd String Quartet 'The Cranning', which is meant to sound like Metallica played with violins, viola and cello!