Dave’s Textural Guitar Heroes

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.