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The 21st Century Guitarist

 by Becca Kephart

Guitar heroes have change with the times

It’s not 1974 anymore. This may seem obvious, but as a 21st-century guitar player, you should remind yourself of this constantly. Like everything in life, music is always evolving, and evolution is good. But this evolution has lead music away from the "guitar hero" aesthetic that dominated the past. Easy accessibility to different kinds of music and technological advances have opened up new worlds of music creation -- worlds in which guitar is still vital, but plays a much more supportive role. I’m writing this not to scare guitar players, but rather to illustrate what an exciting time it is to be a guitar player and how we can all take the instrument into what I think is a very bright future.

Don’t Get Stuck in the Past.

Don’t fall into the trap of exclusively trying to recreate the guitar music of the past. If you do, you’ll be left behind and the world will miss out on the great music you could have created. I hate to point fingers but a large population of classical musicians and jazz musicians are guilty of this. It can be disappointing sometimes to go out to the symphony or a jazz club and see these great players chained to regurgitating the music of the past. Think of the interesting new music they could create if they weren’t limited to the musical rules and restrictions from the past. The possibilities are endless.

Don’t get me wrong, as a musician, you must look to the past to learn and gain inspiration to become your own musician. However, you must fly from the nest and spread your wings so you can make your own impact on the world of music. As a guitarist, this means to sit in your room at home for hours every day and learn how to play like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and all the other guitar gods. Then get outside of that box and listen to something entirely different. The dots may not seem easy to connect at first but that electronica, rap/hip-hop, pop, etc. will bleed into your guitar playing if you keep an open mind and let it. In doing so, all of your influences will blend and you will create your own guitar sound.

Accept the Fact That The Guitarist's Role is Changing.

it is no longer the 1970’s and the legendary 5 to 10-minute guitar solo no longer reigns supreme. Guitar players must embrace different roles within their bands so the music as a whole can move forward. This is actually a great thing. The famous philosopher Aristotle once said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This phrase applies 100% to bands. If every member of a band is focusing on listening to each other and working together, they will create something much more unique and significant than if everyone were to just swap solos.

Take one of my favorite bands, Phish, for example. When this band improvises, they listen and move together musically. It's not all about the guitar. The keyboards, drums, and bass are every bit as involved in leading the jams. People often ask me how I can listen to Trey Anastasio (Phish's lead guitarist) solo for 20 minutes. I always reply with another question: "Are you actually listening to the music?" Phish is all about collaboration. They're strongest when they’re playing together, as a band. They're all involved in side projects, but none of those solo bands hold a candle to Phish. Why? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Attention all guitar players in bands: Serve the band, not yourself! If you do, you'll create much more interesting music (and the world will be a better place).

Attention all guitar players in bands: Serve the band, not yourself! If you do, you'll create much more interesting music...

Shape Your Tone. It’s Your Voice—Your Identity.

I believe the great guitar players out there have two attributes that combine to make their sound. They are, 1) technical ability, or “chops” and 2) tone. When significant work is put into mastering these two qualities and making them your own, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. Your chops as a guitar player refer to your technical ability. This includes; phrasing, chord voicings, rhythm and lead techniques. However, technical ability alone is not enough to survive as a guitar player today. Your tone is just as important and is created by a tasteful use of guitar pedals, amps, and guitar pickups. It’s the 21st century! There is so much innovative technology out there to help create your own tone as a guitar player. Use it!

You will never come up with your own sound as a guitarist if you just practice scales and chord voicings all day long. It’s vital to work on your chops every day but all those notes and chords will sound flat and stale without the proper tone behind them. Working on your guitar tone is just as important as working on technique. Listen to “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2. The iconic guitar intro to this song cannot be played without the proper delay sound. In the legendary documentary “It Might Get Loud,” guitarist Jimmy Page refers to The Edge, the guitarist for U2, as a “sonic architect.” Think of yourself as a “sonic architect” of sorts. You can make your guitar sound like anything you want today. Take advantage of guitar pedals, amps, pickups and midi technology to create the soundscape for your chops to be heard.

If you want to thrive as a guitar player in the 21st century remember; don’t get stuck the past, know your role and focus on shaping your tone. Now go forth and create new, interesting music. The world is waiting.

Want to learn more about the musical journey? Maybe you're not sure where to even start? Click the ebook image below to download our 20+ page ebook full of helpful tips.

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Written by Becca Kephart
Becca Kephart
Becca has been teaching guitar, bass, and ukulele for over 10 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Contemporary Music from Greenville College, a master’s in Music Theory and Composition from the University of Northern Colorado, and has completed a year of doctoral studies in music at the University of Kansas. When she’s not teaching, Becca keeps herself busy with songwriting, composing and playing with various groups around Kansas City.