When I started playing guitar I seemed to be surrounded by other guitar players who thought the faster you played, the better guitar player you were. Alvin Lee from the 60’s band Ten Years After has a lot to answer for in this respect.
The shred merchants who followed in his wake all sounded more like typists to me than musicians. It wasn’t, and indeed isn’t, that I can’t play fast – I can. I just never saw the point of burying the emotion under an avalanche of notes.
The occasional burst of speed as a device to catch the ear, make you sit up say to yourself “woah!” is fine – it’s an effect. But just as playing with the same effect pedal all the time means you’re not using an effect speed for speed’s sake never made sense to me.
There’s an immense amount of snobbery among guitar players. It’s like that old joke:
“How many guitar players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“Sixteen. One to screw the bulb in and 15 to say I could have done it better than that.”
Perhaps it’s because guitar players are ten-a-penny, and always have been that a lot of us feel insecure. We’re like the guy with the big red sport car. Check out the speed of my riffs baby, my penis must be enormous.
And so it’s a little sad for me after more than 40 years of playing to find the same snobbery and lack of sensitivity alive and well in my newfound musical infatuation, Flamenco. That a music so drenched by turns in pain and joy should be rendered as emotionless as the racket from the factory floor is ridiculous. There are Flamenco guitar players out there working on playing arpeggios faster than the human ear can follow!
Even in a remote town in Andalusia in Southern Spain back in the 1970’s, the same kind of nonsense was afoot. My current guitar hero and master Diego del Gastor (1908-1973) had his own way of dealing with the speed merchants.
Celebrated Flamenco guitarist Niño Ricardo recalled:
"I decided to see what all the hubbub was about, this Diego del Gastor fellow, so I got some señorito friends of mine to hire him for a juerga. When he showed up they explained to him that they had hired another guitarist as well, so that he wouldn't have to tire himself out.
"Diego recognized me right away - I was well-known, and my photo was splattered about here and there - and it was obvious the poor guy was dying to get out of there. But he was stuck and he knew it; he couldn't have just left without losing face. I watched him while I played. He seemed to shrink, and refused to touch the guitar throughout the night. All he did was drink, and I was feeling quite contemptuous after some hours. I was warmed up and playing well - really well - and it was painfully obvious that Diego had been had.
"Then around five or six in the morning, when Diego's hair began springing away from the back of his head, he began looking more animated, started talking it up and encouraging me with 'oles', and I must admit I felt a tinge of worry deep in my stomach. But he continued refusing to touch the guitar until about eight in the morning.
"He then actually asked for the guitar. I handed it to him, and he started playing a slow-motion soleá like I didn't know existed. He played about a tenth of the notes I had, and each note rang clear and true, emotional like no playing I had ever heard. When he made tears spring to my eyes I knew the one who had been had was I. The very essence of this man emerged through his playing. He arrived directly at the soul of flamenco without frills or bullshit. You might say that Diego is flamenco. The rest of us are something else, professionals only too often lost in the technicalities of the instrument."
- Niño Ricardo, from A Way of Life by Donn Pohren
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