Saturday, October 29, 2005

Racer X and Rock Virtuosity:

I had no idea that Racer X had reunited. They are, if you don't know, a hair metal band from the 80s LA scene, who also happen to have some of the greatest technical rock players. Some of their stuff is cool; some of it was incredibly bad. Guitarist Paul Gilbert originally quit the band and joined Mr. Big who had a few hits back in the day (another band comprised of phenomenal players, but wrote a lot of lame, pop-oriented tunes).

Here is what I see as the significance of the musicians in Racer X: Jazz and classical music always had it shares of virtuosos. You pretty much have to be a virtuoso to make it in classical music*; jazz is almost as demanding a form of music, but does have its share of non-virtuosos. Rock on the other hand, was more of a relatively new form of music and has very simple, humble origins (hence the term "garage rock"). Rock has always had its great players. But for years, it had relatively few people who mastered the instrument in a technical sense, in the same way that say, Horowitz mastered the Piano or John Coltrane mastered the sax. Rock was more the domain of (and still is in a sense) "raw creative" talents.

Eventually rock musicians started playing their instruments better. While guys like Hendrix and Clapton weren't virtuosos in the sense that Segovia was, they still impressed the "garage" rock musicians with what they could do technically and set higher technical (as well as artistic) standards. Eventually someone like Stevie Ray Vaughn came around and could play everything Hendrix could, note-for-note and then some. No one in Hendrix's day could do that.

The first real virtuosos to play rock music were of course, the 70s fusion musicians like John McLaughlin, Al Dimeola, Allan Holdsworth, and Steve Morse. Even when Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes hit the scene, although they set new technical standards for what was being done in hard-rock/heavy metal at that time, they still weren't playing on the same level as McLaughlin, et al. (but were getting close).

And the race was on to "out-do" Van Halen and Rhodes. When Yngwie Malmsteen hit the scene, he blew many people away with his right handed picking technique and the way in which he incorporated *some* classical music influence (Malmsteen and like players tend to overstate their knowledge of and the degree to which their music really does reflect classical influences. The melodies of Bach, for instance, are far too elegant than what ordinarily "fits" with rock. The augmented 2nd interval in the harmonic minor scale -- something very characteristic to Yngwie's style -- is rarely if ever heard in baroque melodies. Yngwie's style has a more "gypsy" quality that is more characteristic of some late romantic music. But, by reading his interviews, I'm not sure if Yngwie is aware of this).

Anyway, Yngwie set a new standard, which of course had to be out-done. By the time we got to Paul Gilbert and Racer X, rock musicians (well, Gilbert in particular) had reached the level of technical virtuosity on par with John McLaughlin, Al Dimeola, etc. If you don't believe me, listen to Paul Gilbert's solo on a cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Indeed, there has been a nice little convergence of styles, a "fusion" if you will, of 70s oriented fusion ala Mahavishnu and Dimeola, instrumental rock ala Van Halen, Vai, and Satriani, and 70s oriented Progressive rock ala Yes, ELP, Kansas, and Genesis. John Petrucci of Dream Theater comes to mind as the guitarist (and band) that typifies this style.

Check out Paul Gilbert on "Y.R.O." which stands for "Yngwie Rip Off." Gilbert incorporates part of Paganini's "Perpetual Motion" into the tune and you can hear the entire excerpt of the Paganini section in the clip.

*When I use the term "classical" I'm referring to "concert" music that encompasses the pre-Baroque to the post-modern era, not just the "classical" era of Beethoven and Mozart, etc.


Dave L said...

Cool post. I usually read your posts on PL, but you've got some good music- and especially guitar-related posts here. Although I do like prog rock (Crimson, and some Yes and Rush mainly), I had no idea that Kansas could be included in that genre, knowing them only by their two mega-hits. You mentioned that Kansas can hold their own with the other prog rock greats, so I'll definitely have to check out some of their early stuff. Steve Morse IMO is a more talented guitarist than the others in the more popular prog rock bands, with the exception of Petrucci and Fripp possibly. I don't know what the hell Fripp is doing though, so it's tough to measure him at all.

I have to slightly disagree with just one statement in this post, that Stevie Ray could play *everything* Hendrix could. I'll admit my bias up front; I'd wager I'm as much into Hendrix as you are Steve Morse, and I do like Stevie, but I tend to put them on more even ground technically. I don't think Jimi could play the fast Texas blues like 'Rude Mood' for example, but I doubt that Stevie could play, and improvise, something like 'Machine Gun' either. I know you weren't dissing Jimi and were focusing on technical proficiency, and SRV can definitely cover Hendrix tunes more than capably, but I guess I have to nitpick about 'everything' being italicized. There are local bar bands that can play Jimi songs note-for-note... and it isn't anything close to Hendrix.

Great posts though! I've been checking out youtube for videos, mainly guitarists, and I'll have to look for some Morse. I've found some great videos on there for Segovia and another one of my faves, Danny Gatton, on there also that I had never seen.

Jonathan said...

Thanks. Yes it sounds like we have similar tastes in music. I've seen both Morse and Kansas countless times. I'll have to check out youtube for some of those clips.

Regarding Kansas, you should start off with any of their first 5 albums: Kansas, Masque, Song for America, Leftoverture, and Point of Know Return (or you could just buy either of their box sets). Leftoverture is probably their best album.

They made two solid albums -- Power, and In the Spirit of Things -- with Steve Morse. The only problem there was the record company was pushing hard for a hit, and made them do tunes in the more AOR genre (Boston, Journey, Foreigner, etc.) which comes to most people's minds when they hear "Kansas." Those albums weren't what they could have been. And that's a shame.

Steve Walsh was in his prime in those first 5 albums, and his voice I think was just incredible. He's lost a lot of that tone, regained some of it, but still doesn't sound like he used to.

Check out this clip from 1995. Walsh's voice is rough, but he still hits the right notes and phrases quite well. This violinist featured, David Ragsdale, is not the original member, though he is better player than Robby Steinhardt, the original. Steinardht shortly thereafter rejoined Kansas. And just a few months ago he quit and now Ragsdale is back in.

Ragsdale really shines in this clip.

Dave L said...

Wow; ha, just a little different than Dust in the Wind. Thanks for the album recommendations; I'll check them out.