Marnie Stern and the Shredder Girls’ Guitar Takeover Crusade
Back in October, Marnie Stern’s dense guitar, frenetic energy, and songcraft grabbed my attention. While sounding of her time, she also sounded unique and fresh. I made a mental note of her, but didn’t investigate further until coming across a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker (Jan 3, 2011). The article introduces Stern as a virtuosic guitarist, and groups her with indie rock contemporaries Annie Clark (nom de plectre, St. Vincent) and Marissa Paternoster (of the band Screaming Females), who are also invariably lauded for their guitar prowess whenever mentioned by the press.
This movement of female guitar badasses is really interesting to me. Though it might seem prima facie to be largely the construction of the media, it really does appear that, at least in the world of mainstream indie rock music, most of the guitarists pushing at the customary boundaries of the instrument are girls (the article points out that boys are more concerned with their samplers). My favorite guitarist working today is probably Shannon Wright, come to think of it.
Marnie Stern herself, though, is always quick to point out that she doesn’t see herself as a great guitar player. She opts for her technique of choice – finger tapping – because it’s “easy” thanks to using two hands instead of one on the fret board. Here’s a video of Stern talking about it. If you don’t watch it, note that she also points out that, despite not considering herself a great guitar player (though she does, in another video, refer to one of her tapping riffs as a “shred,” an idiosyncratic use of the word, perhaps naively so), people on the internet are very mean in their attacks on her playing.
[youtube xVNMKmGCTVM 425 344]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVNMKmGCTVM[/youtube xVNMKmGCTVM 425 344]
So, what’s with the discrepancy between the media who revere Stern and the online public who tears her apart?
Finger tapping, the most focused upon feature of her playing, is broadly associated with 1980s rock guitar icon Eddie Van Halen, though Stern, who’s self-taught, has said that she got it from Ian Williams of the band Don Caballero (and I once read an interview with Eddie, who is also self-taught, in which he said that he got it from trying to duplicate what jazz fusion uber-virtuoso Alan Holdsworth was doing with his left hand alone). Lots of guitarists used the technique in the ‘80s, however, and some of them developed it well beyond Eddie’s approach. Check out Jennifer Batten’s 8-finger performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”; it’s quite the feat (she was Michael Jackson’s guitarist for a spell, by the way, which meant Jackson got a fantastic live rendition of Eddie’s solo for the song “Beat It”):
[youtube VNQK9RpOloc 425 344]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNQK9RpOloc[/youtube VNQK9RpOloc 425 344]
Stanley Jordon, another guitarist who came up in the ’80s, took tapping even further, playing bass lines and chords with the left hand while simultaneously playing melodies or improvising solos with the right. But he’s a jazz player. This is an important distinction. Most people expect jazz players to be capable of playing virtuosically, at least since music critics warmed to bebop. The same is not only expected, but demanded of classical musicians, at the very least of the soloists. And flamenco guitarists… a flamenco guitarist who can’t shred isn’t a flamenco guitarist.
Marnie Stern is an indie rock guitarist, which comes with its own technical expectations. As is Annie Clark (a.k.a St. Vincent). But Clark, though often referred to as a guitar genius, shredder, virtuoso and the like, doesn’t play with techniques or effects that would be typically be associated with virtuosity. She therefore doesn’t seem like she’s trying to be a shredder, and as a result will be largely ignored by the shredder community (I spent some time searching and couldn’t find the sort of guitar-centric vitriol you find for Stern). Stern, on the other hand, does play fast, and she does it with tapping, a technique associated with virtuosity. But, in pure shred guitar terms, what she’s doing isn’t nearly as difficult, ambitious, fast, or cleanly executed as what the best rock guitarists were doing in the ‘80s, nor what many of their (generally perfunctory) successors are doing today.
So, despite the fact that she’s an “indie rock guitarist,” Stern’s utilizing a virtuoso technique, getting media attention for it, and using that attention to her commercial advantage, which firmly puts her into the guitar player scrutiny ‘gator tank. One of the first criterion young guitarists look at when determining if someone is any good is whether they can reasonably say, “I could play that.” Most guitarists who aspire to shredder status would consider themselves to be able to play what Stern is playing, even though most of them would have a hard time imitating what she does. Getting through the entirety of such songs as “This American Life” and “Precious Metal” (from 2007′s In Advance of the Broken Arm) would take quite a bit of practice due to the stamina and accuracy that her idiosyncratic (especially phrasing-wise) self-taught style requires (especially considering that to really be true to the challenges she has set for herself, the parts should be played while singing). Still, ambitious guitarists figure that, with practice, they could play the guitar parts without too much trouble.
(As for her opponents who, even with practice, know they couldn’t play those parts… well, these types of guitarists consider even most of the people better than them to suck. They might say, in long impassioned message board debates, that Jimi Hendrix or Steve Vai suck due to not meeting some arbitrary technical or aesthetic criterion such as, “To be a good guitarist, you have to be able to uniformly pick every note with your balls.” Such haters don’t deserve more mention than this parenthetical blurb.)
Therefore, I can say with confidence that Marnie Stern is a badass musician in her own right, at the very least for the way her intricately weaved tapping riffs are part of a greater musical structure that includes the juxtaposition of vocal melody, harmonic environment, and fret board movement (it’s generally unfair to reduce a musician to a single instrumental technique, even if that musician focuses on that technique as a marketing hook; we shouldn’t conflate “musician” and “marketer”). Her music is fantastic, I love her playing, and I’m happy she’s made the scene.
That said, I’d like to dig a little deeper into our cultural conceptions of the guitar without venturing too far from the context of girl badasses. These regions may be more dimly lit than the above, so bear with me as I attempt to separate and identify the obfuscated shapes and forms dwelling there.
By employing her techniques primarily on distorted electric guitar (as opposed to acoustic guitar, as guitar wiz Kaki King does),Stern has landed on the radar screens of shredders from all walks of life: heavy metal, metal prog, jazz, fusion, neoclassical fusion, etc., despite the fact that what Stern claims to really want more than anything is to play guitar in the way that best facilities the realization of her musical vision. These other genres and subgenres continue to encourage virtuosic technique, but mainstream pop and rock music abandoned the virtuosic guitar solo when Nirvana came onto the scene. Kurt Cobain soloed, but his solos served other purposes than that of the shredders. Virtuosic rock guitar solos became quickly stigmatized in the early 1990s (Billy Corgan, however, played shredder guitar solos on the early Smashing Pumpkins stuff, but less so as time went on, and certainly not on any of their hits).
In the last several years, however, I have noticed an increasing appetite for virtuosic rock guitar playing. You can find loads of young shredders of varying skill levels on YouTube, most of whom are playing along with the same stuff I did in the ‘80s because, having gone out of style, there’s not much interesting music to choose from that’s new to the field. Even the former metal shredders who are still around have taken to holding back (compare solo Marty Friedman in the ‘80s to his solo output in the ‘00s). Media and audience praise for Stern’s playing exemplifies this renewed appetite, though, to be clear, it’s coming from people who also expect to hear their idea of a good song.
I myself get mostly positive response to my guitar solos, though there has been some anger as well. On the other hand, no one has ever objected to my playing fast, complicated music on a classical guitar. This difference in reaction is in line with our cultural conceptions of musicianship in general: it’s perfectly fine to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on violin or classical guitar, it’s revered as high art and craft in fact. Play it on a distorted electric guitar, however, and suddenly we have an affront to taste, a soulless exercise. We praise the classical and jazz (the “purer” the better) virtuosi, and denigrate the same in rock music because of what it supposedly stands for (to be clear, in non-cultural, simple musical/sonic terms, playing a piece on one instrument rather than another is in large part merely a change in timbre; interestingly, the change from violin to electric guitar is smaller than going from violin to classical guitar, because the former two are closer in timbre). As a result, many electric guitarists who aspire to virtuosity have developed the sort of defense mechanism we see in action when people are tearing Stern apart.
These haters are, on some level, reacting to the fact that they themselves have been demonized for that which they do better than Stern, but for which Stern is being praised (Rhapsody music service describes her as the “candy-coated Yngwie Malmsteen of freak rock,” which is way off the mark any way you look at it, and doesn’t help anybody). There is certainly going to be some resentment for the likes of Stern on the part of accomplished guitarists who have not managed to have a career. It’s unfortunate, but there is an incredible amount of bitterness among many guitarists who spent years of their lives practicing eight hours a day only to be dismissed by the public as being cheesy showoffs. Their therapy is to congregate at message boards and talk shit about people who are famous. And you don’t have to be an accomplished player to join in, you just have to be a fan of the sentiment (see above parenthetical blurb). It’s not healthy. People with thriving careers don’t do this.
What the haters aren’t getting, though, is that Stern’s musical sensibility is essentially a marriage of the dirty philosophy of melodic post-punk with the technical approach of prog and metal, and that’s something the sensibility of the current (recently mainstreamed) indie rock media is going to respond to (a great example of this marriage is the song “Nothing Left” from her 2010 album, Marnie Stern). Her instrumental technique gives those journalists something new to think and write about in their field, but they wouldn’t care about it at all if they didn’t relate to the music that came out of it. Personally, I like that she’s touted by the media as a virtuoso because it might help open some doors for my own music and playing.
Before closing, I want to comment on the other guitarist mentioned in the New Yorker article, Marissa Paternoster. She shreds in an essentially blues-based rock style, and does it quite well. There has for some time been a debate amongst factions of (mostly narrow-minded) rock guitarists about the merits of such a style (famous examples of such players are Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Slash, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Frusciante, Angus Young, Eric Johnson, and Orianthi Panagaris) vs. a more modal or technically honed rock style that also draws from blues, but more predominantly takes from jazz and/or classical music. Examples of this second type, to name a small few, are Randy Rhoads, Frank Zappa, Jennifer Batten, Jason Becker, Vinnie Vincent, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and, of course, Yngwie Malmsteen. (NB: I’m loosely categorizing some of these for the sake of making a point, not as an attempt to make some hard bifurcation of rock guitardom.)
“Tasteful” and “feel(ing)” are the words that gets bandied about the most in arguments over which of the above approaches is best, though I think it’s a pointless argument, the real purpose of which is to support tastes that are too elusive to concretize. I prefer defending my taste (if forced to) with the famous old Duke Ellington tautology because of how it underscores the aforementioned elusiveness: if it sounds good to me, it’s good. At any rate, Paternoster might be put down by the latter faction but supported by the former, though overall she will be considered a good soloist by most fans of rock guitar. I know I dig her.
I’ll leave you with another excellent musician (and songwriter), whom I referred to earlier as my favorite guitarist working today, Shannon Wright. I’ll let the music speak for itself:
[youtube hfCYG0Jkq1Y 425 344]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfCYG0Jkq1Y[/youtube hfCYG0Jkq1Y 425 344]