If you look back through time at the great innovators in rock guitar playing, you’ll often find that the innovation came from them exploring genres that were not their base. The most obvious one is the injection of old Blues into Pop music. This seems quite normal now, but in the late 50s – early 60s it was radical. Berry, Hendrix, Clapton, Zeppelin, the Stones, and others borrowed liberally from a languishing style and made Pop music into something new.
Then there was the whole Jazz/Rock interaction of the 60s and 70s: Jeff Beck, Howe, Holdsworth, McLaughlin, Di Meola etc. For a while there, the only thing separating Jazz from Rock was how much distortion the guitarist was using.
And let’s not forget the Neoclassical movement of the 80s and 90s, where the Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, and all the other Bach-n-Rollers showed us how Bach and Paganini were really the first Heavy Metal-ers! Remember the guitar duel at the end of the movie ‘Crossroads’? Steve Vai is in his late 50s now and still going strong.
The transfusion of styles is a two-way street. Many Blues’ purists started listening to rock music in the 60s, and it can be argued, the careers of BB King, Muddy Waters etc would not have been what they became had not Eric Clapton constantly mentioned Robert Johnson as his major influence.
George Harrison introduced the world to Ravi Shankar in the 70s, and in so doing, opened the minds of Western musicians to the wonders of Indian classical music. I found my love of Bach through listening to the Dutch Prog/Fusion band Focus in the late 70s. Yngwie made it cool to buy classical records. Pat Metheny, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci have made it cool to study Jazz at Berklee.
Were all these players consciously pioneers, bravely searching for new musical fields to reap? I don’t think so, but I do think they and the many players like them, were very curious by nature and willing to embrace change.
I like to introduce my students to music that is outside their comfort zone. If someone says they hate or have no interest in, say classical guitar, then I encourage them to learn an easy classical piece. In every case (and there have been very many), I’ve found that the student really enjoys the process; an old fear is put to rest and a new appreciation of a different style is roused.
I used to hate Bluegrass music – ‘hick music’ I called it. Boy, did I change my mind once I looked at it seriously – diabolically difficult! I love it now (and it’s still difficult). I try to get my classical students to learn some Bluegrass and vice versa. The same goes for Jazz and anything else.
The common thread I’ve noticed is that the things we dislike or are scared of in music (and life) are often those things we understand the least. To understand these things better, usually requires us changing in some way and that can be scary.
The fear of the unknown is really just the fear of changing ourselves. The more we understand something, the more choices and options we give ourselves to deal with it. Also, with better understanding comes appreciation, enjoyment, and perhaps even innovation.
‘Today I learned something new!’ What a great way to end a day.