Monday, April 05, 2010

Singing Guitarists... Yay or Nay?

Has this ever happened to you? You bust out of the house and go and see a band you've heard a lot about, but never actually ...heard. There are two opening bands on the bill, you get there early enough to have to sit through their short sets. You're at an all ages show(Huh? I wanted to know why as well) so you have to keep going to the "bar" side of the bar to get your fill. You catch a few songs of the scruffy band of  Brit openers by peering through the doorway as you slug down suds and are slightly impressed. Catchy inflections of rough house blues with a radio friendly feel. Nothing too dangerous. They are handing out free EPs and you grab one. maybe sell it on EBAY if there's a bus crash or drug problem.

The second band comes on as you're 20 bucks lighter and 4 pints heavier...and something magical happens. Magical like shooting the shit with a Unicorn or sitting on a needle in a haystack in a barn while canoodling with the farmers daughter.....  The first song is epic..overdriven distortion, slapped around blue-sish indie, pummeled drums and and the singer can sing! High and clear with precision and a rock subtle vibrato at the end of a phrase now and again!
I gulped faster and headed in to see if they could keep it up. Who are they, you ask?  A phenomenal band called Band Of Skulls, from England. And the answer is yes, they kept it up. Their infectious combo of stomp rock, feedback and punky blues sing alongs were ferociously played and nastily delivered, think sort of like White Stripes/Black Keys with a Chrissie Hynde looking bass player and a GREAT singer. The Spring Break texting sect ate them up, and so did I.  People, this is a power trio. The singer, Russell Marsden, is also the guitarist. And he's really good at both....which brings me back to my original point......

Has this ever happened to you? The band you came to see was not nearly as good as the opener? I stuck around for the headliner...also a power trio from Athens,GA. But here's the difference. The guitarist couldn't sing. He tried, I mean there's three people, somebody has to. But it was a nondescript soul less voice over midtempo bluesindie rock. There was a dull metronome clanging in my head, my foot rested finally after tapping, then stomping through Band of Skullls...Headliner/Deadliner? These guys were on Letterman. There's a lot of buzz around them. But I left after three songs because the singer/guitarist couldn't sing...which brings me back to my original point...... There are VERY few lead guitarists who can really sing...there are very few lead singers who can really play guitar.  I'm going to list the short list musicians I think have mastered both, and can pull it off(live,usually) and are usually part of a power trio, unless the band has a need for rhythm guitar.

I think power trios happen because of two reasons..the guitarist(who is usually the song writer) thinks he/she can sing and should sing because he/she wrote the songs and they can only be interpreted his or her way. Stupid egos, bad mistake. Your songs better be instant classics or you better be a master at that much of a master that people get distracted by how colorless, void of emotion or horrendously off key you are.
The only other reason power trios happen is because the band is too lazy, stoned or lost to find a singer, so the first one who has the guts to step up to the mic gets the job. (Lemmy)

I admire singers(who play guitar) or guitarists(who sing) who want to make their band better and realize that the only way this is going to happen is if you choose ONE or the OTHER. Choose your stronger hand and play it! If you're a guitarist who sings like Fred Mercury but plays like Mel Bay...then drop back to rhythm guitar or leave the axe at home for christsake and SING like a golden fucking God with a voice that makes angels pee their robes in amazement. Be a singer.(Chris Cornell, Jeff Buckley)
If you're a guitarist who can play like Joe Perry but sing like Keith Richards...back away from the mic, get that scarf swaying and burn up the neck with your spindly digits please.

Here is a list of geniuses who can do both...(sing and play guitar or bass as well) and are masters of each domain.
In terms of vocals...remember...I am not just a proponent of classically trained, 4 octave range type singers...all the voice has to be is original and/or instantly recognizable.

1) Paul McCartney-of course he's a great singer, but also one of the most fantastic bass players of all time.
2) Prince-Can do a variety of vocal styles effortlessly (rock ,funk, r&b and shreds like a 12 fingered demigod, before and after the Jheri Curl era.
3) Stevie Ray Vaughan-his voice was like no other, stunningly southern and soul drenched and he had an amazing vibrato for someone who abused himself for so long.
4) Gordie Johnson-Big Sugar, Grady -vastly underrated Canuck now living in Austin who can really do it all.(one of the few, living slide masters)
5) Geddy Lee- His voice from Fly By Night to Signals was super high and mighty, but he happens to be a bass master as well.(listen to YYZ or Xanadu)
6) Lindsey Buckingham-Fantastic, powerful, melodic pipes and a stunning array of guitar styles, all mastered and performed easily. One of the most studio savvy guitarists of all time.
7) Ian Thornley- Big Wreck- great Canadian band(sadly missed) with soaring vocals and Berklee grad guitar one- upmanship from the same guy.
8) Dave Mustaine-Megadeth-an awesome snarling metal voice and shades of  skimming the shred stratosphere, too.
9) Doug Martsch- Built to Spill- a spooky,forced hush of a voice(instantly recognizable) and fascinating guitar passages in almost every song.
10) Mark Knopfler- Gotta give it to Mark's patented fingerplucking signature style and his rough and ready weathered vocals.
11) Elliott Smith- The darkness and isolation of his exhausted and scared hush vocals overshadowed his effortless style of strange tunings and mastery of the acoustic guitar.
12) Sting- I don't mean Sting now, I mean Sting then.
13) Jack Bruce-better than EC. 2 less strings.

Here's two you don't know yet, besides the aformentioned Russell Marsden from Band of Skulls:

 Alex Johnson from the band House Harkonnen (Denton, TX) Aggressive and nasty lead guitarist with a three headed monster vocal style of mayhem, metal and melodic.

Jake Sproul from the band Rose Hill Drive: Jack Bruce Jr. on the Bass with the voice of a road weary and rugged angel. 

Dontcha gimme no lip about Hendrix(average singer, great songs) or Gilmour(vox don't do it fer me).

Honorable Mentions include: Stephen Stills, Peter Frampton, Buddy Holly, Jack White, Paul Simon, Todd Rundgren, Rik Emmett, Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, and the late great Steve Marriott!

So let's hear you tell me who I missed.......


  1. Hmmm. I was going to mention Rik Emmett but you got him. The only other one I can think of is Davy Knowles who leads his band, Back Door Slam. I LOVE his voice, I think he has tons of passion and soul and no one can argue that he's not an EXCELLENT guitarist, maybe one of the best ever....

  2. What about Neil Young or BB King or Jonny Lang or Steve Winwood to name a few? I mean I think you are right though. Many more bands did it right by finding a singer rather than settling for a mediocre guitarist/singer. How about Ann and Nancy Wilson? They split their duties well. A great singer can make a band, can a great guitarist?

  3. For the most part, I agree with your list. I'd probably add Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys and Paul Weller from The Jam. And dare I say Kurt Cobain? Yes, I dare! I'd also like to mention Aussie Dan Kelly - great singer and guitarist as well as a kick-arse songwriter.


  4. Oh yeah, Band Of Skulls fuckin' rock!


  5. Two of my favorites are Greg Lake and David Gilmour. Between Gilmour's guitar work and his soothing vocals, I can't get enough. Lake also had pretty impressive command of his voice. He could belt out aggresive vocalslike "21st Century Schizoid Man" and then mellow it out with songs like "Lucky Man" and "C'est La Vie." His vocals on "Epitaph" are phenomenal, especially live versions, the emotion he puts into his singing is unreal!

  6. Jeff, I gotta agree with you, but Seano said dont mention Gilmour. Gilmour is my favorite and not only does he sing well, his guitar sings well too. I agree with your Lake choice too. He is a classic and just had a totally smooth voice.

  7. Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule.

  8. What about Dave Grohl? He has a nice set of pipes and he comes with the added bonus of being an amazing drummer!

  9. BB King- great blues voice, but not that great a guitarist..he can't even play chords....yes, thats right..I don't give a shit about Lucille, he's a one trick pony.

    Greg Lake OK..missed that one.

    Gilmour...I think his voice is instantly recognizable, yes..because Money and Wish You Were Here and Comfortably Numb have been played 2x a day, every day on a classic rock station in every city for the last 30 years..but its not great...soothing, sleepy,...but not great.

    The same goes for Neil Young..who happens to be one of my all time favs....but he's not a great singer or guitar player by any means..he's an excellent and prolific songwriter.who has used many challenging chord structures.

    Warren Haynes is a guitar virtuoso, but his voice is slightly above average to no.

    Dave Grohl should never be anywhere near a mic unless he's singing back up or being interviewed. Excellent drummer though.

    The Dude from the Arctic Monkeys is way too young to be considered here..I'll wait a few more albums before I pass judgement.

    Davey Knowles is very close to making the list, but he gets lumped into the way too young to be considered here...guitar wise he is a genius...but his vocals might have to marinate for two or so more albums.

    I considered Cobain..but his guitar work, although varying from beautifully sloppy to extremely melodic, is not genius level..his voice however, is one of a kind.

    I'm going to include Nick Drake..whose voice was one of a kind and his guitar playing is full of extremely strange scales, notes and chords..a very distinct style.

  10. My Top 10 Guitar/Singers
    1. Neil Young

    2. Jeff Tweedy

    3. George Harrison

    4. Jack White

    5. Paul Westerberg

    6. Bob Mould

    7. Jerry Garcia

    8. Lou Reed

    9. Robert Pollard

    10. Stephen Malkmus

    PS - I think Band of Skulls kinda suck, seems so bad generic to me. This is the type of music they'd play in a themed biker bar at Disney World. Live shows have been know to sway the best of men though.