Tuesday 12 December 2017

The joy of six-strings

When Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge jammed together for the documentary 'It Might Get Loud', guitar fanatics were ecstatic. John Meagher picks his favourite axemen

It is a marriage made in guitar heaven. Take Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, The White Stripes' Jack White and U2's The Edge, put them in a room, let them jam and then film the rousing, curiously emotive and often illuminating results. That's the simple premise of It Might Get Loud, the award-winning documentary film from Davis Guggenheim, who came to prominence in 2006 for his climate-change polemic An Inconvenient Truth.

The film, which played at Dublin's Irish Film Institute this month and has just been released on DVD, captures the essence of the guitar, thanks to the huge enthusiasm of three very different musicians who have become world famous thanks to their six-string skills. It's a documentary to make even the most studious guitar nerd re-think the instrument.

Page, White and The Edge are clearly obsessed with guitars and their constant desire to coax new sounds from their myriad models makes for absorbing viewing.

It Might Get Loud does not offer a history of the guitar or a how-to, though musicians will find sequences to watch closely, like a five-minute take of Page, who says his music is filled with "light and shade", demonstrating what he means by playing an evocative version on one of his old band's most famous songs, 'Ramble On'.

There's another moment that's likely to excite any guitar aficionado, particularly if they love Led Zeppelin, and that's when Page plays the riff from 'Whole Lotta Love' in front of White and The Edge, both of whom momentarily shed their aura and look on like giddy schoolboys.

If the guitar is rock's most potent instrument, it is also -- unquestionably -- it's most enduring. Electronic music and hip-hop threatened its dominance briefly, but the guitar is arguably as dominant in music now as it was in the 1960s when George Harrison and Keith Richards were leading the charge.

For a typical yardstick, have a listen to the 10 albums nominated last week for the Choice Music Prize -- Ireland's equivalent of the Mercury -- and you will hear the guitar at the fore of most of them.

One of those albums, Trees Dream in Algebra, the debut release from the rising Dublin-based band, Codes, is particularly built around guitars with the instrument's nuances and potency at large. Codes guitarist Ray Hogge started playing the guitar at the age of 12.

"I'd heard a cousin playing the guitar when I was eight or nine and I kept at my parents for years until they bought me a cheap acoustic make from Argos," the Sligo musician says. "It wasn't much good, but I taught myself the basics on it and I never looked back."

After graduating onto more serious makes -- a Fender Squier among them -- Hogge set about devoting all his spare time to mastering guitars.

"There is something about guitars that hooks you and it's impossible to convey that to people who don't play guitars or have no particular interest in them.

"I play other instruments on the album, but I don't have the same connection with them as I do with guitars. Maybe it's because you have to put in so much time when you're first learning and you have to get used to your fingers callusing that you feel such a connection with the instrument. It demands a lot of you, but it gives so much back in return. I'm still amazed at the huge variety of sounds you can get from electric guitars and effects pedals."

One man who knows more than most about the guitar's potency is The Edge. He speaks eloquently about his love of the instrument in It Might Get Loud, but it's when he plays some of U2's best-known songs that the viewer truly senses the role his huge range of Gibsons have had in the development of the band into the force they are today.

It's not so much what he does with his guitar that's so influential, it's more how he manipulates the minimal sounds he creates. Try to think of U2 without its most talented member, and you have an empty shell in its place.

It was hardly surprising that Rolling Stone -- in a 2003 issue devoted to their top 100 guitarists ever -- placed him at an impressive number 24. Jimi Hendrix, the Shakespeare of guitars, came first -- and few grumbled. Hendrix remains the guitarist that all others look up to.

Interestingly, that Rolling Stone list -- considered to be one of the most definitive of all -- only found room for two female guitarists in its top 100. Joni Mitchell -- deemed by the magazine to be the best female guitarist ever -- and Joan Jett were the only women acknowledged.

Does this suggest that the guitar is a particularly male instrument? Plenty would dispute such an assertion and yet the guitar seems to have a special resonance for men, with learning to play the instrument a rite of passage for many -- particularly those who succeed in overcoming the initial difficulty.

In Guitar Man, an affectionate book charting his attempts to master a simple acoustic model, British journalist Will Hodgkinson suggested that the guitar was more demanding of his time and efforts than his wife, but both -- if nurtured -- were generous in their rewards.

After studying the instrument for six months, and learning a passable version of 'Anji' -- the Davey Graham instrumental from 1962 that tests even the most seasoned of guitarists -- Hodgkinson put on a charmingly shambolic show. While it was clear he would never become a great guitarist, his love of the instrument was palpable.

"Guitars will do that," Ray Hogge agrees. "Once you've learned how to play a song on one, there's no going back."

It Might Get Loud is out now on DVD.

Irish Independent

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