The Reduced Note (& One Note) Guitar Solo – And Why It’s Important

This is a topic that I’ve long wanted to discuss but never felt quite like I knew how to explain it;  nor did I have, until very recently, a clear understanding of exactly which particular guitar solos (solos that that feature a reduced palette of notes, and often contain – or even are – just a repeating, single note – see “Camel – Lady Fantasy” below for one of those) – solos which have captivated my imagination and inspired me – for quite a few decades now – to hopefully play a bit more simply and melodically than I often do.  To be less “busy”, to play more “economically” – to try to “say more” using fewer notes.

A very, very specific event triggered a sort of “full internal realisation” that there are, for me, three very specific examples of a reduced note guitar solo that I find to be both irresistible and incredibly beautiful.

That mental “trigger” event took place on November 25, 2019, which was when I attended an appearance by Steve Hackett & Genesis Revisited, at the very beautiful Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland – and this particular Steve Hackett tour of late 2019, has / had two very specific purposes:

  1. Celebration of the 40th anniversary of Hackett’s 1979 album “Spectral Mornings”
  2. The Genesis Revisited band performs the entire classic 1973 Genesis album, “Selling England By The Pound” as the centrepiece of their live set.

I suspected, from looking at the average age of the crowd that assembled at Usher Hall for this momentous occasion, that the majority of the attendees were there specifically to see and hear Hackett’s band play “Selling England” – this now venerable piece of progressive rock history…suddenly, impossibly…I do not know how – aged 46 years – but, aged to perfection as this night in Edinburgh soon demonstrated.

 

NOTE: This is a blog about reduced note guitar melodies or solos, and three songs that contain such melodies – and how and why that has inspired me as a guitar player over the years.

However – there will be “digressions”, so while the majority of this blog [which has now grown wings and has become something more like a dissertation on reduced note guitar melodies or solos] – these will be brief, but hopefully interesting – “digressions” – which may include but not be limited to:

  • An unintentional, partial review of the Steve Hackett & Genesis Revisited Concert on November 25, 2019 at Usher Hall in Edinburgh

  • An unintentional, very, very partial and scattered review of Genesis Live at the San Diego Civic Theatre on January 25, 1975

  • A strange discussion regarding “My Theory” that the band Yes – often cited as a “typical” progressive rock band – were and are anything BUT typical.  I know – it sounds strange – but it’s what I’ve observed.

  • Even stranger – I used a random comparison of some pretty darn perky, cheerful, positive and hopeful Jon Anderson lyrics – and then randomly compared those positive lyrics to the….rather more serious, rather more depressing, rather heavier and more terrifying lyrics of various contemporary Prog Rock bands (i.e. “…and the word is “love”….” vs. “INNOCENTS RAPED WITH NAPALM FIRE”) – so what was that about “typical” again??

  • A review and discussion of the 1973 album “Selling England By The Pound” by Genesis

  • A review and discussion of a 1973 concert by the progressive rock band “Focus” – regarding an appearance on BBC Radio, date unknown but near Christmas 1972 (believed to be recorded in January, 1973) featuring compere Bob Harris -wherein Focus play a short set of music, just over 55 minutes of music – but it might just be the single best live set that FOCUS ever played as a band – an AMAZING concert (and – one of our featured “Reduced Note Melodies” is taken from the second track of that live show)  which is why it keeps cropping up in the discussion…

  • Any number of small to medium to large digressions as the mood takes me….literally – anything might happen…

 

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BACKGROUND:

Originally written by the “classic” line up of early Genesis with Peter Gabriel providing flute, vocals and the lyrics; the music itself, was composed in varying combinations of Tony Banks, keyboards; Michael Rutherford, bass guitars, bass pedals and 12 string acoustic guitar, the mighty then-unsung hero of the drum kit young Phil Collins and finally the then be-spectacle’d-and-seated-not-unlike-Robert-Fripp Steve Hackett himself on electric lead guitar, 12 string acoustic guitar and classical nylon guitar as well; “Selling England By The Pound” went on to become one of the band’s best selling and most venerable of albums – much, much beloved by fans and admirers alike.

“Selling England By The Pound” was released in the year 1973.  I was a young teenager at the time with little to no money to spend on luxury items like vinyl records but this album caught my attention and it became literally one of the first ten or 12 albums that I ever purchased.   By anyone. I had a Led Zeppelin album…”Led Zeppelin III”. I had a Jethro Tull album – “Thick As A Brick”. I had an old Cream album – a now very rare compilation called “Heavy Cream”. I suspect I had some Hendrix albums – and my old well played out Beatles records. That was about it for my record collection coming into the early 1970s.. a very, very limited selection of artists to say the least.

Into this tiny, eclectic “collection” of 12 inch album vinyl came a new record (new to me) by a new band (new to me) playing a new (new to me) kind of music – progressive rock. OK, “Thick As A Brick” was sort of progressive. “Yessongs” – absolutely was (is) progressive…but it was Yes – and although they often get listed as and cited as a “typical” Progressive Rock band….if you think about it, and if you do a quick mental comparison of Yes music and Yes lyrics to even just a few other progressive rock bands – you may realise something of a shock:

“Yes” is not a typical progressive rock band – if anything, they were and still are – atypical. Even a general high level comparison shows this rather bold statement to be true – using just lyrics to describe this first example of “why Yes are actually atypical rather than typical”:

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QUICK COMPARE – LYRIC QUALITY AND CONTENT

YES LYRICS versus TYPICAL PROGRESSIVE ROCK BAND LYRICS

Positive message >>>>>> Doom and gloom realism

Spirited delivery >>>>>> Standard or negative delivery

Uplifting lyrics hopeful / visionary >>>>>> Gritty realism, chronicling of dire events, etc

Highly spiritual >>>>>> Storytelling (fiction) or standard events

Personal experiences >>>>> Third person “invented” content – not personal

[You want some examples you say? You don’t believe me? Well OK I will try:]

>>>>> Yes Lyric Example:

(Yes – Jon Anderson – Time And A Word)

Jon Anderson1970

“There’s a word and the word is love and it’s right for me
It’s right for me, and the word is love

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>>>>> Other Typical Progressive Rock Bands – Lyric Examples:

>>>>>(King Crimson – Peter Sinfield – “21st Century Schizoid Man“)

(from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – 1969)

Peter Sinfield – 1969:

“Blood rack, barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man

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>>>>>(Camel – Andy Latimer – “Never Let Go“)

(from “Camel” (self-titled) – 1972)

Andy Latimer – 1972

“Crazy creatures of our doom

Telling us there is no room

Not enough for all mankind

And the seas of time are all running dry

Don’t they know it’s a lie…

Man is born with a will to survive

He’ll not take no for an answer

He will get by, somehow he’ll try

He won’t take no, never let go, no…

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>>>>>(Peter Hammill solo album – Peter Hammill – “This Side Of The Looking-Glass”)

(from “Over” – 1978)

Peter Hammill – 1978

 

“the stars in their constellations

each one sadly flickers and falls…

without you, they mean nothing  at all”

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RESUMING OUR NORMAL PROGRAMME NOW…

Having been previously brought up on a strict diet of The Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and other, harder rock…and one very “cheerful” progressive rock band called “Yes” – the music of Genesis was a shock to the system and a very welcome alternative to the sometimes rather obvious prog stylings of my then favourite (and the only prog band I had ever even HEARD so far….I might hastily add) prog band the redoubtable Yes…who I loved for their mad guitarist Steve Howe and the mighty Chris Squire’s amazing lead guitar-like bass lines – not to mention the very young but already very powerful Bill Bruford on drums – and I thought Yes could do no wrong. And they didn’t do wrong…well, at least not until the late 70s – and that is another tale for another time.

While at that tender age I was both impressionable and easily convinced that someone like Steve Howe of Yes, (or even his remarkable predecessor the incomparable Peter Banks) – could literally play just about anything – it wasn’t until years later that my view, especially of Steve Howe – changed a bit, and I began to feel that this “I’ve got 400 different guitars – and I brought 150 of them to this concert” approach was a bit – dare I say it – loose, a bit sloppy around the edges (listen carefully to the lead guitars on Yessongs for example – inspired, exciting – but lacking substance and especially – lacking the consistency, beauty and steady focused hand of a Fripp or a Hackett – just not quite as focused – or really as serious – as a great guitarist should be).

Don’t get me wrong – I have huge, huge respect for Steve Howe – I love his melodies, I love his varying and various style – I love his playing – love his guitar work on record (“To Be Over” may be the single most beautiful thing ever played on a pedal steel guitar) and even live – but, there is a consistency, and a quality – that I can feel in my bones and hear well, when I listen to Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett or even the somewhat “looser” Jan Akkerman – that I thought Howe also had, but over time, I could sort of see behind the curtain – and I felt a bit let down and a bit underwhelmed with the “accuracy” of some of his live renditions – even on that classic live album of classic live albums – there is a TON of exciting, great lead guitar on the record….but if you listen closely….

 

I hadn’t yet heard King Crimson, and Steve Howe was the only guitarist in Prog that I knew – so when I heard Steve Hackett’s beautiful, thick, sustained lead lines on tracks like “Forth Of Fifth” or “The Battle Of Epping Forest” that I suddenly realised that my love affair with the brilliant and incredibly complex and amazing music of early Yes, while not yet quite over…was clearly in trouble.

I had discovered a slightly darker side of progressive rock in the work of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, which immediately led me to some classic and incredibly powerful earlier Genesis records such as the absolutely stunning album “Genesis Live” from 1972 (I think) – an album that featured just five long and utterly astonishing songs that changed me forever…from the gentle almost baroque verses of “The Musical Box” right up to the terrifying coda of “The Knife” – this was an album that was a real and gritty and powerful as an early 70s progressive rock outfit could be.

Fast forwarding just one year forward from the remarkable and unforgettable “Genesis Live” – which I heard AFTER I had purchased “Selling England By The Pound” in hindsight it sounds almost like two different bands – the evolution of the songs, the lyrics, the arrangements – changed so quickly and so radically it’s almost as if an invisible “fast-forward button” had been pressed, suddenly and unexpectedly ushering in the music of the future – which in 1973 – was the uncanny and decidedly odd – but amazing –  “Selling England By The Pound” – a complete sea change away from the entire period encompassing the almost ethereal “Nursery Cryme” and “Foxtrot” album which were then turned on their heads and delivered with chilling, dark precision on the cult classic ‘Genesis live” album…the studio albums are both full of light and beauty but when the band went out to play those songs…a hitherto unknown force entered the room and brought those delicate wonderful progressive songs to life in a brand new and very powerful way indeed.

I was blissfully unaware of all this strange Genesis history when I walked into a White Front store in La Mesa, California and bought “Selling England By The Pound” for probably about $4.00 – it was a long, long time ago.  For a teenage guitarist with a growing interest in non blues non Clapton non rock based music – progressive rock – it provided a new standard by which to judge everything else.

Soon enough, I went seeking even darker and potentially more disturbing forms of prog which led me away from what I would deem the “melodic prog” of bands like Yes or Genesis…to a more dissonant, fragmented musical world where strange time signatures and abrupt unexpected changes in time signature, rhythm or dynamics had a huge impact on me as a guitarist and pianist.

Listening to the music of Yes gave way first to listening to Genesis…a pleasant transition – and then to still very melodic bands such as Focus, Nektar or the redoubtable Camel (and decades later, of course, I finally got into Caravan, having completely missed them back in the day…the “other Camel” if you will) ….but then, my tastes expanded – and I started to embrace a lot of really powerful…and consequently much darker – progressive rock music.

Steve Howe and Steve Hackett, over time, gave way first to folk like Camel who added just enough jazz to prog to make it more interesting (without turning it too far into a true jazz / be bop freak out like Can or other Krautrock or European prog bands too many to mention)…

…and finally, to the harder, more edgy sonic worlds of Robert Fripp’s King Crimson, the truly frightening and very very powerful Van Der Graaf Generator and eventually, I finally turned my ears and my musical brain around just enough to appreciate the wizards of prog…the absolutely unique, uncanny band that was Gentle Giant.

All by the time I was about 16…all of the above had happened to me in just a few short years…a stunning transformation.  On the strength of my love for “Selling England By The Pound” – I went to see Genesis, on their last tour with genius lyricist / singer Peter Gabriel – hoping that they might play one or two tracks from the one Genesis album I owned, knew and loved…“Selling England By The Pound”.

But of course, I wasn’t aware then, that they had just spent something like a year and a half touring the tracks from “Selling England By The Pound” relentlessly – and despite Peter Gabriel handing in his notice before the 1974/1975 tour even began..the band wanted to move forward with or without him – so for that tour, they were playing their new album – 1974’s “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”.  All of it,  All four sides of it, In order. And nothing whatsoever, from ““Selling England By The Pound”. Nothing!!

I didn’t own the new album, I had no money, I’d heard the single “Counting Out Time” exactly twice on the radio…but nothing could have prepared me for that experience.  I was 17 years old, and sitting there in the Civic Theatre in my home town of San Diego, California where I saw and heard a band at the absolute height of its performance powers.  Trying to describe that experience would require an entire blog just for that purpose. And I seriously doubt I could do it justice with just words to describe it. I would fail.

Of course – that night – they played exactly ZERO tracks from the one Genesis album I owned, the one Genesis album I knew and loved…zero.

The trade off there of course, was getting to witness what very few did manage to see and hear and experience: the full dramatic and sonic impact of what is surely Peter Gabriel’s lyrical masterpiece and a most amazing concept album, performed live by what may have arguably have been, at that magical moment in time – the best progressive rock band on the planet.  

Steve Hackett sat down to play guitar,  as Fripp did.  There the similarity ended…I knew instantly that Hackett was then – and still is now, in 2019 – in a league of his very own when it comes to prog guitar.  Masterful is one word. Assured is another. Confident and capable are two more words.

But it was the sounds…the SOUNDS I heard that night, from the baffling but wonderful garbled flanger lead solo on “Counting Out Time” to the power and mystery of the brief but oh so intense guitar solo in “Anyway” to the odd almost Indian music guitar and synth themes on side four of the album – or the soaring, slow bends of “Broadway Melody Of 1974” overlaying Tony Banks eerie mellotron parts with the perfect guitar sound…

Hackett displayed such enormous range, and used such an extraordinary palette of strange and wonderful and new guitar sounds that my teenage brain could barely function, could only dimly understand what the hell was happening on that stage.

Rock music was turned on it’s head that night, for me, and I would never again approach music from the straight Hendrix meets Clapton meets Page traditions that I learned and grow up with – the modified electric British Blues – no, I wanted to sound like Steve Hackett.  Or Robert Fripp.  Or Peter Hammill.  But not – not the blues – not even the melodic prog of Yes.

i wanted to play guitar like Hackett’s amazing, beautiful soaring lines as in the utterly exquisite lead guitar parts in “The Chamber Of 32 Doors’ or “Anyway” or “The Lamia” I had never heard or imagined anything like this music – before or since…and going to see Genesis play “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” absolutely pushed my playing style, my entire career, everything – firmly away from the rock traditions I started out with…

So at age 15, I was like every other kid with an electric guitar – a beautiful Fender Jaguar in fact – playing hard rock and hard blues and immersing himself into the music of the day…Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and / or Cream, ZZ Top, Zappa – a traditional young rock guitarist’s upbringing in the early 1970s.

This blues based rock tradition, which I loved and will always love…came unstuck in time, it was shattered and destroyed and gone and while I still played Led Zeppelin tunes and still – and always will – have a huge love for that music and that time….it was all over for me by the time I was 18.  I was done with ordinary rock, I moved first, to the land of progressive rock – and then, into the amazing world of ambient, looping and also, as an adjunct to all of the above – Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft.

I’d been both progged and ambientised and also, completely loopified…and you just don’t come back to the blues once that happens to you!!!!!

I’d become a prog guitarist in my heart…whether I would or no,  I started learning Hackett and Fripp and Andy Latimer riffs or songs – and in particular, tried to figure out how to solo in a more prog way… and that was NOT particularly easy to do!!

I worked hard at it, and I had the additional, very helpful benefit of also being a passable pianist, so with help from my best friend Ted, who was an amazing pianist, organist, and singer – I set out to learn these strange prog songs, first on the piano – so I could sit down and sing the songs, and then later – much later – learning some prog guitar soloing skills to a modest degree.

I learned dozens of prog songs on the piano, so it was odd – I wanted to play like a Steve Hackett or a Robert Fripp, but to even get into the right mindset to make some modest attempt at working in a similar non blues “”proggy” vein lead guitar wise…it was odd, but I had to come at it via learning Tony Banks and Keith Tippett – I.e. I had to first, learn the chords, the structure, learn to sing, learn Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator songs, try to learn “Funny Ways” by Gentle Giant…

One huge breakthrough – ably supported by my best friend Ted Holding who worked out the fast middle bit somehow – I think I started to have some lightbulb moments when I learned, painfully, over many weeks – the incredibly beautiful piano part for the song “Anyway” by Genesis – taken from side 3 of the 1974 album “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – once I mastered that – I could sorta see how prog was meant to work.

Other pop influences crept in, I spent a huge amount of time trying to understand and learn the piano style of Donald Fagen – leader, singer, and pianist of Steely Dan – and I learned how to play his remarkable arrangement of the song “Charlie Freak” from the 1974’s “Pretzel Logic” album by Steely Dan…and there were NO CHORDS in the sheet music!  I had to force myself to follow the notation, learning it note by painful note- both parts left and right hand – until one day – I could actually play and sing it.

I fared less well with Fagen’s “Fire In The Hole” although I have worked out about 90 percent of the piano part – it’s a stunning piece of arranging and it is NOT easy to play – I can tell  you that for certain.

I learned ALL kinds of piano parts, and bits of songs, from the wonderful sweeping arpeggios of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Take A Pebble” to working out dozens of pretty darn difficult songs by Peter Hammill and / or Van Der Graaf Generator – now – those are some challenging pieces!  Very, very dense musically, very intense – and not easy to reverse engineer “by ear”.

 

I had to understand the songs inside and out, musically – on the piano, mind you!!  – and eventually after years of work…it did lend itself to providing a basis whereby I could finally, years down the road…actually play some pretty convincing prog-ish lead guitar.

So – rather unusually, it took a proper understanding of progressive rock keyboard parts, to get my brain to the point where I could then also play prog with lead guitar.  It took me many, many years to reach that point.

And – without a doubt…buying “Selling England By The Pound” changed my guitar playing life forever – which subsequently pushed me towards Van Der Graaf, Gentle Giant and of course King Crimson.

For me personally – it was Fripp’s other very important work  – first in looping with Brian Eno in “Fripp & Eno” but even more specifically, seeing Robert Fripp doing a live “Frippertronics” performance in 1979 – that set me down a course towards both looping guitar and ambient music, which I then remained with for a couple of decades and Ambient Loop Guitar is still very much part of what I do even today.

Prior to having my entire traditional classic rock background utterly derailed (beginning at about age 15!!) forever, by first, Yes, then by Genesis (Peter Gabriel era), then by King Crimson…and onto the strange,the freak, the impossible dare….Van Der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, Camel, Nektar, Focus and so many more…

…and prior to at the same time, being diverted down a totally different parallel but separate path to looping and ambient music, via the discovery of the music of Brian Eno, Fripp & Eno and most important of all, seeing Robert Fripp looping live Frippertronics at Tower Records in San Diego, California in 1979 – prior to all that…

I think that I would have written, performed and recorded what I would now call “normal songs” – rock songs, blues based or ballads…

But as soon as all of the above happened to me, well, it took a while, but instead of me writing, you know, new versions of Hendrix or Clapton songs or doing my moon take on blues based rock…instead – thanks to this amazing transformation that I went through in a mere three years – this is what I came up after absorbing and refining all of this input…at least, here’s the “prog” side of my work (looping and ambient can be found elsewhere):

[all of the following tracks are taken from my 2016 album “progressive rock”:]

the complete unknown

planet obelisk

day seventeen

It might not be apparent at first when listening to these three decidedly “progressive” tracks that Steve Hackett and “Selling England By The Pound” were an influence on these pieces (but they most definitely were and are), not to mention Robert Fripp, Andy Latimer, Jan Akkerman, Steve Howe, and a host of others – but you can also detect the keyboard players from these bands in the keyboard parts I’ve chosen and used, especially in my use of Hammond organ and mellotron…so I’m not just channelling the worlds best progressive rock guitarists but their keyboardists and even bassists where possible. I’d like to be able to channel an entire prog band from 1974 – and these tracks are my first real attempts at that..not made until I had gained enough experience to even attempt prog.

I even have one very proggy piece that not only is a nod to the influence of King Crimson, but it was particularly created as a tribute to my favourite rock bass player of all time, the late John Wetton (of Family, King Crimson, U.K., and Asia) – so while the guitar parts are definitely influenced by the guitar style of Robert Fripp; this track is really all about the bass guitar and how someone like Wetton used it as a powerful improvisational tool to rival and challenge some of the great prog lead guitarists… proving – not that anyone doubted this – that bassists can improvise too!!!

It’s not about how many strings are on your guitar, it’s more about how you use those strings…and Wetton knew how to play his instrument.

[another track taken from my 2016 album “progressive rock”:]

wettonizer

this is a much “shorter form” piece than the three long pieces (see above), but it was made with the very specific purpose of showcasing the bass guitar and what can be achieved with just four strings….John Wetton was an amazing player and singer and his bass playing seriously influenced my guitar playing if that makes any sense – ergo, “wettonizer“.

He is sorely missed.

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INTERLUDE

The above very, very lengthy background and musical digressions was necessary (thanks for reading this far) to provide the proper context, so you can see the background I came from, what my influences were and are…and how some chance key events in my life, namely:

 

  • Buying the “Selling England By The Pound” album in 1973

 

  • Subsequently – a year or so later – seeing Genesis (featuring Steve Hackett) perform “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” Live At The San Diego Civic Theatre in 1974

 

  • Gradually moving away from classic rock towards progressive rock with the adoption of listening to and following various remarkable groups from Genesis to King Crimson to Van Der Graaf Generator to Camel to Focus … [consequently pushing me away from blues based music towards a different, much more progressive and I hope, creative rather than commonplace approach to music… ]      1974 – present

 

  • Hearing the music Of Brian Eno.     1974 – present

 

  • Seeing and hearing Robert Fripp perform live improvised music using a guitar, a small pedalboard and two Revox reel to reel tape machines live in a Tower Records store in 1979 (seeing Robert looping live – in a record store in my hometown – at age 21 – changed everything permanently – it re-wired my brain from “lead guitarist” to “loop guitarist” and eventually caused me to become an ambient looping guitarist.     1979 – present

 

  • Beginning a lifelong association with Guitar Craft in 1988.      1988 – present

 

The unusual series of personal “life events” above, are what shaped me and my guitar playing, and brought me to the here and now of December 2019… where I can finally see the connection of three of the most important “reduced note” or “one note” guitar solos that I have found to be both very inspirational as well as intensely beautiful and moving on an emotional scale…spine-tingling, shiver-inducing guitar beauty.

Getting great musical BEAUTY via a reduced palette and by restraining the impulse to flail about and solo madly every time the opportunity arises is the hallmark of a mature and highly developed musical mind, and I feel that, each in their own way, the three guitarists who originally performed my top three reduced-note solos are all exceptional musicians and exceptional guitarists…three very different players – but all three using the same musical device (note economy, reduced palette) to deliver an emotionally-charged, poignant lead guitar performance on record and / or in live versions of these three songs.

The mastery and the self control that these three guitarist demonstrated when recording or performing theee pieces cannot be understated  and while the solos may seem “simple” on the surface, using very few notes and relying solely on the appeal of a very restricted range of melody – that’s actually, much, much harder to do than shred up and down some over-complicated-super-dissonant-glissando-proggy scales.

These three guitarists all did what I wish I could do – write extraordinary, beautiful and memorable melodies using only the sparsest and most basic of materials, and using fewer notes to say much, much more.

That is made all the more interesting, because normally, all three of them play quite a lot of notes during a typical album or a typical concert, so for them to be able to control their playing in this way, to STOP playing all those amazing scales and notes, and instead, reduce down and almost restrict their music palette for just a few quiet, intimate guitar moments. And yet, during those moments, they are able to wring extraordinary emotion and impact through the simple act of playing very few notes.

I’d like to take just a moment to provide a dramatic illustration of what I am suggesting here, I have taken two short snippets of Jan Akkerman of Focus, both taken from the same Bob Harris “compère’d” Live At The BBC concert that is the source of one

START OF THE CONCERT – Jan Akkerman – lead guitar – short sample from “Anonymous II” the first piece of the night. Listen to the speed, the dexterity, the seemingly impossible flurries of notes that he produces during this opening number.

JUST A FEW MINUTES LATER – Jan Akkerman – lead guitar – short sample taken from “Focus I” – one our examples of an actual “reduced note” melody. Listen to the restraint, the control, the extremely even, slow tempo, the very few notes used to conjure up the gorgeous, simple, and I feel, intensely beautiful and unique piece of music.

It doesn’t even seem possible that it’s the same guitarist who was playing “Anonymous II” just x minutes earlier and it’s perhaps even more unbelievable that the two clips are by the same band and from the same performance on the same stage a mere x minutes apart !! And yet… there it is, the evidence of our hears

This is the ability of the master musician, to be able to do a sonic transformation like my small demonstration shows here – from inspired high flying experimental improv of nth order free improv involving intense physical effort, powerful concentration and sheer will power and stamina to even be able to shred that fast and that hard…and then mere minutes later – bottling all that improv skill and determination up – and suddenly just slowing everything down, bring the wildness of that crazy shredding improv down into a quiet, quiet moment – this quiet moment ! – slowing your breathing, slowing your hands and your heart and then gently breathing life into a fragile, beautiful melody that is all the more intensely beautiful because of the restraint shown – the quietest most sensitive, emotive reduced note solo ever performed on a stage.

That is literally what happens during this amazing 55 minute vintage 1973 Focus BBC radio concert, not only is the demonstrated transformation from “improv shredding” to “quietest moment of beautiful reduced melody” a virtual masterclass that clearly demonstrates the band’s prowess and skill at both volume dynamics and performance dynamics: but it’s also testament to four master musicians who can get from a scream to a whisper – and then back again – to an even wilder more intense scream… almost effortlessly.

I learned a lot about dynamics from listening to this concert…and even more about what truly beautiful guitar playing is. What a remarkable performance!!

Conversely, Andy Latimer demonstrates the same restraint, not once, but twice in the Camel selection presented here, the absolutely amazing feedback guitar one-note solo of “Lady Fantasy” which follows a reduced note solo earlier in the piece – simply extraordinary!! Two for the price of one.

Andy is just repeating that one note, over and over again, as part of one of these “sparser” guitar solos (the reduced note solo that occurs first in the song at 5:10) … which is so beautiful, but then – moments later – feeding back into the amp, and somehow “holding” that one incredible fed-back note (which occurs later in the song at 7:48) …for so, so long… it’s an incredible performance proving beyond a shadow of a doubt when it comes to guitar notes… less can absolutely be so much more.

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These three pieces, and probably many, many others I am only peripherally aware of – really made a huge difference to the way I approached guitar playing… while everyone else,every other guitarist around me seemed to want to be the fastest guitarist, or the cleverest guitarist playing impossible cool or wonderful scales….

I just wanted to play long, slow simple notes that would be of such an obvious beautiful emotional quality that your ears would just want more…slow, stately and very beautiful. That is probably why I adopted the energy bow starting in the late 1970s – following the example of Bill Nelson – who stopped using a pick or plectrum, and played all oh his guitar parts using only the energy bow (or e-bow) as a permanent alternative to picking.

I did the same because it really sets you apart, but more importantly, it allows you to play slowly, carefully, playing long, long duration notes … and in using the e-bow, both in place of the pick or plectrum, and as the main sound engine when I play ambient loop guitar… it gives you that beautiful, reduced note vocabulary almost automatically- which was and is a true gift, allowing me to play slowly – very slowly – with infinite sustain – and allowed me to achieve my dream of playing a few notes well rather than, hundreds of notes quite, quite sloppily and uncertainly.

So these songs were also a influence on my approach, even affecting the tools I used – to play – and especially – to loop the guitar.

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THE SONGS

REDUCED NOTE GUITAR SOLO NO. 1:

Focus – taken from BBC Radio Live 1972/1973 concert – “Focus I” – the host is Bob Harris

Featuring Jan Akkerman, Lead Guitar

Full concert: https://youtu.be/yJM9GcQ966k

Note : to hear the full selection “Focus I” – please go to 23:36 in the video timeline or go here to access sound samples relating to this discussion

There is no YouTube video of “just the song” “Focus I” available separately in YouTube – but really, you owe it to yourself…just go listen to the whole concert!!  To my mind, this is the very BEST Focus concert you can get: the best line up, the best set list and it makes their official live record, “Live At The Rainbow” seem almost …dull and lifeless… (??) by comparison…. don’t get “Live At The Rainbow” – get this instead (or at least, in addition to) that – because this is by far the better live performance. It may be short, but it is sweet. Focus at their very prime – this band is on fire this night, Van Leer and Akkerman are bouncing off the walls in their excitement – a fantastic show!!!!

Section with reduced notes melody: 23:59 to 24:18…

Or – 

I’ve set up a folder with eight sound files in it– which will allow you to hear for yourself what I am talking about with regards to how guitarist Jan Akkerman starts out cold, in the first song of the performance – with all guns blazing – shredding rock and jazz at supersonic speed and basically demonstrating in the space of one long and awesome song – the concert’s opener “Anonymous II” – during this song, Jan Akkerman sets out to share the power and the passion he feels when he plays lead guitar – and this classic track taken from “Focus III” is an absolutely astonishing piece of music.

I have broken “Anonymous II” into three pieces – Intro/Guitar Solo, Central Guitar Solo (which includes a band improv that features guitar heavily), and finally, a final solo and coda – I selected three areas of the song that are ALL ABOUT the guitar, all about Jan Akkerman’s skill and ability – and if you listen to any one of the three “Unrestrained Shredding Samples” I have shared as excerpts from this amazing live version of “Anonymous II” – or you can listen to all there – I’ve merged them into a special five minute “just the guitar playing please” edit that really drives home what a powerful, precise and quick guitarist Jan Akkerman is.

The other four excerpts are what happens about twelve minutes later – the shock of the change from the wild, improvisational and inspired lead guitar playing that you hear in “Anonymous II” – to the pastoral, peaceful beautifully quiet sound world of the song featured here – “Focus I”.  In the folder with the sound files in it I have provided, for reference – the entire unabridged track

as played just a few minutes after the impossibly fast and incredibly skilled lead guitar playing demonstrated in the concert opener “Anonymous II”.  The difference is startling!  It is almost like two different bands – and the care and precision with which the other three guys in the band “support” Akkerman as he plays this delicate, beautiful reduced-note vocabulary rendition of the classic Focus track taken from their very first LP “In And Out Of Focus” – they play with such care, you could hear a pin drop, the bass and drums (played by the incomparable Bert Ruiter and the even more remarkable Pierre Van Der Linden) – are played with such delicate, understated precision while band leader Thiis Van Leer underpins the simple guitar melodies with the perfect moving harmonic foil of a slow-leslie’d Hammond Organ – just playing simple triads to support that gorgeous, gorgeous yet incredibly simple melody that Jan Akkerman plays so perfectly, and so incredibly beautifully, on this particular occasion.

This song for me, is an unforgettable moment in time – time just STOPS while they play it – its so breathtakingly perfect in it’s reduced-note glory.   It is probably the very best example of a “reduced note melody” or “reduced note solo” that there is – “Focus I” is very simplistic (ESPECIALLY if you compare it with the song played just moments before – the prog / rock / jazz / insane rave up improv that is “Anonymous II”) and to me – it’s the contrast that is absolutely amazing – from a scream to a whisper from the first song of the night to the second – talk about shifting gears.

It may be an intentional device, too – by deliberately showcasing a very precise, very quiet, very beautiful and melodic tune like “Focus I” RIGHT AFTER a pretty atonal, harsh and wild jazz/rock improvisation – the band demonstrate that they understand live dynamics like few bands do – the only other band with an amazing sense of dynamics that I am aware of – I would qualify that – with an “unusually highly developed understanding and sense of the great importance of being able to control both volume dynamics as well as song dynamics” – was Genesis in the early 1970s.

Sometime around Christmas, 1973 (strangely, the date of this well-known BBC radio show’s recording and broadcast are not known) – during the transition from “Anonymous II” to “Focus I” is an amazing demonstration of a consummate artist just showing us how it’s done – like Genesis before them – going from a whisper to a scream with care and precision (or in this particular case – from a scream to a whisper….It’s not that easy – believe me – but Focus sure do make it sound easy here during the first two songs in this remarkable BBC radio concert.

.

So – my personal history with the song “Focus I” by Focus – taken from a live radio broadcast made on an unknown date (late 1972 or earlier 1973) – I recorded this concert myself directly onto an old Kodak cassette tape that became one of my most prized live concerts ever – and it documents this line up of Focus at the absolute height of their powers – it is and always will be, my favourite live recording b6 this extraordinary band from the Netherlands.

After about 15 years or so, when the Kodak cassette shell finally wore out, I actually did a “tape transplant” – I carefully removed the two tiny reels of tape from the Kodak shell, and physically moved them into a new shell – into a brand new state of the art TDK or Maxell shell (throwing away the brand new tape reels from the target shell just so I could preserve this beautiful music!!) – and that preserved the tape for a further 15 years or more.

I don’t think it has ever been officially released, despite the fact that it is actually a much better and cohesive live performance of early Focus material than their official live album of the day (I believe from 1974) “Live At The Rainbow” it’s lacklustre by comparison, This BBC recording to me, is the definitive live statement of the band and it’s an absolutely wonderful concert showcasing music mostly from the then-new studio album “Focus III” as well as tracks from “In And Out Of Focus” and “Moving Waves” (aka “Focus II”) – the bands first two studio albums.

This unique live document also happens to contain the first example that I became aware of, of just how effective and affecting a guitar solo with very few notes could be.

Normally, during the early 1979s (and in fact, in later years as well) when Focus would perform the track “Focus I” (taken from their first album, “In And Out Of Focus”), they would do it much as it is on the studio album:

First (for about three minutes), the band plays, the simple yet melodic piece that establishes the main melody on lead guitar as well as the beautiful Hammond Organ of the remarkably talented and capable founder of the band, organist and flautist Thiis Van Leer. His simple organ chords underpin the stately, slow, clean lead guitar melodies played by Akkerman with great care and precision.

Then (gradually speeding up the tempo, for an additional six or seven minutes) they would continue on into the “jam” or “improv” section – a section that never, ever “worked” for me in the studio version (too fast, too funky, and having little in common with the intensely beautiful melodic themes that make the first three minutes so outstanding) or in any live versions that I ever heard. Until I taped a live BBC Radio concert onto a cassette one day.

So normally, in 99.999 percent of the cases I know of – the studio version, the version on “Gold” and so on…”Focus I” has an approximate duration of nine to perhaps twelve minutes, and consists of mostly a fairly funky, jazzy, instrumental jam or improv with organ solos, flute solos and guitar solos – typical of Focus (and many other Prog bands of the time) but in the case of the slightly cumbersome long improv that makes up 70 percent plus of NEARLY every live version of the song “Focus I” – not my favourite, and definitely not their best.

The second and third Focus albums, to my ears, are where the band hits its stride while the material from “In And Out Of Focus” is still an idea in development – it’s a first album of a new band finding its feet.

I loved the first section of the song, but when the all-too-short three minutes of beautiful, melodic progressive rock melody came to an end, and the faster funky improv began…I would reach for the “skip to next track button”. I could never resolve that somewhat careless and inconsequential improv, I could not reconcile it with the sensitive, emotional and beautiful melody of the first part of the song – the two sections just do not work together for me both as a musician and as a listener and admirer of the band’s music.

So – this rare, rare one-of-a-kind performance of “Focus I” – wherein, the band play the three minute, beautiful thematic and wonderfully understated “Focus I” …and then bring it to an absolutely perfect, quiet and beautiful conclusion after just three minutes of some if the most inspired, retrained, carefully and lovely playing I’ve ever heard.

Well, for me – this special short version of the song – without the funky jam at the end thank God!!! – is a dream come true…the “beautiful part” of “Focus I” had been freed from the disappointing second section…and was thus revealed to be an even more incredible thing of beauty than I already knew it to be…

For reasons unknown and never explained, on this one unique occasion in late 1972 or very early 1973, with Focus playing a full concert for BBC Radio…they made the unprecedented and inspired decision to include “Focus I” in the set, but to perform it in an unknown form – with a beautiful, natural, perfect “ending” or “conclusion” – where normally, a not-very-good jazzy improv normally would appear.

Thus transforming it into what I consider to be its ideal form – certainly into it’s purest, most undiluted form. It should always have been this length; with this structure; with this ending…including two or three really beautiful guitar chords played as a miniature coda once the drums bass and organ fade out…Akkerman ends the piece on his own in a brilliantly understated way – fantastic!!

I have no idea why, but I infinitely prefer it in this version, and in fact now that I have this gem of a near-perfect live performance…three minutes being revealed as the perfect length during which to express a wonderful melody (with a short burst of double time instrumental excitement in the middle of the piece,) which then quickly resolves back down, and slows back down for the final iterations of beautiful guitar and organ led, stately, understated and lusciously beautiful music – music which only Focus could produce with such perfection in a live setting.

This…is where we find our first example of the “one-note guitar solo” – in this one-of-a-kind “short version” of “Focus I”:

REDUCED NOTE GUITAR SOLO NO. 2 (+ AN ACTUAL ONE-NOTE SOLO)

Camel – taken from the album “Mirage” – “Lady Fantasy”

Featuring Andy Latimer, Lead Guitar

Full song: https://youtu.be/El9GSoOvcD4

This remarkable song contains both a reduced note solo and an actual one note note solo – both in the same incredible piece of music – bonus reduced note content if you will:

First section with reduced note solo: 5:10 to 5:38

Second section with one note solo: 7:48 to 8:11

There is so much I would say about the irrepressible and amazing Andy Latimer, founder member, lead guitarist and mainstay of one if prog rocks most endearing and most enduring bands – Camel.

I remember feeling as if I would never, ever get to see Camel play live. In the 70# for an album or two Camel also included my favourite Rick horn and woodwinds player if all time…Mel Collins. We were all so excited – Camel is going to play in San Diego…and the unbelievably talented and capable and, to my mind, undeniable master of rock saxophone and flute – the best there is – and having just ended his amazing stint in the legendary Islands-era King Crimson In 1972… that he would end up in Camel just a few years later seemed like a god send…what better band for Mel to be in than Camel? answer: NONE. AND THEN..the show was cancelled, due to an injury in th3 band..land my hopes of seeing Camel were dashed – I thought perhaps forever, but then my fortunes changed.

I happened to be in London only to find that Camel wer3 doing their 20th anniversary tour – so I finally got to see the absolutely amazing guitarist Andy Latimer in action, and see and gear him play those impossibly beautiful Camel songs, such as the extraordinary “Ice” or even “Rhayader Goes To Town” from “The Snow Goose” album to the harder songs from Moonmadness like the stomping middle section of “Lunar Sea”…what a repertoire, what a band – what an extraordinary lead guitarist.

But the real concert highlight was seeing and hearing Andy and the band playing this classic, classic album track from one of their earliest and best albums, “Mirage” ( my favourite Camel album of all if you must know!!) the lovely tale known as “Lady Fantasy” – a prog rock standard if there 3ver was one, a lengthy piece with various sections…lovely melodic verses, interspersed with wild bass and drum riff-driven rocking improvs and jams – featuring organist Peter Bardens and Andy Latimer vying for position in the ‘who can solo the most amazing tonight nightly live contest’ – and I always thought Andy won – but then, I am a guitarist and therefore, always biased in favour of the guitarist – always.

Hearing and seeing this amazing song performed liv3, including a near record perf3ct recreation of the remarkable “one note feedback solo” this live performance proved that this unusual feedback on3 note guitar solo was not a fluke or an accident in the studio or a one-off throwaway..,the fact that he went to the effort, trouble and toil of painstakingly recreating that beautiful, amazing feedback…live…every night, year in, year out – “Lady Fantasy” remained in their set for a long, long time, often appearing as a most welcome encore.

I managed to see Camel a number of times in later years, because Andy moved to California where I lived…so I got to see Camel live in California fir a number of fantastic tours from Dust & Dreams to Harbour Of Tears and beyond… and I got to see them play “Lady Fantasy” – with it’s extraordinary reduced melodic solo and then that amazing long feedback one note solo – I saw them play it live quite a few times during those years.

Finally – full circle – after not having seen Camel for decades, in 2018 I decided to travel to Newcastle to see and hear them play the “Moonmadness” (from 1976 originally) album in its entirety – and a now older but no less keen Andy Latimer stepped onto that stage and it transported me back to my first concert on British soil, the aforementioned Camel 20th anniversary tour – then via several years of California concerts…and finally back onto British soil once again, this time with a word perfect, spot-on rendition of the amazing, classic “Moonmadness” albumwhich was truly an honour to see and hear.

And, unsurprisingly, Andy’s prowess as a lead guitarist is absolutely undiminished despite the years past…what a great band, and a fantastic band to see and hear live in concert…trust me. The band I though5 I would NEVER see, I ended up seeing half a dozen tines across four decades… in two decidedly different locations, too – Britain or California!

The inventor if the one note feeding back guitar solo – the genius of Andrew Latimer – brilliant !!

REDUCED NOTE GUITAR SOLO NO. 3:

Genesis – taken from the album “Selling England By The Pound” – “After The Ordeal”

Featuring Steve Hackett, Lead Guitar

Full song: https://youtu.be/VZU3AVyAFC4

Section with reduced note solo: 2:13 to 3:20

In some ways this is the most sophisticated of my three example songs, but that can’t be helped…Genesis’ music had been evolving year after year from the almost primitive proto-prog of “Trespass” and then through that incredible cycle of prog masterpieces – “Nursery Cryme”, “Foxtrot” (which gave us both Steve Hackett’s lovely classical guitar tune “Horizons” not to mention, the incredible 23 minute plus album closer, “Supper’s Ready” (which, astonishingly – they could actually play it live and the did both at the time of Foxtrot but also years later in the late 70s when Phil Collins has taken over as the lead singer…

I never dreamed I would EVER get to see or hear “Supper’s Ready” live…but I was lucky enough to do so on the Wind And Wuthering Tour – so with Steve Hackett at the height of his 70s-era powers, in 1977, with the amazingly brilliant Phil Collins singing all 23 minutes plus of lead vocals AND helping out guest drummer Chester Thompson on the more important drum parts…that was a unforgettable experience to say the very least..

Collins fronting Genesis in 76, 77 was untouchable – and Banks, Rutherford and especially Steve Hackett has all improved greatly since the departure of Gabriel in early 75.

The surprisingly heavy really powerful renditions of the once-almost-ethereal songs from “Nursery Cryme” and “Foxtrot” on the “Genesis Live” (1972) album…the intensity and power of Genesis was a powerful, compelling force of nature that really pushed me towards that kind of performance…progressive rock done with power and glory…that was Genesis in 1972 – as captured on the raw, rough and ready musical experience that is immersing yourself in the amazing live sound of the Genesis Live album.

Which made the sudden arrival of “Selling England By The Pound” such a strange and wonderful event. The rawness, the dark, rough and intense, almost overpowering, live sound of Genesis as portrayed on the 1972 live record – was suddenly gone. But was it really? An initial comparison seems to indicate that “Selling England By The Pound” is worlds away from the intensity of Genesis Live. They are two VERY different albums, less than a year apart – by the same band, the same five school chums.

“Selling England By The Pound” is very sophisticated, way ahead of its time and it seems to have, somehow, through some inexplicable means (magic? time travel? I really do not know how this record was SO good for its time). It had somehow eclipsed itself (???) and almost surpassed the quality of the entire Genesis back catalogue to date… a true and astonishing quantum musical leap of real progression in progressive rock, with a forward-thinking futurist musical bent light-years beyond the more delicate compositions on Nursery Creme and Foxtrot. No other Genesis album to date had ever quite attained this level of sophistication.

If you worried that the power was waning or somehow lost – i.e. where did that dark, old, terrifying live band from Genesis Live GO? This album was so pleasant, so nice sounding…but then about four minutes in, when the ominous synth and guitar riffs of the album opener “Dancing Out With The Moonlight Knight” kick in properly – you realise “oh my dear god, this is MORE powerful/than Genesis Live (especially if you turn the volume UP) – power, progression, refinement, ominous heavy and terrifying riffs and wild but controlled guitar and synth solos… in the opening track alone you get so so much, including Hackett playing in an incredible way, at tempo, and just raising the roof – he and Banks together on this track are more terrifying than all of Genesis Live combined. And from the dizzying crescendo of “Dancing Out With The Moonlight Knight” the band then – somehow – drop dynamically into one of the most lush, beautiful ambient pieces of music I’ve ever heard – which runs for two or three minutes after the first five minutes of the song tore the top of your head off and then hope that the ambient coda can somehow put you back like you were before the incredibly sonic and wildly dynamic first song began.

The first song … is like an entire albums worth of ideas …l compressed into one incredible song, “Dancing Out With The Moonlight Knight” ,,, might be my very favourite Genesis track of all time. It lacks nothing. And in concert…they would often play the intensely beautiful ambient coda for several minutes longer than on the record, with Hackett playing mysterious almost a Fripp-like lead guitar lines…it is amazing when you hear the live recordings of the “Selling England By The Pound”.

As you move through the rest of the album, the dizzying heights of sheer musical ability become ever more overwhelming … such as the triple threat of one of Peter Gabriel’s most beautiful and beautiful sung vocals, Tony Banks most complex and advanced piano composition to date – light years beyond his previous bests…and on top of that, Steve Hackett turning an absolutely blunder of a very extended guitar solo that meshes with Bank’s piano and keyboards in a beyond perfect way…I could only be talking about Firth Of Fifth here…which seems to be the favourite “Selling England” track for the majority of fans – and with good reasons because it’s about as near to perfect of a song as you could ever ask for or even dream of…an extraordinary work of great beauty, storytelling and heroic passion in both the lyrics and in the vocal delivery, but a huge portion of its incredible emotional intensity is in the keyboards and the soaring, almost impossible beautiful lead guitar lines.

I’m not saying Rutherford or Collins is in any way substandard on the track or on this album, but on Firth Of Fifth…Gabriel, Banks and Hackett are so amazing that they steal the whole show. Rutherford does add in some incredible deep dramatic bass pedals underpinning some of the best Banks / Hackett solo moments and Phil Collins by this time was pretty much the best drummer in prog so all five contribute so, so much to this album, and to a song like Firth Of Fifth… so much. Hackett is absolutely beyond belief stunning with his long, long and incredibly beautiful extended melodic soloing..it’s sublime.

It makes me waver on my earlier statement that “Dancing Out With The Moonlight Knight” is my favourite track, because “Firth Of Fifth” threatens to take that title away from “Dancing Out With The Moonlight Knight” … these are difficult choices.

I love every song on this quaint, wonderful and utterly unique album and I could talk about the qualities of each song endlessly.

But now we have reached something extraordinary – “After The Ordeal” – an instrumental (a real rarity on a Genesis record) – and the piece that triggered my memories of the earlier Focus And Camel songs, the “missing link” that was there all along, patiently waiting for me to “realise” my personal favourite triumvirate of reduced note guitar melodies or solos…

What I actually already internally “knew” but it took hearing Steve Hackett live, in 2019, playing this nearly perfect song, a mixture of serious classical guitar work structured progressive rock, and searing, smooth beautiful melodies all merged together with the brightest loveliest sonic glue imaginable, this song sounds like the relief after an ordeal, it sings without words of hope eternal, it’s blissful, it’s simply beautiful.

But when Hackett goes for that thick, intense neck humbucker pickup Les Paul sound, and the band slows almost imperceptibly and then Steve plays THAT MELODY…there is possibly nothing more beautiful in all of progressive rock, than the slow guitar solo in “After The Ordeal” by Genesis as performed by the awe-inspiring Steve Hackett on this classic 1973 progressive rock record…a record so perfectly formed, so beautifully made by these five ambitious young men full of hope and vision and then, realising that vision in the creation of a masterpiece with basically, no flaws whatsoever.

And I was fortunate enough to hear the Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited Band play this wonderful album in full…an experience not possible in 1973 as I believe there was at least one track that they did not perform live – ironically and strangely – that track just happens to be “After The Ordeal” – so I feel doubly blessed and lucky because I got to hear and see Hackett and company play a song considered – back when planning the “Selling England By The Pound” tours … what –

too difficult to perform?

too technically challenging?

Not appropriate for live use since it is an instrumental?

…so what would Peter Gabriel have to do – stand there mute for six minutes?

…walk off stage during the song – back on for the next song featuring vocals?

Whatever the actual reason, Genesis did not play it live (that is know of – I would love to be “wrong” about this!!} in 1973 but in 2019…Genesis Revisited did – an absolute highlight of the show.

Sheer beauty… exquisite musicianship… what a truly beautiful, beautiful song “After The Ordeal” is. I feel so lucky to have seen and heard it performed… shiver-inducing melodic perfection and perfect guitar playing – perfection.

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IN CONCLUSION

  • Three incredible progressive rock songs
  • Three incredible progressive rock bands
  • Three incredible guitarists
  • Three incredible reduced note solos

Seeing and hearing Steve Hackett With Genesis Revisited, here at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh a few weeks ago on November 25, 2019, performing the song “After The Ordeal” as part of a full band recreation of the entire 1973 Genesis album “Selling England By The Pound” – I suddenly realised…this song is the missing link, this is what ties together, at last – when combined with the two examples I’d had in my brain for the last 35 years or so. To my mind, the three most important “reduced note guitar solos” in prog history maybe…

For me, they are pure inspiration, and they taught me the value of playing fewer notes less often and they also taught me that playing a single note really well has far more impact both on record and in live performance – than playing many notes “just OK”. In simpler melodies… there is greater potential for deep meaning,for real beauty, for real inspiration…for sheer perfection in music – than you will ever get shredding 5/4 time dissonant scales. It’s in those simple, repeating notes …. you only have to listen and I believe you will hear what I am hearing ….some very, very special moments in the history of recent music…and these are all great achievements of extremely capable players…who in inventing these reduced note solos, show a sensitivity and emotional content far,beyond the average guitarist.

Life is so fast paced, and it always feels wonderful when you can slow right down and enjoy a quiet, relaxing moment. I think that these three selected guitar melodies or solos are the guitar equivalent of slowing your life down and enjoying a quiet, contemplative moment…these amazing guitarists do the exact same thing when creating and performing these unique and wonderful reduced notes solos…giving us a beautiful gift of timeless, gorgeous, and very real music .,,of the contemplative kind.

There are doubtless, many, many more examples of this phenomenon out there and I would love to hear what your favourite reduced note or one-note solos are.

While I was writing this, I started to think about one example, which is the use of long, clean repeating guitar notes utilised by Robert Fripp on the classic 1974 track, taken from the final studio album by a 70s Crimson Line-up, the incomparable “Red” as used in the long instrumental section of the song “Starless”… another great example of the one note phenomenon- slowly climbing chromatically as the long section builds and builds dynamically. So there are clearly, many, many other examples of reduced or one note solos out there… but for me, these three particular songs, with their amazing, slow, restrained guitar playing captivated me back in the day and still feel as fresh and as inspired…and as incredibly beautiful as they always were – and again, for me only perhaps they always will feel incredibly special and very, very beautiful – part of the ongoing never ending soundtrack of my life.

I feel so fortunate to have… noticed these tracks; and finally, after SO many years of listening – made the connection by finding the missing link – “After The Ordeal” which fits so incredibly perfectly with both “Focus I” and “Lady Fantasy” which I had connected together years ago – the missing piece of my triumvirate of notable reduced note or one note solos…long may they run.

As a guitarist, being able to slow down like that, to stop, to set aside the baggage of your chops and just play a simple but totally beautiful melody or solo – which then becomes part of music history because it also happens to have occurred within a really important piece of progressive rock from a certain era – the early 70s – and now, a few years down the road, I can see and hear the connections, I could suddenly “connect the dots”, and hear and fully realise that these three guitarists, while arriving at the idea of writing and then performing a reduced note or one note solo independently – each within their own band… that accidentally, this idea forms a link between these three different artists or bands – bands whose guitarists inserted these minimalist mini solos or melodies into compositions that each band was composing a resting at the time… and now, x number of years later, you can definitely and clearly hear that this idea that less guitar notes is more…works no matter where you try it,if it’s done with an open mind, an open heart and the honesty of those five or six or perhaps seven, beautiful, beautiful notes.

What an amazing sound…that one note repeating over and over, or feeding back for minutes….and for me, that’s pure inspiration – and, an even purer, more meaningful kind of beautiful guitar.

On the first Camel album, “Camel”, there’s a lovely song called “Slow Yourself Down”. I remembered this song when I was writing about Andy Latimer and as I was writing about how these three amazing guitarists – Latimer, Hackett and Akkerman – literally had to slow themselves down – shift gears – move from high level, high speed, glorious free lead guitar free-flying improvisation mode – to suddenly reduce that vocabulary, and play an absolute blinder of a reduced note (or one note) solo – and how they do that in a live situation, the incredible shift in dynamics and volume and approach and emotion – so it does make me wonder if somehow Andy Latimer was giving his future self some good advice: it’s great to shred and fly high with amazing free improvisation when you are on stage or when you are recording…but sometimes, you may need to…slow yourself down.,.because you are coming along…

Regardless of that – it’s good advice, and I am so,so glad that so many of the masterful, extremely skilled guitarists that I listen to and hopefully, learn from – and I definitely feel that Akkerman, Hackett and Latimer have all demonstrated that they can slow themselves down and play these astonishing, simple, beautiful solos that have inspired me so very much over the years.

Respect.

 

 

They tell me you’re searching for a new place,
They tell me tomorrow will have a true face.
They say that I don’t understand,
When you speak of your summertime land –
Just slow yourself down, I’m coming along.
They tell me your past often hurt you,
And even your friends, they would desert you.
But now you are beginning to see,
The same things have happened to me –
Just slow yourself down, I’m coming along.

 

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂