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Guthrie Govan: An Insight and Review

Part I: The Journey of a Guitar Maestro

Musicians upon whom talent is conferred in as immense a proportion as Guthrie Govan are seldom heard of in the mainstream. As has often been said of the music industry, popularity need not necessarily denote ability. It is for this reason that Guthrie distinguishes himself from the hordes of dime-a-dozen shredders like a diamond in the rough. As done by many a great before him, he began honing his talent at a tender age. His father was keen to capitalise on the susceptibility to change and eagerness to absorb knowledge children are prone to have. This is precisely why he handed a three-year-old Guthrie his first guitar, giving him the nudge he needed to embark on his journey to the summits of musical glory.

By teaching young Guthrie his first five chords and introducing him to his record collection – he had effectively opened the vault to everything Guthrie would need to carve his own niche in this community. His first exposure to rock and roll was through ‘50s artists such as Little Richard, before moving on to names we all know and love – the likes of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. However, being of Scottish decent, he was also heavily influenced by Zal Cleminson of the ‘Alex Harvey Band’ fame. Contrary to most budding guitarists, who were bent upon playing Zeppelin riffs by Jimmy Page from the get-go, he drew inspiration from his roots. This is why he fondly refers to Zal as “his Jimmy Page”. High school whizzed past just as quickly as it arrived, and left Guthrie finding himself pursuing a degree in English at The University of Oxford. He’d found himself at a juncture in life that many of us are all too familiar with – choosing between taking the plunge and following his dreams or treading down the weathered path of professional stability.

What sets the extraordinary apart from the mediocre is their willingness to take risks if it allows them even the minutest chance of inching closer to their dreams. And so it was decided- Guthrie dropped out of college and dedicated all his energy towards realising his dream of becoming a musician. A standout moment during this time period of his life in the early ‘90s was when he sent demo tapes to Shrapnel Records – only to turn them down after being offered a contract. This was later reflected upon by Guthrie as being nothing more than a litmus test to see if anyone would take interest in his work.  In reality, the novelty surrounding mere emotionless shredding on the guitar at the time had started to lose its sheen to him. Next time you think of the guy serving you at a fast food restaurant as being inferior to you, think again. Having already won Guitarist magazine’s “Guitarist of the Year” competition with his own composition Wonderful Slippery Thing, Guthrie was still working at a local fast food chain to make ends meet. Now, in order to free himself from the shackles of destitution, he laboured to transcribe the most technically challenging piece he could think of by Shawn Lane, and landed himself a job as a contributor to the Guitar Techniques magazine. Not one to shy away from burnishing the deftness with which he plays his instrument, Guthrie delved deep into music theory and perfected himself in it. This has been regarded with contempt by many in the guitar community. The general consensus has always been that it is gratuitous, and that music should ebb from within oneself rather than becoming a rote subject.

The name Yngwie Malmsteen is often frowned upon in guitar circles. It has become synonymous with all over-scrutinizing players of his kind who are so pedantic about terms like “modes” and “phrases” that emotion gets buried in the process. Guthrie, on the other hand, regards him as that one wiry-framed bespectacled nerd who took a stand against the popular kids and said that it’s all right to like Math. He was quoted as saying in an interview, “One good thing that happened in the ’80s was that people like Yngwie turned up and said, ‘It’s OK to have a flawless technique.’ Or someone like Joe Satriani would turn up and say, ‘All these unspellable Greek names for modes – there’s no shame in knowing what you’re doing.’” Guthrie’s ability to so flawlessly combine his love for music as a subject with his desire to use it to express himself shines through in his work. Though watching him play might give one the impression that his fingers are made of elastic, he still manages to convey feeling and melody. His solos might reach breakneck speeds at times, yet can still be hummed. When he bends a note, it has a distinct identity to it.

The late ‘90s saw him don the role of guitar virtuoso, imparting his knowledge to those willing to take it in the form of seminars and guitar clinics. In the 2000s, he took to the stage as Asia’s third choice for a guest guitarist at a time when the band’s chart success had been on a steady decline. Hired to help the band complete the recording of their album, Aura, he was then asked to go on the road with them in support of it. It was during this time that he’d written Bad Asteroid. This, along with a different rendition of Wonderful Slippery Thing, would meander its way onto his solo album in the not-so-distant future. Govan also had a dalliance with electronic dance music of all things. He played on UK EDM act The Young Punx’s album, Your Music is Killing Me and even became a part of their live act. The 2010s saw him reunite once again with John Payne from Asia to play on Docker’s Guild’s debut album – the peculiarly-named The Mystic Technocracy – Season 1: The Age of Ignorance.

Guthrie with Steven Wilson

At long last, the arguable zenith of his career had finally arrived when none other than Steven Wilson chose him to write and record guitars on his solo albums –The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. It is no secret that Steven Wilson’s touch with the pen is something of a miracle. Add to that, his vocals that haunt your conscience, prick at your soul and arouse feelings from within that you thought had long since been buried. Govan had finally found the perfect complement to his surreal guitar-playing abilities and together they produced what have probably been the most memorable albums of Steven Wilson’s solo career thus far.

In between all of this, Guthrie managed to find the time to form The Aristocrats. This was the band that won many hearts with their self-titled debut. It is a juxtaposition of every known musical genre crammed into an hour-long assault on the senses, it has not even a single boring moment.  In 2013, they released their second album, Culture Clash. A mention needs to be made about the marvellous cover art. It gives a feeling of “us versus them” – “us” being the artistically inclined, and “them” referring to the corporate lackeys. The record emanates an aura of being psychedelic in the beginning and has a constant groove throughout. The demand for Guthrie seemed to know no bounds, as he began to appear in short spurts all over the place. In 2014, he joined Hans Zimmer’s live set up of a 77-piece orchestra at the Hammersmith Apollo in “Hans Zimmer Revealed” and has toured with them on most occasions ever since. The following year, The Aristocrats released Tres Caballeros. Adorned with an 8-bit album art of the band sporting sombreros and jamming in the desert, it grew to be hailed as a modern-day progressive rock masterpiece. With elements of Spanish influences seeping into the tracks, it was a successful departure to break the monotony of their normal sound.

Part II – India Tour 2017: A Review of the Mumbai Gig

Fondly dubbed as the guitar player’s guitar player, Guthrie is currently on his first ever widespread India tour, with the one before this ending up being just a couple of low profile, invite-only gigs at Chennai and Mumbai. On this tour, he will be visiting 5 cities and a couple of towns to showcase his virtuosic abilities to blend into jazz, the various genres of guitar driven music and also impart over 43 years of guitar knowledge and experience in the form guitar clinics or master classes.

Playing material mostly from his album Erotic Cakes and adding a few songs from The Aristocrats’ catalogue, Guthrie played along to the tastes of the Indian crowd at Mumbai on the 17th of February. He picked from the very best of the jazz scene in India, in the form of Gino Banks and Mohini Dey to accompany him for this particular tour and they added quite the embellishments to make it seem like an authentic “Guthrie” gig. Quick and witty with his English, he made us remember why he had a dilemma between choosing between pursuing his antics with the Guitar and a major in English in his teenage years.

Courtesy: Guthrie Govan (Official)

Bad Asteroid has been his staple starter for quite some time now, a song from the very first Aristocrats album featuring incredibly tender chords being played over melodic guitar and bass lines. Gino took the backseat while setting the groove for Mohini and Guthrie to lash out some melodic fireworks from their instruments. The set list then led into the favourites from his world renowned album Erotic Cakes along with some stage humour and frolics. This included him performing Sevens, Erotic Cake, Fives, Ner Ner, and put out a couple of “public service announcements” as it were, requesting people to be present and enjoy the show and not to try to do the same through the frame of their mobile phones. “I’d rather not have these cameras flashing at me. I want to feel like a part of the party too.” Smiled the legend while he sipped on his beer which replaced the earlier Kinley bottle that got the authority a piece of his sarcastic mind.
Gino Banks then got to showcase his talent on drums with a drum solo whilst also displaying his fondness for Carnatic music. Mohini mesmerised the crowd with her virtuosic abilities and made it clear just why she got the gig and lies in the good books of Steve Vai. She gracefully handled an unfortunate detuning of strings amidst the song Sevens and then went on the nail every groove for the rest of the night. The most beautiful moments were that of his involvement with the audience, notably the moment when he made the audience recreate with a flurry of noises, the intro to his song Waves which is made up of sounds of children playing on a beach.

Setlist at Mumbai:

  1. Bad Asteroid (The Aristocrats)
  2. Sevens
  3. Erotic Cakes
  4. Wonderful Slippery Thing
  5. Drum Solo (Gino Banks)
  6. Fives
  7. Hangover
  8. Rhode Island Shred
  9. Ner Ner
  10. Waves (Encore)