Now I love the Blues and Blues Guitar – I just posted 9 Texas Blues Guitarists, and What You Can Learn From Them – but there is a lot more to love about Texas guitar than just the blues (and there’s more blues in Texas than I covered in that post). We’ve got shredders playing country and shredders playing rock and shredders playing old-timey – Austin even had a legit classical guitar society.
To paint a more acceptable picture of the Texas guitar ecosystem I will delve into these scenes a bit, and today I will start with the more technical or arty side of rock guitar. For lack of a better term I’ll just call it progressive, but it’s not progressive in the same sense as Soft Machine, just progressive in terms of moving forward.
There is a lot of great progressive and arty music being made in Texas right now. Many great players – women and men, old and young – are enthusiastic about creating music that is challenging and fun and doesn’t cling to predictable genres or tropes or structures for success. These players practice and are getting better at music and storytelling and performance every day.
As far back as I remember there have been arty/technical bands around – Glass Eye, Brown Whornet, Drums and Tuba, and all those Houston Bands that played at the Axiom. And some of them had excellent guitar, but none of them were about the guitar – like Mahavishnu or even Django-level guitar-as-the-primary-voice music.
I idolized Minutemen mostly because of the fire and originality of D. Boons guitar playing, and Tim Kerr of the Big Boys and Poison 13 before that. And I had grown up around the bluegrass pits of East Texas, watching the slavish devotion to Soldier’s Joy and Limerock beat mercilessly into virtually every person who dared to pick up an instrument. I saw Mark O’Connor win a fiddle competition when he was 8. I knew there was value at least in proficiency, even if there was disdain for nerds.
But there is EJ.
Texas Guitar Hero Eric Johnson
Cliffs of Dover seems to be the appropriate starting spot. Although he released an earlier version on his 1984 Live from Austin LP and won a Grammy for the studio version on Ah Via Musicom, the version that is canon for me is the 1988 Austin City Limits version. If memory serves correctly, there was a transcription and a floppy 45 rpm insert of the track in guitar player magazine, so I could listen and study all I wanted. Here it is, y’all watch it real quick and then we can talk a little more.
He has a tremendous command of the instrument, nets nary a clam yet pushes his boundaries and has a crystal clear voice. Hints of Hendrix and Chet Atkins (the main theme is very similar to Chet’s Little Rock Getaway, tbh) collide with Lenny Breaux and I don’t know which violinist (Heifetz, maybe?) and create this fantastic bit of showmanship. Though it swings and passes through some harmonic changes, it’s certainly not jazz. The shuffle underpinning gives it a unique feel compared to many other guitar heroes like Vai and Satriani.
In Bill Bruford’s autobiography, he says something along the lines of how the early English prog community wanted to play music derived from England and English music and eschew the prevalent American influences in many of the other bands of the era – The Rolling Stones and Cream and so forth. One place we see that native spirit come through in Texas is the prevalence of the shuffle – these aren’t Purdie or Porcaro shuffles. There are many Texas slingers that ride that same sort of shuffle lightning, like Bugs Henderson, or Freddie King, or arguably Billy Gibbons
What About Now
Ok, so here is where I discuss a few of my favorite Texas guitarists who play rock, but are pushing musical boundaries. By and large, they have successfully ditched the shuffles, and are now working in genuine odd meters and feels. One review of my first solo record, Things I Should’ve Done Better, described it (positively I might add) as “unhemmed by stylistic expectations,” and I think many new Texas guitarists are aiming for that sort of mode.
Opposite Day is a fantastic progressive band operating here in Austin. Sam Arnold’s guitar playing is skillful and fluid and has hints of Adrian Belew among myriad other influences. Check out Space Taste Race Part 2.: (Sam produced and played bass on my first record and in Lick Lick)
Stop Motion Orchestra is delightful and playful and meticulously crafted. Mohadev is a beast of the guitar, although SMO shows him at his most controlled and precise. Check out this cool video of Instant Everything! (Mohadev and I are in Your Face My Face together)
Brown Whornet is always worth seeing, in no small part because of super wizard guitar player Jimi Burdine. (Jimi and I are starting a metal band, and play together in Chablis and Wank Tribe)
Invincible Czars – I love Josh Robin’s Playing, and the Czars are aggressively alt-classical in their approach.
WE are the Asteroid – chock full of the punk rock bonafide’s of Nathan Calhoun (from Unicorn Magic and the Butthole Surfers), Frank from the Pain Teens, and Gary Chester (Ed Hall). Gary’s playing is mind blowing.
A few more to watch for are Jason Craig (All Monsters Attack!), Aaryn Russel (Muppletone), Mark Rodgers (Obnosticon), and Andy Nolte (Zissou).
And that’s just Austin (and I’m missing some folks). I’ll definitely have to do separate write-ups on Houston and Dallas. For example, check out Kelly Doyle – a monster player from Houston.
Lick Lick is my proggy punk band – you should check You and Me Neither, Too.