BY GERALD BURRIS
Hey everyone. Jordan has asked me to write some pieces for AMJ regarding the more technical side of music. In keeping with the nature of the blog, my idea is to talk about some individual musicians in Athens that I feel stand out among the crowd, and in doing so try to explain what it is they do that makes them interesting and/or special.
When I first began playing guitar—I was around 15 or so—I had enough of an interest in music that I had some pretty good ideas regarding the styles and sounds I wanted to emulate, but it took some time to really learn my way around the instrument. But those of you that aren’t musically-inclined can still have your appreciation enhanced by a little technical knowledge, so if you don’t have a decade’s worth of free time to learn new instrument, I’ll try to bring some insight into the craft that might make listening a little more fun. A lot of it will be pretty intuitive and uncomplicated. I’ll spend most of the time talking about guitar, because it’s what I know best, though I may occasionally touch on other instruments.
Finally, Jordan has asked me to come up with a column name. I haven’t yet thought up anything I really love, so feel free to offer up suggestions if you have any. I’m hoping for something pun-based.
Today I’d like to talk about Peter Buck. Obviously the blog is a fan of R.E.M.‘s, and Athens music scene wouldn’t be where it is today without the band, so where better to start. In doing my homework for this piece—i.e. listening to R.E.M. music for hours on end—it occurred to me that the band has amassed a lot of material, so over the years Buck has played a lot of styles and sounds. Generally, though, when I think of Buck, and R.E.M. in general, I think of that very richly textured “jangle pop” that was so prevalent on early albums like Murmur and Reckoning.
That sound dates back to the ’60s, and namely guitarists George Harrison of The Beatles (did I need to specify that?) and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, who played Rickenbacker brand guitars that inherently, and I’ll use the word again for lack of a better term, “jangled.” The iconic song “Mr. Tambourine” as performed by The Byrds defines the sound, and its lyrical reference to a “jingle jangle morning” gave the movement it’s name. R.E.M. and a few other bands, like The Smiths and The Replacements, brought the sound back in the early ’80s, largely minus the Rickenbackers. The opening riff from “So. Central Rain” is a near perfect example of the sound. (Video embed disabled.)
As far as how the sound is constructed, it’s pretty simple. Though Buck’s guitar is usually plugged in to an amp, it’s not what a lot of people might think of as electric guitar, in that there’s generally very little distortion. Distortion or overdrive creates a muddled sound whenever more than one note is played at a time. Heavy metal bands, for example, play heavily distorted chords so that all the notes combine into one big, deep, homogenous sound. Cranking down the distortion results in a cleaner, crisper sound where individual notes shine and sparkle.
Additionally, Buck often plays his riffs at the high end of the register, on the strings on the bottom half of the guitar. He tends to play either simpler three- or four-note chords (as opposed to the maximum six-note chords that can be played on any six-string guitar) or arpeggios, which are chord shapes where notes are played at intervals instead of all at the same time. Along with the lack of distorted tone, the focus on playing fewer notes at a time allow each individual note to stand out.
Buck usually plays with plenty of reverb, which is that subtle slap-back echo that makes the guitar sound like it’s being played in an expansive concert hall or amphitheater. This allows for individual notes to ring out and sustain their tone longer, so that even on arpeggios there’s significant overlap and multiple notes can sound at the same time, even if they weren’t played at the same time.
And finally, Buck often plays largely on the low frets, on the leftmost side of the guitar, nearest the headstock (where the tuning pegs and the logo are located). A particular note on a guitar can be played on any number of the strings, but notes played lower on the fretboard sparkle a bit more, and open notes, or notes played by striking a string without a finger on any of the frets, sound exponentially brighter than even notes played at the first or second fret.
What’s interesting about Buck is that his electric sound isn’t often much different from his acoustic sound, or even the natural sound of a mandolin, so for the most part these guidelines apply across the board to most of his work. On “Shiny Happy People” Buck plays the mandolin and it doesn’t sound too noticeably different, just a bit higher in tone.
I hope some of that information is useful and can help you to appreciate Buck’s playing a little more the next time you hear it. Again, feedback is welcome, either in the form of questions, suggestions, or criticism. (ed. note, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or post below!)