For decades now, debate has raged on whether Neil Young is a “guitar god or guitar slob.” His playing is sloppy and untutored, but so completely heartfelt, so totally engrossing, that it’s never mattered to his fans, myself included. I come firmly down on the “guitar god” side of the question, and not only because he’s inspired me when I’ve felt less than accomplished as a musician, but because I generally prefer musicianship that’s kinda messy, improvisational, and idiosyncratic versus classically-trained virtuosity—at least in rock and roll, where making a mess is kind of the point. Young himself couldn’t care less what people think about his rudimentary lead guitar playing. “When you’re able to express yourself and feel good,” he said in a 1992 interview, “then you know why you’re playing. The technical aspect is absolute hogwash as far as I’m concerned.”
The difference between Neil Young and many an unschooled amateur musician is often pretty clear: He’s a great songwriter with such a feel for rhythm, tone, and dynamics that intuitive musicality, one might say, is at the heart of his musicianship. I would say similar things about a player like Dave Grohl, who—as a drummer and a guitarist—has always possessed a confident, intuitive sense of what music is and does. And he’s done it, as he says in the interview above, with barely a lesson to speak of. He’s pretty much entirely self taught on both instruments, and—like Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and a whole passel of other famous players—hasn’t memorized much theory or learned hundreds of chords. When he moved from primarily playing drums to guitar, as he demonstrates above, Grohl learned to think of the guitar strings as corresponding to the parts of a drum kit.
He shows how the riff for “Everlong,” for example, came to him by thinking about strum patterns as drum patterns, and it makes perfect sense. He also talks about how his guitar technique corresponds not only to drum technique, but also to whatever means of expression he needs at a particular moment in a song—whatever sounds good, as he puts it. Part of his ethos comes from a punk rock, DIY attitude of wanting to “just figure it out,” and not read the instructions. It’s a musical stance that can work perfectly well in punk, hardcore, or the Foo Fighters’ melodic alt-rock. Or in the shambling folk-rock of Neil Young. Not so much in, say, jazz or most genres of heavy metal or prog rock, forms of music that seem to have arisen expressly around virtuoso playing. If that’s what you’re into, you may need a few lessons. But whatever kind of music you play, as Grohl discusses above, the perfect is still the enemy of the good.
Grohl says he tries “to appreciate an imperfect performance, or an off-the-cuff idea, or a lyric that might seem unfinished or in such a simple form it doesn’t seem sophisticated enough….” To let one’s inner editor step in and try to guide the process is to give up the unforced spontaneity that makes music exciting. “When,” he asks, “did perfection become so important in music?” He doesn’t speculate, but I would say it might correlate to the rise of the digital machines in music production, which allow producers to edit every single note, fix every off-key vocal, move every drum hit into a perfect grid, smooth out every rough, messy performance—or do away with the “imperfect” human element altogether. Such production kills the spirit of recorded rock and roll—and even, I’d argue, makes for dull, uninspired electronic music. And such perfection in playing live music is, Grohl says, “unattainable.”
I’d personally say that the ascendency of slick production over interesting performance has been in large part responsible for the declining popularity of mainstream rock and roll, as its edges are too often planed away and it’s rendered safe and boring. Grohl has his own theory, which he discusses above, relating to a backlash against the post-Nirvana commercialism of the 90s and a nascent elitism among rock bands. His idea is as much a defense of the Foo Fighters’ “populism” as an explanation for why rock songs are rarely hit songs anymore. If you prefer his early work, you can hear him discuss his role in Nirvana, below, and talk about his relationship with Kurt Cobain in this excerpt from the longer interview with Sam Jones of OffCamera.