Dave Grohl Shows How He Plays the Guitar As If It Were a Drum Kit

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Dave Grohl’s First Foo Fight­ers Demo Record­ings, As Kurt Cobain Did in 1992

1,000 Musi­cians Per­form Foo Fight­ers’ “Learn to Fly” in Uni­son in Italy; Dave Grohl Responds in Ital­ian

Lis­ten to The John Bon­ham Sto­ry, a Radio Show Host­ed by Dave Grohl

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.