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Music

How to play guitar like R.E.M.'s Peter Buck

@TylerGolsen

In an age where synthesisers were beginning to take over the landscape of popular music, an underground movement of bands across the US were fighting to keep guitar music at the fore. Up in the Twin Cities, Husker Du and The Replacements were slowing down their frantic punk songs and emphasizing melody over speed. In New York City, Sonic Youth were branching away from the experimental tendencies without sacrificing their unique edge. And in Athens, Georgia, a group of college kids merged their love of folk, punk, and power pop into a brand new form of rock music that came to be known as “alternative”. They were called R.E.M.

R.E.M. had a number of unique distinguishers in their arsenal: there were the cryptic lyrics and mumbling vocal stylings of lead singer Michael Stipe, the melodic bass lines and soaring backing vocals of bassist Mike Mills, and the rollicking rhythms and more grounded harmonies of drummer Bill Berry. But if there was an immediately noticeable and completely singular aspect to R.E.M.’s music, it came from the guitar playing of Peter Buck.

“Peter Buck has the best right hand in the business,” Mike Mills observed in the BBC Documentary series Seven Ages of Rock. Mills is specifically talking about the arpeggios that Buck made his signature on tracks like ‘Maps and Legends’, ‘Fall on Me’, and ‘Gardening at Night’. Apart from the explicit glam rock of Monster and the hard hitting punk of Accelerate, Buck largely retained this intricate style of picking throughout his entire career.

But the picking couldn’t just be done on any old guitar. One of the most distinctive features about R.E.M., especially during their rise throughout the ’80s, was the band’s favouring of Rickenbacker equipment. Mills used the fat midrange of the 4001, while Buck picked up a Black 360 that he has used on every single R.E.M. album. “It’s still the guitar I go to every day,” Buck told Reverb in 2016. “It has real clarity of tone. It’s sitting in a stand at the foot of my bed. I like playing guitar in my pajamas.”

Due to their similarity in playing style, fondness for similar equipment, and close proximity of their fame, Buck was often compared to The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. While the comparison might be apt, R.E.M. predates The Smiths by roughly two years. Both Buck and Marr were influenced by the playing of The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, but Buck took his cues more from ’60s players whereas Marr took in influences from post-punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. “John Lennon, Roger McGuinn and Pete Townsend played Ricks. I’m more of a rhythm player than a soloist, as were all of those guys, generally,” Buck once noted.

For amplification, Buck typically turned to a Vox AC30 amp. He preferred few pedals during the band’s early days, only adopting occasional chorus and usually ignoring distortion all together. It was only after the folk rock experimentation of Out of Time and Automatic for the People that Buck felt that it was time to implement power chords and overdrive pedals.

Another key to Buck’s playing: few guitar solos. “I know that when guitarists rip into this hot solo, people go nuts, but I don’t write songs that suit that, and I am not interested in that,” Buck explained in David Buckley’s biography on the band. “I can do it if I have to, but I don’t like it.” More often than not, Buck will subvert a typical solo. On ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth’, his entire solo is played backwards. On ‘Driver 8’, the typical solo section is completely avoided, with Buck instead returning to the song’s opening riff. Less is more in the world of Peter Buck.

A surprising addition to what makes Buck’s playing so unique is his choice of string thickness. Buck favours .13 gauge strings, which are incredibly thick compared to the relatively standard .09 gauge most guitars are outfitted with. It’s why there is very little string bending on R.E.M. songs: there’s simply too much tension to pull up or down on without ripping off the top layer of your skin.

Finally, the most important aspect of Peter Buck’s guitar playing is knowing when not to play. Buck’s lack of guitar histrionics extends to simply staying in the background when something else takes the sonic lead: the cascading vocal lines of ‘Harborcoat’, the carnival organ on ‘Tongue’, the string arrangements on ‘Nightswimming’. Buck’s greatest asset is in serving the song, and it’s this selflessness that allowed R.E.M. to adapt throughout 30 years after establishing themselves largely thanks to Buck’s singular playing style.