The guitar playing of Tom Verlaine is instantly recognisable. From the first angular bars of Television’s 1977 new-wave odyssey ‘Marquee Moon’, it’s clear we’re dealing with a guitarist with enough control over their instrument that they are able to make even the most minimalist of motifs simmer with tension.
Despite being one of the leading bands in the New York scene, Television always seemed slightly outside the parameters of what we’ve come to lazily regard as the punk aesthetic. While Verlaine and Richard Hell’s duel guitars were able to conjure up as much no-nonsense ferocity as The Ramones or Blondie, Verlaine also bought a virtuosic edge to a genre that generally despised virtuosos; weaving technically astonishing guitar solos with Television’s raw and unrelenting minimalism. Here, we’re going to break down his playing so that you can attempt to recreate the sound of Television for yourself.
One of the most important things about Tom Verlaine’s style is that it was honed in a band setting. As a result, it is intricately bound up with the musicianship of Richard Hell and the other Television members. Like many of their contemporaries, Television subconsciously absorbed the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. ‘Marquee Moon’, for example, owes a great deal to Steve Reich’s seminal ‘Electric Counterpoint’, in which the composer loops multiple clean-toned guitar phrases to create a polyrhythmic swirl of interlacing sound.
“As Verlaine noted in a 1993 interview, he was always thinking about how his guitar parts were going to coalesce with those of his fellow musicians. Fred [Smith] will watch my hands rather than have a chord chart, and with Richard I’ll say, ‘These seem to be the chords at the moment, but maybe we’ll change them’. All these alterations keep happening until it somehow falls into something that seems to be some sort of style”.
Control of tone was always one of Verlaine’s greatest strengths. As a guitarist, it was the thing to which he was perhaps the most attentive. “I can’t sing with a shit guitar sound,” he once said. As a result, he spent a lot of time manipulating the tone settings on his guitar and amp. “I just find everything kind of temperamental and problematic because all the equipment is so old,” he added. “One day the amp sounds great, and for some reason the next day it just totally sucks. I really take every day as a new day. But it’s mildly frustrating sometimes. There’s a lot to be said for having one amp and just playing every song through it like you do live, but I like a changing sound quality on record.” If you’re looking to recreate that iconic tone, the best way of going about it is to get yourself a Fender Jazzmaster, or a Danelectro, both of which were pretty cheap in their day and have a sort of jangly surf quality to them. Plug one of those into a red-hot Vox AC30 and you’re away.
Verlaine’s emphasis on tone control also led him to play fingerstyle on a number of Television tracks. Many players find playing with a pick limits the expressive capability of their guitar, so they abandon it in favour of the less-percussive fingerstyle approach. Pretty much all of the instrumental Television material sees Verlaine adopt this manner of playing. “Even live now if I don’t like the first bar of what I’m playing, I just throw the pick on the floor and play the rest of the song with my fingers,” he said.
But if you really want to get to the root of Verlaine’s guitar style, the best thing to do is listen to as much unfamiliar music as possible. As a player, he always avoided relying on blues-rock staples, preferring to embrace the adventurous chord changes of jazz and classical. His firm grasp of modern harmony allowed him to lay melody lines over all manner of modulating progressions with ease. “I know all that technical stuff from when I was a kid,” he explained. “I had piano and saxophone for years, so it’s sort of ingrained. But I couldn’t sit and read music. It would take me half an hour to read five bars. But there’s something in there that knows. You might throw an E flat over an E minor chord because you want that sound once in a while. But it’s not really conscious. I know what the options are, but it’s all instinct. It’s also what the flavour of the tune wants”.