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(Credit: Andrea Barsanti)

Music

Neil Young explains "what counts" when playing the guitar

Neil Percival Young is one of the most influential musicians in the entirety of music history. Not known for the most optimistic of songs, Young’s late 1960s and ’70s output is unmatched in terms of songwriting quality. Possessing a penchant for the perceptive, his lyrics are some of the most poetic out there, and one would argue that he gives Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen a run for his money.

We’d extend this argument by suggesting that if Young had claimed to have been as extensively read or “intellectual” as the aforementioned troubadours, he would be respected as such. In his songs, he’s discussed everything from environmentalism to partner’s infidelities and even Hernan Cortez, showing that there’s nothing he’s afraid of using as a conduit to get his point across. IThisversatile and honest approach tas instilled Young’s songs with a universal appeal that has made them so enduring.

Aside from his lyrical craft, Young is also hailed for another reason, his guitar playing. Widely known as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, it is safe to say that without Young’s work with the Danny Whitten-era of Crazy Horse, and on their return to form with Frank Sampedro on 1975’s Zuma, alt and noise rock would not exist as we know it.

Everyone from Kurt Cobain to Sonic Youth to Radiohead and even Noel Gallagher has cited Neil Young as influential. In many ways, he is your favourite musician’s favourite musician, a status that is unmatched even by Dylan and Cohen. On the acoustic guitar, his folk-influenced playing is emotive and technical, and on the electric guitar, his playing is anthemic, overdriven and cacophonous.

Young reinvented the guitar for modern rock and roll, and one could even place him alongside Jimi Hendrix in terms of importance in pushing the concept of the guitar player into the future. The key facet underpinning Young’s technique is that, although he is technically gifted, he never shows off. Just like with his lyrics, he places emotion front and centre, and it is his feelings that drive his iconic, swirling guitar lines. 

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He discussed his guitar playing ethos in a 1992 interview with France’s Guitare et Clavier, and it showed him to be of the same school as his contemporaries B. B. King, Bert Jansch, Peter Green and David Gilmour when it comes to style.

When asked by the interviewer of his thoughts on guitar players who learn their craft formally in a school, he said: “It would give you a rather sad view of your future, wouldn’t it? First off, nobody cares if you know how to play scales. Nobody gives a shit if you have good technique or not.”

He explained: “It’s whether you have feelings that you want to express with music, that’s what counts, really. When you are able to express yourself and feel good, then you know why you’re playing.”

This is the true genius of Neil Young. His guitar line is so iconic because it has character, his character. It is so much more important than the playing of Eric Clapton or any blues disciple whose playing was a pastiche of the delta bluesmen. Young ignored the rulebook and created something pioneering. 

Listen to ‘Down by the River’ below.