Feed Your Ears: Elliott Sharp

A big part of my teaching approach is to introduce my students to music they might not know about. Sometimes that means pushing their boundaries with something they might hate, but listening closely and repeatedly can be a true revelation. This "lesson" simply consists of some videos of performances by Elliott Sharp, with a few notes and comments.

Elliott Sharp (E# as he's sometimes known) is a great guitarist to play to students who are obsessed with purity of sound and perfect technique, to the point where their music's in danger of becoming clinical and boring. There are no "right" and "wrong" notes or sounds, only creative music and dull music, music that moves you and music that doesn't.

Let's start with this extended solo electric guitar performance from a TV show. Listen to the way he manipulates his guitar sound in all kinds of ways, so that the sound is a really important part of the music, perhaps more so than specific notes. See also he uses effects, objects and his fingers and hands in an integrated and organic way rather than simply turning a stomp box on and sticking with the same sound throughout.

Now, how's he doing all of that? Well, there are a lot of electronic effects in there. It might clarify things a bit to see him perform in a more stripped-down, simple way, so here he is playing live with just a plugged-in nylon-string:

Notice how he used a two-handed tapping technique to create a regular rhythm that's very percussive and totally unlike the usual shredder's version of the same basic idea. Later in this performance he also does something with harmonics that's sometimes called "manual flange" and involves gently brushing the string with the hand or finger while playing with the other hand. You can hear more of this in this live performance around the 5 minute mark:

Perhaps your response to all this is pretty hostile. If you've never heard anything like it before, that wouldn't be surprising. My advice whenever hearing new music is that if you really hate it, listen to it again. It's usually a sign that there's something in the music that's got real bite if you just acquire the taste for it. Even if you don't like the music, is there a technique or a little idea there that you want to play around with? Does it make you want to pick up your guitar and be creative?

In case you think this kind of thing has no roots, here's a clip of Jimi's famous Monteray concert. Of course this is different in a lot of ways, but can you hear a similar energy in it, and a similar desire to make music with raw sound rather than classical precision?