It's been a brutal start to the new year for musicians. No sooner are we done paying our respects to the legend that was Motorhead's founder, frontman and bass player Lemmy – the man with the gravelliest voice in rock, who echoed that rasp with a Rickenbacker bass through hefty distortion and who legend had it was prescribed speed as otherwise his heart would give out – than we were hit with the news of icon David Bowie's demise. It may seem obvious now, given the subsequent news of his cancer and the lyrical references in his new album, but it caught most of us by surprise.
Although I can't claim to have been a particularly big Bowie fan, it's amazing how many of his songs are firmly embedded in the soundtrack of my life - “Heroes”, “Ashes To Ashes”, “Space Oddity”.. I have a particular fondness for the Ziggy Stardust era, as back in the nineties when I was just learning my way around the instrument I stumbled on a BBC documentary on the roots of rock music, which included an interview with great (and also sadly late) Mick Ronson, Bowie's guitar sideman through the Ziggy years, which included him demonstrating how to play the signature riff. I managed to pick it up from the TV and loved it – it's a great riff, big and chunky and satisfying to play, and the perfect level of difficulty for someone who's just taking their baby steps into bar chords and power chords.. I was so hooked I went straight off and bought the “Best Of.. 1969-1974” album and worked my way through pretty much every track on there. “Suffragette City”, “Rebel Rebel” and the sublime lead work on “Life On Mars”.. I thoroughly recommend that album to anyone looking to consolidate their technique and build a solid repertoire of songs, as there's some terrific guitar work on there (not to mention brilliant songwriting) but none of it is overly technical. Just right for the guitarist progressing into the“intermediate” phase.
No sooner had the dust settled on that, than the news broke about Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey – another one that hit home, as when I was first starting out and finding there was more to music than Nirvana and Oasis, my first stop was raiding my dad's record collection (we've all done it) which contained a fair old bit of Eagles (and Rolling Stones, but let's be honest, we all know Keith Richards will survive to the end of time). Couple that with the BBC broadcasting the “Hell Freezes Over” MTV Unplugged session and I was busily yumming down lashings of pentatonic country-rock goodness. Glenn Frey's playing was masterfully understated and was frequently overlooked in favour of his flashier counterparts Joe Walsh and Don Henley, but when he stepped out of his supporting role he would be every inch a match for them – and in a three-guitar band, it takes an awful lot of restraint to rein in the chops and allow each player space. The band I had at the time was a two guitar lineup, and we had yet to master the idea of leaving each other space – those moments when all of us would try and fill at once! The teenage me learnt a lot from Glenn Frey, even if I didn't necessarily realise it at the time.
So after a bruising month, and taking into account the loss of the great BB King – one of the very first guitar heroes – last year, I urge all of you to take the opportunity to see your heroes while you can! I never got to see BB live, and short of a second mortgage or a lottery win I'm unlikely to see the Stones (although as I mentioned, Keith Richards will bury us all). I missed the Smiths by a good decade or so, but did manage to catch a G3 incarnation back in 2004, a KISS “farewell” concert in 1996 and I'm starting to think about AC/ DC tickets... Our heroes only live once. Might as well make the most of them.