Thursday Thunderdome: Guitar Face

You all know how this works; two things enter, one thing leaves.
Today we talk about something near and dear to my heart: Guitar Face.
Guitar face (sometimes referred to as orgasm face) is the name given to the seemingly random series of contortions and grimaces that lead guitar players tend to make when they are doing their thing.
Now before we get too deep let me qualify something here: Guitar Face is real.
For those of you who don't play guitar -- here's the thing. Part of modern rock soloing is a technique called bending. Essentially what this means is that you press the string against the neck of the guitar -- which, depending on where you are on the fretboard, creates a specific note. But if you hold that note down and then push the string upwards from where it normally lies, you'll increase the tension on the string and produce a higher note. It's a very basic technique, and it's something (especially with electric guitars) that's actually pretty easy to do once you get used to it.
In other words, bending the strings shouldn't hurt as long as you do it right.
But what happens is that you'll be playing a solo, making a musical statement, shredding faces, or whatever you want to call it, and in your mind the note you want to play is a really high bend.

Problem is, the thing you're actually playing is nowhere near the note you need to hit, and your first three fingers, which are the strongest ones on your hand are currently busy playing something else. So to make things happen, you slide your hand up the neck, grab the note with your ring finger or pinky -- and push for dear life.

Now if your thumb is exactly behind the spot on the neck you're trying to play, you've got no problem -- because it creates a fulcrum point, which means that you're actually using the muscles in your wrist to bend the note. But if your thumb can't get there in time -- that means the only muscles available to use to try to make the bend are the ones in your weakest fingers.
And a lot of times that's not an easy thing to do.
In fact, depending on how far you're trying to bend the note -- the string can kind of cut into the fat part of your fingertip, and there is a tiny little bit of pain involved.
So you wince.
Wincing is really the most genuine part of the guitar face phenomenon -- because it's something that people do when their fingers are physically strained, which does happen from time to time depending on what you're playing.

The other thing that happens sometimes with soloists is that they will be playing a particularly intricate passage. Lots of notes being played at a really high rate of speed, repeated over and over in rhythm. For passages like this to work, the playing has to be precise -- which requires a certain amount of mental focus.

Now I'm not really sure why dudes do this, but sometimes when you see guys playing really fast passages in a guitar solo, you'll notice them holding their breath. It's sorta like they know they've got to nail the part, so they tighten up a bit to really focus on the task at hand. And when I say tighten up I mean the whole nine yards. Butt clenching, breath holding, muscle tightening moves -- most of which are kinda subconscious in nature.

But what ends up happening is that you're playing the part in total focus, but somewhere along the way you start to run out of air. And then suddenly you're sucking in your cheeks or straining your eyes or arching your back -- all while making sure that your fingers stay on track with what you want them to do. You'll also catch guys who will fling their arms into the air once they get to the end of a really hard musical passage -- sort of like a celebration after a touchdown or something.

That's because most of them have finally exhaled.
The point I'm trying to make here is that guitar face exists. It's a physiological reality that results from the kind of physical exertions that musicians do. In fact when you examine it, it's actually more common to see some sort of variation on the guitar face theme when you watch violinists or classical pianists perform (wanna see some classic Guitar Face? Check out Yo Yo Ma playing a solo cello piece).
All that being said, we're talking about guitar players
here -- and that means a whole different set of rules.
Essentially what happens here is that despite the fact that many guitar players develop into highly skilled musicians, the majority of guys who pick up an axe are doing so in an effort to impress girls. The reason guys make this connection is that they've seen women go all ga-ga over some rock star along the way -- so the assumption is that if you get in a band, you'll automatically get chicks.

As a result, a big part of learning to be a rock and roll guitar player is emulating the players you admire. So if Jimi Hendrix holds his pick a certain way and you want to play like him -- you'll hold your pick the same way. If you love the way old Metallica sounds, there's a good chance you'll buy a guitar shaped like the ones the guys in that band play. And if your favorite guitar player dresses a certain way, wears his hear a certain length, or scrunches up his lips and shakes his head whenever he plays a solo --
You're gonna do that too.
The problem with this is -- the guitar player you are emulating, lets just use Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin as an example, spent his entire guitar playing youth listening to and watching concerts from his favorite guitar players, which in Jimmy's case would be classic bluesmen -- many of whom grew up poor and had crappy instruments and usually some sort of drinking problem or physical handicap such as blindness, all of which could be reasons for facial tics or at the very least a reason to be even more demonstrative in your body language -- and it's not that hard to make the connection that a young Jimmy Page decided that moving his head a certain way and wincing when he played certain notes was part of playing the blues.
So in essence, you're emulating the facial expressions of a
guy who's emulating the facial expressions of someone else.
And when you consider how many guys who play guitar now were influenced by guys who were influenced by Jimmy Page (who was influenced by somebody else), it starts to get to the point where so many dudes have assumed that making guitar faces while you play is expected behavior that the line between actually wincing at techniques that might be slightly painful and just posing like a rock star gets incredibly blurred.

Plus, there's nothing worse than a band that just stands there on stage and plays their instruments like it's some sort of boring obligation. Nevermind the fact that audiences respond better to bands that play with passion and intensity, being on stage playing songs you love with your buddies is one of the biggest rushes you can possibly experience. Make no mistake -- it's fun being up there, so why not jump around and smile a bit?

The problem is that there's this imaginary sort of line that changes from audience to audience and show to show that you must cross before you win the crowd over to the point where everyone gets into the experience. For example, if you're playing a house party with all your friends at school and you play covers of songs that everyone likes -- it's not too hard to get a big response.

But when you take that band to some hole in the wall bar filled with people who have never heard of you and really would prefer to hear the headlining act play instead of your lame asses -- it's very easy to have that thing happen where all the jumping around and sticking the guitar between your legs and blowing kisses to the audience looks like well-practiced posing.

Good bands that are in it to have a good time and play good music find the right balance between having fun on stage and looking like a bunch of pansies.

But that doesn't mean there aren't a ton of groups out there who do practice synchronized dance moves. That there aren't guys who practice their guitar moves in front of a mirror. Drummers who work on different stick twirling tricks.

And little be it for me to judge. I was a huge KISS fan growing up -- and half the bands I loved during the hair metal 80s were the worst possible offenders of this particular guitar-faced crime. In fact, during the years before I got my first guitar I used to play a lot of air guitar in my room -- which is nothing but posing and doing rockstar faces.
It's in my blood, and probably always will be -- and I blame Phil Collen.
Phil Collen, for those of you who might not know -- is the lead guitar player for Def Leppard, who seem incredibly lame now, but when I was in sixth grade were the MOST IMPORTANT BAND IN THE UNIVERSE, especially among all the little girls that I wanted to woo. This was in the early days of MTV, so there was plenty of footage available for me to see what all the pre-pubescent hormonal fuss was about, and what I saw was a young Phil Collen, wrapped up in a leather jacket and a Union Jack T-Shirt, wiggling his ass around and pursing his lips like a drag queen.

He also was playing a particularly rocking guitar solo, so in my young mind the math was pretty basic:
Pointy guitar + leather pants + kissy face = Endless streams of sixth grade booty.
So I worked on it. I worked on the look, and lusted after pointy guitars that at the time were far too expensive for me to own. And I started pestering my parents to buy me rockstar looking clothes, and I even finagled a way to get a Union Jack t-shirt (which I immediately cut the sleeves off and rocked in the mirror) in preparation for conquering the greater female population of The Susie Tolbert Sixth Grade Center.

Luckily for me, I had a little brother. Specifically one who came in my room one day when I was in full rocker boy gear air-guitaring and jumping around in front of a mirror to the point where the only thing he could really say was,
"You look stupid. Why are you doing that?"
But that's how it starts. And it never really fully goes away -- as long as there are rock stars who continue to invoke unique looks into their act. Whether it be Elvis's leg shake, Billy Idol's sneer, Angus Young's duck walk, or any of the other moves that still look really cool when you see someone doing them on stage -- there's a certain value to it that's hard to express in words, regardless of how dumb it might look when you try it at home.

So the question before you is this: Of the two clips below -- Which guitar face is more hilarious, and why?

Adam Fulara: J.S. Bach, BWV 848

Steve Vai: Blue Powder (live)
Here are the rules: First, you can only pick one. If you love them both, you have to pick the one that you made you laugh the most.
But here's the twist.
In order for your vote to be counted, you must also tell me about your favorite rockstar move, or a time in the past when you were rocking out in your bedroom and got caught. Once we get enough of them, I figure we can put together a pretty good setlist of embarrassing guitar face karaoke moments, and take it on tour across the country.
All right, who's ready to ROCK?

[Listening To:  N.E.R.D."Kill Joy" ]


unMuse said…
Steve Vai looks like a rockstar should. The kid, as amazing as that video was, made me concerned about his ability to take a poo.

So my vote goes to the kid.

I always loved Steven Tyler's "I have no knees" move at the micrphone and thusly Axl Rose's snake move. I don't do stages though, so the closest I've had to one of my own moments is being caught by my parents when I was 15 practicing the goth line dance.
Adam said…
Def Leppard were an amazing band. Pyromania was certainly the coolest record I had ever heard (at the time). It's still pretty good when you listen to it today!

As far as the guitar face thing goes, my vote (begrudgingly) goes to Steve Vai. I mean, Vai is a douchebag. But I do love the theatrical aspects of guitar face and 'rockin' stage moves. At least when done well. And I can't help but think that Vai was completely aware of what he was doing, realised it was totally cheesy, maybe was doing it with a bit of a sense of irony... and totally meant every single expression. It's the dual nature of rock. Especially metal. Slayer didn't really worship Satan... but their tongues were only so far in their cheeks.

The other guy was certainly funny. But that's a guitar face built from sheer concentration. He was amazing. But he also recorded himself and put it on YouTube to show the world how amazing he is. So he's probably a dick that you might like to watch play, but never would want to grab a beer with.

That said he's pretty fucking awesome.

As far as my own stage moves go, there are none. But I used to sneak into my sister's room when no one was home and play bass in front of her massive floor-to-ceiling mirror. I would spend hours prefecting my 'technique,' getting the strap length exactly right, etc.

Funniest stage move I think I ever saw was on MTV. They were doing a story on the band Dash Rip Rock (huh?) and they showed them playing live. As the guitarist was playing a flashy solo, the lead singer crouched behind him and blew cigarette smoke a the guitar fretboard... so it looked like the guitarist's hands were smokin!
Maria said…
I am gonna have to go with Adam Fulara: J.S. Bach, BWV 848. Note to self - if ever posting a video online, watch it first and reshoot if necessary.

Steve Vai was just too much - he looked like he should be on a romance novel cover and worse, proud of it.

And I played flute and clarinet, so there was not a whole lot of rocking out going on. But I did get caught lip synching to Lords of Acid, by my father. Yeah, those are great lyrics to play for the over 65 set.
Werdna said…
Vai was professionally cheesy. I mean who has a wind machine on stage for their hair?

On the other hand the fantastic player of Bach, needs a laxative and a Warr guitar or the like.

So I'm voting for Guitar Face of Adam Fulara.

My best guitar face stories always involve Hex. My worst guitar face is with CrashCourse, when you guys "set me up the bomb"- Bass Solo (and then everyone drops out) for like 8 bars. Misery.

I do get the practicing with the guitar strap deal. I will tell you why I will never be a cool looking bass or guitar player. I feel really comfortable playing bass or guitar at an in between height. Most of the awesome attitude guys wear it low (too low for me to play) or the crazy technique guys play it higher than I like to play it (anything with the body above the belt line feels weird).


"not in my store you don't!"
Werdna said…
PS. Great photo of Fripp. I didn't even know Fripp had guitar face. When I saw him with Crimson, he sure was mostly expressionless. Tony Levin on the otherhand... pure guitar face. In fact Hex's stage guitar face and Tony Levin's are on the surface similar in some ways.

I expected a guitar face track, but was pleasantly surprised by Nerd: Kill Joy.
Satorical said…
Fulara. That's as authentic as it gets.

I got nothin' on the guitar face. Maybe someone will call me out on it, but nothing comes to mind.
Heff said…
Adam Fulara - an absolute SPAZ.

Favorite Move - I don't know, It would have to be some of Jake E. Lee's hammer on/fret slide down moves from the Bark At the Moon tour many eons ago.

For even MORE ridiculous guitar face, visit Heff's Bar and Grill this week.
Hex said…
Unmuse -- the Axl move is a killer. I was in highschool when Appetite for Destruction came out, so a lot of high school cover band singers immediately learned that one, and tried their best to look like him when they did it.

I can't even begin to tell you how much I hate playing "Sweet Child of Mine" on Guitar. One band I was in would do that one relentlessly. It was hell.

Adam -- I'm a big Steve Vai fan, and have been since his Frank Zappa days. The guy is an amazing player -- but he's an incessant wanker, and there's no doubt he does half that stuff on purpose. It's part of the conundrum of being a fan of the guy.

Maria -- Ah the Lords of Acid. Now that's a fun band!

Werdna -- There were times when we probably should have re-named Crash Course "Guitar Face," and that probably goes in my corner. Still, we were having so much fun I'd never even think of apologizing for it.

Satorical -- I seem to remember a particular Surfin'Watusis gig where our drummer got drunk and passed out, requiring you to take over the chair. Guitar face, no -- But drummer face? Absolutely :)

Heff -- Until he slipped into the weirdness and paranoia that he seems to deal with now, there was NO ONE cooler than Jake E. Lee. Sad story on that guy, you know?

ps -- If anyone hasn't seen the AWESOME footage of the latest rockin' session of Heff's band Butlik, check out his blog immediately. They frikkin ROCK!