by Michele Christopher
I have seen drills, vacuum tubes, and violin bows applied to the guitar. I have seen wild exploits by many an axe-man, but there are only two I can think of who constantly apply ingenuity and innovation to rethink the way the guitar is meant to be played. One of those two is the most underrated guitarist on the planet: Reeves Gabrels.
The other is Tom Morello, who has gotten far more attention from the popular crowd, but I think is the inferior guitarist. That is, of course, my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
The first time I ever saw Gabrels was around 1988 or '89, when David Bowie eschewed more stylistic music and gave us some good old hard rock via the band Tin Machine. Well, there were a couple of good songs, but overall the band lacked the cohesiveness needed to sell the band. However, Gabrels continued to work with Bowie and produced two of the coolest albums of the '90s – Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997).
Where Outside introduced Bowie's entrance into the modern electronica/techno musical field of the '90s, it was an unsteady and uneven album. But it was a commercial success. Eathling wasn't half the commercial success, but is a far better album. Tracks such as "Little Wonder," "I'm Afraid of Americans," and "Seven Years in Tibet" were fantastic songs.
Listening to "Little Wonder," you wonder at some of the sounds that Reeves got from his guitar. If you happened to see Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live in this era, you got to see Reeves rip out some wild guitar work.
Reeves has written guitar columns for different guitar magazines through the years. Usually his topics are about getting the most out of your instrument by rethinking how you play it. I happened upon one of his articles quite by accident many years ago. He talked about fretting your strings past the frets – using the edge of your neck and bridge pickups to fret the note. Things like this are hallmarks of his playing style.
Sure, Robert Fripp from King Crimson and others have a long history of exploring new ways of playing, but guys like Gabrels really reinvented the way that people look at the guitar.
Cullen writes daily at Half a Pica Distance