by Michele Christopher
One my first music teachers told me that anyone can be taught to play the guitar. She was right. Just about anyone can be taught the basic chords and how to strum along to the 4/4 time of most popular music. What she didn't say is that very few people become good guitarists. And fewer people still have the motivation, talent and drive to become great guitarists.
There is a difference between a good or really good guitarist and a great one. A good guitarist knows everything that a great one does. He can play the things the great ones do. He can sound just like the great one. The difference is that the great ones create their own sound. The create tunes to be emulated. They make music that other people want to sound like -- a distinct way of playing, their sound, their tone, their choice of notes, scales and chords.
Pick up a Rolling Stones album. You know what "Keef" sounds like. You know that jangly, special, five-string Fender Tele is about to start you up. Gilmour can stike a note and let it ring forever and you know it's him. You know by the quality of the note. Hendrix assaulted us with feedback-laden, just out of tune notes and chords. It was a constant sonic barrage. No one plays like Hendrix. Steve Vai pops notes. Vai can play like anyone but you still know it's Vai. He's the only person I can think of that can do that.
The point I am making is that many good guitarists make a good deal of money in music. Many good guitarists have performed in songs that have gone down in the pantheon of all-time favorites. But we never remember their names. Great guitarists may write music that gets dated fast, or music that sticks around forever -- regardless of what they play, we remember their name.
Vernon Reid is that kind of guitarist. Unique. His music bounces and frolics. It meanders like a kid in a candy store. Sometimes it spots exactly what it wants and pleads for it. Sometimes it rolls through the aisles haphazardly, finding its course as it goes, but maintaining sharp focus on the matter at hand.
Reid plays aggressive or soft. Heavy metal, soul or jazz. But you know who's fretting the notes because he's distinct in his presentation. He has a wild picking style and his playing may sound sloppy at first, but you soon realize it's intentional. Everything he strums has the exact amount of clarity he envisions. He cleverly pulls back when needed. Some guitarists never realize that sometimes it what you don't play that's important.
Making a name for himself as the guitarist for Living Colour, Reid and the band burst onto the scene with the 1988 release of Vivid which included the smash hit Cult of Personality. They followed it up with the critically acclaimed sophomore release Time's Up and rode the success for years even being included in the 1991 Lalapalooza line-up. But after the first couple of years of the '90s, the band began to fade from the public eye. They released Stain in 1993 and it received mixed reviews (though it is my personal favorite LC album). It was the first LC album to feature super-bassist Doug Wimbish.
What followed Stain was a decade of greatest hit releases until the band reformed and release CollideOscope in 2003. The musical future of Living Colour is unknown, but Vernon Reid continues to play releasing solo albums and doing a lot of work with other musicians.
It's impossible to separate Reid from his work empowering black music history. He co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and solidly acknowledges his musical roots.
Cult Of Personality, Vivd (1988)
Type, Time's Up (1990)
Ignorance Is Bliss, Stain (1993)
Nothingness, Stain (1993)
His solo album Known Unknown (2004)