Not too long ago we started thinking about the 'geet's' role in the Australian indie music scene. As music constantly evolves to suit the times, we wondered what it was about the guitar that allowed it to be just as relevant today as it was decades ago. Consequently, we reached out to some of Aussie music’s guitar aficionados, asking them for their opinions on how the guitar fits into the Australian music landscape.
Firstly, it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of guitars that are out there on the scene. Finn Diggles of Brisbane-based rock band, Dopamine, owns three guitars. “I currently own three guitars, a Gret[s]ch Electromatic ... a Sublime Tomcat (mixture of Telecaster and Jazzmaster) ... and my most recent purchase [is] a vintage 1977 Fender Mustang...” says Diggles. Curtly Lyon, the drummer of Melbourne-based rock band Vermont (who’s also a talented guitarist), uses “a Fender Telecaster” as well as “a Squier VM 72 Thinline Telecaster and an Epiphone Les Paul”. Folk-rock singer-songwriter, Ruby Gilbert, is the proud owner of “a Gretsch G5120 Electromatic and a Cole Clark FL3.” The list goes on.
With so many guitars, each with their own sounds, tones and designs, it’s easy for the uninitiated to feel overwhelmed. Rhys Hope, the guitarist of Sydney-based indie rock band, Highline, broke it down.
“For me, Fenders are the go-to for indie rock. Throughout our last record, the jazzmaster was the perfect tone for [the] jangly, chorus-heavy arpeggios and short guitar stabs, while my Stratocaster took the lead for all the dirtier solos that were classic ‘Rock n roll’. The neck shape of the jazzmaster and Stratocaster just really make me feel at home, and it gives me such comfort to be able to play, a comfort I’ve struggled to feel with Gibson guitars,” says Hope.
Unlike their players, who are more than welcome to dip their toes into different genres, it’s safe to say that guitars tend to stick to one genre. At the end of the day, a guitar’s sound and tone dictates what it can and cannot be used for, like with many instruments. For instance, you’d never expect to hear an acoustic guitar being used in a beat-driven rave song. Gilbert shared with us her own experience of how situational the guitar can be.
“I prefer to play the Gretsch G5120 for live shows as it has a lovely warm and bluesy tone which is perfect for blues and rock styles of music. The warmth and the intricacies of the guitar melodies can really be appreciated when the Gretsch is played in smaller venues. I tend to favour the Cole Clark FL3 for most of my studio recordings as it has a bold, bright tone which shines when recorded,” says Gilbert.
A similar theme ran through the answers of the artists who answered our call. Yes, there’s a technical component to each instrument that allows it to create the desired sound. However, everyone touched upon the fact that an artist’s instincts are hard to ignore, especially when it comes to how guitars are able to create dynamic atmospheres. It’s something that Sam Sheumack of punk rock band, FANGZ, explained to us. “...there's something about the way that standing in front of a crowd of people and hitting an open E chord through a cranked amp, and that magical moment when the feedback starts taking off and the guitar starts vibrating takes you to a completely different place,” Sheumack said.
“My late classical guitar teacher, Phillip Houghton, used to speak of when he used to feel like he was out of his body, watching himself playing incredibly difficult pieces of guitar. I never got to this point playing classical guitar (probably because I was nowhere near competent enough to get to that point), but give me my Duesenberg Starplayer, Klon KTR, and my Fender Bassman, and I can get there pretty quick!” explained Sheumack.
Transporting listeners to a different place. Elevating records. Weaving intoxicating sound threads around anyone who listens. It’s clear to see how fundamental the guitar is to music. They are a time-tested instrument. Montréal-based singer-songwriter, A-J Charron, once wrote that “songs were meant to tell stories”. From the Ancient Greeks to the travelling minstrels of the Middle Ages, Charron argued that songs and music have always been essential at keeping storytelling alive. Jordan Merrick, Brisbane’s renowned singer-songwriter of bush ballads, understands this better than anyone. When asked what it is about guitars that resonates with him, Merrick replied:
“The stories. I remember reading an article as a teenager where Neil Young was interviewed about guitars and he spoke about the unique stories different guitars can tell. At the time, it felt a little fanciful, but the more I began to play different guitars, the more I found myself instantly inspired and in turn discovered songs I truly feel I wouldn’t have found without doing so.”
With all this being said, one thing that almost everyone agreed on was the relevancy of the guitar to contemporary indie music. In Lyon’s case, he believes that the guitar adds another layer of self-expression to a song. “Something about the guitar makes the music feel real, and grounds you to the emotion behind the player. You can … [pour] your heart into the guitar and it will show,” Lyon said.
Sounds, atmosphere and storytelling. They are three components that Aussie music says are the qualities that allow the guitar to remain relevant in the indie music scene. Music trends come and go, but the guitar, and all its history, is here to stay. Diggles summed up this feeling perfectly:
“For me, the guitar is very much a staple of the Australian indie music scene. The pub scene of the 80s and 90s has left its mark on us as a culture, and it is almost ingrained in us how central the guitar is to the sound and feel of Australian music. The indie scene that grew from this base retains this strong guitar link. From nostalgic bands like the Sunnyboys and Hoodoo Gurus through to current indie bands like Spacey Jane, Last Dinosaurs, DZ Deathrays and Concrete Surfers, the guitar remains central to the indie sound of these bands.”
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