I saw Alice in Chains live for the first time when they came to St. Paul on July 9. From this middle-aged man, those slightly older middle-aged men on stage seemed to be aging rather gracefully. I don’t have their latest yet but I understand that it’s filled with mostly mid-tempo material. In concert, they also seem to confine themselves to a comfortable range of tempos. Even faster material like We Die Young and Check My Brain felt slower to me. Unlike full-on headbangers like In Flames (and maybe because Jerry Cantrell got a hair cut) they just mostly stood casually, bobbed their head up and down, and dutifully went through their songs, mostly the way they are on recordings. I saw a well-oiled machine who knew exactly what they were doing, having nothing to prove nor stretch themselves with. And to me the crowd response was equally middle-of-the-road — they were neither unresponsive nor feverishly excited. Despite a long string of hits, the only time they went really wild seemed to be when they pulled out Man in the Box. There were sporadic attempts for body-surfing, but for the most part the crowd seemed unable to totally go all out, no doubt held back by the fairly casual and nonchalant way the band played.
So, as a Thoughtful Guitarist, I made a few observations:
1. Play what you’re excited to play
This is a balancing act, of course, you can’t be completely self-indulgent as a performer, either. But with an act like Alice in Chains, I think they should take more chances and stretch themselves out, instead of just going through the motions of playing crowd-pleasers note-for-note. I realize that they are on a long tour and play pretty much the same songs every night, but that’s all the more reason to shake things up and experiment. They have the chops to do so. Structure your set and your approach and change arrangements and incorporate jamming/improvisations so that it forces you to go out and give it your 100%, play like you have something to prove. Of course it’s exciting to play what the crowd is excited to hear, too, but it’s possible to play the hits and also make them feel fresh and new and exciting to play. The bottom line is, the crowd will only get into it as much as the performers are into it.
2. Simplicity is key to bigness
Jerry is not a flashy player, neither his riffs nor solos require prodigious techniques. But therein lies the man’s genius — he knows how to place notes, voice his chords, incorporate various tricks to make monstrously huge, crushingly heavy music. Something we guitarists need to realize that a lot of times, fast playing just sounds busy. And busy-ness is antithesis to bigness. It’s like painting with tiny brushes on a big canvas. If you bring out big brushes and use broad strokes, you can cover a lot more ground with just a few. The same thing with solos — there are exceptions, but for the most part fast playing stops feeling fast, really fast, if you do it all the time. It’s restraint and contrast that makes even modestly fast passages feel fast, if it’s set up correctly with sparser, hummable lines.
3. Single coils are better at cutting through
And here is where my bias clearly shows — Jerry switched guitars a lot, and I’d say 80% of the songs were played with humbuckers. William Duvall played a dual-humbucker guitar that I didn’t recognize (he used to play a Les Paul, but this one seemed like a Schecter, maybe?) whenever he played. And you know what? Most of the time note definitions were completely lost. The drop-D riff to Hollow was completely unrecognizable.
It was a few times when Jerry strapped on single-coil equipped guitars — Voices were played with what looked like a Dan Electro, and a tele-shaped G&L ASAT were brought out for likes of No Excuses. That’s when I heard everything he played. Guys into heavy music need to realize that it’s the treble edge, note definition and well-articulated attacks that bring out heaviness and aggression in guitar-based music. Tom Morello proved that heavy music can be played perfectly well on a stock telecaster. In some ways it feels comforting to play humbuckers because it’s easy to distort and compress and it gives you the illusion that your music sounds full. But in a crowded soundscape like live sound, where the low-end can quickly overwhelm everything else above it, your playing comes across much better when that treble, attack and definition are preserved.
Anyway, all in all I was very happy I went, though I don’t feel the need to go see them multiple times.