editorial Feature

Tooting their horn

Throughout the aeons of time, mankind has always made associations. The music industry, as it has been for so many things, serves as an inflated, hyperactive, giddy version of this.
From Mozart’s piano to Eric Clapton’s Stratocaster, a wide and varied cast of characters have wielded instruments that have become synonymous with them as much as their music. The question is, without fear of reprisal for ambiguous euphemisms. Who has done the most for their own instrument?

Starting with the obvious candidates, a number spring to mind. Rock music is a venerable collection of artists who have come to be associated with the instruments that have brought them fame and fortune. Perhaps a by-product of the commercially successful, hero-worshipping and a multi billion dollar machine geared towards vigilant branding. Rock and roll is the circus of characters who are so aptly recreated and idolized by their legions of fans.
Old Slowhand, Eric Clapton, has already been mentioned. As synonymous with the Fender Stratocaster, his signature association with arguably the world’s most famous guitar is so strong that he had two of them. Affectionately nicknamed “Brownie” and “Blackie,” Clapton’s use of the Strat on all of his most famous hits has made he and the instrument eternally interwoven.

Another guitar that has forged its way into the annals of rock music lore is the Gibson Les Paul. Seen as the closest rival to the Stratocaster, fans, critics and musicians themselves have been eternally split down the middle as to where their allegiances lie. Although never quite descending into bloodshed, the LP v Strat fight has been raging since the 50s.

The Les Paul has attracted some of the industry’s biggest names. Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Chuck Berry, Ace Frehley and Rory Gallagher have all mastered their on stage personas around the carefully curved, solid body shape. They are joined by an even longer list of those who, although may not be dedicated players, have all wielded the axe at some point in their illustrious careers of debauched glory and riff-tastic splendor.

However, there is one figure who stands head and shoulders above the others, quite literally. With a main of black curly hair, don’t call it a perm, and a top hat perched precariously above. Slash of Guns N Roses imposes the strongest case possible for the archetypal Les Paul player.
It is with his no nonsense attitude, blistering, fret board assaulting talent and precocious self styling that gives Mr. Saul Hudson the edge over his contemporaries. Topping a list of such renowned players of the same instrument is something that entirely encapsulates Slash’s attitude and style both on and off stage. For that alone he deserves his place as the man with the Les Paul.

Rock, of course, is not simply the guitar show. It does take a whole host of instruments, after all, to make up a band. Honorable mentions should go to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, the man who made the flute of all things an instrument enjoyed by more than those simply attending their sister’s recital.

Rick Wakeman and the late Jon Lord taught fans across the world that a 17 minute keyboard solo was indeed something that could be wedged into previously thought unavailable places within popular songs.

Keith Moon on the drums as there was no other Wildman like him on and off stage. The drum kit merely serving as a temporary interlude between one manic adventure and another.

And finally to Klaus Meine of German Heavy Metallers The Scorpions. A man who, on their 1990 hit ‘Winds of Change’ made whistling, something once reserved to the doldrums of subconscious thought and eternal crowd annoyance, into a bonafide rock weapon.

Moving away from the brazen, bare chested machismo of rock and roll, the world of music has often provided those who have turned their instruments into what would seem like an extended part of themselves. Dating back to the very origins of music itself, the musical industry, like any other art form, offers a diverse and eclectic array of characters and talents who would appear to have been born to do little else than compose, conduct and play their craft.

Louis Armstrong is as loved and widely known a figure for Dixieland and jazz as any other in his field. The trumpeter was widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His distinctive voice and scat singing were as fabled as his ability on the horn. None more evident than ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ are now part of societies collective consciousness that it is hard to imagine a world without them.

Classical music offers perhaps the widest range of musicians and composers who pioneered the use of their instruments and those of whole orchestras to their whim and mantle. Beethoven, Chopin and Lizst all contributed their own distinctive styles, innovated creativity and general genius to the piano that their effects are still evident today, hundreds of years after their demise.

Dating from an era where recording of music was impossible, the testimony to these men’s great work is that they are still relevant and held with such high regard that the art form has not forgotten them. With each new player, every new child forced into piano lessons after school, their legacies are reinforced and regarded as some of the finest achievements in the history of mankind.

Perhaps it is too difficult a task to name any one particular person as the distinctive, definitive article of their own instruments. Much like the evasive question of “what is your favourite movie?” or “who was the best footballer of all time?” this venture is perhaps best consigned to the quantum cupboard.

There can never be a distinctive answer as opinions will always differ, the playing field is not even and the burgeoning war of technology versus tradition will plague even the brightest, most dedicated scholars. What can only be hoped is that the future will continue to contribute to lists like these and not stagnate with things of the past. A worrying thought to leave you all with.

By Jonathan Whitelaw

Jonathan Whitelaw writes about music because he isn't good at playing it. For his musings and book plugs follow him on twitter: @JDWhitelaw13

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