Music Zen!

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E-A-D-G-B-E… or not.

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The guitar itself has become such an icon–a combination of masculine and feminine shapes that conjures up images of anything from Elvis-style hip-shakin’ to punk snarls, to college-quad douchebags to garage band antics to… well fill in the blank with almost anything you want. The mere visual has almost become a symbol for music itself.

To be fair, rap/hip-hop and electronica have done pretty well without the instrument. But inside the rock/pop canon, six strings rule. So it’s kind of an interesting exercise to poke around looking for bands contrary, innovative or odd enough to have eschewed the axe, just to see how (if at all) it’s affected the sound they’ve created. This is by no means a comprehensive list (that’s what comments are for, people), but these are a few (eight, specifically) that I could muster up.

1. Ben Folds Five
Sort of the Captain Obvious of the category, this trio consisted of Ben Folds (piano/vocals), Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums). When they hit it big with the moody abortion ballad “Brick” in 1997, much was made over the fact that the missing two of the five seemed to be the guitarists. But that didn’t stop them from cranking out some of the best pop songs of the past couple decades, nor has it stopped key-tinkler Folds from having a pretty successful solo career as a pop pianist. It’s also seen a subset of other bands try this formula, though not nearly as well (see: Keane).
Album to check out: This is a tough one, but I think overall, I do have to go with 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, album wise.
Key track: Here, though, I think the ’99 single “Army” captures the range of their sound a bit better–gentle melodic choruses, crazy pop vocal verses, even a horn section gets in on the deal.

2. Rasputina
Even if you don’t dig this sound, and it isn’t for everybody, you’ve got to admit that a rock band comprised of 3 cellists (backed by drums) is a pretty neat idea. The result is chamber pop that actually sounds like it belongs in a chamber somewhere–it’s dark and knotty and, in its own unique way, heavy, all with a certain elegance.
Album to Check Out: By far their best work is their 1996 debut, Thanks for the Ether
Key track: I wouldn’t normally put a cover here, but their take on ’60s hippie chick Melanie’s “Brand New Key” makes the song even weirder and a lot creepier than the already kinda weird original.

3. Morphine
Low, bluesy college rock that switches out a shredder for a saxophonist. The focal sound here is the interplay between the rolling basslines of vocalist Mark Sandman and Dana Colley’s intricate lines on layered tenor and baritone saxes. The result is a band that could’ve fallen into the wake of the post-grunge zeitgeist, but instead made something really memorable and interesting. Unfortunately, Sandman died in 1999, however Colley and drummer Billy Conway would go on to form (the also guitar-less I think) Twinemen with vocalist Laurie Sargent, who are also worth checkin’ out.
Album to Check Out: While the band had at least three great albums, their masterpiece is usually considered to be 1993’s Cure for Pain.
Key Track: This is another tough one, but the song I always get stuck in my head is the chilled-out groove of “I’m Free Now.”

4. Death From Above 1979
A relatively short lived duo that only released one proper album, Jesse Keeler (Bass/Synth) and Sebastian Grainger (Drums/Vocals) prove that rock can, indeed, be brought to the table with only 4 strings in play. Part dance-punk, part distorted noise, the two dudes create a sound that manages to be both heavy and spare at the same time–rawer than the same songs might sound with the addition of a guitarist.
Album to Check Out: As previously mentioned, there’s really only the one–2004’s awesomely-titled You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.
Key Track: Check out the hook on “Blood on Our Hands” and realize the potential of a distorted bass.

5. Lightning Bolt
Put simply, this shit is one hell of a racket. Like DFA above, this is the sound of a rhythm section gone totally haywire. Where the prior band do root their sound in certain hook-laced tradition, Brians Chippaedale and Gibson push further out into avant noise space. They’ve recorded tracks over a series of four albums that sound like some kind of mechanical monstrous nightmare eating itself from the inside out.
Album to Check Out: While all their releases have a certain charm, this is a band that gets better with age, so check out the most recent–2005’s Hypermagic Mountain.
Key Track: Yes, that is some damn crazy riffage on “Bizzaro Zarro Land.” No, it is not a guitar doin’ it, I promise.

6. The Tiny
In a completely different direction, there’s this fragile-sounding Swedish trio consisting of cello, upright bass and keys/toy pianos/etc. The combination of Ellekari Larsson’s sweet, childlike voice and the sparsity of the arrangements leave a haunting, gorgeous impression that’s distinctive, even in an overcrowded indie-pop scene.
Album to Check Out: Thus far, the one I’ve been able to find is the excellent Starring: Someone Like You from 2006, however…
Key Track: …I found the video for the 2004 single Closer on Youtube and it’s so lovely I’m eagerly hunting down their first record.

7. Mates of State
Not only does the duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel not have a standard guitar, it doesn’t have a bass either–this is manic pop music driven entirely by drums, keyboards and sugar-sweet harmonies. The result is sparkly and synth-heavy–music that, even during the mellower moments, is painted in bright colors and bold strokes. It can come on a little strong, but even so, it’s definitely distinctive and has a certain appeal to it to fans of the Barsuk scene.
Album to Check Out: I’m torn between two, but I think I’m going with the slightly more composed Bring It Back from 2006.
Key Track: There are a number of songs that capture them well, but “For the Actor” seems to do an especially good job with its changing structures and variety of instrumentation.

8. The Apes
A garage-rock band that draws from all the same influences that the White Stripes do, but do it with an organ, a moog, bass and drums. The result is something gritty and dirty, but also psyched out and fuzzy at the same time. This is a band I just recently tripped over (pun intended) so I can’t speak to them too much, but it’s an interesting variant on what was, for a while, an all too trendy sound.
Album to Check Out: As I say, I’m kind of a neophyte here, but their most recent, this year’s Ghost Games, with (apparently) new vocalist Breck Brunson is doin’ it for me.
Key Track: Check out “Dr. Watcher” which is like Jack White-meets-Clinic–a pretty cool combination.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some guitar. A lot. But like everything one loves, it’s easy to take for granted, and part of the fun of being an artist is finding ways around those assumptions. Saying goodbye to the guitar is just one of an almost infinite array of routes to doing that and it’s always arguable whether or not bands are successful in their efforts, but that, too, is part of the fun of listening to and discovering new music.


Written by Sarah K

June 21, 2008 at 12:47 am

7 Responses

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  1. Death From Above is what I thought of immediately. Then there is Keane, but I think that they added a guitarist on their second album. That’s all I can come up with that is pop/rock that you didn’t already list.

    Jacob Z

    June 21, 2008 at 1:19 am

  2. It is surprisingly difficult to think of ones. I was hoping to go for 10 (which I guess I kinda did if you count Keane and Twinemen, but I’m not) but I couldn’t honestly think of any more right now.

    Sarah K

    June 21, 2008 at 1:28 am

  3. Lightning Bolt is fantastic. Here’s an interview with Brian Chippendale ( | the fauxfetus link will not provide what you want if you want to download the stuff. try here instead: — don’t worry, it’s official. I don’t see the Black Pus stuff there but I haven’t looked around. Also, lol @ the picture on the fauxfetus homepage:

    This still amazes me: Lightning Bolt on the late John Peel’s (RIP) show. About halfway through it picks up more of what is for them an actual song melody, which is interesting. It starts to get a Boris like feel.

    Marshall B

    June 21, 2008 at 1:51 am

  4. Somehow I suspected LB would be up your alley. 😉 There’s some neat stuff at that fauxfetus site–I will check it out more thoroughly when I am more awake than I am now.

    Watching that Peel Session video though, damn. Chippendale is one hell of a drummer to move like that.

    Sarah K

    June 21, 2008 at 2:01 am

  5. He is!

    I forgot to mention that I ❤ Morphine. Er, the band. I’m listening to Rasputina now and I really like this. I like cellos a lot.

    For more bitching drumming:

    Marshall B

    June 21, 2008 at 5:07 am

  6. I dig Rasputina a lot… if I’m in the mood. It’s definitely something that requires a certain mood.

    Space Harrier! Oh man, that takes me back.
    Yeah, though, that is some serious wrist action ;o

    (Ignore me, I’m tired)

    Sarah K

    June 21, 2008 at 5:35 am

  7. I have to admit that, as a guitar geek, I have a hard time accepting bands that don’t employ those magical (and sometimes awful) six strings. That being said, I am a big fan of Ben Folds and I like Mates of State a bit, too. And of course, Death from Above can bring the rock better than bands with two guitars.

    It’s sort of like when I hear a band without a bass player — something seems to be missing. I want that cutting guitar sound in a rock/pop song and sometimes it takes a little extra effort to pull me out of it if that element is not present.

    This is a great post about a great observation though, so thanks for the list. I’ll be sure to check some of these acts out!


    June 21, 2008 at 12:07 pm

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