I do everything in my power to see as many legendary bands and guitar heroes at least once before they call it quits or worse.
It’s just one of those things I find that I need to do. I’ve spent countless hours reading about their life history and their path to greatness.
The only thing missing is live confirmation that they are the truth.
This week I went to Generation Axe in Philadelphia, featuring Nuno Bettencourt, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, and Tobin Abasi.
This was an all out shred fest where a billion notes must’ve been played, and I’m not even kidding.
Now, I’m always down for a good shred session and there are plenty of takeaways from this kind of event, particularly with how each performer held their own.
I’m a believer in soul and feel above all when it comes to guitar, which is why my personal favorite guitar players are Billy Gibbons and David Gilmour.
This post will breakdown each player and attempt to describe how I feel about their technical skill, charisma, and soul/feel, on a scale of 1-10.
Each shredder played with the the same backing band so all things being equal the circumstances were pretty much the same.
First up was Tobin Abasi, guitarist from Animals as Leaders and probably the one guy I knew the least about.
But that’s what it’s all about, getting exposed to new music and new artists in a unique situation that allows them to play their own music but also collaborate with the others on stage.
It might even be noted that he is not in fact a “legend” as of yet, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since he was invited on stage with some of the greatest axe wielders of all time.
As expected, Abasi played some music from Animals as Leaders which I had never heard before.
I dug it.
I would certainly consider it “progressive” and Dream Theater-like, however I don’t even like using the word “progressive” very often. I am not quite sure how else to describe it though so I guess it’ll have to do.
His technical skill was pretty damn incredible. There is no question the guy has raw talent.
He plays a 7 or possibly 8 string guitar which is rare and pretty intriguing, because it allows you to reach new octaves and create different chord shapes than if he was using a standard six-string.
Overall his style of playing is hit or miss with me…
On one hand I appreciate the hell out of it, as it’s one of a kind and truly unique.
On the other, it’s sometimes incredibly easy to get lost, almost as if not knowing the songs works to your disadvantage because the sudden changes in time signature and/or key can throw you off.
Because I am a self-taught guitar player who didn’t have any musical training whatsoever until my early twenties (and even that was nothing more than YouTube lessons), I feel that I have an ear for soul, but a weak ear for “notes.”
It’s hard to describe what I mean, but it almost feels like I am slightly behind when I am trying to process the music.
Hell, Nuno Bettencourt came out to jam with him and even joked that he had trouble knowing where the “1” is and described practicing for the performance with a joking gun-to-the-head gesture.
I would say that the one thing he lacked was any type of charisma, but perhaps he was just being humble after being invited to such a prestigious shred session…
Unfortunately I didn’t get any good footage of Tobin but here’s the verdict:
Technical Skill – 9.5
Charisma – 4
Soul/Feel – 6
Total – 19.5
Now here’s a guy with character.
I had listened to Extreme in the past, but not enough to really get a real feel for their entire catalog or Nuno’s playing.
Bettencourt was easily the most charismatic performer of the night, combining epic shredding ability with tasteful blues licks, singing, and some jokes.
Nothing for nothing I thought he brought the most feel and soul of all the performers, barely edging out Steve Vai who was also very high in this category.
Nuno covered one of the most popular Extreme songs “Get the Funk Out” which is a great tune.
Some people might be quick to judge it as “pop” sounding, but if you really listen to the guitar riffs and licks you will hear some unique stuff that is tremendously creative. It just has a characteristic sound that you really don’t hear anywhere else, and that’s what I like about it.
The main chorus riff and the subsequent turnaround are quite cool – good picking exercise too.
At the end of his set he played “Sideways” with Zakk Wylde which was a Citizen Cope cover I believe. Their vocal harmonies were impressive and the guitar tone of each shredder complemented the other very well.
This song also brought out some of the best in Zakk – it actually forced him to not sweep and play a billion notes per second endlessly!
Here’s some video:
Overall Nuno was impressive as hell and seems like a really cool dude you want to have a beer with and talk metal…
Technical Skill – 9
Charisma – 9.5
Soul/Feel – 8.5
Total – 27
Up next was Zakk Wylde, and there is no doubt about it – this guy can absolutely rip. I also think he has a pretty damn good voice for basically being a viking.
The first time I saw Zakk Wylde he was playing with Ozzy and he was pretty damn impressive. The only thing he did at that show that I didn’t care for was the constant use of pinch harmonics in a way that wasn’t very tasteful.
I think when you use a technique like a pinch harmonic, bends, sweeps, etc., it needs to be used tastefully, meaning not for the sake of using it.
If you are playing pinch harmonics over and over with no real reason other than to simply do it, I think it takes away from the performance. This is the problem I have with Yngwie and sweeps but we’ll get to that later.
Zakk had a nice tone but there were times when he just simply played a billion notes a second over and over with no apparent structure.
Arguably someone could say “well Riz, you just don’t get it” or “Riz, you don’t have the ear for it.” Maybe. But a lot of people started yawning when it was drawn out to great lengths…
I saw Jeff Loomis do a solo performance and it was dreadful. It was the same type of thing, a shitload of sweeps and technical playing but not an ounce of feel or emotion.
Some people rip on Tosin Abasi for the same thing, but I actually believe his stuff is legitimately more complex and does have feeling, albeit a sideways lateral schizophrenic kind. Loomis didn’t have it and Zakk Wylde faded in and out of utterly boring to soulful and “bendy.”
The highlight of his performance was a trip into the crowd to shred. He literally walked down the aisle without missing a note, high fiving fans and getting about as intimate as it can get.
Funny thing was he was wired up so his techs had to follow him around to keep the cord in place. Thing must’ve been 2 miles long…
Check it out on video:
Overall, throughout the night Zakk treated the crowd extremely well, high fiving fans and even stayed after the show to walk across the front row to interact with people, which I thought was pretty cool. Nuno did the same. For this reason Wylde gets a charisma bump on the rating scale.
Technical Skill – 9
Charisma – 8.5
Soul/Feel – 7.5
Total – 25
Going into the show, this is the guy I most anticipated seeing, as that he was probably the one guy I had heard a ton about but had never witnessed live. I believe the live show completes the story. Plenty of bands put some great tracks on tape but actually suck live because they have no stage presence or simply can’t fake it like you could on an album. Malmsteen’s legend is one of greatness and intrigue but also ego and arrogance.
He did the classic Yngwie guitar poses that you see on the epic artwork on some of his albums, and he’s definitely got some of the most badass album covers in existence.
He sort of danced around a lot too, kicking his leg, trying to kick picks to the crowd among other posturing.
He also attempted guitar “tricks” that seemed a bit forced, like throwing his guitar in the air (only about two feet), spinning his guitar in hand, and the classic around the back spin toss.
I’m find with the old around-the-back strap spinner, but the rest was not impressive because it wasn’t risky enough. There’s no point of throwing you guitar about two feet in the air because it’s no impressive. He also threw it to his guitar tech, only to go retrieve it in about five seconds which seemingly made no sense and wasn’t exactly entertaining…
Anyway let’s get to the shredding. This dude can play fast as fuck but he does it incessantly. Kind of like Zakk Wylde but even worse when it comes to tasteful deployment. It’s impressive and entertaining yes but it’s not very musical in my opinion.
Then misery struck.
His gear took a shit.
Not sure if it was his pedal, one of his guitar heads, a cord.
Whatever it was, something wasn’t right and he was pissed about it.
His guitar tech ran around frantically checking everything over and over and eventually the entire show came to a halt for about five minutes which is an eternity in show time.
It got awkward and Malmsteen had to be absolutely furious inside.
He eventually got through it and finished the set with another four thousand sweeps and eighty six million trills.
Overall I was pretty disappointed, but at the same time I feel the pain if his gear did in fact blow out on him. Can’t really fault him for that I guess.
All I know is similar shit has happened to me and I would panic a bit, but the lesson I learned was that if legends like Yngwie Malmsteen experience gear failures, then shit, I really shouldn’t sweat it. Just go into “fuck it” mode, keep your composure, finish the set like a professional. I thought he would be the most charismatic of all but his schtick felt a bit forced…
Technical Skill – 9.5
Charisma – 7.0
Soul/Feel – 6.5
Total – 23
The guitar wizard and axe nerd himself arrived on the scene to close out the night.
I can’t say it enough – the guy is a damn nerd, but holy shit can he play the guitar.
Vai was probably the one guy who shredded and sweeped and trilled his way through the set at a furious pace, but kept it in balance with some interesting effects, breakdowns, slow passages, and just some generally weird but entertaining shit.
He also was the one person that seemed to me to be the most in-touch with the instrument, meaning his body language and presence sort of imitated exactly what he was playing.
As I mentioned before, Vai was somewhat feminine, dancing around, almost prancing in some cases but I personally didn’t care. This is what music is about, putting the soul and feel of who you are straight into the sound waves.
It was almost like he was the only one in the room.
I honestly think that’a a great position to be in when you’re up on stage.
You just don’t give a damn and you’ll play what you want to play and make the audience feel what you want us to feel. His execution and technique were something to behold.
There’s not much more to say. I thought he performed extremely well and kept up the delicate balance between soul and mindless shredding. Seemingly mindless, of course…
If I had to dock him anywhere, it would be overall charisma, because he’s just such a damn nerd and nerds tend to fail in the humor or public speaking department!
Technical Skill – 10
Charisma – 7.5
Soul/Feel – 8.5
Total – 26
The finale was a real treat because it was an opportunity for all of the players to jam together on one stage, which allows for one thing in particularly – harmonies and trade off solos.
Also, the playing tends to be more soulful, bluesy, shreddy, but tasteful and playful even.
They covered “Frankenstein” and “Highway Star.” I got Frankenstein on tape and I’ll just let the music do the talkin’…