Warning: This column was written under duress and extreme noise terror.
Wielded correctly, you can melt someone’s face with an axe. It’s no secret. You don’t need the Ark of the Covenant either. It happens all the time, every day, and people love it. Since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down in the Mississippi Delta shortly before War World II, people have been in the face-melting business. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, along with a long list of blues elder statesmen, laid the foundation by making their respective axes moan and wail. Then you had Jimi Hendrix fornicating with his axe in public, before setting it on fire. Jimmy Page had a double-necked axe. Pete Townshend smashed his axe into a stack of amps. Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman seemingly tortured their axes for their desired effect — hellish squeals and chugging, chainsaw leads. Clearly, there is more than one way to be an axe murderer. If you’re still skeptical, watch any of the “The Slumber Party Massacre” movies, which feature much more than just face-melting mayhem.
Having your face melted feels great, especially during live shows. Your jaw goes slack. Your eyes widen. You forget to breathe properly. Your heartbeat quickens. Sometimes a guttural “Yeah!” is accompanied by throwing up the horns. In my case, the white man’s overbite and headbanging typically follow. There’s something about a shredding guitar that tickles that primordial itch for satisfying vibrations. Solos. Triplets. The Devil’s Tritone. Give it all to me.
While cooped up in my basement dwelling, frantically pushing out papers and riding out the cresting wave of a global pandemic, I’ve become more acquainted with my own axes. Oh, sweet serenaders, how I’ve neglected you. My acoustic accompanied me here, so I’ve always plucked away on that, but I recently received my electric axe and amp. It’s kind of like riding a bike, though my adult brain, in memorizing more practical, useful bits of info like proper personal finance practices, has forgotten some hard-earned guitar knowledge. Relearning the solos of Queen, Metallica and The Scorpions are on my quarantine to-do list. But I can barely read guitar tabs, let alone sheet music, so I usually learn by ear. Grabbed “100 Classic Blues Guitar Licks” and a Slayer tab book for starters.
The good people of Telluride Music Company are currently looking over an old DigiTech death metal pedal that makes my blues-oriented setup of a 1998 Fender Stratocaster and Hughes & Kettner amp sound like razorblades in a blender. I’m craving that killer crunch. There’s a certain amount of emotion that comes from plugging in and thrashing through Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” When I first heard the intro, especially when those galloping triplets come pummeling through the speakers, my face fell off. Slayer is the soundtrack of the underworld. It’s kind of their thing. If the elevator goes south after I expire, I fully expect to hear “Raining Blood” on my way down.
After all the 2020 festivals and concerts I planned to attend were canceled, I started training to melt my own face — a practice that could have serious repercussions, least among them is permanent disfigurement. Down in my dungeon I seethe. I play until my fingers are raw and my forearm cramps. My face distorts, but doesn’t melt. I pore over the pages of tabs in an effort to bend certain notes the right way. My right hand is more coordinated than my left. As Lemmy, an all-time face-melter on bass, once said, the left hand makes the shapes, the right hand brings them to life. Abstract analogies don’t really help, but they’re soothing.
Whether it’s music videos, documentaries or concerts, I always look at the guitar players’ hands. In the recently released ZZ Top documentary “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” seeing Billy Gibbons play up close is a revelation. He’s so smooth and confident, it’s as if he’s buttering bread.
Like writing, it’s all about repetition, including listening to as much music as possible. I need music playing in the background while I write, so I treat it like I’m studying for a double major. Subconsciously, the guitar tones and notes settle into the back of my brain only to resurface when I’m diddling away. Wait a minute that sounds like Amon Amarth. Cue “Guardians of Asgaard.” Well, hell, that’s it. Then it’s time to experiment a little, changing up the rhythm and twisting it to sound fundamentally different than the original version. There’s satisfaction in this, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the results I’m looking for.
Without writing a half-baked thesis, this whole face-melting phenomenon is a bit of a conundrum. I’m starting to think it’s better when someone else takes their axe to your ears, as there’s still a sense of mystery. How did they do that? What tuning are they using? Is that a pedal or some other ungodly effect? Wait for it!
My axes rest in the corner of my living room (I never put them in their cases). I pick them up whenever I'm pacing around wondering what to work on next. Throughout the process of writing this column, which was undertaken during an uninterrupted stretch of insanity, I picked up my Strat at least a dozen times to blast off a quick tune. A Black Sabbath riff here, and a Mayhem dirge there, even a White Zombie-Slayer-Metallica medley. Motorhead’s “Overkill” and Razor’s “Executioner’s Song” blare while I played. It’s sensory overload for sure, but I embrace such auditory chaos. Then it’s back to creating this drivel. There are deadlines to hit and papers to publish. Face-melting isn’t productive, but it is a nice release.