It was Steve Lacy, that late genius of the soprano saxophone who said "the instrument, that's the matter - the stuff - your subject", yet for so many guitarists that's just not true, to them technique is all, they have seemingly no interest in how their instrument actually works, why it sounds the way it does. It's a shallow kind of virtuosity underpinned by a linear, horizontal way of thinking and it leads to flat two-dimensional music that goes from A to B in a manner which anyone with ears and a half-working brain will be able to predict pretty damn accurately.
The electric guitar especially is an astonishingly malleable instrument, both sonically and physically, and microscopically sensitive to nuance, yet most guitarists are content to draw from an extremely limited palette of sound, and the toss-merchants are the worst offenders. They compress and/or eq the living shit out of their guitars for an illusory clarity, seemingly believing that removing the frequencies which give a guitar a large amount of it's tonal personality (the midrange) and removing the volume differences from individually played notes will let everyone who listens focus on their 'art'*. The way they set their instruments up aims to do the same thing, the thin strings sound like they look - tinny and harmonically lacking, the stupidly low action** that precludes any serious dynamic range in yr picking - if you play with any balls the strings whack and buzz against the fretboard and sound like shit, these approaches just lead to a polite uniformity of sound devoid of feeling, power or subtlety, robbing the music of any personality or emotional resonance it may have once possessed. A string of notes devoid of variation in dynamic or timbre, of the player's touch, is just that, a string of notes executed by a technician for the edification of a similarly limited audience. You don't judge a writer by how fast they can fucking type without making a mistake do you?
It dismays me that so many guitarists really do think and play like this. If you really want to know what technical virtuosity is actually for, then I suggest you listen to John Coltrane, or Eric Dolphy, or Cecil Taylor. Musicians whose knowledge of the technical and theoretical aspects of music far outstrip any classical musician, living or dead, yet are/were capable of subsuming that knowledge into a greater whole, one which encompasses the physical and acoustic properties of their respective instruments, a drive to push forward what the music they play can encompass, sonically, emotionally and yes, theoretically and structurally, a burning need to discover what music can be and become, not to settle for what's gone before and refine it like a formal mathematical proof.
Music, at it's most basic is sound in a perceptual frame, and the electric guitar is frankly only rivalled by modular analogue or ludicrously complicated digital synthesizers in the spectrum of possibilities it offers. Listen to Albert Ayler, a man who managed to coax a new register from the tenor saxophone just by the way he blew, by altering the contact of a piece of plastic reed with his mouth and breath as he played, and these fuckers can't even manage to sound different from each other with their mounds of technology. There are of course exceptions, Robert Fripp (a virtuoso if ever there was one) and Fred Frith have probably managed to extend the vocabulary of the guitar in a rock context to greater extent than anyone else who springs to mind, yet never does their technicality intrude on the actual music. Sonically, musicians as disparate as Helios Creed, Kevin Shields, Jim Plotkin, Oren Ambarchi, Keith Rowe, Neil Young and Matt Bower (to name but a very few) have taken the guitar into places few others previously suspected the existence of, and none of them would claim (or want) to be thought of as technical wizards, simply because the need to create, to push, to discover far outweighs any concerns of technique. For a real fucking musician, technique is nothing but a means to help bring about not even an end, but a moment.
For a lot of guitarists though, it's everything, and I think it explains the serious lack of good guitarists in the (especially free) jazz world. Think about it for a moment. Go right back to bebop. How many guitarists can you think of in jazz who pushed the music the way that sax, or trumpet, or piano, or double bass players, or drummers did? Not fucking many. Even at the height of free jazz, in the 60s, when musicians were breaking apart the front line/rhythm section divide, it's still easier to list the violinists*** than the guitarists.
Frankly, there's only three that matter from that time, Sonny Sharrock, Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey, all of whom understand/stood the guitar as resonating pieces of wood and metal, as physical object, and as a sound generator as much as a machine to play notes on, and all of whom tore up the rule book as to what guitarists could and couldn't do, Bailey to the extent of renouncing jazz practice as such and forging a new path based on pure, non-idiomatic improvisation§, Sharrock being the only guitarist at the time who thought more like a horn player, and crucially played bottleneck like a motherfucker, something still rare as hen's teeth in jazz circles, lending his playing a vocal quality that no one has come close to (and very fucking few jazz guitarists even dip their toes into the murky waters of slide guitar) not to mention an attitude to echo that had more in common with Syd Barrett than any jazz musican. And Keith Rowe, the man who completely deconstructed the guitar and it's role in the music, creating a whole new way of approaching the instrument single handedly, through his utter disregard for what the instrument was supposed to be for.
And fuck they Listen/ed hard when they play, which is the most important fucking thing you can do, even if (and especially when) y're right up front, but most guitarists seemingly can't (or just won't, I'm not sure which is worse) do this seemingly simple thing, to listen, to allow yrself to just be in the music and play what the moment, the music demands of you. Sun Ra didn't bang on about discipline for nothing you know. When you just play, the technique you use should be the last thing on (or in) yr mind, it's there to serve the music, the sound, the moment, the feeling.
When Coltrane blew fuck knows how many hundreds of notes a minute, does it sound like wank? No, because the sound itself, and the process of the creation of that sound was rooted in a deep knowledge of the sonic possibilities, and limitations, of his instrument, a total awareness of the musicians he was playing with, how his sound, not just the notes he was playing, related to what each and every musician there was playing, and where they were at together and individually. It was part of a whole, the solo an intrinsic part of the ensemble, indivisible, one.
Now I know we can't all be John Coltrane, and I sure as shit ain't, but fuck, isn't that level of playing something to aim for? Better striving for that than Mick Barr.
Technique is totally fucking meaningless when it exists in a void. The lack of knowledge, or even interest in the physical and acoustic properties of your instrument is, as far as I'm concerned, the worst kind of musical ignorance. It shows a fundamental lack of respect for your tools, and for your art, and for the idea that there must be more to be discovered in this infinitely variable abstract world we call music. You might as well just have a wank in the mirror.
*It's 2 o'clock in the morning, the guitarist has attempted to record a solo many, many times: "But dude, I NEED all the notes to be exactly the same volume"
"Well why don't you fucking play it that way then?"
(Long pause, sheepishly looks at floor) "I can't"
"That's why I suggested you play something that you're actually fucking capable of playing an hour and a half ago"
or, "But dude, I NEED all the notes to be exactly the same volume"
"So you can hear how I played every fuckin' note"
"But that's not what you'll hear if I squash it, you'll hear the note, but not the how"
You have no idea how many times I've had similar exchanges. And it was always a guitarist, every single fucking time...
**height of strings above the fretboard for the uninitiated.
***The violin has never really been that popular an instrument in jazz, despite great players such as Stuff Smith, Stephan Grappelli and Billy Bang.
§Which, I suspect much to his disgust, solidified in the heads of many musicians into a style of it's own with philosophical problems on a par with Gödel's incompleteness theorem and it's implications.