An Ode to the Guitar: A celebration of music from some of the best guitarists in India on International Guitar Month

This International Guitar Month homegrown talents share their musical journey as they moon over their affair with the stringed instrument
These talents have kept the spirit of the guitar alive.
These talents have kept the spirit of the guitar alive.

We’ve all listened to scores of songs that are shaped by the guitar. With each song, and sometimes within the same song, it changes shape, colour, rhythm and one’s personality (of those who play and of those who are listening). What has always remained common are the stories and journeys that this instrument holds. With each string plucked, an expression is uttered, and with each chord played, a fable is drawn. As April dawns on us all, so does the month of the guitar. It is Guitar Month and we cannot help but celebrate the best guitarists and their undying talent. Indulge chats with a few of the brightest musicians who live, breathe and swear by the guitar. With their own story to tell, these musicians pen up about their experiences with the instrument, their inspirations and more while we dive into their pasts. These responses were also reflective of the drive each of them share for the realm of music.

Also Read: Five must-have songs in your guitar appreciation playlist for International Guitar Month

The role of the guitar
Most musicians have spent crucial moments of their lives making attempts to express what is within them — a tale, a tune and so on. For Parvaaz guitarist Bharat Kashyap, the role of the guitar expresses a multitude of expressions. “The role of a guitar is to make melodies or create groovy riffs or soundscapes or all of them. I’d like to think of it as adding colourful elements to the song,” he says.

Ex-frontman for The Local Train, Raman Negi, ahead of the release of his first debut solo album, also speaks about the role of the instrument in the same manner. “The whole idea of my debut album Shakhsiyat was to write a guitar-driven album,” he says. Additionally, this decision by Raman was taken so that he could express all the influences he had experienced playing the instrument vividly in his past.

Famed musician Anupam Roy also shares what motivated him to bring his tunes to the forefront. While recollecting how the instrument entered his musical journey during his college days, he says, “The judge said why don’t you play the guitar while singing, it would have sounded so much better. Almost everyone around me knew how to play the guitar back then and I picked it up from them.”

Allan Temjen Ao, lead guitarist of the hugely popular band Fossils also recollects his initial journey with the guitar, when he first picked it up at the age of 17. He perceives the role of the guitar through its presence in the contemporary history of music. “I think the guitar specifically gained popularity in the 20th Century because, without the guitar, musical genres like blues, jazz and rock 'n’ roll would have never existed,” he says.

He also admits that the instrument had a huge role to play in the rapid popularity that the rock music genre gained at its inception. Speaking about its versatility, he highlights the easy portability of the instrument and mentions that it can, “be played rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. It can be played individually, in a group, in the background or the forefront.”

Kamal Singh, who is the guitarist in the track Ereimang, a song gaining immense appreciation and recognition on YouTube, shares, “This instrument, I use it to express some kind of feeling, emotion or idea. And this idea is sonic.” He expresses that his journey with the guitar has been one without the intent to adhere to the technicality, but more so with the intent to just play and discover. This freedom has allowed him to employ imagination and creativity in his music. For Christopher Avinash, lead guitarist and singer with Retronome and Strange Brew, the feel and the cleaner tones of the guitar enable him to feel a strong sense of connection and belongingness.

The hold of the strings
Many artistes have expressed their ability to play multiple types of guitars — acoustic, electric, bass, etc. Each of them shares a unique connection they have with one or more types of the instrument. For Parvaaz frontman Kahlid Ahamed, who also brings to the stage his talents with the guitar, the preferred types of guitars are Gibson 335 and  j35. According to Raman, he can best express himself using the Strat (otherwise known as the Fender Stratocaster). For Anupam, there are three types of guitars that he uses to establish a prolonged and steady relationship with the instrument. He shares that in the beginning he, “started with a steel string acoustic guitar.”

This helped him produce the rhythm and ease the instrumental backups into the track during his vocals. His shift to the electric guitar enabled him to boost his live performances on stage. Finally, with certain strokes and finger styles that Anupam has picked up, the, “nylon string guitar, also known as the classical guitar,” has helped him provide a unique accompanying rhythm to his songs. Fossil’s Allan shares his connection with the large list of guitars that he has experience playing. “I typically tend to play the steel string acoustic, which is a non-amplified, non-electrified version without pickups,” he says. “ I also play the steel string, six-string electric guitar and the four-string bass guitar,” he adds. But perhaps, his most soulful connection with a guitar comes from his experiences at home. “When at home, I usually strum the steel string acoustic, as I tend to generate a lot of ideas around it. It helps me do away with the blues, whenever I feel low,” he says. Even for Kamal, his experience with the bass guitar in addition to his experiences with the electric and acoustic have helped him contribute to tracks more fluidly. He goes on to reveal that the writing process for his prior album began with him first trying out the bass. In another instance, Kamal shares that with his experience playing the 1978 Yamaha, he realised how the instrument reacts differently. This experience showed him an approach to music he had never thought of before. “You are inspired by the way it’s behaving and then you create a tune based on that,” he says. Budding multi-disciplinary artiste, Aarifah Rebello has even maintained different personalities for each of her guitars by naming each of them. Her 7-year-old Takamine GY93e is called Aria, and another guitar, G9126 Gretsch Guitalele, she calls Anastasia. She is also thankful to Ella, a 30+ semi-acoustic Yamaha, a guitar she had borrowed from her friend, to which she attributes her humble beginnings.

The main character energy
The instrument is known to be popular across the entire world, but those who master it often become icons and their legacy lives on for generations. These artistes have shared some beautiful responses to express what was unique about the guitar and why it brings a certain character to the stage. According to Thermal And A Quarter's Bruce Lee Mani, “The guitar (acoustic and electric) is an incredibly versatile instrument — capable of melody, harmony, rhythm, and even percussion — thus providing a very broad palette of expression for the creative musician, and limited only by their imagination.” He further expresses in detail how its role in music helps it in developing a character. “Within pop and rock ensembles, just to keep it simple, guitars have played the roles of providing harmonic/ rhythmic foundation, along with bass guitars and drums — and also as solo instruments to elevate and embellish the melody. Electric guitars, with the attendant expansive possibilities of amplification, effects, complex signal chains and stereo imaging, are also increasingly used to provide texture and ambience, allowing for more immersive listening environments for audiences,” he says. “The guitar is very handy, you know — you can easily pick it up, strum and use it for a beautiful instrumental backup for your vocals,” says Anupam Roy. He also adds that the other string instruments like the ektara and dotara, share similar lightweight features and great sounds, but they are unable to, “create a soundscape like a guitar.” Allan also expresses his observations on this. “Apart from being versatile, the guitar is also portable and can be carried anywhere and gradually becomes an extension of yourself if you play it frequently and passionately,” he says. “When an instrument becomes personal, it adapts to the personality of the individual playing it,” he adds.

Timely reverberations
These musically enlightened individuals’ observations of the Indian guitar scene add immense value to those who aspire or are culminating their experiences to become the next big names and reach the pinnacle of artistic expression. Raman observes that singer-songwriters like himself are focusing largely on their efforts to bring the guitar to the forefront. This is what seems to liberate the upcoming artistes — the freedom, the ability and the ease to use the instrument. According to Khalid, “I think most of the young people are attracted towards hip hop these days which is great. But if we talk about guitar-based music, everyone is experimenting in their own way, but the roots remain the same, which are blues and rock.” For Anupam, however, “the guitar is no more a western instrument.” He goes on to add that “people are finding it convenient and comfortable to play the guitar. It’s easy to learn and there are so many lessons and videos available online, that if anyone is interested, they can do it themselves.”

Quick Riffs!

1. When did you start playing the instrument?

Anupam: Since 2001.  

Khalid Ahamed: I was introduced to guitar when I was 16 years old 

Bharath Kashyap: I started playing the guitar when I was 16 years old 

Raman Negi: I got my first guitar when I was around 19 or 20

Aarifah:  2008/9

Allan: I started quite late, I started when I was in class 12 when I was probably about 16 or 17 years old.

Bruce Lee Mani: Oh, maybe 30 years ago now.

Christopher: In 1989-90 I started playing the guitar. 

Kamal Singh: When I was in the 6th grade in school

2. Who is your favourite guitarist? / Which guitarist has had the greatest influence on your projects?

Anupam:  There are many — starting from Jimmy Hendricks to David Gilmond to Eric Clapton to those bringing guitar in popular music, but the singer-songwriter who plays the guitar while singing like James Taylor, and Paul Simon, I love their playing styles. 

Khalid Ahamed: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and Ed O’Brien (Radiohead )

Bharath Kashyap: My current favourite guitar player is Tommy Emmanuel

Raman Negi: Hands down, Jimi Hendrix, man!

Aarifah:  Dave Grohl, Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge — my favourite song to play of theirs on the guitar is Watch Over You — and Ed Sheeran for a brief moment

Allan: If I still had to pick some of my favourites, they would be Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Police’s Andy Summers, Bryan Adams' guitarist Keith Scott. There’s of course Tuki Da from Kolkata and Warren Mendonsa, an amazing guitarist friend.

Bruce Lee Mani: Too many to list here - and the list is never a static one. People like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Steve Vai, Michael Landau, Jimi Hendrix, Tommy Emmanuel, and Amyt Datta.

Christopher: I can't really put my finger on any single artiste. 

Kamal Singh: Alternative guitar players, non-conforming guitar players, punk & grunge bands because they play to express themselves.

3. Which was the first song you learnt on the guitar? 

Anupam:  I think it's Shohorer Ushnotomo Dine from an album by Joyjit Lahiri, Subrata Ghosh and Gautam Chattopadhyay.

Khalid Ahamed: Wish you were here by Pink Floyd 

Bharath Kashyap: Dance of Death by Iron Maiden 

Raman Negi: It was probably Knocking on Heaven’s Door (by Guns N' Roses) or Smells Like Teen Spirit (by Nirvana).

Aarifah:  Fireflies by Owl City, Blackbird by The Beatles, & Give Love a Try by Nick Jonas

Allan: It was a Christmas Carol. Back home in Nagaland, people sit around bonfires and sing songs, especially during Christmas time. I think Silent Night was the first song I picked up on guitar. My dad went to teach me some Shadow songs, such as Apache which also happens to be the first pop-rock songs that I learned.

Bruce Lee Mani: Probably Jamaica Farewell by Harry Belafonte, followed quickly by Pipeline by The Ventures.

Christopher: Free Falling by Tom Petty 

Kamal Singh: I was too obsessed about figuring out how to play those chords. But the first song I learnt was Ek Do Teen Chaar (from the 1988 movie Tezaab)

4. Which song would you like to create a cover of using the instrument?

Khalid Ahamed: In the Morning by Graham Coxon

Bharat Kashyap: Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson 

Raman Negi: I would love to play Beethoven’s Für Elise. That would be interesting. 

Aarifah: Lips of Ashes by Porcupine Tree would be extremely cool but I've always wanted to be able to play Sunrise by Norah Jones! The most interesting cover I've done on the guitar is my version of Foo Fighters’ The Pretender. Actually, you'll find a bunch of reimagined covers on my Soundcloud!

Bruce Lee Mani: Across the last 3 decades of playing I've covered a few. 

Christopher: Oh, anything! I play in a few cover bands and we cover everything from Bollywood to Hollywood, Tollywood, and Sandalwood! I’d cover anything with a guitar. 

Kamal Singh: I had done a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit. That wasn’t too bad. This and My Own Summer by Deftones. But what I really prefer doing recently are Cardi-B songs & other hip-hop songs.

Also Read: Slide guitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya releases new album The Sound of The Soul

5. Which project of yours / that you have contributed to is your favourite? Why?

Anupam: My recent album, Adrishyo Nagordola Trip, has used a vast range of guitars. So, that can be considered as my current favourite. 

Khalid Ahamed: It's my project Parvaaz because the reason I picked up this instrument was to compose for Parvaaz.

Bharat Kashyap: There are two projects that I hold very close to my heart - Parvaaz and Cinema of Excess. It’s my home and I get to express myself musically through these bands who are now like my family.

Raman Negi: There’s a song on my album — Ek Din. I think it’s my favourite on the album (Shakhsiyat) because of how much fun I had recording the guitars. It is a completely guitar-based funk song. I find this song very unique in the Hindi music space, and it is very experimental. 

Aarifah:  I'd have to say Ladies Compartment, because it made me think outside the box, pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and learn what it takes to be a better collaborator while making some very lasting friendships!

Allan: There are way too many to jot down, but my collaboration with Fossils in early 2000 is something that I am really fond of. I am also very fond of the album Tuchho, with the homegrown musical ensemble Cactus and Niskraman with Rupam Islam. One of my recent favourites happens to be the album Fossils 6. These are some of my favourites as each has helped me grow as a musician, and I have surprised myself with my work in each of these albums.

Bruce Lee Mani: I am of course, especially attached to all the work done with my main band, Thermal And A Quarter, and to the music school we run, Taaqademy.

Christopher: Recently I did a song — The Retirement Song by Dhananjay Collur had one of my best-crafted solos ever. 

Kamal Singh: Right now I'm quite happy with the Ereimang project. 

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