Marc Ribot Makes the Case for Loud Music
On the Necessary Pain and Pleasure of Deafening Amplification
Hi. My name is Marc. I’m a guitarist who points extremely loud amplifiers directly at his head. Very often. Sometimes as often as 200 nights a year for the past 45 years. Audiologists say this could make one’s ears howl, create an uncomfortable sensation of density in one’s head, and eventually make it impossible to hear human conversation. Yet I persist . . . Why?
It’s true most amps sound better at volumes loud enough to fray the edge of notes with the subtle distortion that is to electric guitars what makeup is to a drag queen of a certain age. Not accidentally, as manufacturers in the late 50s and early 60s raced to design equipment with less and less distortion, guitarists turned up louder and louder to subvert their efforts. Nor are guitarists alone in this desire to strain.
We seem to love broken voices in general: vocal cords eroded by whiskey and screaming, the junked-out weakness of certain horn players, distortion which signifies surpassing the capabilities of a tube or a speaker—voices that distort, damage, but (at least in performance) don’t actually die. The singer pushes through the note, the horn player eventually finds breath, the amplifier struggles on but doesn’t explode and become silent.
Was this always true? I don’t know. Maybe it means something that representation of the struggle (once shown by the trembling effect called vibrato) to maintain the distance necessary to hold an instrument or sing a note in the face of overwhelming emotion is signified in our time by a direct attack on the equipment itself. True vibrato sounds old-fashioned to us; think of Django Reinhardt’s guitar sound, Caruso’s voice, the saxophone in Guy Lombardo’s band. Somewhere along the line an inflation occurred in the currency of pain, and the price of our musical fix was more than mere notes could carry.
Another term for distortion is low-fidelity. Maybe we distrust our voices and that’s why we’re unfaithful to them. Beginning in the mid-to-late 60s, producers of guitar equipment began to recognize our need to be unfaithful by making equipment designed to produce distortion. Some amps had little knobs on them that said distortion, with numbers from one to ten. Although the public at first confused guitarists who fell for this maneuver with creators of genuine damage such as Jimi Hendrix, the sounds produced soon became completely predictable.
My chief complaint against some practitioners of heavy metal guitar from the early 70s through the early 80s is that I can immediately tell their distorted sounds are not really placing their amps at risk. To whatever extent I have a moral sensibility, this offends it. I much prefer the subtler but less predictable distortions of the 40s and 50s (e.g., Charlie Christian, Hubert Sumlin, Pee Wee Crayton, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry), a time when amp designers weren’t such wiseasses. Still, the total deafness of those metal guitarists to these considerations lends them a certain charm all their own.
The astute reader may point out that a smaller amplifier would produce the proper ratio of “clean” signal to distortion at a lower volume. True. Also true: I have often used Marshall half stacks—large, loud amps. This was because I wanted to preserve at all costs the option of playing with a partially distorted sound—using a larger amp turned up almost all the way—rather than be trapped with the overdistorted sound (produced by having a smaller amp up all the way) typical of late-60s white blues players.
If subtle distortion is makeup, the heavy, homogenous distortion of these guitarists (Eric Clapton, in a phrase demeaning to women everywhere, referred to his sound at the time as “woman tone”) amounts to a type of airbrushing. This is especially true when it is used in conjunction with the type of grandiose large-room reverbs and echoes supplying every amplified squirt in a garage band with the imaginary ambience of the Milan Central train station. It is the sonic equivalent of Fascist architecture. The effect (and probably the intent) is to eliminate the little clicks and imperfections that belie the god-stature of the guitar hero and to give the impression that the guitar is a strong, bellowing voice rather than a frame for frail pieces of metal whose vibrations soon die.
All guitarists fight this death, this logarithmic decline into silence, and its implied presence in every note may be one of the reasons guitars (more than bowed or wind instruments, whose notes can be sustained at will) have long been linked to sadness and despair. Guitar is the essential instrument of blues. Picasso chose it to accompany images of death during his “blue” period. The best-known piece from the first famous guitar virtuoso, John Dowland (sixteenth-century English), is titled “John Dowland Is Always Sad” (“Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens”).
Some guitarists fight it by squeezing the last bit out of a note with vibrato. Others use the mandolin technique of picking many notes very fast, hoping no one will notice (the best-known example being Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”). Volume also works. The sound from the amp reinforces the vibrations of the strings, creating increasingly longer sustains up to the point of feedback. Still, to struggle with the decay and death of notes (in music, things decay before they die) is one thing. To try to actually win seems somehow wrong: a Faustian error. Hence the Marshall half stack.
I know. All the above is at best a limited explanation for years of nightly volume abuse. Those with a Freudian orientation might by now be tempted to see this preference for large amplifiers and loud sounds as a type of . . . compensation.
Dear reader, let me assure you—nothing could be further from the truth. Still, the ghosts of early musical traumas do hover above the volume knobs, urging me to acts of excess as surely as Grandma’s memories of childhood deprivation kept pulling her back to the refrigerator long after her stomach was full.Those with a Freudian orientation might by now be tempted to see this preference for large amplifiers and loud sounds as a type of . . . compensation.
The experiences in question are of a type rarely described by music critics, yet so obvious to musicians as to be practically nameless. As soon as I started playing in public, I began to experience the struggle between the “power” of my amp (then a lovely Ampeg B-12 ) and the social and economic power of bandleaders, club owners, paying members of the audience, band members, etc: the ones Sartre was talking about when he said, “Hell is other people.”
Critics tend to write about the material conditions of music-making as if they were a neutral garden in which little artistic seedlings, fertilized perhaps by the critic’s own careful attentions, grow slowly toward the light of aesthetic beauty. Nice Marxist critics may believe the conception of aesthetic beauty has something to do with the economy, but all seem agreed on the first point. What’s missing from this perspective is an understanding of social constraints: having sublime moments interrupted by enraged diners who can’t talk over their shrimp boats, enduring the harsh complaints of newlyweds who feel your style is spoiling their blessed event, and of being subjected to professional criticism itself: although most critics see themselves as observers outside the process, musicians see them as part of a power structure, albeit the least powerful part, not significantly different from the preceding examples. (This disjunction in perspectives may be why the reaction of many musicians on first seeing their work reviewed is uncontrollable laughter, followed by a faint nausea and a feeling of being misunderstood which will, if they are lucky, last their whole lives.)
The relation between amp wattage and social power can be even stickier within bands, those little units which invariably replicate the most dysfunctional elements of their members’ families. What guitarist has not had to endure horrible meetings in which electronically deprived members of the band (drummers, sax players, vocalists) attempt to reason with them, appealing to a sense of compassion and egalitarianism usually altogether lacking in their own rock ’n’ roll will-to-power personas, or, that failing, resorting to threats or brute force? This banal scenario is a usually doomed attempt to check the famous “dialectic of rock and roll,” which can be heard played out on many a stage nightly: you turn up, so I turn up, so you turn up . . . etc.
Technology being advanced as it is, the only possible end point of this escalation is the limit of human endurance. And here is where distortion/volume as a metaphor meets the medical phenomenon.
When acoustic pain occurs in the theater of rock (and judging by those hilarious clips from decades past, almost every one of its mutations has been initially felt as brutal or painful, no matter how benign they sound to later ears), the pain of the audience is compensated by their pleasure at the spectacle of the sacrifice of the musicians, who, since they are standing closer to the amps, are theoretically experiencing even greater and more destructive pain. In fact, mammoth sound systems in the hands of deaf or sadistic sound persons often make the room volume louder than the stage volume, but this only heightens the theatrical effect. In this illusion, the musician is both sacrificial victim and magical protector who filters the dangerous volume levels through his/her body (literally standing between amp and audience) to protect the audience, in a ritual not unlike how shamans filter strong poisons through their bodies so that others can enjoy the less toxic residue by drinking their hallucinogenic piss. In a reversal of StarKist Tuna priorities, rock audiences are more than willing to suffer bitter acoustic phenomena in order to achieve ritual/aesthetic satisfaction. Thanks, Charlie.
I don’t know how they do the trick with the poison mushrooms, but the truth about playing really loud is this: on a really good night, nothing hurts—not howling volume, not airless rooms at sauna temperatures, not bleeding callouses, not a fever of 103, not a bottle in the head, not a recent divorce. Nothing much. Not till later.
So—the unresolved social conflicts of the band are translated by ever louder sound systems into a theater of pain for the audience, and everyone goes home happy. But the shamans are cheating. They are going deaf or using earplugs, enabling them to avoid indefinitely the consequences of intraband social failure, and violating the shamanistic pact with the audience—feeding them the poison undiluted. The audience, of course, senses this deception and begins to go deaf or use earplugs themselves, degrading the entire spectacle (and necessitating/giving birth to alternate theatrical forms such as stage diving). The bands in turn sense their lapse in shamanic power and crank it up still louder . . .
Oh my. Where will it all end? If the birth of symphony orchestras foreshadowed the arrival of parliamentary government, and the Beatles prefigured the hippie commune, one can only imagine what post-Bosnian nightmare or total failure of language is lurking noisily in our futures, blocked out/symbolized/invited by the earplugs I wore at the gig last night. Don’t blame me: doctor’s orders.
Excerpted from Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist by Marc Ribot, copyright 2021 by Marc Ribot, reprinted with permission of the author and Akashic Books. A version of this essay first appeared as “Earplugs” in Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn (New York: Granary, 2000).