“One” by Metallica has a famous section at 4:32 where Lars Ulrich plays a syncopated sextuplets on the kick drums (6 beats on, 2 beats off)…and then James Hetfield doubles it on guitar. The effect is dramatic: the guitar sounds like a machine gun.
The effect wouldn’t have worked if he’d played the cello. There’s something natural about the pairing of electric guitars and automatic guns. Although not a full rhyme, they’re at least a slant rhyme for each other. The force. The percussion. The volume. The way they harness bolts, pins, voltage, and steel to amplify something in the human condition.
But there are many guns, and if you’re drawing a comparison with high-gain metal, there’s only one gun that fits the bill. The most famous gun.
In 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht tide overflowed Russia’s borders. Millions of Russians were killed, and millions more were wounded. In the latter category was a mechanically-inclined man called Mikhail Kalashnikov, who spent his convalescence studying mechanics and firearm design. After a few false starts and setbacks, he created his masterpiece: a gas-powered imitation of German assault rifles called the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 – more famously known as the AK-47.
In doing so, he joined the ranks of men like Samuel Colt, Hiriam Maxim, John Browning, and Richard Gatling – men with names that have become death. The classical Greeks believed that a society grows great when old men plant trees. Kalashnikov and his ilk are the second sort: the ones who provide fertilizer for the trees. I wonder if Mr Kalashnikov ever stayed awake at night, thinking of the bodies. All the millions and millions of them.
The AK-47 is a pragmatic weapon, easy to use, even easier to die from. Despite being ergonomically uncomfortable (and not particularly accurate), they’re cheap, can be mass produced, and function even when clogged with dust, mud, blood, sweat, and unburnt propellant. At one point, they killed 250,000 people per year. They adorn the Mozambique flag. They are simple enough for a child to use. Children often have.
Functionally, they are similar to the WW2-era German MP42 Sturmgewehr (lit: “Storm-Rifle”). I haven’t found any sources to indicate that Kalashnikov was wounded by an MP42, but it would be funny if he had. In any case, the Germans lost. The world was changing, and superior rifles no longer won wars. Truthfully, by the time Kalashnikov arrived on the scene, they didn’t even win battles.
But the world no longer has battles. Now, almost all fighting is irregular, conducted by some flavour of guerilla forces. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Sudan. The Clauswitzian ideals of battle are over, and now being a soldier means you’re crouched in a jungle, motionless, made of matter almost indifferentiate from the the mud and leaves on the ground, so fascinated by what’s beyond your gunsight that you don’t even move when a mosquito lands on your lip. In this new era of undeclared wars and uniformless fighters, the AK-47 thrives. It’s the embodiment of a Communist weapon, a different, louder voice for the proletariat.
But what about guitars? What’s the connection?
Once, music was entertainment for the rich – formal, stultified, encased in tradition. A symphony orchestra contains four rigid groups of musicians – woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings – with other subdivisions within. Everyone has a role to play, and roles that they cannot. What was that Heinlein quote about specialisation being for insects? Symphonies have always sounded cold to me, and maybe that’s why. They remind me of a hive.
Guitars are very much a common person’s instrument. They’re easy to make, easy to learn, and versatile. You can play them standing up or sitting down (evocative of the marksman’s choice of firing from the hip or the shoulder), you can play them while singing, and you can play them any way you want. There are no rules with guitar. You can change from strumming chords to playing lead melodies on the higher frets. If the guitar has a hollow body, you can slap it with your palm for percussion.
You can play a guitar sloppily and still sound good. For some styles of music (eg, grunge and shoegaze), it’s almost mandatory that you play sloppily. If a guitar goes out of tune, you can retune them in the middle of a performance. And they can take massive amounts of abuse. Ask any rock musician just how hard it is to smash a guitar on stage.
But guitars are quiet, and need amplification. The Beatles famously quit touring because they couldn’t hear their instruments over the sounds of screaming fans. Through the sixties and seventies, the wattage of stage equipment kept rising, and soon artists could impose their visions at literally deafening volumes.
In short, the guitar is to instruments what the AK-47 is to guns: a multi-purpose tool. They’re a transition from a world where maps dictate territories (the limitations of classical instruments and classical weaponry were both defining factors in the character of early war and music), to a place where the tool is servant and slave to the master’s voice.
Is there some link between the mutating forms of music and guns? Does it reflect some deeper change in the currents of the world? Biologically, evolution can follow two routes: divergence (where a species splits into two dissimilar lifeforms), and convergence (where two dissimilar species evolve to look like each other). A good example of convergence is the thylacine, which looked and acted rather like a fox despite belonging to the marsupial class. The stripes give the game away, but the skeletons are so close that it takes an expert eye to separate them.
Small arms and musical instruments almost seem to be following convergent evolution: fast, efficient, interchangeable, and they even look similar. Roy Orbison starred in a terrible movie called Fastest Guitar Alive, about a man who has a gun inside a guitar case. Maybe that’s generic, and every guitar is halfway to a gun (or vice versa). Guitars are sometimes called “axes”. We should update our terminology.
(For an earlier example of machine gun drumming, listen to “Darkness Descends” by Dark Angel at 0:53.)