Tom Verlaine: a guitar antihero whose sensibility was more classical than Clapton

The Television frontman’s guitar playing was lean, hungry and in the moment; his sound defined the archetype of the avant-rock guitarist

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As a guitarist, Tom Verlaine was a player whose unhinged vibrato, sweeping volume swells, splintered harmonics, cool noir ambience, and, most crucially, his discursively elegant lyricism, emerged in the mid-1970s as a moody antidote to the macho guitar heroism of that era. And for a certain kind of guitarist – like me – he was a fountainhead for an entirely new era to come.

I struggle to think of a player before Verlaine who synthesised the same range of influences – early Stones stomp and sneer, angular Ayler-isms, sensuous dreamscapes, extended improvisation, and spaghetti western twang – while dispensing entirely with the then-dominant white blues cliches. Sure, there were antecedents – John Cipollina, Roger McGuinn, and Jerry Garcia, for example, and I hear the wiggy high-wire tension of Mike Bloomfield’s mid-60s work in there as much as anything. But Verlaine’s sound with Television defined the archetype of the avant-rock guitarist, one that would become as much a template for the sound and feel of 80s guitar music as the contemporary innovations of Eno, George Clinton, Kraftwerk or Nile Rogers were in their own idioms.

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