Remember when people used to set their Facebook relationship status to “it’s complicated”? That sort of sums up the long and storied history of electronic music and guitars. For many years after the start of the new millennium, the two were living in very separate, sealed-off, and parallel worlds. You had House or Techno, and you had bands – often being with The – and that was it. Dance music’s purists scorned what they saw to be the dead art form of guitar music, while guitarists scoffed at dance music’s reliance on what they thought were easy to program machines. DJ Westbam even had a famous slogan in the nineties, “No More Fucking Rock’n’Roll“.
But if you go further back to the roots of House, you end up in Disco. And making Disco without the solid, rhythmic pulse of a guitar is impossible. The most famous Disco guitarist of them all is Nile Rogers. With his band Chic, he laid down many an iconic bass line. One of them even went on to be the main hook in The Sugarhill Gang‘s 1980 classic ‘Rapper’s Delight‘, which was one of Hip Hop’s foundational tunes. Pleasingly, it was also Nile’s irresistible riffs and trademark chord stabs that helped further ignite the relationship between dance music and guitars back in 2013 when he played on Daft Punk‘s mega-hit ‘Get Lucky’ featuring Pharrell Williams.
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rogers – Get Lucky
Before then, electronic music had been on a quest to distill itself to its bare bones and most abstract sound sources. Minimal Techno was the hot sound of the day, and functionality was favoured over all else. Over time, attitudes shifted and changed towards the use of guitars and other similar instruments in electronic music and with it, brought an artful pop elegance and an emotional honesty to an otherwise distant and often pigeonholed genre. Simply due to various artists who have managed to find a perfect sweet spot between synthetic machine sounds and the realness of guitars.
Which leads us to Alex Preston, who does exactly that on his latest release ‘Love You Better‘ tune on Toolroom, his first official single for the label after curating and mixing the Poolside 2020 compilation. It is a summer-ready sound that reaches for wide-open blue skies. There is pure joy in the riffs that form the backbone of the whole track, and they take you ever higher as it unfurls.
Alex Preston – Love You Better
“So, ‘Love You Better‘ came about because I’m a huge fan of Steely Dan and I rewatched the documentary on how they made their record ‘Aja‘ and I thought jeez I’ve forgotten about this band!”
“I remember when I was really young and I started making music in my teens, I used to want to be like ‘Steely Dan‘, so I learned their songs inside out. Back then I wasn’t making House Music, I was just recording myself playing guitar and bass and I used to try and use all the techniques they used back in the late 70s when they were making that album.”
“The riff in ‘Love You Better‘ is just something I came up with when I was jamming along making the track, I accidentally looped the end of one of the verses which is the sample you hear in the record and that’s the way the track kinda came about.”
“For me, it was just the way that the chords kind of cascade down at the end of the verse, when I first heard it I was like… I HAVE to write track around this and so I did!”
says its creator Alex. “So basically, I started constructing ‘Love You Better‘ around that little sample. I’ve kind of been working on it for a while, playing various different incarnations of it in my shows and refining the track since pretty much the end of 2019. The voicing on the chords is quite jazzy, so it took a while to come up with something I was happy with that sat in the pocket with the groove of the track.”
“I just love that song and I love the sample like it’s very true to me musically because Steely Dan has always been a big influence on my musical journey, so yeah i’m really stoked with that record turned out!”
The tune was actually written for an outdoor party set Alex Preston was going to be playing in the Australian Summer at the end of 2019, start of 2020. “I was warming up for Mele and I wanted to write something that was going to get the crowd vibing. I like to visualise where I would play a track when I write it, I find it really helps!”
Rather than overusing a hook, tempting as it might be, careful and selective deployment will always result in greater impact. Alex agrees. “You need to think of a riff like any other hooky element and use it just enough so that it becomes familiar and excites the audience when they hear it.”
He cites the riffs in Technasia & Green Velvet‘s ‘Suga‘ as a favourite and the one that first got him to try a similar style on his own tunes. For Alex, its bluesy vibe is irresistible, as is the guitar playing in Louie Vega‘s version of ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life‘. “It’s so funky! One more recent one I heard is an amazing solo at the end of Incognito – ‘Feel The Real‘ (Micky More & Andy Tee Remix). It really makes me want to play guitar.”
Technasia & Green Velvet – Suga
Incognito – Feel The Real
He has been doing so since he was just 10 years old. A few years later he was already writing and recording his own songs, and for the last four or so years has been deploying it as an additional element in his House productions. During the last year, locked down at home with no gigs, Alex has played more than ever. “I have a bunch of playlists on Spotify I jam along to. I want to play better in different styles from jazz to blues to funk so I try and play as much as I can when I’m at home.” You might wonder how he ended up making house at all given his long-term devotion to the guitar, but it was simply a case of him loving both and deciding to bring them together.
Know for his unique live sets combining DJ decks, drum machines and live guitar; Alex Preston sets himself apart from the typical DJ, culminating into the artist you see today. “So, I’ve been refining my live set over the last two years or so since I started performing with a guitar and yeah it’s been a lot of fun. People have said to me, don’t you want to do a full live thing? do a full rehearsed show? and I’m always like, no I’d rather keep to what I’m doing and keep the DJing aspect of it as it is a part of who I am. I love DJing and it’s the ability to be able to pick a track on the fly that is really exciting and invigorating for me! I don’t want to lose that spirit the moment part of the show, especially as a lot of the stuff I’m playing is improvised on the spot and in the moment!”.
“I also think it adds a rawness and something fresh to my sets. The whole concept around it was to be able to play the riffs that I’m using in my songs live and sort of create a little bit of engagement with the crowd. I’m normally just improvising when I play so it allows me to do something on the spot and in the moment.”
“I definitely think that adding real instruments into dance music and in particular House music adds a human element to the mix. I grew up playing in Hendrix cover bands and stuff like that so I learnt how to do some crazy stuff with solos and doing other silly things on stage when I get a bit excited, like playing behind my head and all that sort of stuff haha! I think it works well with the DJing, producers can be pretty reliant on MIDI or their soft synths to create sounds and play patterns, which I also use, but adding some human elements and instrumentation in the mix adds soul and creates some amazing feels and grooves.”
This organic approach to creating electronic dance music is both refreshing, unique and tends to finds itself most at home at the Balearic end of the House spectrum, which has always leaned on guitars to bring that shimmering sense of beachy heat. Tom Misch is someone who has perfected this in recent times with his lush ‘South of the River‘, a tune that channels funk and soul greats like George Benson.
Tom Misch – South Of The River
Even the much-loved Crazy P collective has always dazzled with their cosmic Disco brilliance, often thanks to stunning guitar riffs. But as much as they can do floor filing fun, they can also go deep and thoughtful as evidenced by ‘Heartbreaker’. The slinky drums are light and airy, and the deft guitar playing only heightens those feelings of weightlessness.
Crazy P – Heartbreaker
Bringing things back to more recent times, Frenchman Folamour knows how to marry the perfect riff with an infectious beat. From classic funk and soul to lush Latin vibes, he has a wide sphere of reference that means his House and Disco sounds always hook you in. 2017’s ‘Ivoire‘ might be his finest moment yet.
Folamour – Ivoire
And of course, it would be remiss to talk of dance music and guitars without mentioning the late great Andrew Weatherall. His breakout moment as a producer was what he did with Primal Scream‘s Screamadelica album. The story goes that he was handed an average collection of indie tracks, then given free rein. As an Acid House head, he decided to lace up the tracks with the ecstatic rush of euphoria only those who have been lost on a dance floor will know.
Primal Scream – Loaded (Andy Weatherall Mix)
It was a masterpiece, and until his sad passing in 2020 he continued to find a perfect meeting place for guitars and dance music. So let’s end somewhere near to where we started: despite his mantra, DJ Westbam did actually bring a six-string sound to his electronic beats back in 1991. The early German pioneer leaned on his love of alternative sounds when he cooked up ‘Alarm Clock‘ and built it around a sampled riff by cult post-punk band Gang of Four. Proof, then, that even the most ardent guitar deniers can’t resist its unique allure in the right context.