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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2015


The electric guitar is one of the most iconic musical instruments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and, due to its ubiquitous use in much rock and popular music, it has developed a strong cultural identity. In recent years, as the electric guitar has become increasingly common in contemporary concert music, its cultural associations have inevitably shaped how composers, performers and listeners understand music performed on the instrument. This article investigates various issues relating to the electric guitar's cultural identity in the context of Tristan Murail's Vampyr! (1984), in the hope of demonstrating perspectives that will be useful in considering new music for the electric guitar more generally. The article draws both on established analytical approaches to Murail's spectral oeuvre and on concepts from popular music and cultural studies, in order to analyse the influence that the electric guitar's associations from popular culture have in new music.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 5, pp. 12–13.

2 See Thierry Alla, Tristan Murail, la couleur sonore (Paris: M. de Maule, 2008), p. 91.

3 Quoted in Alla, Tristan Murail, p. 152. I am grateful to Christopher Evans for his help in translating this quotation from the original French into English (the responsibility for any errors is mine).

4 Music in Our Time, BBC Radio 3, 13 October 1988Google Scholar.

5 Music in Our Time.

6 A whammy bar is a lever attached to the bridge of some electric guitars that allows the player to manipulate the pitches of notes and chords, producing both vibrato and more extreme effects. These units are also commonly referred to as tremolo bars (something of a misnomer).

7 Tristan Murail, Vampyr!-pour guitare électrique (Paris: Henry Lemoine, 2004), p. 3.

8 Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993), pp. 53–4.

9 When identifying pitches in specific octaves, I refer to the pitches as written in the score, which follows the convention of notating guitar music an octave higher than the sounding pitch. Example 2 also follows this convention to allow easy comparison.

10 Walser, Running with the Devil, pp. 46–7.

11 Although these guitarists in fact most often engaged with baroque and, to a lesser extent, romantic repertoires, I deliberately use the somewhat anachronistic term ‘classical music’ here in its more general modern usage to evoke this perceived social prestige. Robert Walser discusses the classical influence on 1980s rock in much greater detail in chapter 3 of Running with the Devil (pp. 57–107).

12 See Walser, Running with the Devil, p. 57, pp. 93–102.

13 Music in Our Time, 13 October 1988.

14 For example, a key aspect of Steve Waksman's study of the electric guitar is his coining of the term ‘technophallus’ to represent the instrument's role as a technological expression of male sexuality. See Waksman, Instruments of Desire, pp. 187–90, pp. 244–8.

15 In the 1980s several female electric guitar virtuosos did come to prominence, such as Jennifer Batten (who played with Michael Jackson's band). However, these guitarists were notable exceptions in a rock scene that was still largely male dominated.

16 Murail, Vampyr!, p. 3.

17 Walser, Running with the Devil, pp. 41–3 and Mavis Bayton, ‘Women and the Electric Guitar’, in Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, ed. Sheila Whiteley (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 43.

18 Walser, Running with the Devil, pp. 108–10.

19 The list of performances of Murail's work can be found at (accessed 25 May 2015).

20 Bayton, ‘Women and the Electric Guitar’, pp. 43–5.

21 Verdejo's performance can be found at: https:// (accessed 25 May 2015).

22 Van Halen built several home made guitars that combined the body shape and whammy bar equipped bridge of the Fender Stratocaster with thicker sounding ‘humbucker’ pickups that are more closely associated with the Gibson company. Van Halen's popularity soon led to many guitar companies, including Ibanez, creating production models that incorporated these innovations.

23 Virzì's performance can be found at: https:// (accessed 25 May 2015).

24 Kolp's performance can be found at: https:// (accessed 25 May 2015).