When Rock Goes Classical

With a predilection for speedy scale runs, lighting arpeggios and dark harmonies, classical music has influenced rock and metal musicians since the first Marshall was cranked. What does it sound like when the masters of rock take a step into the world of classical and orchestral music? The result is some of the most jaw dropping music and guitar playing of all time.

1. Yngwie Malmsteen and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

Of course, what better place to start than with a guitarist who is regarded for his trademark melding of rock and classical, Neo Classical shred master Yngwie Malmsteen.

Prior to this point, Malmsteen’s writing and recordings, although steeped in classical harmony and delivery, fell very much into the category stylistic ‘crossover’. However in 1998 he released his first true orchestral album, ‘Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E Flat Minor Op.1’.

As we will see, throughout this blog, the collaboration of rock band and orchestra is not an uncommon occurrence; what makes this album (and live performance) truly special is that this is an original concert suite written as a full orchestral arrangement, featuring Yngwie as main soloist. It is hard not to be impressed by Malmsteen’s musicianship and compositional skills which produced such an intensive piece of work.

The original recording was performed alongside the Czech Philharmonic. However, with Yngwie admitting that he did overdub many of his guitar parts in post, many fans favour his live performance with the New Japan Philharmonic.

2. Frank Zappa - The Yellow Shark

Ever the pioneer and musical innovator, it is no surprise that Frank Zappa should make an appearance here. The album ‘The Yellow Shark’ comprises of arrangements and performances of Zappa’s music by the Ensemble Modern, a German orchestral ensemble formed in 1980 with the sole purpose of performing and promoting music written by modern artists. ‘The Yellow Shark’ is a mix of Zappa’s mainstay music with new compositions.

What is particularly poignant about this recording and indeed the live concerts, is that these marked both Zappa‘s last compositions and pubic appearances due to his diminishing health precisely one month before losing his long term battle with cancer.

For any music fan who wants to gain a true appreciation of Frank Zappa’s genius, his orchestral music provides a jaw dropping showcase of his musical legacy; combining both complexity with the musical irreverence and, at times, insanity which is typified by Zappa’s work.

Frank Zappa claims that this album and his collaboration with the Ensemble Modern, which led to his final performing role as conductor for Frankfurt Festival shows in 1992, were the most fulfilling moments of his career.

3. Sky - Toccata

What happens when a reigning instrumental prog rock super group takes on one of Bach’s most virtuosic compositions? Australian/English outfit, Sky released their version of JS Bach’s ‘Toccata And Fugue In D Minor’ in 1980. The band featured renowned classical guitarist John Williams; those who only know Williams for his famed ‘Cavatina’ may be surprised by his work as a prolific prog rock guitarist.

This is a stunning performance and it is easy to understand why it’s release in 1980 commanded such a reaction; Toccata reached number 5 in the UK charts. Following that well known, ominous hammond organ intro, there is some sublime bass and organ unison playing before kicking into the driving main theme, which sees drummer Tristan Fry bringing the rock whilst John Williams delivers some intensely intricate guitar lines.

It is small wonder that this track has earned its place as one of the most popular contemporary versions of any classical piece.

4. Steve Vai - The Crossroads Duel

If you ever find yourself embroiled in a mortal battle for your soul with the Devil’s guitar player, this piece is worth having in your arsenal. This legendary classical shred-fest features in the climatic Duel Scene from 1986 guitar road movie, Crossroads. Pitting battle against Satan’s own shredder, a young classical guitarist, aspiring to become a blues master, goes head to head in what has become the most famous guitar battle of all time. On the ropes, in the final throws of the duel, following some eye watering guitar playing by the demon axeman Jack Butler (played by Steve Vai), challenger, Eugene (Ralph Macchio) calls on his training as a classical player and delivers, what remains to this day, one of the most coveted of shred guitar party pieces, ‘Eugene’s Trick Bag‘ which draws its inspiration from the virtuosic Paganini Caprice No.5.

Whilst none of the above is new to fans of the movie (every guitarist everywhere), what may come as a surprise is that Vai, and indeed the entire Neo Classical showstopper, were not part of the original footage or plot. The initial duel was intended to be a purely slide guitar based battle, with Ralph Macchio’s character (over dubbed by guitarist Arlen Roth) trading licks with blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. This footage was dropped. Other big name players such as Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan were also in line for the role. The curve ball decision to introduce a shred rock guitar element, enlisting a young Vai was met with resistance by many involved in the film, feeling that this would confuse the blues based theme and date the movie badly.

Although Vai‘s character is defeated, it is Vai himself who composed and played the winning piece. He also coached actor, Macchio on how to fake play the finger twisting parts, with in-house guitar consultant and teacher, Arlen Roth helping him mime the slide parts. For an additional nugget of movie trivia - Vai’s character, Jack Butler famously drops his guitar, face down, from a height, at the end of the duel. Because the Grover Jackson super strat used was one of Vai’s own, the red guitar you see in this scene is a dummy instrument, constructed by the movie’s production team.

So there we go, proof that when rock goes classical it does so in style! If there is a lesson to be learnt here, it is that the lines between the rock, metal and classical worlds have never been indelible.

Want to get some classical shred chops under your digits? Check out our full Paganini Caprice lessons. Make sure you warm up first!!