It's finally time for another entry in my series of band/artist profiles. For those of you who are new, this is a series of articles where I discuss my favorite bands or solo artists by discussing their background, career, ways in which they've influenced me, and my favorite musical moments of theirs. For this newest entry, I'm using a previous profile on one of my favorite bands of all time, Blur, and using it as a springboard to now focus on their superbly talented guitarist Graham Coxon. While Graham has long been championed as one of the great British guitarists of his (or any) generation, he also has had an acclaimed solo career comprising eight solo albums to date. Because of this, the time is now right to focus solely on Graham and his work both within and outside of Blur.
Since I've already written a profile of Blur, I'm not going to rehash it here. To recap, Graham Coxon was born in in 1969 on a British Army base in Germany where his father was stationed. When he was a child his family moved back to England and settled in Colchester, Essex. It was while attending Stanway Comprehensive School that he met Damon Albarn when he was 11. Famously being the brunt of Damon's comment about his shoes ("your brogues are crap, mate...here, mine are the proper sort!"), the two bonded over a shared love of music. In particular, they both loved the Beatles, Who, and Kinks as well as the punk and Two-Tone ska music popular in the UK during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Having switched from saxophone and drums to guitar while a teenager, Graham enrolled in an art course at Goldsmiths College in London where he met bass player Alex James. Bringing Damon as well as drummer from Colchester named Dave Rowntree who he'd been in bands with into the fold, the four young men formed Blur and the rest, as they say, is history. While in Blur, Graham began recording and releasing solo albums, the first arriving in 1998 and called The Sky is Too High. A charming, ramshackle affair, it continued the low-fi ethic Blur incorporated on their hugely successful 1997 self-titled album. The difference this time was that all of the songs were written, sung, and played by Graham, who covered all of the instruments himself (apart from keyboards). Also, his acoustic guitar playing was more center stage than it typically was in Blur, where Damon usually handled these duties. This album was followed by two more: The Golden D (2000) and Crow Sit on Blood Tree (2001). Both continued the rough-around-the-edges ethos of his debut while growing increasingly dark and aggressive in tone and subject matter; it was quite a contrast to the normally gentle and quiet Coxon. In 2002, Graham had a falling out with the other members of Blur and was sacked from the band. Coincidentally or not, his ouster ran parallel with his ascension as a solo artist and he released a series of excellent albums that were accompanied by solo tours. The Kiss of Morning in 2002 was followed by a trio of albums reuniting Graham with Blur's producer Stephen Street. These three albums are arguably his best, and include Happiness in Magazines (2004), Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (2006), and my personal favorite The Spinning Top (2009). It was also in 2009 that Graham reunited with Blur, and because Blur has taken up the bulk of his time since then, he's only released one further album. However, 2012's A+E shows that he's still able to take his music in new and interesting directions, heavily incorporating drum machines and synthesizers and blending them with his gloriously loud and fuzzy guitars.
One of the things that makes Graham such a great and admired guitarist by fans and peers alike is how unique his sound and style are. While he uses a variety of guitars, his main axe has long been a butterscotch blonde '52 Fender Telecaster run through his typical amp rig of Marshall stacks patched through a Marshall PowerBrake. His guitar signal is routed through his collection of stompboxes in order to round out his sonic palette. Stylistically, while he has the chops to shred with the best of them, he doesn't typically play like that. Instead, he utilizes a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, chordal arpeggios, and interesting (and often discordant and dissonant) chord voicings. While he's fully capable of such, his solos aren't your typical speed-fests of notes, but rather orchestrated licks, sustained notes, and dissonance which often rub a bit raw against the melodic backing, but always seem to work perfectly in their context. In addition to his fantastic instrumental skills, Coxon is also a master at manipulating his guitars, amplifiers, feedback, and (especially) his effects pedals in order to create entirely new sounds that push his playing over the top. Even more impressive is his ability to seamlessly recreate all of the crazy sounds that he gets in the studio live on stage. Some of my favorite guitar work of his is below...this is but of a small sampling of his fantastic studio work with Blur.
As you can hear, no two songs sound the same when it comes to Graham's approach to creating and playing his guitar parts, yet all of them are instantly recognizable as him. I could've given another twenty (or more) examples of his greatness, but I think the examples above should suffice in giving an idea of what makes his playing so special. For me personally, from the moment I first heard Graham's playing twenty years ago to this very day, he's taught me that exceptional technique can be melded with a unique personal vision in order to create a sound that may run counter to traditional playing, but can none the less be appreciated and admired. He's also pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to take more risks in my playing and the way I approach writing songs and guitar parts. I certainly don't claim to be nearly on Graham's level when it comes to his approach, but it's definitely been a useful and effective feather in my musical quiver.
There's a reason that critics and peers alike (including one-time rival Noel Gallagher) have called him one of the finest guitarists of his generation. As with all of the trailblazing guitarists who came before him, Graham Coxon took his innate talent and worked tirelessly at creating a style and sound that is all his own, always unique and instantly recognizable. Ask any musician and I'll bet that they'll tell you that this end result would be their ultimate fulfillment. Graham has done this and then some.