What is a virtuoso?

Last weeks post has sparked some considerable debate. Mixed in among the many ‘Beavis & Butthead’ like rants have been a few very well thought out opinions both in agreement and disagreement of the “James Hetfield” post. Most interesting has been the question that seems to have arisen from the aftermath: what is a virtuoso?

Many are applying the word ‘virtuoso’ to someone who is able to engage in fast soloing. The guy at the right, for example, is the historic violin wizard Nicolo Paganini, who is a classic example of a virtuoso. If he were alive today, he would probably be thought of as a ‘shredder’ as well. While there is no official definition of a ‘shredder,’ it seems to mean someone who plays fast solos, like Paganini, or modern guitarists, myself included, who engage in fast soloing.

“Virtuoso,” on the other hand, does have some ‘official’ definitions. For example, the Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary, defines a virtuoso as a highly skilled musical performer. Using that as our definition, I ask the following: Is James Hetfield a highly skilled musical performer?

Most would probably say yes. But some would argue against his being termed a virtuoso since he doesn’t fit the description of a so called ‘shredder,’ Now here’s where things get murky: must one be a ‘shredder’ to be a ‘virtuoso?’

I say no. Why should the terms ‘virtuoso’ and ‘shredder’ be mutually intertwined?

To me, a virtuoso is someone who achieves two things. The first is that they create good music (something which is in itself completely subjective). The second, (and this is important), is that they are able to execute it flawlessly. There is no truer test for this than a live concert.

When I saw Metallica last February at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, it was a great concert largely because of James. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the other guys performances. They were all great and the music wouldn’t have been the same without them. But only James was flawless.

I’m speaking mainly about his guitar playing, since vocals are too subjective for this discussion. His rhythm playing, slow melodic solos and acoustic playing, which had a couple pretty cool licks thrown in, was perfectly executed. It showed a strong sense of timing, technique, dynamics, feel and dare I say it, virtuosity.

Where do I get off making this judgement? If I may be so bold, I think its safe to say I’ve acquired a developed sense of hearing. It’s been very much helped by jazz studies at the New School. Some of the teachers there were great pianists like Richie Beirach and Gerard D’Angelo who would drill me with these ‘ear training’ techniques, such as being able to pick out triads, chords and intervals instantly. I’ve also spent countless hours in the recording studio which acts as an audio microscope and heightens ones standards of listening.

I’m not saying any of this makes me ‘special,’ only that like the many other music professionals out there with similar training and hands on experience, I have an ear for the slightest glitches and discrepancies. And I’m telling you, James Hetfield is a the real deal, the type of artist that a producer looks for in a band, the guy who is able to deliver effortlessly, on the spot and with consistency. I’ve talked to many others I respect, engineers, producers and musicians of all genres, and they agree.

So when I said James is a ‘virtuoso’ it was not from the perspective of a ‘fan boy,’ or to be an ‘ass kisser’ (as a couple nitwits have indicated), just an honest opinion from a music professional.

I think it is best summed up by an insightful comment by someone called ‘Jostopholes,’ who really seems to get it:

” Skolnick’s comment doesn’t mean james can shred like him or friedman but more that james brings a wide array of things to the table[vocals, rhythm, lead songwriting] in a greater, more balanced capacity than just about anyone in music, much less metal.”

33 Responses to What is a virtuoso?

  1. well said alex,
    im not huge on the mid period metallica
    but i can defintitely hear some good rhythm in the newer metallica songs.

    (although sometimes for me it can feel like overkill) but thats just me

    but what ever

    another virtuoso i feel fits this topic


    (dead kennedys)
    east bay ray had something many punk rock bands lack these days.
    musical knowledge

    not only was his stuff speedy
    it was slow
    even melodic like "MOON OVER MARIN"

    Im a metalhead all the way
    but East Bay Ray has had a huge impact on my rhythm playing
    and pentatonic stuff.

    I try to show many of my punk friends how this is like the basis for all Punk, Surf, and what not.

    half the time they just say "martin youre just like the rest of them, submitting to "the man""

    "i wanna develop MY OWN style"


    no denying that

    gaining knowledge about music
    has nothing to do with submitting to "the man"

    actually submitting to the man is having no knowledge about the things you do.

    also , i feel that this attitude is what causes alot of punk bands to die out eventually

    (dead kennedys, DRI, the adicts,,still live to this day)

    i know that with the knowledge ive obtained playing music

    my songwriting is all the more able to sound like "ME"

    much like James, and yourself Alex

    Ps.(i hope my responses make sense)

  2. Virtuosos may vary in style and delivery even flawed perhaps but with their own perfect execution that stands alone to others and has elements beyond just technique that give a memorable genius sound. I give thanks for these musical bounties that make life so much better -Happy Thanksgiving all you musicians for the gifts you share

  3. Using the definition stated and the argument presented, I have to agree James Hetfield is a “virtuosos”.

    Shredding, your right, that’s a different question for another day.

    When it comes down to it, James Hetfield deserves the recognition he earned with impeccable guitar playing. That’s the fiber of the music. Sing and song writing are bonuses.

    Almost thirty years ago, James Hetfield and Metallica set out to “Kill ‘Em All”. Over the years, he endured many emotional and physical challenges. As fans, we may not have always agreed with all the choices he made. Yet, through everything, he continued to be true to himself and his music. As a result, James Hetfield and his band are still killing ‘em all, at the top of the charts and to filled arenas.

    Regardless of time, love him or hate him, for the simple reason stated above, you have to acknowledge James Hetfield’s talent and perseverance. Horns Up to Hetfield! m/

  4. Another great post, Alex!
    When I read the first post on James Hetfield I instantly knew this would generate a great debate.
    You have this ability (which I envy) of being able to develop an idea, be it a blog topic or whatever, and write extensively about it. Me on the other hand, usually write very briefly about any subject but I manage to get my message across.
    What I want to say is that you are totally right and I fully agree with your last post "What is a virtuoso?" and Virtuoso is: "A person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit". A highly skilled musician is someone who is capable of reading music and performing it on the spot, ear training, writing music (not tablature), sense of timing etc. And when it comes to guitar playing, technique, feel and emotion, dynamics and improvisation are a must.
    To cut a long story short, a Virtuoso is: ALEX SKOLNICK, John Petrucci or Al Pitrelli.
    Do you really believe that James Hetfield is as talented, skilled and gifted as you are?
    I know this is not an easy question for you but in my opinion he's miles away from you. I'm not saying he's not good but you're TOO good.
    Keep up the good work and enjoy yourself!

  5. Wow, I cannot agree more. Musicians like Mr. Hetfield and yourself make us feel all humble and realize what is the most important in music, and I thank you very much for that.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Hello Alex,
    First to Jenny K – this whole exchange of ideas in not about winning or loosing….let alone a case!
    Indeed vituosity is not just about playing fast and technique alone. In all art forms what is brilliant for me, may be not so brilliant for everyone else. That's why there is no point in trying to impose our views on others. To state our own opinion is OK and to realize that there are so many different views on a particular subject is great!

  7. Sandra J, I know the whole point is not about winning or losing…it's about how you play the game and some people back up their ideas better and some people merely put out their opinions without anything behind it. I celebrate people who have substance to their words that's all my point was. i may not have put it accross the way I wanted to!

  8. Well…you suposed two point: 1 – velocity , 2 – knowledge.

    About Velocity I say that is more difficult to play fast a play slow. If I play fast and play all notes wrong… wrong modes and wrong scales. Be right only the beginning and the end of solo and some guys listen and say: "OH! She´s virtuoso!". It´s possible and common in beginners. But for me isn´t virtuoso, because dont know what is playing. (fault knowledge). Are you virtuoso ? not.

    And the knowledge: you know modes, scales but dont have any creative, you only repeat the exercices that you listen on school, with your teacher. First slow and after more fast, and more fast and more fast, until you play in 250 bpm !!!! but… you dont know create, only repeat. Are you virtuoso ? also no.

    So for me, cool is put notes inside the music and be it perfect. Independent, To be this notes is right scale or wrong. Marty is a exemple. He use exotic scales, and play..and you listen and is perfect! For me he is a virtuoso, because He use knowledge with creative.

    Speed is just a cherry on cake.

    A question : Are you already have a problem that listen some chord and think: "shit! nothing to create here!" or "and now, what I create here?" lol ? I make this question because I think that my best solo in my first album born totally without intention.

  9. I don't think you have to apologize for your own musicianship.

    It is an elevation to the rank of knighthood for every musician to be called a virtuoso by you. Even for James Hetfield.

    I agree very much with your definition of a virtuoso, especially the part with the flawless execution. If anyone should know, it is you 😉

    Greetings from Germany

  10. Ha, These last two posts I've read for starters reminded me of something a friend said to me.. out of opinion.. comparing me to our band director back in high school.

    Secondly, I didn't read all the rants or arguments over it, because I feel it is mostly a matter of opinion.

    [00:49] awestonhoward: exactly i mean he can't exactly do it himself he just has an idea in his head
    [00:49] awestonhoward: oh well
    [00:49] awestonhoward: it's kind of like frank zappa
    [00:50] awestonhoward: he had all these crazy ideas but he wasnt a virtuoso so he had others interpret the music
    [00:50] awestonhoward: like steve vaiiiiii
    [00:51] RandomHero6990: lmao oh man, that just made my day
    [00:51] awestonhoward: i know i know. i just compared michailo to zappa
    [00:51] awestonhoward: and you to steve vai. whatever

    🙂 M

  11. That was a really good blog. Never thought about it like that really of virtuosity. But good thoughts and will keep them in my mind.

  12. Not that I would ever debate SKOL- because I am way out of my league, and even just the obvious writing subject has profession written all over it– but for a laymen like me– I have to say that James is the voice and the guitar of metallica. He is the signature, hallmarked by that ROAR and rip of the facemelting solos, as we like to say. Even though I may never recognize a virtuoso, or dream to play with one, I believe that Alex should have the right to proclaim this victory for Metallica with his proven track record for playing great music, in more than one genre. Your list does impress.

    If I might add to the list of virtuoso's, I would like to see, Dimiola, Chick Corea, Santana, and yes my favorite Satchboogie, Satriani. To the ear, its delicious, it cuts deep through the heart no matter how dark and hard, and remains forever, as the true sound, that breaks all barriers, the universal belief of something that is truly-HUMAN and ITS ALIVE-its music. I go with it, but one wonders why you leave out the rest of the band…is there something else here? New York is cold….

    AND the only other thing missing here is a sound bite! For me, its always "trapped under ice"

    ps the teens in my town say YOU rule! and are going to that new years show! FYI!

  13. Totally agree Skol! Het does it all. Paganini though…that's some great stuff even at slower speed. What sets him apart is the melodic riffs, vocals & solos. Much like the way your solos are melodic with speed in teh right spots. That's what set you, Lynch & Jake E. Lee apart from the others. Yeah, there aren't very many Hetfield types but the only one that comes to mind that can pull that type of "all-in-one" front man deal is Dave Meneketti from Y&T. That dude was crazy…go figure…bay area. But horns way up to Het virtuoso or not…he does play flawless with feel while jumping around. Amazing. Cheers!

  14. Think a trained ear is more critical and examines the sounds in played music at a different level of enjoyment and appreciation and judgement. Yet, a seasoned listener can hear what is remarkable and leaves an impression beyond what is good and is great and what shatters the considered average,like you Alex, and a few others you mention here. I think a virtuoso is remarkable and leaves a lasting impression perhaps precise but perfection is something that should be strived for and never acheived.

  15. Addend, in brief; my dictionary reads; 'virtuosity' is a taste for or interest in virtu; a love of or taste for curios or objects d'art, productions of art, and, virtuoso; an experimenter in the arts, one skilled in and excels in the technique of an art. I think it is their love of the production, at a deep level of passion and performing process with heightened technique albeit perfection or speed, that separates the resonators from the true virtuosos and we are immersed in their musical gift that transmits to our ears such an extraordinary sound that is grandeur and sensational.

  16. Great comments, please keep the thoughts coming.

    The debate continues:


    This has been really interesting to watch. The subject requires thought and is a well needed break from the status quo ('This band rules!' 'No, they suck and so do you' etc…). With a constructive and refreshing dialogue, everyone wins.

    One thing- we had to remove one comment here. It supported the post, but in the process, verbally attacked another blog commenter, accusing her of 'sucking dick.'

    Now, I have no problem with the use of profanity or obscenity (Here- dick, dick dick. Pussy, pussy, pussy).

    Whatever helps make your point is fine. But if you have to resort to personally disrespect and name calling, then we have to remove the comment, as we did here. This was a shame, because the comment made some really good points, otherwise.

    Whoever that 'anonymous' may be, they're welcome to re-post their comment minus the personal insults.

    Let's keep this a place for constructive dialogue! Thank you.

  17. I’ve had so much fun reading all of these posts & the ones on blabbermouth. But, through all the fun I’ve learned a few things too:

    1. Virtuosity is much more subjective than I originally thought – It seems that with a concrete definition of virtuosity it would be easy for everyone to agree on one opinion, thus making it fact. In reality there were so many good points, for and against, that I believe it will make me listen to music a little differently in the future. It’s still not going to change my opinion (and I don’t think that’s what this blog is for), just make me look at things from a different angle.

    2. Hetfield vs. Mustaine is STILL a topic of debate – REALLY?? I remember having this discussion 20+ years ago. I guess I’m really out of the loop, but I didn’t realize people were still debating this! My thought is if it’s STILL a hot topic then Hetfield and Mustaine must both be great guitarist, but in their own very different and unique ways. They’ve both obviously made major contributions to the music world or people wouldn’t still be talking about them…..I don’t know, maybe it’s the next generation of fans that have revived this issue….which brings me to the last thing that I’ve learned which is (and this is the best one)….…..

    3. People over 30 are creepy – I DID NOT KNOW THIS! I will try hard to keep my creepiness to a minimum so as not to “creep out” anymore unsuspecting kids in the future.

    Cheers to you all……I’m out………..

  18. James X Dave : is the discussion more old of own metal, lol ( Is incredible that peoples saying about this same after 20 years) … and pathetic also, because they are great together and separated !

    Hey Sherry, We aren´t creepy… are creeping death !!! 🙂

  19. Well Alex you made me laugh again:).Good move in deleting that comment beacause of profanity..we cant have any of that on here.Lol! Got to luv ya Alex:)

  20. During a NPR discussion today on Louis Armstrong, a few key elements brought to mind additional defining factors of a virtuoso, as he was in Jazz…..
    that he felt ecstasy while playing and was rapt and transformed, inspiring to others, a form and style that few could emulate.

  21. sorry to mr.alex s n claudia j.

    yeah that was a lil' a bit unthoughtful.it just came out n i dont even bother to press the <-backspace key.haha.

    i've been playing guitar for 9 years self thought, from acoustic to electric, from grunge to metal.n i'm not even good at guitar compare to maybe millions of guitar players out there.

    I may not seen it all but i'm aware of the quality it takes to be called virtuoso.

    and that is simply make more than just a great music.

    Virtuoso makes music that touch n move people n almost flawlessly execute them in live performances.and sometimes can change people lives.

    heck, i used to read old stories from older metal head that when ride the lightning came out, there are kids committing suicide b'coz of that song.did metallica had any attention of letting kids killing themselves whenever they here 'fade to black'?

    i think not.

    me myselff, i feel emotionally touch when i here a song called 'take my breath away" by a band called Berlin.. and thats not even metal.

    so, my point is…

    a virtuoso didnt necessary have to play 66 666mph.
    maybe just a right amount of melody,harmony and naiveness.


  22. There's no need to apologise. May you reach your goals while playing guitar.
    I also play guitar and I'm far from being a virtuoso but there's nothing wrong with it. As long as you enjoy yourself that's the most important thing.

  23. hi alex –

    that is very well said. i think the concept you are describing is also called mastery. Kenny Werner discusses this at length in a fine book he wrote called, "Effortless Mastery." Can you play something, no matter the level of, "difficulty", from a space where you are fully expressive of your true self and exerting no effort? Then you are a master. (Is a master a virtuoso? another blog topic? 😉

    I am not a Metallica fan, but Hetfield's playing is about intricate articulation, and subtle rhythmic feels and left/right hand coordination with the inner ear that is an art form some, "shredders", wouldn't be able pull off if they don't play from that particular space.

    P.S. I just discovered your blog today and really enjoy it. Good stuff. I think I'll be checking back in. 🙂

  24. "" dick dick dick….pussy pussy pussy….

    sorry…I was reading and…dick, pussy
    I suffer from tourette syndrome

    OK,i know that i´m not a virtuoso, so what.

    From the sunshining land of Portugal

    Nuno Guerreiro

  25. Trans Siberian Orchestra Tour Dates:

    I held off posting to this and the last one relectantly until now. I'm not sure why other than to think about what maybe I consider to be a virtuoso. Alex just twittered about Dime -about being a disciplined and creative musician. When I read that, I thought that I acutally liked hearing these opinions from someone who is a well respected musician. It made me think of that person, then his brother and the time we met. It had a really big impact on my metal music loving son who is studying drums rather seriously. My son now views Vinny as a virtuoso or sorts.

    Isn't everyone a "virtuoso" at something? I don't think it has to be because of fame but it's who recognizes the talent and admires it for it's uniqueness.

    Is it always musically related? In my mind historically, it has been because I was classically trained in piano beginning at age 5 and was told that Beethoven was a virtuoso. At that age, I thought one had to be a legendary classical composer/musician to be a virtuoso. As I grew older, I came to love and respect certain musicians that I could identify with and appreciated their music and to me, they are virtuosos.

    It is what it is. I still can't really place it, but I respect the reasons and why. So here is my reluctant post.

  26. Hi Alex,
    I am very fond of what I am reading from you here on SkolNotes, as a fellow musician (studying piano) I do understand your point of view perfectly, and completely agree with it for the most part.
    I'd just like to make a little note here about your perception of a 'virtuoso'. As I am performing in the classical music genre, which includes composers who were virtuosi themselves (Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff), and the way I see things – a virtuosic performance or performer is not necessarily a 'flawless' one in the literal meaning of the word. Live an artist could have a wrong note or two, but the overall virtuosity of their performance can be judged mainly on the impact it has on the audience, which means that one may not be 5% less than perfect, however the pure impact the performance makes on the audience is by itself capable to raise the perception of the music played to above 100% flawlessness.
    In other words, I could say virtuosity is about invoking astonishmentm, and (this is rather important) not only with technique!


  27. Hi Alex, great blog!
    Personally I agree 100% with you and I'd also add to the "virtuoso" liat Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth's singer, rhythm guitar player): he's not as fast as you or Petrucci or any other shredder (as he admitted himself), but he's able to deliver some great pieces of music, great and never predictable riffs and sound convincing while doing so.

    I'll keep reading you, of course!

    Happy 2010!

  28. nice post Alex. I just ran across your blog.

    Perhaps you would like to peep this recent post of mine on one James Hetfield. It's a funny story and has a unique twist and outcome:


    *if you like what I am doing perhaps we can exchange links?

    I would be honored and I have been listening to TESTAMENT from day 1.

    I got to see you guys several times, but most notable at Bogart's In Cinci, Ohio.

    Rock on!

    Curt King
    demolish metal mag.

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