The Secret Power of the Unconventional, as told to us by Dave Grohl
“We have a lot of songs with broken up rhythms or unconventional riff patterns.”
- Dave Grohl
One very important thing you need to know about me: I am the kind of person who wants to know EVERYTHING about the art that I like. If I find a song that I’m really into, my first question is “who made that?” Then I listen to the album surrounding that song. Then the next album. Then I will stalk them to the ends of the internet to try and understand the kind of person it takes to create that thing I liked. In the interview we’re about to watch together, Dave Grohl mentions his favorite Led Zeppelin album is Presence. I’ll have you know that I listened to Presence on infinite repeat for a solid week after that.
I really like the Foo Fighters. Their biggest album, The Colour and the Shape, landed around the same time that my dad introduced me to Alt-Rock Radio (Tagline of his favorite station? “You’re listening to 89X - your ONLY new rock alternative!”) I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup then, but their sound became a cornerstone of my musical tastes. So when I rediscovered them in college, it felt like the band I had been waiting for my whole life. I watched every interview, read every article, and binged every album. And I’ve never been able to get this one clip out of my head.
If you missed it, Dave Grohl told the interviewer at about 4:40 that he doesn’t “know anything about music.” This singer/ guitarist/ drummer (already a potent combination) who has shaped mainstream rock for the past 30 years is convinced that whatever it is that he’s doing, it’s somehow not quite music. That it’s not in the same category as movie composers or songwriters or jazz artists, because he doesn’t conceptualize music in the same way they do. Hell, we don’t even give people like him the title of songwriter, despite the hundreds of songs he has clearly written. Even he can fall prey to this dogma this gatekeeping, that defines music by its methodology and not its outcomes.
Fuck that, man.
Let me lay out the chain of logic here. I believe that a difference in approach will, by definition, produce a difference in results. I also believe that to stand out, to create something memorable that speaks to people, your results have to be fundamentally different and personal. And finally, I believe that any approach is valid as long as it achieves these ends. If you hit a guitar with a stick and it makes cool sounds, you just found your niche. If you autotune samples of your dog and people really like it, that is just as valid of an expression as anything Beethoven ever wrote.
Back to our case study, then. Dave Grohl was a drummer. He was a damn good one too, joining Nirvana at the height of their fame and becoming an integral part of their sound and feel. But when Kurt Kobain famously committed suicide, Dave picked up a guitar to try express his feelings through music. He didn’t know chord theory or understand harmonic structures; he just knew how to drum and found the sounds that matched his experience of the world.
The songwriting that came out of this is deliberately rhythmic and structured, decidedly “classic rock” traditionalist at its core, but also spiked with out-of-the-box choices that no other guitarist would make. Watch that clip again, and ask yourself why you’ve never before heard the chord he plays in “Rope.” Ask yourself why the riff in “The Pretender” is so identifiable and driving. It’s because they don’t have his experiences as a drummer to draw from, and they already know the “right” way to choose a chord. The Foo Fighters are successful because of, not in spite of, Dave’s complete inexperience as a guitar player.
To be clear, I am not saying that all guitarists should avoid learning guitar. Far from it. I would simply argue that when we try to draw lines around what is and isn’t “music,” we discourage all of those who might have had something to say or contribute, and made our lives a little bit blander. We have deprived someone, somewhere, the connection with an artist, that feeling when someone truly understands your experience and can express the fundamental truth of it more eloquently or passionately than you ever could.
But let’s take that two steps further and apply the social model of disability to reframe Dave Grohl’s musical illiteracy as a disability, the same as the regular kind of illiteracy. It isn’t a disability in the traditional sense, but thinking about it in this light can shed a lot of light on how we deal with more common forms of disability. After all, this illiteracy drastically limits his ability to do so many things in the world - especially as a professional musician. He can’t truly appreciate the architecture of a Mozart symphony, or appreciate the fearsome craftsmanship of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (although that last one is well beyond most of us mortals anyways).
But the key is that this illiteracy - as well as the approach and results that spring from it - does not at all restrict his ability to make his music. What it does is restrict his ability to make the specific kind of music that words like “art” and “songwriting” are commonly applied to. It limits the mobility of his music by defining it down to just… rock music. As if rock is some lesser form of music, some special olympics where we politely clap and talk about how brave and creative everyone is while simultaneously dismissing their accomplishments. “They’d never make it in the real olympics,” we say. “Dave Grohl doesn’t really know music.”
A classic Social Model analogy says that in a world with more ramps and elevators, a wheelchair wouldn’t be a disability because those on wheels would be able to do everything and get everywhere those on foot do. In a world without musical gatekeepers, Foo Fighers albums would be able to do everything and go everywhere that classical suites do. Not every wheelchair user wants to go in every building, and not every band wants to play every venue. But in a perfect world, they could.
So this is what it comes down to for me. If Dave Grohl had tried to be that classical guitarist, that traditionalist, if he had taken guitar lessons like every other schlub, he would have undercut what made him special. What made him unique. He would have lost the gift that he had to give to the world in his efforts to conform.
This is not inspiration porn, where the accomplishments of one disabled person are turned against others who are using “excuses.” Just because Dave stumbled into guitar doesn’t mean you should feel bad for not doing the same. This, to me, is a statement on the value of diversity. Diversity of thought, diversity of background, and diversity of ability. Because if we teach kids that there’s a “right” way to make music, we lose out on the countless “unconventional riff patterns” that could have changed someone’s life the way Dave Grohl changed mine.