The man who played with Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, turned down an Alice
Cooper tour, and reportedly ‘blew away’ Ted Nugent on an onstage guitar riff duel – Shawn Lane - is not well-known outside guitar circles.
And, even ‘among those in the know’, it is his shredding that predominantly captures the attention. For example in 2008, Guitar World magazine wrote: "Few, if any, guitarists can play faster than Lane could, and his arpeggio sweeps and precision-picked lines blasted more rapid-fire notes than the average human mind could comprehend.”
But Lane was much more than simply a fast guitar player, as anyone who has seen him playing his Charvel 750XL on Epilogue for Lisa, for example, knows very well. It is worth repeating some of his fans comments ‘below the line’ in this regard: “Easily one of the best musicians who ever lived. Anyone who ever tried to play a guitar (or any instrument for that matter) should know how good this guy was,” says one, while another writes: “I'm a long time blues rock player. Shawn Lane is without a doubt the most musical of all in the [shred] genre. As technically masterful as he is, there are no riffs, runs or phrases there for show; every phrase is used in the creation of music.” Another writes in response to those who say he ‘can only play fast’: “beside his outstanding technical and song writing abilities, its his phrasing and feel that kills me the most, you need a pure soul to play like that. Stunning.”
Lane died at the age of 40, the victim of a life-long illness that required him to use cortisone to treat his psoriasis, which caused pain in his joints. But the injections caused his weight to balloon, leading to more persistent pain, and made it difficult for him to play guitar. Later medical complications resulted in him requiring an oxygen machine to breathe, and further problems with his lungs led him to succumb on 26 September 2003.
He was once asked in an interview how he came to play like he does, and he replied: “when I was a kid I played superfast but kind of sloppy [until] I kinda cleaned it up around the age of 13.” He then draws a laugh from the audience when he says: “I was born with a freakish nervous system […] I played in hyperspace.”
American Shawn Lane was born on 21 March 1963, and started playing music at four, according to his mother. At that age Lane used to accompany his elder sisters’ singing lessons and was soon playing cello at school and taking piano classes. However, guitar playing came to him more easily, and by the age of 12 he was already playing the blues in local clubs and bars.
By the age of 15 he had mastered all the techniques he would draw on for the rest of his life, and was widely talked about as a prodigy in the local area. By that time he was playing lead for a band called Black Oak Arkansas and started touring heavily with groups like Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, and REO Speedwagon, which led to him feeling ‘burnt out’ with the road at age 18.
Soon he was to become a father and he turned his attention to composing and playing more piano, which always remained a key instrument for him. So much so that he once commented that playing piano helped make him a better guitar player.
During the following decade Lane played in The Willys, with Sam Bryant on vocals, Rob Caudill on bass guitar and his brother, Russ Caudill on drums. By chance, Dokken’s George Lynch and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett were staying at the Memphis Peabody Hotel in Memphis while on tour and called in to see the band; impressed by what they saw, they spread the word about Lane’s extraordinary talent. Increasingly interested in jazz at this time, Lane also played in the fusion band Out of Bounds, with Chuck Reynolds and Barry Bays.
Lane recorded some demos with a band called The Streets but misfortune and poor management meant that it was not until 1992 that he released his first solo album, Power of Ten. Lane plays all the instruments on his debut record and, in particular, his guitar playing on the album immediately had him recognised by Guitar Playing Magazine as ‘Best New Talent’, while a keyboard magazine simultaneously gave him second place in its ‘Best Keyboard’ category. The album sold well and received a number of awards.
Also in 1992 in San Francisco, Lane joined Ry Cooder, Adrian Belew, John Lee Hooker, Dick Dale, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Steve Morse, on stage to celebrate Guitar Player Magazine's 25th anniversary.
Over the next few years Lane devoted time to teaching and recording videos for people trying to improve their guitar technique but also managed to record an outstanding track, Abstract Logic, with Jonas Hellborg on bass and Kofi Baker on drums. The resulting take is available on Youtube, and is well worth a watch.
Four albums with the trio followed in quick succession: Temporal Analogues of Paradise (1996); Time is the Enemy (1997); Zenhouse (1999) and Personae (in 2002); as well another solo effort Tri-Tone Fascination (1999). Unusually, Lane and Hellborg were then joined by another drummer, Anders Johannson, to tour China in support of a Chinese musician called Wei Wei. Enchanted by increasingly exotic sounds, Lane and Hellborg then teamed up with Indian singer Selvaganesh for a European tour. Lane was also an enthusiastic supporter of Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is very popular in many Eastern countries.
Lane was plagued with serious health problems around this time but was able to recover sufficiently to tour New Delhi, Calcutta and Shillong, where his skill on the six string was very warmly received.
The ‘hyperspace guitarist’ was enthusiastic about teaching and also found time to write articles for Guitar for the Practicing Musician and Young Guitar Magazine in Japan. As part of his passion to share his knowledge, he developed courses and lectured at a number of European conservatoires, including Vienna’s American Institute of Music.
Sadly there are not a large number of high quality videos available that showcase Lane’s ouststanding ability but certainly Grays Flying Piano, on which he plays his Charvel 750XL, is one of the most viewed and enjoyed. On the other hand, Lane can be seen playing an Ibanez, possibly a Ghost Rider, on an impressive live version of Not Again.
Lane was open to all techniques and always encouraged others to find whatever works for them. However when he was asked for advice by those seeking to ‘play fast’, his response was unusual. “The usual way is to start slow and then build up,” he said, but he felt that particular method never completely suited him. “[I recommend that you] fracture the process […] and break the continuum [by progressing directly] to a speed that you can’t play at all,” he said. “Try it at a speed that is way above where you could play it slow – it will be sloppy but then you can clean it up; it’s a different mental and physical process – if you come from another direction you can achieve a lot that way.”