Sometimes you have to remind yourself, listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela, that you’re only hearing two guitarists. Not a drummer, not an 808, not a bunch of samples. Not a hurricane, though you might be forgiven for thinking that. Here’s their first appearance on Letterman, which is also when I first became aware of them.
Obviously, there are many guitar virtuosos out there, and many musicians who layer what we call traditional musical elements over contemporary underpinnings. But something about the way Rodrigo y Gabriela combine these styles lands them in the sweet spot. It may have to do with the two genres that I suppose are their biggest influences: nuevo flamenco and, um, heavy metal.
The first is generally associated with Spanish guitarists like Paco de Lucia, and it grew out of traditional flamenco music’s displacement by rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s. “Tamacun,” off Rodrigo y Gabriela’s second studio album, wears its flamenco origins pretty openly.
You may recognize this song from the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, in the scene where Walter spots Jesse narrowly escaping capture during Hank’s drug raid. So in a way, Rodrigo y Gabriela set that whole series in motion.
Their other major influence is heavy metal, and I assume I don’t have to explain what that is. A Rodrigo y Gabriela live show typically sees them covering acts like Slayer or Pantera, and their studio albums have featured their versions of songs originally performed by Metallica and Led Zeppelin. My favorite of these metal songs would have to be their blistering cover of Megadeth’s “Holy Wars … The Punishment Due.” I wish I could find a performance of it on YouTube that has better audio, but this seems to be the best one. That’s Robert Trujillo of Suicidal Tendencies/Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica introducing the song; he’s played live with them many times.
So where did these thrash metal-loving Mexicans learn those crazy guitar chops? Why, Ireland, of course. They moved to Dublin together in 1999, when they were both around 25 years old and tired of the hardcore scene in Mexico City. (They’d collaborated before in a band called Tierra Acida.) Despite not knowing any English, the duo got by, playing pubs and busking on the streets. They built up a small following there, and by the time their eponymous full-length came out in 2006, it went to No. 1 on the charts! In Ireland.
I’d like to believe I can hear some sort of Irish influence on their music, given the formative years they spent in the capital city. I suppose it’s there, but only in the sense that Rodrigo plays fingerstyle, and that’s what you have to do if you want to play transposed Irish folk songs on guitar. Maybe someone who knows more about guitar can use the comment section to chime in on this.
Speaking of guitar styles, I have no idea how to describe Gabriela’s playing. Her fingers fly over the strings like hummingbirds on crack; she even slaps with her palm as the need arises. At times, she turns the guitar into a percussion instrument: strumming muted strings, or drumrolling with her knuckles where the pick guard would be. The best, though, is when she does these things simultaneously, conjuring (with the help of a Wah pedal) a blaxploitation soundtrack, a drum solo, and a bluesy rhythm guitarist all at the same time.
I’m a little all over the place with this Spotlight, so let’s stop and go in chronological order.
2002 – Rodrigo y Gabriela release re-Foc, their first studio album. It’s a re-recording of their demo from the year before and features mostly original work, as well as a cover medley combining, I shit you not, Metallica and jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond.
2006 – Their self-titled second album drops, and Rodrigo y Gabriela blow up. They go on many tours and win international attention, probably because their music has no lyrics and their style crosses so many musical borders. The first two tracks I posted are from this album, so to avoid overkill, I’ll move on to the next.
2009 – The duo releases 11:11, consisting of 11 original songs, each of them dedicated to a musician or act who influenced them. The songs show hints of other influences, like the bluesy lick from the Jimi Hendrix-dedicated “Buster Voodoo.” Former Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick joins them on the song “Atman,” though I like “Savitri,” dedicated to the 1970s Indian-jazz supergroup Shakti, better.
2011 – Film composer and former Buggle Hans Zimmer calls up Rodrigo y Gabriela and asks them to cut some new songs for the score of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. On the soundtrack album, they’re credited as co-writers on four tracks and performed on a fifth. I have not seen this film, but I assume their musical contributions are among the highlights.
2012 – Rodrigo y Gabriela put out Area 52, a re-recording of their previous songs featuring a Cuban orchestra backing them up. It’s a fun record, but I feel that some of the arrangements add a strictly Cuban feel to the songs, which ends up shoehorning the duo’s sound into a much narrower niche than they otherwise occupy. I suppose I could get behind this idea if they were to cut multiple albums with groups representing different musical traditions. Rodrigo y Gabriela plus … a mariachi band! An Afrobeat orchestra! The Blind Boys of Alabama!
2014 – Rodrigo y Gabriela’s latest studio album is 9 Dead Alive, and each of its nine tracks are dedicated to individuals who have died but left a lasting legacy. These include Viktor Frankl, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor of Aquitane, and “animals and nature.” OK, they’re starting to get a little woo-woo here, and the music is the kind of thing you’d expect from a bunch of songs dedicated to uplifting dead people: mostly slower and more contemplative. “Megalopolis,” inspired by Chilean poet-diplomat Gabriela Mistral, is probably the best. While it might be compositionally simplistic, the spare quality of the sound contrasts with the duo’s usual bombast, as if to remind us that sometimes you don’t need fireworks to be moved.
And that’s it. I highly recommend catching them live if you can. Not only will they play some fun covers that aren’t on their records, but the energy of the crowd always makes for a great show. You won’t regret it.