Sunday, March 06, 2011


The greatest guitar solo of all time is, of course, the one Joe Cocker plays in his head while he sings “With a little help from my friends” at Woodstock. Strung out on acid at the festival to end all festivals, Cocker becomes the every-teenager in his bedroom, arching his shoulders, creasing up his face like the most clichéd of jazz-cats, his fingers lacing arpeggios over an imaginary fretboard. It is at the same time phallic and submissive – and anybody who has played air guitar knows what he is feeling. It is a deeply uncool thing, the guitar solo, an over-the-top pleasure which can only really be enjoyed alone.

Which leads me to some initial suggestions for the guitar solo meme. Most of them are played by dinosaurs: pale-faced, embarrassing creatures whose dirty monologues we prefer not to air in public. There are a few, also, whose company we can be proud to be seen. And your narrator (me) is, if I may say so, the archetypal guitar solo fan: the kind of person who makes up for his failure to master a solo of any kind by learning all about different makes of guitar and boring others with his knowledge.

What kind of solos are there? First, there is the solo which develops from the rhythm part so effortlessly that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. The master of this is Robbie Robertson of the Band (“the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound,” said Bob Dylan). And in a similar vein, we must face two Oedipal challenges head on by learning to love the man all of our fathers got into when their collective musical taste began to wane (Mark Knopfler), and by delving into their own childhoods by hearing the genius chop/riff/solo fusion of Mick Green of the Pirates (“My babe” is not on Youtube, but is on Spotify).

Solo at 3'37".

Solo at 4'08".

Secondly, there are solos which are very much solos: searingly direct, shamelessly virtuoso, or simply (as in the cases of Lindsey Buckingham and Neil Young) tearing at the same string over and over again.

Extraordinarily dense, sharp solo from McCartney at 1'13".

Having played second fiddle (ha!) to a barrage of horns for most of this song, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter lets rip at 4'47" (holy-fuck!-moment-alert at 5'21")

It's really only for the sake of variety that a list such as this must feature guitarists other than Richard Thompson. Solo starts at 4'30", goes on for five minutes, never lets up.

Turn it down!! The moment David Gilmour begins his slow, howlingly loud solo at 3'06", you realise the rest of the song has merely been a warm-up to the this moment. Really gets going at 4'30".

Solo starts at 3'18".

Solo starts at 2'10".

Sometimes the solo turns into the song itself. There is nothing to "Maggot brain" or "Eruption" besides the solo - the former owes a deep debt to jazz, where the soloist steps forward to the front of the stage and the others take a back seat, except that in this case Eddie Hazel sounds like he's stepped into another world (I know that sounds like a cliche, but I mean it literally); the latter just makes me want to kiss everyone to thank them that I'm alive.

Solo starts at 3'20". Don't bother with the previous 3'19".

"The disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar - now that's my idea of a good time." From one of Zappa's many interminable albums, this is his greatest moment - pay attention from 2'40", but especially from 3'57" when he switches from Gibson to Fender Stratocaster.

And finally, there is the solo which isn't a solo at all, where shards of feedback pierce through the very of fibre of the song. In the first clip, Masami Tsuchiya solos at 1'30", but his breaks are all over this performance of "Art of parties" on the Old Grey Whistle Test (again!). The second clip, of King Crimson playing "Frame by frame" on OGWT (yet again!), effectively has three lead guitarists (if you count Tony Levin on the Fairlight Stick) - Fripp plays an exhausting acoustic guitar arpeggio, while Adrian Belew exorcises animal noises by whacking the headstock and yanking the whammy bar. All very technical, you might say, but jesus, what a sound.


Post a Comment

<< Home