Listening to my iPod on the way to work every day, I tend to go for more energetic music: mostly hard rock and metal. And consequently, I have been considering what makes a great guitar solo. (This is the kind of thing that goes through my head, I’m afraid – it’s a burden). Structurally, the solo in rock music is different from that in jazz. In rock, the solo often goes after the bridge, before the final chorus, or verse/chorus. (Not always, of course – it used to irritate me, for example, that Oasis’ “Live Forever” has the solo after the first verse, but now I see the point of setting out a bold statement so early in the song), while in jazz the solos are what is being “sung” in each “verse” (or in jazz terms the chorus).
The trouble I often find with guitar solos is that too many of them are generic, perhaps astonishing you with their vigour and intensity, but rarely do they add to the narrative of the song. A good solo is usually a restatement of the themes or ideas of the song in “pure”, unrestrained fashion, outside the confines of the riff and chorus, but the truly great ones add to the meaning of the overall song. So, then, let’s look at examples of all three.
I think Lou Reed is the most important American rock musician ever. Really! Trouble is, as good a guitarist as he is, he’s often a poor soloist. They meander here and there without making much of a statement, or, indeed, impression. Check out the solo in “Run Run Run”… great riff, crap solo. He would go on and get better – the soloing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” is just demented (though still quite directionless), but he’s essentially a rhythm guitar player. (It’s notable that his best work has been with great guitar players like Robert Quine and Mick Ronson, as well as Sterling Morrison, of course).
Punk was so aggressively back-to-basics, reacting against the wanky instrumental pyrotechnics of “dinosaur rock” that being “flash” with guitar solos was actively discouraged. (See the essential anti-solo in The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” and the self-mocking “GUITAR HERO” on Steve Jones’ amp). Punk is therefore filled with example of merely adequate solos, and songs without solos at all. Brian James of The Damned (well, their first two albums) repeatedly riffs where the solo would normally be on Damned! Damned! Damned! – here’s a good example. The Adicts, in their fun song “Chinese Takeaway” show how a basic riff can make a good song, if performed with irrepressible relish, but there’s nothing to the solo at all. Steve Jones has excellent delivery (he must have incredibly strong fingers), but solos in “God Save The Queen” and “Satellite”, for example, are nothing special in comparison to his great riffs and Rotten’s electrifying voice.
As I said above, I think good solos restates themes or ideas of the song. The best example of this is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where instead of shredding the fretboard, Kurt Cobain simply plays the melody. This isn’t just laziness: it’s lean and concise, increasing the intensity of the song. Similarly, here’s AC/DC with the live version of “Whole Lotta Rosie”: god, that riff is fantastic, but while the solo brilliantly gives the feel of the song, it doesn’t add to its meaning. You see what I mean? Metal bands often feature riff-shredding solos, and while these can be enjoyed for themselves – if you like that sort of thing; I personally think they’re fairly self-indulgent: virtuosity means nothing to me. For great guitar solos, you need something more.
As said above, I believe that great solos add to the meaning of the song; they add to the overall narrative of the piece. Perhaps the best metal solos come in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” – the first solo (starting at 3.35) gives a sense of the bliss and peace of the drug addict. Beautifully and skillfully, this modulates to an ominous, immensely powerful central section (“Master, master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), with the bass-heavy, dark riffing giving the sense of abasement to some almost-Lovecraftian greater power . This clearly suggests drug bliss and drug withdrawal. Another brilliant example is in the Velvet Underground’s incomparable “Sister Ray”, the most ferociously dissonant song ever recorded. John Cale’s keyboard solo (starting from 3.53), where he takes on Lou Reed’s guitar and wins in an exultant example of pure volume and power (at 6.24), is just astonishing. Joy Division, no strangers to dissonance or atonality themselves, could not capture half of this power in their cover of the song. Slayer’s screamingly-intense solos (performed both by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) in “Angel Of Death” capture the insanity of Auschwitz in a way that no riff ever could.
Good soloing is not exclusive to metal, of course: Johnny Marr was probably the most influential British guitarist of the 1980s, with good reason. Check out the beautiful gossamer shimmer of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”: not only does it create a vivid atmosphere, they give a sense of yearning beauty that Morrissey’s tongue-in-cheek lyric fails to capture. The vibrato-rich, glossy black solo by Bernard Butler in Suede’s “The Asphalt World” similarly creates a world of epic longing and tortured poetry which redouble the effect of verses, which verge on the absurd. (Butler wanted the song (and solo) to be longer – I often think he was right. Structurally, the song is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” – itself over 17 minutes). And how about the solo in Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Just savour the guitar interplay.
These are, of course, just a few examples of songs which I think have great guitar solos. What about you, what would you nominate?