ArtSunday

Wuf's favorite guitar solos

We haven’t had any good musical arguments in a while, so what better way to get some going than guitar solos? Guitar solos are one of the wonders of the universe. As many people (mostly male, it has to be said) understand, they’re emotional, visceral channels to the space where you think, if that’s the word, Jeez, where did that come from? You can do things with electric guitars that you can’t do with any other instrument. And, as classical guitarist John Williams once pointed out, music composed for other instruments just sounds different when played on a guitar anyway. Twentieth century music is distinguished, in part, by the re-emergence of improvisation as an important component of music making, in all sorts of musical genres, and the electric guitar was one of the revolutionary technologies that furthered, and indeed accelerated, this process. And while the electric guitar is inexorably bound up with the history of rock and roll, it’s had a much broader musical influence. Thank you, Les Paul!

But of course it is rock and roll when we think of when we think of guitar solos, and there’s a reason for that. The short, gritty three chord format is still a durable musical construct, and groups keep coming along and proving it still works in new ways—or the same old way, just expanded and nuanced,. It doesn’t matter—that’s the great thing about rock and roll—it’s so accommodating. Especially that guitar break part, which has given birth to all sorts of astonishing musical moments. And musical memories. I have a list of guitar solos burned into my brain, and I continue to carry them around, savoring them. I stand on the underground and run through some of them when I’m bored. Or while I’m driving. And I still go back and listen to them, and they continue to delight me with the mastery of the instrument, the perfect match between song and solo, and the sense that pretty much anything is possible within this genre with this instrument.

So here are some of my favorites, in more or less chronological order. Since I’m an old fart, there’s more earlier stuff than later stuff—a clear old fart bias, in fact. But I also think that’s because forms of experimentation does get explored more vigorously in the early periods of any technological development in general anyway—the history of any technology has multiple examples of this. But that just makes it all the more fun when someone comes along and shows you that, yes, it’s still possible to come up with something new, and memorable, and often astonishing. And of course these are just my personal favorites—which doesn’t mean they’re the best, or most distinctive, or most important. Everyone will have their own. But I also like many of these because I can hear their influence in much that has come along since. I’m following the rules of the TOR here—post Beatles, so there’s lots of great earlier stuff I can safely ignore for the time being.

I should mention that I’m cheating a bit by fudging the issue of pure instrumentals. There are a number of guitarists whose work is mostly, or almost entirely, instrumental—Jan Akkerman and Jeff Beck come to mind. I’ve worked some of them in, but I’m not about to get into some pointless discussion over what distinguishes a solo from something else.

So in kind of chronological order:

1. Peter Green—Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On, 1969). Green is still alive, which is sort of amazing given the Class As and the schizophrenia. He replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and did a better job. Green is pure blues here, and his most recent band, Peter Green’s Splinter Group, put out some fine blues albums in the 1990s and 2000s. After he left Mayall’s band he founded Fleetwood Mac—which he also left a couple of years later, but not before putting out the classic Then Play On. I recall seeing an interview with B.B. King at some point where he said the only guitarist that ever scared him was Green. Green has a very pure sound, much like what Mark Knopfler developed. Green got there first.

2. Jimi Hendrix—All along the Watchtower (Electric Ladyland, 1969). This is such a great example of Hendrix playing in a self-imposed space. Much of his work was blues oriented, particularly his later work, that allowed him to be more free-form when we wanted to be. But in this case he shows his chops in a Dylan song, of all things, and transformed the song for all time. Electric Ladyland was a transformative album, in fact—in may respects very different from what Hendrix had been doing before that, and it still holds up amazingly well. This is one of those perfect solos that sounds as good forty years after it was recorded as it did when I first heard it. That’s Dave Mason on the intro.

3. Harvey Mandel—So Sad (Canned Heat, Future Blues, 1970). Mandel filled in for Henry Vestine for a couple of years while Vestine went off and did something else for a while, and took the group much higher than Vestine had ever done. This is one smoking guitar piece from beginning to end—you can just feel the burn. Like an astonishing number of other guitarists (Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor), Mandel played with John Mayall for a while.

4. Duane Allman—One Way Out (Allman Brothers, Eat a Peach, 1972). This is actually part of the series of concerts that showed up first on the Live at Fillmore East album (and I was at all of them—hah!). Live at Fillmore East has often been called the best live album ever, and I’m not about to disagree. And I’ve got lots of that album in my head too. But this is the one that pops into my head at the oddest moments—it encapsulates everything Allman could do—taste and intelligence combined with ferocity and feeling. The fact that Hendrix and Allman both died too young is one of the great tragedies of rock—Allman in particular was just getting started, you feel.

5. Mick Taylor—Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, 1971). This was the peak of the Stones, in some respects—a great song, a group playing at its tightest, and Taylor’s great guitar. I always thought the Stones went into quick obsolescence when they brought in Ron Wood to replace Taylor. In this, it’s Taylor at his best—fluid and fiery at the same time. The great stuff is the second half of the song; when the group recorded the song, it was ending and Taylor just kept on playing, taking everyone else along with him. Brilliant stuff.

6. Mark Knopfler—Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits, 1978). Even though this was early in Knopler’s career, it’s the one that as stayed in my head. And one of his best songs. Like Taylor, Knopfler has a jazz/blues style that works well on any number of songs, but particularly well on this one.

7. David Gilmour—Money (Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973). Pretty close to the definitive guitar solo. Not much needs to be said about this—except that I actually prefer the version on the live Delicate Sound of Thunder. But so what? Dark Side of the Moon holds the record for an album remaining on the Billboard top 200 list—a total of 741 weeks, from 1973 to 1988. Personally, I think it’s because of this song, and this solo, which rise above a very fine album. Gilmour isn’t exactly a guitarist of great breadth, but within his realm he’s a master.

8. Jeff Beck—Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Wired, 1976). Beck is unique, and I’ve got lots of his stuff stored away in my head. This may be his best album, and his cover of Mingus’s song here is just masterful. We usually think of Beck as loud power everything—this is surprisingly subtle.

9. Jerry Garcia—Alabama Getaway (Grateful Dead, Go to Heaven, 1980)—Like Hendrix, Allman and Beck, Garcia took the guitar places where no one had gone before. He had considerably broader range than either Allman or Hendrix, though, both of whom were directly rooted in the blues. Garcia could play anything, and often did, and it was often messy, and lots of times not very good. When he was on, though, he was untouchable—he played like no one else. Like everyone here, there’s lots to choose from—it was pretty close between this one and China Cat Sunflower from Europe 72. This one reminds us that, at heart, the Dead was a great rock and roll band.

10. Richard Thompson—Tear Stained Letter (Hand of Kindness, 1983). Unlike many of the people here, Thompson is not dead, and is still going strong. Coming out of a mixture of American blues and the British folk and music hall traditions, Thompson, like Garcia, has a broad palette, and ranges all over the place. Like a number of the pieces here, the solo in the break isn’t as fun as the solo at the end of the song—this is driving, surging guitar.

11. Trevor Rabin—Redemption Song (Manfred Mann, Somewhere in Afrika, 1983). My all time favorite guitar solo, for what that’s worth, and maybe the shortest one here. This is a cover of a Bob Marley song that Mann (who was born in South Africa, like Rabin) works into a broader suite of an interesting blend of rock and African tunes. It’s an angry song, and an angry solo fitting the song and the theme perfectly.

12. Jennifer Batten—Take it Like a Man (Sara Hickman, Shortstop, 1990)—A real treat. Hickman’s second album is a classic folk/rock album in its own right, and it closes with an all woman band doing a great goof on the blues, and boy, does it cook, largely driven by some searing work from Batten. Batten’s got great guitar chops, and mainly has a reputation as a studio musician. She toured with Michael Jackson for several years as his lead guitarist. Hmmm. On the other hand, she played with Jeff Beck for three years. This song shows you why.

13. Dave Navarro—Three Days (Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual, 1991). Talk about a band prone to wretched excess, but when they were cogent and on, they were fantastic. Navarro’s work here is amazing—he’s all over the place, but it works magnificently. It’s one of those great songs where you think, where on earth did they get that? One of the laughable aspects of the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists was Navarro’s absence. Whatever it was Navarro did to piss off Jan Wenner, it must have been really something. (This is a list that has Joni Mitchell on it, but not Navarro, or Chet Atkins, for that matter.)

14. The Edge—Until the End of the World (U2, Achtung Baby, 1991) There are always strong feelings about U2 one way or the other. They’re not always a great band, sometimes just a good one, but when they’re great, they’re great. This is one of those times. One of the things I’ve always liked about these guys (aside from the act that they’re still going strong with the same line-up for so long) is their determination to pound the power trio format for whatever they can get out of it, and I like that fact that they’re still doing that. The Edge has never been considered as great a guitarist as many on this list, but he has a sense of what works for each song, and the power of this solo is undeniable.

15. Jan Akkerman—Tranquilizer (Live in Concert, 2007). Akkerman has been burning up the stage ever since Focus burst on the scene in the early 1970s from the Netherlands. Akkerman has about the broadest range of any guitarist I’ve ever heard, maybe because he’s Dutch, and now mostly does jazzy rocky things like this quite a lot with his quartet, which shows up in London from time to time. Rock and roll for grown-ups. Akkerman didn’t make the Rolling Stone List either. He was, however, voted the best guitarist in the world in 1973 by Melody Maker magazine here in Britain. I wouldn’t argue with that, frankly.

This is hardly exhaustive of great guitar solos, just my favorites, which turn out to be mostly old hippie shit. Who knew? There are lots of great guitarists out there. Make your own damn list.

22 replies »

  1. Good call on Dave Navarro’s solo on “Three Days”… Jane’s Addiction was definitely one of those bands that got worse and worse as they put out albums.

    I’ve gotta nominate Dean Ween’s solo from “I’ll Be Yer Johnny on the Spot” from the Live in Chicago recording, which unfortunately, I can’t find. Here’s a different version of it (one that isn’t quite as good, if you ask me).

  2. Thanks Josh, good link. That’s what I should have done–put links in! So returning the favor, here’s Jan Akkerman doing Tranquilizer–

  3. Damn it. I was having fun just lurking on this site. 😉

    So, really? You’d take Gilmour’s solo on “Money” over his two solos on “Comfortably Numb”?

    If there’s any bias I’ve noticed with guitar solos, it seems to be between left-brained and right-brained players. A left-brained, left-handed player (like Hendrix) tends to be much better received than left-brained, right-handed players. The same seems to hold true for right-brained, right-handed players. I can’t think of any right-brained lefties offhand. In short, it’s better to have a good fretboard hand than a good pick/rhythm hand. It’s generally better to do less with a lot of notes than to do a lot with just one note.

  4. Damn. That’s a helluva list. Okay, here are some of my favorites. I reserve the right to come back later and add more.

    In no particular order:

    Brian May: nearly everything. Okay, that’s copping out, but damn, he had some great ones. Can’t believe Wuf left him out. I’ve always loved the solo on “Brighton Rock,” which manages to show us a variety of things all in one extended bit. Then there’s “Killer Queen.” And did I mention nearly everything he ever touched?

    David Gilmour: Can I say everything from The Wall? Okay, how about “Comfortably Numb.” When you look at the bands that seem to be regarded as the greatest, or among the greatest, of an era, they are so often bands that defined how the generation sounded. The ’70s ultimately sounded like two people: Gilmour and Jimmy Page. Well, up until about 1978, anyway, when things started sounding a bit like Andy Summers.

    As for Page? Damn. Well, I guess “Stairway” is the cliche answer, but just for the heck of it give me “Tangerine.”

    David Robinson: I imagine fikshun might have more to add here. We really don’t think of The Cars as your traditional solo-type rock band, but cue up “My Best Friend’s Girl” and listen closely.

    Elliott Randall: “Reelin’ in the Years.” Clean, ungodly precise, and one of those things that I’ve heard a zillion times. I look forward to #zillion-and-one.

    Mark Knopfler: Yeah, “Sultans” is one of my very favorites. I’d also say nice things about the first track on that debut album, “Down to the Waterline.”

    Edge: Yep, yep. But I think my favorite Edge solo moment was his live performance on “Love is Blindness” from the Zooropa Live in Sydney concert. Just achingly gorgeous, and a textbook demonstration of why great solos don’t need to be fast, complicated or “incendiary.”

    Let’s see, I grew up redneck, right? So let’s mention Ricky Medlocke’s solo on “Train Train,” shall we?

  5. By David Robinson, I think you mean Elliot Easton of the Cars. After playing the solo for “Best Friend’s Girl” for some 6 months now, I can probably play it reasonably well at 3/4 speed. I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Easton isn’t just a guitar god, he’s also an asshole.

    What makes the solo great isn’t that it’s fast (though it is). It’s that it really nails the Cars’ ethos of rock/rockabilly meets plastic, new wave veneer. If a guitar solo could be an anthem in and of itself, that one would be.

    To cement that a guitar solo needn’t be fast to be great, I would point to Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe”. That one aches beautifully.

    • Dammit. Yes, Easton. David Robinson played drums (before launching a very successful career playing center for the San Antonio Spurs). This is what happens when I comment when I should still be sleeping in.

  6. This gets better and better. Regarding Money vs, Numb, yes, I take Money. It’s a perfect song as well as having a perfect solo–never felt that way about Numb. Although the caveat here is that I was never as big a PF fan as others were (and still are).

    Great call on Randall–it’s a great solo, no question. Probably should have included it. Steely Dan was a transformative band.

    I always thought Page was too overwrought. Fantastic ability, obviously, but he’s not on my list because there are many other players whose styles I just like better. He’s certainly on the list of greatest guitarists, though.

    And I cheerfully admit to disliking Queen, so I’m probably just less familiar with Brian May’s stuff. What I’ve heard is certainly ok, but never grabbed me particularly.

    Fishkun–you know, I like that left brain/right rain concept. Needs some thought, but it’s an interesting notion. Who else fills in these various boxes? What other left-handers are there? I think I’ll disregard Paul McCartney if that’s ok. Cobain, who I thought was a good guitarist, but not necessarily a great one. Albert King, who is a great guitarist, but wasn’t included in my set list. That guy from Black Sabbath. Who else?

  7. Yeah, Easton was. And maybe he fits the mold of right-brained lefty. His solos are certainly melodic but their strength is in technique, speed, and rhythm. As such, maybe that’s a reason he hasn’t been as revered as much as some other lefties.

    Conversely, you can take a right-handed player who grew up worshiping someone like Hendrix and reach similar heights, i.e. Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Texas Flood” gets a little noodly in spots, but on the whole, it’s some damn fine soloing.

    And that’s interesting about your thoughts on “Money”. I think of that solo as the “Charlie Brown’s teacher” solo. Maybe a hair too much wah-wah. It’s a great solo, and it reinforces the subject matter of the song in that it comes off brash and self-important. But at the risk of sounding misogynistic, it sounds more like a nit-picky wife than the “give me the world” capitalist pig that the lyrics spell out.

    The two solos on “Comfortably Numb” have aged well for a western culture walled off by prescription painkillers. The first solo hits that blissful “nothing can touch me” high note, while the second comes tearing through like a hangover of self-loathing.

  8. You know, I like those solos. And I take our point. So I’ll go listen to hem again–always fun to do that. In the past I’ve found them a bit overblown–Gilmour tends that way lots of the time–but that’s part of the package, isn’t it? What I always liked about Money was that it was pretty straight up for a PF song.

    I’ve always liked the Dogs of War solo too. Gilmour is an interesting guitarist–as I said, his range isn’t great, but within that range he generates a lot of power and emotion.

  9. Wirh alll due respect for the excellent selections you made. As a struggling guitarist, the greatest guitar solo in my opinion was Gary Moore killing still got the blues for you. KILLer. gives me the chillls every time I hear it!

  10. Brian May on “we will rock you”
    Steve Jones “holidays in the sun”
    Keith Levene “Go Back” The only song on PILs “Flowers of Romance” with a guitar solo, and it is awesome.
    Whoever played the solo on Thin Lizzy’s “the boys are back in town” LOVE that solo.

    Elliot Easton? Yeah, I think he is great and underrated as well. I love his stuff.

  11. everyone is sure spending lots of time talking about Gilmour. How about someone else?

    I think that was Brian Robertson on Boys. Great track.

    And I like Gary Moore too. There are lots of guitarists I like!

  12. Elliott Randall: Reelin In The Years
    Slash: Sweet Child O’ Mine
    Kirk Hammet: One
    Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammet, James Hetfield: Orion (I know Cliff played bass but it sounds like a guitar)
    Eric Johnson: Cliffs of Dover
    Eddie Van Halen: Hot For Teacher
    Brian May: Bohemian Rhapsody
    Tom Morello: Killing in the Name Of
    Mark Knopfler: Sultans of Swing
    Castles Made Of Sand: Jimi

    There’s tons others, I know I’m missing some Maiden, Pantera and a bunch of other metal bands.

    I’m sure I could even sprinkle in some Brian Setzer stuff.

    I’m also missing a bunch of jazz and classical guitarists that I listen to, but never remember the names of the songs.

  13. I heard something from him the other day and I couldn’t believe it was him playing, I have to go back to my “Rockabilly” station on Pandora and listen. Some of those dudes can play.

    • Brian has always been able to play. I think since he’s gone from rockabilly to big band to whatever else he’s doing at the moment he’s not really thought of as a serious player. Genre bias, maybe. But I’ve seen him live a couple of times (Cats and the BSO) and make no mistake, he’s a brilliant guitarist.

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