I did a post back in 2010 on my favorite guitar solos, and as I reconsider it, there’s not much I would change. It’s still a pretty good old fart guitar solo list, but it is a bit light on stuff after, say, 1990. Well, I’m an old fart. The thing about most of these guys is that there’s generally so much to choose from, it’s hard to winnow it down to one choice per guitarist. Dutch guitar supremo Jan Akkerman has written dozens of brilliant songs—the problem is picking just one. I have to say I really like Michael Smith’s breakdown of guitar solos into the two categories he mentions—loosely, the composed solo and the improvised one. I had never really thought of solos in these terms, not being a musician, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to break these down.
Trevor Rabin’s solo on Manfred Mann’s version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (which must have about 150 covers at this point) is probably my favourite solo, short as it is, and it’s clearly a composed solo. Rabin, who is South African, recorded this with Manfred Mann back in the early 1980s for Mann’s Somewhere in Afrika, which came out well before Graceland and Peter Gabriel’s African period, although Paul Simon and Gabriel, not Mann, got the kudos for using South African musicians—even though Mann got there first. Mann, who is also South African, put together a very angry “Africa Suite,” overlaying South African vocal harmonies on some blistering rock and roll, and this is one of the high points. Rabin has contributed the perfect solo for the song—as I indicated in the earlier post, it’s an extremely angry solo, to complement an extremely angry song.
Unfortunately, in spite of my best efforts I can’t find a good version on YouTube. Just buy the Somewhere in Afrika album (the US version—there are actually three recorded versions); it holds up remarkably well after three decades.
My favourites on the improvised really come down to pretty much anything Jerry Garcia did when he was on, and pretty much anything Duane Allman or Peter Green did at any old time. Admittedly for Garcia, that was probably only half the time at best—Garcia could be sloppy as hell, not to mention outright boring at times, especially when he was obviously stoned out of his gourd. But when he was on, he literally did stuff it would never occur to anyone—including Jimi and Duane, and certainly not Clapton—to do. Really, only Jeff Beck among the old farts comes close. One of the best examples here is what Jerry does with “China Cat Sunflower”—a song put together, it would seem, to let Jerry cut loose. There are a number of versions to choose from, but the one on Europe 72 is one of the better (not to mention more accessible) ones. As usual, they morph into “I Know You Rider,” where we have to put up with Bob Weir’s vocals, but the great guitar work continues.
Now, I have to assume that there is no such thing as complete improvisation unless you’re playing with Ornette Coleman—songs have a structure, and I assume that guitarists have some sort of idea of what they want to do in the confines that structure. The Blues offers sublime opportunities in this regard—just think of how well the basic structure has held up, while giving guitarists (mainly) incredible opportunities for doing pretty much whatever they want within that structure. Duane Allman and Peter Green were both masters of this.
So to finish up, I’m going to abuse my privileges here and give you one from each. First up is Duane, who in addition to his sterling work with the Allman Brothers band, did a remarkable amount of session work with great people. Here he is on slide with Delaney and Bonnie:
And from Peter Green, back when Fleetwood Mac (which he founded) was actually a good band, here’s Green’s “Black Magic Woman” (a hit for Santana). Not that it matters, by the way, but BB King once said that Peter Green was the only guitarist who scared him.