Thursday, March 03, 2011


Labour's last stand in Wisconsin, turmoil in Libya, unsubstantiated xenophobia in the financial sector - how much horror can one ingest during the first cup of coffee? How angry can you get at breakfast? For want of any meaningful contribution to the conversation (and to preserve what fewed frayed nerves I've left), I gladly pick up the gauntlet cast by Simon Reynolds for a li'l musical frivolity.

Great guitar solos! Man, what are the odds of anyone under the age of twenty-five joining this debate? If the Great Riff War of 2010 was troubled by the recent restriction of the guitar to a supporting role, then the solo is an expressive mode dead & buried for two straight decades. Perhaps the last memorable moment a guitar stepped front-and-center was Kurt Cobain's minimal reiteration of the verse melody in "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Certainly, guitar solos have forever been stained with the nut-bustin' excesses of '80s metal. Whether you're an eyebrow-arching ironist or an melodramatic raconteur, the human voice is an unmediated, more easily-understood means of expression. You're not going to talk through your guitar. (With due respect to the possible exception of Stephen Malkmus.)

Yet many of my favourite guitar solos came after the finger-sports Olympics of the 1980s. This is partially due to my age: 1990 was the first year I paid attention to contemporary music in a conscious way. Granted, the window hadn't quite closed on masturbatory machismo at that time. Slash & Kirk Hammett were unarguably the most popular guitarists on the planet, and the friend who first encouraged me to pick up the instrument was still spending his days deciphering the flurried fretwork of Steve Vai and Nuno Bettencourt. But such pyrotechnical playing was a bridge way too far for an eight-year-old still struggling to form a bar chord. It also struck me as a kind of silly - but silly in that awkward way that is totally unaware of how silly it actually is. If I was going to go silly, I wanted to enjoy it overtly.

Enter Primus. My parents, bless 'em, bought me The Beavis & Butthead Experience on cassette for Christmas '93. A bunch of my favourite bands were on the dodgy cash-in compilation (Nirvana, Anthrax, et al.), but what seized me by the cerebellum were the first two tracks on the second side: "I Am Hell" by White Zombie and "Poetry & Prose" by Primus. White Zombie were gloriously coarse, like Metallica deprived of any artistic pretense, and Rob Zombie had the most resolutely unpleasant voice I'd heard - mesmeric in its repulsiveness. (You can imagine how excited I was when I finally heard Ministry six months later.) But Primus were just baffling: a nasal redneck spitting syllables at auctioneer speed over the Ren & Stimpy house band. And what was up with the guitar solo (which hits around the 1:30 mark)...

This fleet-fingered loon was desperately snatching notes all over the neck and grabbing the wrong one every time. I had no idea what to make of it. I'd never heard playing so willfully unhinged.

...That is, until I discovered Marc Ribot and Frank Zappa. Evidently, Larry Lalonde's two greatest influences were even further out in orbit that he was. Ribot's playing, particularly his more restrained performances behind Tom Waits, was what I thought the blues should sound like: gnarled, lacerating, and not quite on key. His solo on Waits' "Way Down In the Hole" has long been a favourite.

And Zappa - well, the first spin of Zappa's Apostrophe(') was my Damascene moment as a young musician. As I've written before, "it defied every rule that Top 40 radio had imposed on my impressionable mind: it was virtuosic but hilarious, it was orchestral but whimsical, it was psychedelic but cynical." His guitar playing was stupefying, especially for its near-total aversion to rhythmic regularity. Many people find his three-volume instrumental tome Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar overly indulgent, but I still think the opening salvo of "Five Five Five" is a terrifying piece of modernist improv.

After my prog-head period, I began gravitating towards more textural, deconstructive guitarists like Kevin Shields and Ian Williams. Still, players whose concepts exceeded their chops can surprise with the occasional searing solo, like Lee Renaldo's fuzzy freakout in "Kissability" or Chris Woodhouse's confounding blitzkrieg during the late, great Mayyors' "Metro". And I have to admit, two-meter sentient phallus though he may be, Billy Corgan killed it during the solo on "Zero".

But, as so often comes to pass with rock history, you gotta go old school for honest-to-god, as-yet-unmatched genius. The solo that scorched, then salted the earth so that nothing could grow in its wake was Robert Fripp's six-stringed exorcism on Eno's "Baby's On Fire". There's hardly a more exciting three-minute instrumental span in rock music, and its serrated howl echoes in every other solo I've cited above. Every time I listen to it, I simultaneously want to throw off my instrument in futile disgust and to kick on the Big Muff and run through Lydian scales until my fingers bleed.

Your move, Mr. Neville.


carl said...


Seb said...

Aw, c'mon, now: clearly I posted this while you were working towards your first guitar solo post. No reason to be so awkward about it.

Bang-on about "22 Going On 23", by the way. And Neutral Milk Hotel.

Jeffrey said...

I'll bite on this chestnut of musical nerd challenges.

I'll add just one important qualification to this. For a guitar solo or even just a lead to be really great, it can't be, as our lead guitarist always contended, just some indulgent display of technical skill. Wake me up when you're through with that. For it to be worth listening to, it must be integral to and push the song forward.

Elliot Randall's solo on Steely Dan's "Reeling In The Years." Reputedly, one of Jimmy Page's favorites.

Another favorite is Elliot Easton's (what's with the Elliots?) Frippertronic-like lead on the Cars' "Since You're Gone." Very understated.

Mick Jones' blistering lead on "London Calling." He's always been an underrated guitarist.

And finally, George Harrison's double-tracked lead on "And Your Bird Can Sing." Probably the most interesting thing he ever did as a Beatle (and as only the second best guitarist in the band after Paul).

TV's David Caruso said...

I read anything about Robert Fripp without thinking about Pat, the self-righteous, pseudo-liberal gay vegan asshole from Achewood. Looking at the pic of Fripp above, makes me think that Pat might even have been based on him.

flspectro said...

sorry to enter uninvited just to say that I really like 2 guitar solos by Daniel Lanois:

Lotta Love to Give

Dude, those rock! They are tasteles, noisy, musical and lyrical. Like a Zappa with less brain and more hearth.