Why I love the guitar solo.

One of my favorite solos ever, almost certainly the favorite for the mighty Led Zeppelin. I’ve loved this one for over a decade which is not the same I can say for those old Foo Fighters records. Just listen to how he keeps building the solo until there is a climax, not unlike a sexual experience. Many people, including an interview I can now not find with Jimmy Page, have ascertained that songs like  “Stair way to Heaven” are modeled like this for that exact reason.

The Elder and I talked about Mumford last week and he commented on my post after some back and forth that he thought most guitar solos are “superfluous ostentation” which I think is the equivalent of tail fins on a car. They look cool and add to the overall picture but don’t really do much for the ride. (He continues the debate here.)

I disagree. I think the tail fins make the car, that the little detail that makes a big splash and makes that 1961 Buick Le Sabre really shine. I love the guitar solo and I wish there was something comparable in every song. It often shows that someone has put a lot of time and thought into adding some  flavor to their music and I dig it.

Not “In the Court of the Crimson King” but certainly a nice little verse taken by the incredibly tasteful and talented George Harrison. I’ve been working on playing this bass line since I picked one up and I’m finally getting close.

My parents listened to lot of early Beatles and Neil Diamond when I was very young so the former was probably my first interaction with the guitar solo because the latter doesn’t have a lot of soloing in between the “love on the rocks”. The Beatles were straight forward initially and didn’t get into much of the strangeness/awesomeness until Rubber Soul. The guitar solo verse is when the possibilities of dancing really kicks up which is probably why I liked it as a young man. I can remember noodling around the living room while this played in roughly 1990 and loving the guitar part. George is no Robert Fripp but has some of the tastiest licks in the history of popular music.

Nirvana is still huge. I had a 14 year old student tell me last week that Kurt is her idol and she won’t be in school the anniversary of his death. I told her I was alive when he shot himself and I went to school and there is no reason you should stay home now. I also should have said, try to pick a role model that didn’t ruin his life by shooting up heroin and then putting a shotgun in his mouth.

My next real memory of loving the guitar solo came from my childhood idol Kurt Cobain. My brother had Nevermind and I would steal it in the fourth grade and listen to it all day. At the time, I though this was an amazing solo that was unparalleled by anybody else I knew at the time.  In hindsight, Nirvana was never really about the solo and was centered around Kurt’s lyrics, Grohl’s heavy ass drum licks and the competent bass playing of Krist Novoselic.

Regardless, I remember playing air guitar in between cartoons and just loving it. This is not some crazy time changing or genre pushing solo, it just bridges the song together and inserts a little finesse into an otherwise straight ahead song. This is another reason the solo is great, it can really be that final piece that ties a song together. Would this song had been a hit without the solo? Yes, but it wouldn’t have sounded as cool.

Who doesn’t like the blues?

Towards the beginning of high school, I got very into blues, specifically Muddy Waters and as a result of hearing the above jam during a scene in the gangster flick Goodfellas. I’ve loved the blues ever since and I think it is an art form that has inspired an infinite amount of other art.  Now what would the blues be without guitar solos? I mean it is a cornerstone of the whole genre  it’s how pickers would distinguish themselves from one another in the now legendary “cutting contests” and it’s how all of the white imitators learned how to make their guitars cry and sing. What if you just took the guitar solo out of all blues music, where would it be? This brought it to rock and roll and why we will hear them there too. Just listen to these boys wail, you must not have a pulse if this doesn’t move you.

As I got a little older and into college, I got into the jam. The Dead was a mainstay in my listening, as well as Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers and the like. A concise jam with substance, a goal, a beginning and an ending really lights me up. I like form in my rock and roll freedom.  This here is one of the Dead’s finer takes on a classic song with a very tasteful solo. I was actually a best man in a wedding last summer whose last song was this cut! It doesn’t falter into musical masturbation range which brings up one contention I will give to my brother.

Some artists, particularly in the jam field but also in many others, can get into long overdrawn solos that can end up going nowhere for me as a listener. Take Phish for example. I went to school in Vermont and should have been a fan, but I also felt like the solos would take forever and almost always left me unfulfilled  The Dead can do this at times as well, especially in the 80’s, and it can wear on me. I would also cite the excess of bands in the 80’s like Van Halen, whom I love but definitely get into some ridiculous bouts of guitar heroics that lose me.  Trey Anastasio, guitarist of Phish, once said that they are looking for that two amazing minutes in 18 minutes of playing. So, why not just play great for five and call it good?

Note that this song is in one of the weirdest times ever, something like 17/8. Thank you Mr. Fripp for your continual weirdness.

As of late, I’ve gotten very much into the weird stuff like progressive rock and this band, King Crimson. The guitars on all their songs, mostly done by the only consistent member Sir Robert Fripp, are weird and amazing. There isn’t traditional form here but so much is added by the guitars and the different effects put onto them. It literally makes this awesome band that has put out music for almost forty years relevant at this point. I can understand why one wouldn’t like guitar solos if they are long and go no where, but if they add a great flavor to the song, how can you hate on them? One day Brother, we will be doing the 747 dance together again somewhere and you will learn to love the jam or at least how to have fun dancing like a fool. Oh yeah, and don’t forget Jimi Hendrix.

29 comments on “Why I love the guitar solo.

  1. londongigger says:

    The Led Zep guitar solo has the classic sound of the classic and prog rock age but if you listen closely, this is a format that continues to be used and re-used down the years since, as it obviously works. Compare this with the intro of Guns n Roses “Sweet Child of Mine”, for example; you can hear the same elements. Guitar solos do embellish the song but sometimes as in cooking, you take the basic ingredients and a dish comes out good but not spectacular but if you add a little something extra it makes the dish really special.

  2. theelderj says:

    Oh, my brother, you know I can’t resist this topic. But, I will need to add in something of a post of my own.

    Here’s a question for you to ponder: don’t you think that the solo is more an element of live performance art and somewhat strange in most recorded music (with the exception of recordings of live performances, which are a different thing altogether)?

    An example to think of: the most covered (pop and rock) songs have to do with the words and the form of the song itself…solos are added in later.

    But, I will hassle you with much more later. The Walking Dead is on now.

  3. TheLead_Guitarist says:

    While I haven’t chimed in for some time, this is a topic I (obviously) feel strongly about. Not only because I play guitar and in my day LOVED a good solo, but more importantly because Phish was mentioned in this post and that revs my engine. I LOVE Phish! I could write for DAYS about the band and why I love them, but also about misconceptions people have about them. One thing Trey would tell you is that their goal is that there are no solos. When they’re clicking, it’s as if the band is a 4 headed monster with all members equally contributing to the music.I totally understand that it’s not for everyone, but as someone who grew up on much more conventional rock, I’m fascinated with the notion of the “music” being more important than the “song.” As for the epic 20 minute jams, I agree they can sometimes grow tedious. You can only really “get it” by being there. I would compare it to walking into a movie in the middle. You need to hear where the jam “came from” to understand where it ended up.
    Also, I love that a lot of the people you single out in your post are Trey Anastasio’s main influences. Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and Robert Fripp. If you’d thrown in Zappa you would pretty much have all the main ones. Speaking of Jerry (and soloing), I just read an interview with Trey where he said that even if the dead weren’t grooving on a particular night, Jerry was such a virtuoso that he could carry the show just with his playing and singing. Phish doesn’t have that luxury because by Trey’s admission none of them are that talented individually (I disagree), that they rely on each other to have a good show. A nice sentiment.

    Carry on, gentlemen

    • theyoungerj says:

      I have heard the “Phish is awesome “spiel and why is because you already like all the bands that influence several times, being as I did go to school in Vermont and it is starting to grow on me. When the Maine show got announced for July 3rd, local and faraway friends were quick to get ahold of me to be like “this is your show dude”. If our band doesn’t play out that weekend, I may actually go so I can see the whole thing and maybe it will change my view point. It would make a good blog post regardless. I like the quote from Trey about it being about the band because I think more bands need that mentality, like The Band was supposed to be before Robbie Robertson got all possessive. Lastly, who doesn’t love Jerry? The Elder is the only one I can think of.

      • TheLead_Guitarist says:

        That is excellent, theyoungerj. Original_Drummer and I will most certainly be there. We went to opening night of the tour last year in Worcester and it held up as one of their best five shows of the year. They’re playing about as well as they ever have right now. AND.. rumor is that they go back into hiding for a while after new years, so NOW is the time to go.

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