To Solo or Not to Solo: Is that a Question?

My brother and I have had an ongoing debate for the past few years. In fact, I think that this debate probably predates this blog by a healthy length of time. See, he has a predilection for bands that use what I consider to be too much noise. I have a taste for music that he, at times, considers too ‘emo’ or something like that.

This summary, of course, doesn’t fairly represent either the depth of the discussion or the opinions on either side. The whole concern, I suspect, is so directly connected to our  converging but essentially separate music aesthetics as to represent in toto our different characters and world outlooks.

Most recently, we have been debating the musical structure of songs by Mumford & Sons. One thing we both recognize (and disagree about) is that what sets the band and their style (shared in part with bands like the Lumineers and The Last Bison) is in the eschewal of conventional rock instrumentation—the abandonment of both the drumset and the iconoclastic lead guitar.

B. B. King, “The Thrill is Gone”

So this song gives us an interesting test. Does a lead line work if the vocals are taken away? Here the guitar lead line tells a story—one that anticipates and reinforces every word that is sung. In the blues tradition, the vocals and lead lines complement each other and contribute to a more powerful whole.

So this gives us one way that we can boil the substance of our difference down. Yet, contrary to my brother’s assumption, one place where we probably find some common ground by fully explaining our positions is in our discussion about guitar solos. (I think that figuring out our differences on drums and drummers might kill us.)

So here goes: I hate and love the guitar solo. I hate it because it can be used so poorly. I love it because it can be used so well. In order to explain this schizoid response, it is only fair for me to spell out what I think are some of the key issues. I want to emphasize that solos belong to the live performance, but can contribute to the song as a whole; that a solo must be differentiated from a ‘riff’; and, finally, that the decision to solo or not to solo is connected to genre and historical context.

Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”

This traditional solo is an amazing piece of guitar playing that makes sense in part because the song is about a guitar player. In fact, the song is constructed in such a way as to allow the performer to become the title figure in the song. For this song, then, there is a unity between the form and the message. A useful lesson, but impossible for all solos.

First, one thing my brother doesn’t really delve into is the difference between genres and the origin of soloing to begin with. This is where I think both of us could use with some more real research, yet fortune favors the bold! The guitar solo, as I understand it, is an inheritance from both blues and jazz forebears. This is easy to see because the solo became prominent first and foremost in the artists building from these genres.

Check out a great jazz song, for instance “Big Fat Mama” by the Oscar Peterson Jazz Trio (no youtube video, sorry!) and listen to the way the instrumentalists build on themes together yet integrate into their solos the particular sounds, rhythms and histories for each instrument. The guitar solo on this track makes me yell out loud.

(Although it would be unfair to say that there is no tradition of instrumental soloing in the celtic/bluegrass/country tradition).

A great riff: Aerosmith/ Run DMC, “Walk This Way”

One important difference my brother doesn’t bring up is between the sustained guitar riff—which is part of the architecture of the song and necessarily repeated—and a guitar solo. Solos can build from the repeated riff, but the riff (built from blues phrasings etc.) is an independent part of the song. Popular rock from punk to some grunge too often downplays the riff in favor of different strumming patterns and power chords.

The big difference in my taste, and one I think that the Lead Guitarist and my brother both circled around in their comments, is that solos, for the most part, are at home in the live performance. (Hence the centrality of the solo to ‘jam’ bands, live jazz performances, and blues halls.) The recorded pop song, however, is a different breed of fish.

Let me explain. The short, recorded song is akin, I think, more to a printed poem or set performance piece than it is to a jazz concert. The song is a self-contained unit all in service of one theme, feeling, or idea. As I try to figure out on an earlier post, I think that the best pop songs present a unity of ‘sound and sense’: the music and the lyrics reinforce one another in the presentation of a theme.

Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City”

This song presents another great and memorable riff—one that makes the song. But do you need a solo? Doesn’t this song go on about a minute too long? GnR is playing in my adopted hometown later this year. My brother won’t come see them with me. The wife and I will go instead. We already asked our babysitter. She, jokingly, asked if we needed our parents’ permission. Did we get old this fast?

So, solos, I suggest, can either be a part of the song—a lead line that echoes the sentiment of the lyrics or anticipates the ‘atmosphere’ the song suggests or a solo that builds upon what comes before—or they can function as elaboration, ornamentation, or ‘decoration’. To return to my brother’s metaphor of the car with tail fins, for stylization and artistic effect, the solo can add flash and decoration to the song. Or, conversely, a solo can be something more integral: a special transmission, fuel injection, or special suspension.

Meat Puppets, “Backwater”

In this song, Meat Puppets use the lead line to anticipate the melody and themes of the song that follows. The music functions mnemonically to help us remember the song. This band influenced Kurt Cobain. (As did The Pixies.)

The language of ornamentation is something I borrow from another one of my passions—oral poetry. In conventional descriptions of oral poetry (mainly starting with Milman Parry and Albert Lord), poets/performers can take essential themes and expand them by using ornamenting devices like similes, extended scenes, and elaborated speeches. In this way, traditional songs are renewed and recomposed every time they are performed.

They Might Be Giants, “Absolutely Bill’s Mood”

Another one of my favorite bands rarely ever included guitar solos in early work and when they did so it was in a clearly marked fashion. In this song, the guitarist literally phones in his solo and its dissonance with the following song amounts both to a comment on soloing and an experiment in musical architecture.

So that’s where my brother’s metaphor breaks down. I don’t think that the design or decoration use of the solo is sufficient. If ornamentation is used without a connection to the central spirit of the song, it is nothing more than ‘gilding the lily’ or mere ostentation. It doesn’t contribute to the song and is more appropriate to the expansion aesthetic that is at home in the live performance when the audience is engaged with the performer’s reinterpretation of a song.

Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love”

Can anyone talk about a lead guitar solo without mentioning Led Zeppelin? The difference is that this song isn’t about the solo. This is all about the riff. That’s where, I think, a lot of people get Zeppelin wrong. The whole song matters. Without the riff, the solo is nothing. Without the solo? The song is, well, neutered. So, unlike a car with fins, a this song is more like a Mustang with a four-cylinder if you take the solo away. My brother might be surprised that I love this song. But I do. It has giant brass balls.

And this takes me to another aspect of the solo. The solo—and the choice to use it or not use it—is tied to musical genre. Having a solo, essentially, declares a generic affinity and signals to the audience how to understand and enjoy the music. Not having a solo, does something else. Which brings us back to Mumford & Sons (for better or worse).

The Pixies, “Hey”

The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man”

People who know me and read the blog know how much I love the Pixies. This is a band that absolutely depends on the guitar but does so in a way that differentiates it from other bands in the same period (and those before. In both of these songs, the band builds memorable riffs and forms on the conventional guitar model, but they avoid the solo.

Just as having a solo is a choice, not having a solo is equally a choice that signals rather than a dismissal of musicianship, an embrace of a different musical aesthetic. In fact, many of the bands I love don’t feature prominent solos. Jose Gonzalez uses fingerpicking and layering to develop amazing songs. Mates of State use the piano and harmonies (over adventurous drumming) to create a differen sound. Tegan and Sara (in their earlier albums) combine tight song structure, with almost mechanical repeated instrumental patterns.

Music, like any other art or human endeavor, is a type of communication with its own history and contemporary artists. When Led Zeppelin came out, no one really combined blues rock instrumentation with a radio format (and a screaming vocal) in the same way. For a decade, the combination of screeching tenor vocals, heavy rhythm section, and wild blues guitar solos became the gold standard of real rock.

Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”

The lead line here is important—it is subsumed into the background in a way only the grungy nineties (and the late 80s precursors) preferred. This sound anticipates what comes later when the solo breaks out of the mire and embraces a higher register that still makes sense with the song as a whole. Here, in classic rock and alt rock style, the guitar solo functions as a bit of a bridge from one chorus to another and the song’s final climax.

So, by the mid-80s and even earlier (with punk, new age, British invasion etc.), not soloing became a way to set yourself apart from what became the music of excess. The hair bands of the 80s took the model of Zeppelin and others and cheapened it. Bands from The Talking Heads to the Pixies and Nirvana inherited and contributed to both traditions and advanced the conversation.

When it comes down to it, I prefer solos in songs without words. There is no real reason for this or explanation other than my own arbitrary taste. What this illustrates, though, is that my brother and I look for different things in songs. I want the musicians to work in service of delivering a message, a reflection or a feeling. My brother wants to enjoy the skill of the musicians too. I want to ignore the musicians altogether. I think he might be more connected to reality.

Or, what do you think, mon frère?

A New Friend of the Blog, who writes the Livin’  on The B Sides Blog blames the death of solos on Lead Singers?

To end: a song with a great solo and a great riff. It all works together

Alice in Chains, “Man in the Box”


11 comments on “To Solo or Not to Solo: Is that a Question?

  1. […] 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.) […]

  2. Absolutely Love it! I completely agree and loved how you touched on the classics. Although I can honestly say Mumford & Sons banjo needs to be confiscated. I recently wrote a piece about the death of the guitar solo that may interest you, I’m still awaiting a new generation of guitarists!

  3. […] of the musical nuances, variance in time signatures and weirdo solos that my brother is largely against. That’s okay though, everyone is entitled to their opinion and life is too short to listen to […]

  4. […] Clearly, there’s a little prog rock in there too which I obviously love. Nothing insane for guitar solos so far, but give me some […]

  5. […] how the voices are so loud and clear so you can hear the relaxed harmonies going on.  Not a lot for guitar solos here, but the little he does with what sounds like a dobro is so tasty. This is a beautiful […]

  6. […] when I listen to CCR. Not the flashiest band ever with very little in the complicated guitar solo department, but solid with a very respectable catalog and songs that I do not get sick of even after close to […]

  7. […] hear this song on the classic rock and oldies stations sometimes, but not enough. I think the guitar solo matches up as one of the best in a pop song, or any genre for that matter, ever. It’s truly […]

  8. […] now it is a super-saturday, new song, double re-blog bonus day. The lead singer of Junip is Jose Gonzalez, one of the most exciting and original guitarists playing in popular music today. Gonazalez's […]

  9. […] thing about “November Rain”–and this is a great thing–is its solo. that guitar solo makes the first 3 minutes almost worth listening […]

  10. […] the list is longer than that. Guns ‘N Roses? Sublime? That is some serious horseshit. The only thing that would have broken my heart just a […]

  11. […] of our great state of Maine. I will even get to teach a few of them bass and hope to get some guitar players/drummers in here to round out a little school band which may or may not perform at the talent show […]

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