Let’s face it. Guitar solos are out of fashion. They’re sneered at as an expression of supreme self-indulgence. They’re about as hip as a square. Having played guitar for eighty two percent of my life and actively listened to guitarists for ninety two percent of it, you have little conception of how much it pains me to say this.
How did we reach this point? After all, we don’t decry solo violinists for their virtuoso pyrotechnics. Who is to blame? I have lots of guitar playing friends and some of them won’t like me saying this, but guitarists are to blame, that’s who. For decades, they’ve been boring us to death with unstructured, formless, interminable guitar solos, which contributed very little to the quality of the music they were contained in. I have a confession to make, too. As much as I appreciate guitar played well, there are just so many guitar players who I cannot stand for more than a few minutes at a stretch (which feels more like a sentence). Like an overly-rich dish, where the music of some guitar players is concerned, I definitely can’t eat a whole one.
This comes down to some misguided thinking, on the part of many guitar players. They mistake what a guitar solo is for and what it is supposed to do. Indeed, some think that a guitar solo isn’t for anything and doesn’t have to do a thing. Others will tell you that the purpose of a guitar solo is to attract attention to yourself, upstage the vocalist and show off, so that you look good. That’s probably the least important function of a guitar solo, in my opinion.
The electric guitar is an enormously versatile instrument, capable of rendering subtle, delicate, elegant shades of tone, or fierce, screaming, shrieking, battle cries. The late, great, guitarist’s guitarist, Les Paul, held that everything sounded good, when played on the electric guitar. It’s an intimate, yet powerful sound. An electric guitar can knock out a power chord that can demolish a house, or a minor arpeggio that can bring you to the verge of tears. You can play florid little flourishes, trills and appoggiatura, with flair, or solid, chunky downbeats with undeniable authority. With an electric guitar, you can produce languid, legato lines, slides and bends, or untrammelled, near-hysterical tremolo. Like the piano-forte, it sounds wonderful when played loud and forcefully, but oh so delicious when played quietly and softly. In the right hands, it can produce a range of emotions from anger and aggression, to bereft sadness, to joy and playfulness, to sombre reverence. It can kick and squeal, snarl and growl, or cry and sing with the most beautiful vibrato applied to a sustained note, or even chime like a bell.
To exercise this vast dynamic range, I like the challenge of playing as softly as I can, seeing how fascinating I can make the notes, but with insane amounts of gain and distortion dialled in, so that taming the beast is hard to do. I also like trying to play with strident force, producing a massive attack, but with an immaculately clean sound. Seeing how long you can sustain a single note, or for how long you can make a chord sound, or looking for the most percussive and shortest sound you can make are all worthwhile pursuits, when developing your guitar playing technique, in my view.
In case you missed my perhaps misguided attempt at subtlety, the title of this article is a statement, not a question. What follows are my views on what is wrong with guitar solos; conclusions I have reached after decades of study. This is my personal manifesto. Some guitarists will disagree, of course, but I hope they at least make some of you re-evaluate your lead guitar playing.
It’s a sad fact, easily verifiable through your own observations, that most guitarists approach the guitar solo with the emotional engagement of a drooling zombie. They just exercise their reflexive tendons and shred until they’re tired. Unfortunately, they tire usually long after everyone else is tired of their shredding. They pour out the same repetitive themes and licks, like so much aural diarrhoea. Aside from their overt facial grimaces, there is little evidence that the guitarist is thinking about anything, in particular.
Don’t get me wrong. The endless noodling that characterizes so many jam sessions is a good gymnastic workout of the hands and fingers and the ad-lib improvisation may even be a rich and vital source of spontaneous musical ideas, worthy of further development, but what the guitarist plays here is not a finished solo. It is student work, in progress; a rough sketch.
The guitar has the potential, easily unlocked, to be emotionally affective. A well executed guitar solo can cause you to feel so many emotions, at a visceral level, because the sound, being electrically amplified, seems to have the ability to reach the core of your being, while other instruments (except perhaps the trombone) lack the power and frequency range to do this so readily.
Even though it is capable of lyrical, vocal-like melody lines and dark, complex harmonies, through its many rich chord voicings, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the guitar is also partly a tuned percussion instrument. You hit it, after all. You can make it swing, drive the beat and consequently it can cause you to “shake your booty”. The percussive qualities of the guitar can be quite sensual and should make you bump and grind. Listen to the sound of the guitar, doubled with sawing cellos, in this iconic track, “Children of the Revolution” by T-Rex:
So what is the purpose of the guitar solo, in a song?
I think that in the case of the best solos, they are there to support the emotion of the song. When the lyrics cause you to think thoughts, the guitar solo is there to make sure you feel them. Consider Queen’s song “You’re My Best Friend”. It’s clearly such a squeaky, joyful, loving little song, with such an adorable lyric that it makes you want to just cuddle and giggle with your significant other. It’s peppered with charming, little, incidental guitar embellishments that support this mood. Then, along comes Brian May with his twelve second solo, two minutes and twelve second in, positively bubbling and squealing with happiness, making you feel the sentiment more keenly than you would have without it. It’s short and sweet – very sweet. Take a listen:
Compare and contrast that to the solo played by Les Paul in this song of benediction, reverence and reverie, “Vaya Con Dios” (God be with you):
Isn’t the solo just lovely? (Two minutes and fourteen seconds from the beginning and barely fifteen seconds in length). Lovely, but arguably no less effective than Brian May’s solo in the previous clip. The solos are doing different jobs, separated by several decades in the recording. They are conveying very different thoughts and feelings and reinforcing the import of the lyrical content with strength and fidelity. In my opinion, both solos work admirably.
Another purpose of the guitar solo is to react to the words and the mood of the song. Consider the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, by Queen.
The lyrics are all about a terrible murder, which is having a profound and depressing impact on a son. There is no guitar at all, in the song, until two minutes and twenty five seconds, where a few dramatic and apocalyptic embellishments are played. By the time the guitar solo begins, at two minutes and forty five seconds, the lyrics have the singer in utter despair. The guitar solo begins, painting an audio picture of a mind in turmoil, leaping from crisis and panic, to anger, to resignation. The range of emotions that this twenty five second guitar solo leads you through are astonishing. If you have the imagination, you can envisage the internal mental state of the person singing the song, through the melodies and phrases of the solo.
Another song with a guitar solo in a similar vein is Pink Floyd’s “Time”:
The lyrics are about mortality and missed opportunity. Most of us can relate to a fear of not getting everything done that we want to complete, before our time on Earth is at an end. The lyrics vividly describe this scenario. Most people would react with a sense of alarm at the lyrical content, when contemplating their own lives, so when the solo starts, it’s as if the guitar gives voice to that internal pain and anguish.
They say that grieving involves five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We could interpret the solo as loosely moving through those five stages, or at least emotions that are in some way similar to these. Certainly, there is a repetition of the highest, screaming phrases, the second phrase being slightly higher and more anguished, which may represent some kind of attempt to bargain. These soaring, searing high notes represent the peak of agony, in the mind of the listener. The final phrases are redolent of acquiescent acceptance. This guitar solo is ninety seconds of sublime, roller-coaster, emotional catharsis – an emotional journey, if you will.
I am almost one hundred percent certain that this model of grieving was not in David Gilmour’s mind, when he wrote (or more likely, improvised) the solo, but it’s kind of how it sounds, to me, or at least you can apply this emotional change model to the solo. I wonder if there was some kind of subconscious emotional release in mind, though. My point is that you can use such a model of emotional states to construct an eloquent, succinct and powerful guitar solo, which develops an emotional response to the song’s lyrics and leads the listener through their own emotional response experience. David might have simply happened upon it, but I think it’s a good way to think about guitar soloing. The guitar solo is a sorbet for the ears, after the lyrics have taken you to a particular set of reactions and ideas.
Another use of the guitar solo, or in this case, lead guitar playing, is to act as a counterpoint to the vocal melody line. The guitarist bounces off the melody to add surprise and interest to each phrase of the song. One of the masters of this answering guitar line is Edward Van Halen, as heard in the song “You Really Got Me”. Incidentally, this song also contains one of the most blistering guitar solos ever. Clearly, it reinforces the theme of the song, which is sexual attraction.
Sometimes, the reason for a guitar solo is simply to provide emotional release. It grants permission for the listener to release the emotional tension built up by the song. Here, the guitar solo doesn’t so much suggest a range of emotions, or lead the listener through them; it simply provides the impetus to open the emotional floodgates. The listener is free to vent what they feel. A great example of this use of the guitar solo is the song “Comfortably Numb”, again by Pink Floyd. The cathartic first and second solos provide a means to release all that is pent up. Incidentally, these solos have consistently been voted “best guitar solo ever” in guitarist magazine polls.
Another example of this genre is the solo from the song “One of These Nights” by Eagles. Have a listen to the solo and see if it isn’t a release of stored sexual frustration and desire (assuming the video doesn’t get pulled from YouTube again by one Eagle or another suing the rest of them).
By way of contrast, here’s one last, long guitar solo (actually duet), that provides emotional comfort, peace and sanctity. Notice the simplicity of the melody and the soft, soothing, gentle way it is played. There are few more re-assuring and refreshing songs than Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”:
When it comes to effective guitar solos, I could cite hundreds more, but I don’t want this blog post to become as boring and predictable as the typical guitar solo. What is noteworthy about all of these examples is the brevity and compactness of the solos, their careful construction, their relationship to the mood and lyrics of the song and the way they surprise and carry the listener along. These are not forgettable, repetitive, meandering, fretboard self-indulgences. These are musically valid statements that support the composer’s or song writer’s aims. They add to the communication with the listener, rather than dilute it.
Is this post simply a jealous rant against those highly skilled guitarists that are so practiced that they can perform feats of fretboard daring? No. Of course there can be bursts of virtuosity in the playing, but I find it much more effective when used sparingly and in contrast to simpler, more memorable, melody lines. The greater the contrast, the more impressive the virtuoso passages seem to be. Yes, it can be impressive that somebody can sustain long runs of leaping, sweep-picking arpeggios or sixty fourth note scales, but not all the time. Refer back to the solo in Bohemian Rhapsody to see how a short flurry of virtuoso playing, set against a back drop of more pedestrian playing, actually produces a sparkling, affecting surprise. You notice it more, because there is less of it.
When guitarists pound out the same emotion, song after song, solo after solo, it’s like being locked in a room with a madman, to me. Imagine being forced to spend a whole week with somebody who is constantly blue, ridiculously and relentlessly happy, or incessantly angry. After a short while, you would want to punch them. There’s something unnatural or disingenuous about somebody that maintains a peak of the same emotion for a long, unbroken period of time, whether it’s happy or sad. Human beings just don’t do that. If they do, they’re quickly referred for psychiatric help. It’s just not natural to sustain the same emotion for any length of time. It shows that they’re not paying any attention to your mood and emotional states and are cut off from engaged interaction with other human beings. That’s not much of a basis for entertaining an audience, is it? People that act this way are emotionally suspect. Long, repetitive solos, played the same way on every song, with the same sound and licks, are just like this. They resemble people that can only express a single emotion.
To my way of thinking, it is important for a guitar player (indeed, any musician) to express a range of emotions, through their playing, over the course of a concert, or album. In fact, I hope I have illustrated that it can be very effective to express a range of emotions over the course of a single guitar solo. This is the problem I have with people that label themselves as “blues players”, for example, who only ever play music that is depressed. Lighten up for a bit. Nothing is ever that bad. Similarly, shredders that only ever sound defiant and angry in their playing are like that bloke down the pub with a chip on his shoulder, who gets drunk every night and wants to fight everybody. These are just not the kind of people you want to spend any time with. If a guitarist takes on that kind of persona, through their soloing and lead lines, they are as tiresome and loathsome as the real-life characters that exhibit these emotions to excess.
There are so many tones and guitar sounds to use, it amazes me how limited the sonic palette of some guitar players is. I agree you should never attempt to use every colour in the box on every guitar solo, but some players take minimalism to extremes. Jazz guitar players, to me, are like painters that paint photo realistic landscapes in just brown, blue and green. Clever, but dull and unadventurous. They just never turn the flanger on, or use even a hint of delay. God forbid that they should attempt to use distortion! Similarly, heavy rock soloists are like artists that paint only with neon paint and in a limited range of garish colours. Country players sound monochrome, to me. There are so many other tastes, tones, textures and colours available – why not use some of them, at least once in a while? Why stick to cliché?
So this is my point: compose the guitar solo. I don’t care how you compose it. You might record lots of sequential takes of the guitarist improvising and cut the best bits together in a composite. Alternatively, you might think it up in your head, in your sleep and simply play it the way you hear it in your head. You might work it all out painstakingly on manuscript paper, complete with all the rules of counterpoint and harmony, or you might simply write it, phrase by phrase, on an acoustic guitar in the studio (if you have the luxury of cheap studio time). I don’t much care how you compose the solo, I just care that the solo serves a musical purpose, makes a valid musical statement and engages with the listener to help them experience heightened emotional states, preferably related to the mood and subject matter of the song. Context is everything. Interminable “widdly-widdly”, show-off notes are not the aim of the game at all.
The electric guitar is maturing, as an instrument. There could be a renaissance in guitar solos, similar to that early period in the sixties when the instrument was still new and innovation in how to play it was still commonplace. If guitar players start to think about their instruments with the mindset of a composer or arranger, rather than as extensions of their crotches, they’ll get better guitar solos and solos worth listening to. Composers and arrangers are already skilled at making the most emotionally affective use of brass, strings and other instruments. As guitarists, if we begin to view the passion, colours and tones that we can produce with the electric guitar as compositional choices within an arrangement, we’ll produce guitar solos that move people, reach them and say something meaningful to them. I think that’s a worthwhile aim.