This rant about the sad decline of the guitar solo in modern rock was originally posted by Brian on his Facebook. Since he’s our lead guitarist, I thought you might be interested 🙂 It is intended to be the first in a series, so if you like it, you can hope for more!
If you asked me four years ago about the state of popular music, I would have told you that rock had died sometime in the mid ’70s, that with a few exceptions, chief among them U2, no one had recorded anything worthwhile since then, and I had no reason to listen to the radio because all new music is crap and I’d be better off spending my time figuring out what classic rock record I should buy or download next. Nu metal, hip hop, emo, pop punk, teen pop, it was all crap to me (some of that is still crap… others not so much).
The other day I was listening to the Fray’s “Over My Head.” I’m sure most people are pretty tired of this song by now, but, since I still don’t ever listen to the radio, the song still seems fairly new to me. Now, I don’t think the Fray is anything special, in fact, they’re probably primed to flame out after one album. And the song is an excellent pop song… no more and no less. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to hear on the radio today. But it’s also the kind of thing you could never hear 35 or even 5 years ago. Despite my insistence that rock music is degenerating, I have to admit that it has evolved.
I’m not really looking to give a complete lesson in rock history, but simply to trace a few elements of rock music that I, personally, like. This is purely my opinion, and I’m working with a strong confirmation-bias. I was going to write a note about this, but I think it’s going to be too much; I’ll have to write two notes. I know you don’t want to read two notes. In fact, there’s probably no one who even made it this far in this note, once they realized the whole thing was more than two paragraphs. That’s OK, because this isn’t for you. It’s for me. Seriously, I’m going to come back and read this tomorrow. And when I do, I’ll say to myself, “Self, this is some damn good shit.” But if you like reading other people’s opinions on this stuff, as I do, you can go ahead and read.
The good stuff will come later, but I’ll use this first note to get one thing off of my chest, the one thing that really sucks about rock, the one area where musicians have been dropping the ball for thirty years. I’m talking about the downfall of the emotive, virtuoso guitar solo.
Both adjectives are important.
Emotive. A lot of people point to B.B. King as the blues guitarist with the biggest influence on rock, and I assume he is the root of a lot of great emotive rock playing. King never steamrolls through a guitar solo with a lot of fast runs of notes. The secret of a B.B. King solo lies in the nuances of rhythm and dynamics, and of course, those bent notes making a sound that no one else can really reproduce. I’ve heard his style described as “pleading,” and I think that sounds about right.
Virtuoso. OK, so, B.B. King in a literal sense is a virtuoso, a master, but I want to use “virtuoso” to mean something a little more specific. Virtuoso guitar playing, at least the way I use the term, means guitar playing of such a high degree of technical skill that few other people could present even a token reproduction of it. A beginning guitarist could at least finger through the notes of a B.B. King solo. It might not sound any good, but it could be done. Not the case for Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.” “Eruption” is virtuoso, and can be played only by a talented and experienced musician. The virtuoso guitar element in rock came from fast blues playing, and also some white hillbilly stuff. It was pretty much all funneled into the rock tradition through Chuck Berry. Berry’s guitar work is that fast, energetic, party-time sound of rock guitar. There isn’t a single decent rock guitarist that doesn’t owe a debt to Chuck Berry.
Forget the really old dudes for a second and jump ahead to the golden age of what we call “classic rock,” the period from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. Here’s a list of names to consider: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, David Gilmore, Jeff Beck, Brian May, Neil Young, Richie Blackmore. All of them first rose to fame somewhere in the 1966-1969 range. There are other great guitarists that appeared around this time; these are just the absolute best ones I could think of during a skim through my iTunes library. Could you put together a list like this for any other 4-year period since then? Actually, if you combine all the years from 1970 to the present, could you come up with 10 new guitarists that could match the 10 listed above? No you can’t. OK, fine. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mark Knopfler, Kirk Hammett, Randy Rhodes, Billy Gibbons, Tom Morello, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, and maybe throw in a couple from the Satriani/Vai/Johnson crowd. I still think my first list rocks harder. And remember, we’re looking at 4 years vs. 37 years.
So what happened? My story goes like this: reaching its peak in the early 1970s, rock guitar pretty much self-destructed, with the virtuoso side killing the emotive side.
A lot of the fault lies, inadvertently, with some of the ’60s players I named above. The popularity of guitarists like Hendrix, Clapton and Page created this sort of cult of the “guitar god.” These guys never wanted to be gods, and were often pretty confused and stressed by the status they attained. When they learned guitar, there was no such thing as a guitar god. Their idols were B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry… these were blues men. Pop-culture god status for a blues guitarist is really against the philosophy of blues, which requires a kind of sympathy between the performer and the listener. To divide a blues show into guitar hero/guitar worshipers would defeat the purpose. The blues man is not supposed to be above his audience. In addition, these were all blacks performing in the pre-civil rights era. Prejudice alone was enough to bar them from creating the kind of mainstream sensation that their followers would achieve.
And so the guitar god was created in the late 1960s, and every up-and-coming guitarist since then has had a “me next” kind of attitude toward the whole thing. People seem to believe that if they can play as loud and as fast as Jimi Hendrix, that means they are Jimi Hendrix. But guitarists without the blues background just haven’t played as compellingly as their predecessors.
And so the ’70s passed without many new guitarists of note. There were some great solos recorded around that time: “Freebird,” “Hotel California,” “Aqualung.” But are the names “Don Felder” and “Martin Barre” really synonymous with guitar greatness? Most of the well-known solos of the ’70s were recorded by ’60s guitarists like the ones I’ve already named. (“Stairway to Heaven,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Layla,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” etc.). The old guard pretty much held steady at the top of the pecking order.
You do start to see something new with Deep Purple’s 1972 album “Machine Head.” Take a listen to Richie Blackmore’s guitar solo in “Highway Star.” Blackmore and Deep Purple had been around since 1968, but this is where heavy metal guitar really started to take a turn. Blackmore was playing really fast now. Faster than god… if god = Hendrix or Clapton. Blackmore was a complete guitarist, not just a speed player. You probably already know this from the “Smoke on the Water” solo. The final triumph of speed over emotion, would not occur until…
1978. This is the year that the first Van Halen album came out. “Eruption” is one and a half minutes of work that guitarists have been trying to match ever since. Once upon a time, every kid who picked up a guitar wanted to be Jimi Hendrix. Since 1978, everybody’s wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Problem is, Eddie isn’t a complete player. The guy can play faster than anyone who came before him, but he’s afraid to play slow! Actually, I’m not being completely fair. The solo from 1996’s “Humans Being” has a lot of gut and very little ego, and it might be my favorite Van Halen solo. But the damage was already done. The new generation of guitarists had already gotten the idea that all you gotta do is play the fastest lines in town and you’re the man. At this point, metal guitar severed its last links to B.B. King and company.
After Van Halen, you get a sea of wannabe hair-metal guitarists like Richie Sambora. There are a few good ones in there, particularly Slash and Kirk Hammet, but most of your ’80s guitar work is trash. Lots and lots of fast notes, and every note is worthless. And the whole time, the the pretty much solo-less punk scene rolls along until pretty much winning the battle when Nirvana mercifully killed hair metal in the ’90s. And that was pretty much the end of guitar solos on the radio.
It was bound to happen; speed guitar can’t survive in the mainstream. It wasn’t the guitar solo pyrotechnics that drew the public to Van Halen in the first place, but rather Eddie’s catchy rhythm guitar parts and the showmanship of David Lee Roth. I’m not sure that the speed playing really pulled that many people to Van Halen. But it definitely attracted the young musicians, and they’re the ones who would direct rock guitar in the future.
Guitar fans have since satisfied their need for speed with cult heroes like Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Dream Theater. (Dream Theater reminds me that I forgot about the influence of Rush on speeding up rock in the 70s… I can’t squeeze in everything.) Guitarists love Dream Theater because they can play insanely fast songs with constantly changing time signatures of 13/8 and other such ridiculousness. And while I respect that kind of talent, I regret the fact that the new school of guitar is doomed to never hit the mainstream. They will always be musicians’ bands and musicians’ bands only. The general public doesn’t appreciate 13/8 time. What they do appreciate is emotion. And sometimes emotion is the thing that gets sacrificed when playing 64th notes.
We’ve reached the point where guitarists have forgotten that music is not a penis-measuring contest, but a way of expression. The idea is to make your listeners feel emotion, not to show them how many notes you can play in 10 seconds. With the exception of Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who always remembers to include some soulful wailing, every speed player seems to fall into the faster-is-better rut from time to time. But sometimes less is more.
Example: If you listen to no other songs that I mention in this note, you still have to go download Santana’s “Europa.” And not the original version, you need the live version from the “Moonflower” album. From 3:34 to 3:52 is one of the best 18 seconds of guitar solo you will ever hearâ€”and it’s all one note. He holds one note for 18 seconds, and the tension that breaks when he releases the bend is so powerful that it carries its momentum straight through the final 2 minutes of the song. There are some fast licks that follow. But it’s all set up by that one note.
Now, I enjoy a John Petrucci (Dream Theater) solo as much as the next guy. And the other day I was driving with my iPod on random shuffle, and Joe Satriani’s “Surfing With the Alien” came on, and I had to resist the urge to speed up to 2,000,000 mph. But if speed and show-off technique is the future of guitar, it really makes me sad to see what’s going extinct: guys like Carlos Santana, David Gilmore or Stevie Ray Vaughn, guys who can play fast, but under whose fingers one note can be worth 1,000. Plus, solo guitar has abandoned the mainstream. The pop kids will go off and play their punky power chords. The hardcore technique musicians will run off to their math-rock. And never shall the two sides meet. Nor shall either of them play anything remotely bluesy.
There are some guys who are just completely off the map, like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, and every once in a while something unexplainably awesome turns up, like Mike McCready’s “Alive” solo from Pearl Jam’s first album. But generally, solo guitar is dying. It’s becoming music for musicians only, and I personally think that sucks.
Anyway, that’s what I don’t like about the path of rock music. Now I’ll start working on the good part for installment #2. Coming god-only-knows-when.