This is one of my favourite album covers. It’s so English, with its field, cricket sight screen, and unprepossessing musician retreating into the background. It’s also one of my favourite albums to listen to. Fred Frith‘s Guitar Solos was released in 1974. It was the first solo record by the guitarist and violinist with the avant garde rock group Henry Cow, and it heralded the career of one of the most innovative and inventive of guitarists. The extraordinary improvised guitar playing, with extra pickups, split fretboards, alligator clips holding down strings, and other means of prepared guitar, created sounds unlike any heard before, and earned the album a remarkably warm critical reception for a piece of experimental music. It was followed by Guitar Solos 2 in 1976, where Frith was joined by Derek Bailey, Hans Reichel and G.F. Fitzgerald, and Guitar Solos 3 in 1979, with several guitarists including Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser.
What was revolutionary about Guitar Solos was that it inverted all previous ideas about how a guitar might sound, and where its position lay in rock and pop music. Guitar solos were never solo – they were contained within the structure of a song. Even if that piece of music was an instrumental, the guitar element was but one part of a combination of instruments working together to a conventional purpose. Frith’s album sets the guitar free from the constrictions of song, from the need to fill a passage between one verse and the next. It is music that says, ‘stop accepting, start listening’.
That said, the guitar solo as commonly understood is a revered and well-established part of the structure of popular music, or at least in the form in which it could be commonly found from the 1905s to the 1980s. Fred Frith himself wrote a renowned series of articles on the art of the guitar solo for New Musical Express in the 1970s. There are numerous lists to be found on line which are boosted as being the top 50 or 100 guitar solos. Most of these I find to be musical abominations (Jimmy Page? Bah!), which mistake bombast for musicianship and excess for excellence. I had been planning to write a blog post on guitar solos that counteracted such opinions for some while, then was prompted to do so by the news this week of an article by David Robert Grimes, of the University of Oxford, in the open access scientific journal Plos One, entitled ‘String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques‘.
Grimes’ article, which has excited some interest in the silly-season press, is a serious work of acousto-physics which argues that electric guitars can sound as expressive and distinct as the human voice. Grimes explores string-bending, vibrato, micro-tonality, fretting force, whammy-bar effects, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, tremolo arms and pick-ups, with reference to the works notables not normally found in physics papers, including Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen.
The key idea is that the electric guitar, and the means that have developed to play it in rock music, uses much the same patterns as the human voice. Grimes writes:
Coupled with the huge array of amplification, effects and distortion options, the electric guitar can yield a vocal-like quality in lead playing, allusions to which are often made in popular culture; in Dire Strait’s [sic] 1979 debut single “Sultans of swing”, songwriter Mark Knopfler refers to a jazz guitarist as being “strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”. Eric Clapton’s thick guitar tone and use of vibrato is referred to by guitarists as the “woman tone”, which he famously contributed to the Beatles’s classic “While my guitar gently weeps”. These are but some examples – An accomplished guitarist’s tone and vibrato can be so intrinsic to that player that their idiosyncratic sound is as distinctive as a vocalist’s to a trained ear.
The implication is that this human quality is the secret of its appeal. There seems a lot to this line of thinking. It is not so much the musicality of the guitar that is distinctive as its vocality. It mimics not simply how we sing, but how we talk and thereby express ourselves. The electric guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, expresses the various-ness and free-ranging quality of human expression, whether strained by convention (as in the burst of a solo squeezed into the three-minute song) or liberated to uninhibited eloquence (as demonstrated in Frith’s masterpiece).
There are limitations to this theory. If the guitar solo is so intrinsic to the sympathetic understanding of popular music, then why has it largely disappeared as a device since the 1980s? Musical fashion has moved on, and to throw in a conventional guitar solo into a piece of music now seems anachronistic, even absurd. The guitar solo was a part of the inheritance of rock’n’roll, and lasted for the period that the generation that created it and the generation that were inspired by them lasted.
The guitar solo came out of rock’n’roll’s country, blues and especially jazz roots. The ensembles of the 30s and 40s playing short songs or numbers in which individual instrumentalists took their brief turn to solo their variation on the melody evolved into the drum-bass-guitar combos that proved best for delivering the propelling beat of rock’n’roll. The archetypal rock’n’roll combo was that which accompanied Elvis Presley, with Scotty Moore playing lead guitar and Presley himself supplying rhythm guitar. Moore cemented the role of the lead guitarist, leading on melody lines, fills and full solos, the complementary voice to that of the singer.
The guitar solo gained prominence when rock music escaped from Tin Pan Alley, bands played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. It was an expression of assertiveness and individuality. Assertiveness can soon lead to vanity, and the excesses of the rock guitar solo from the late 60s through to the 70s, were a product of a medium that now believed in the adulation it received through ever larger live shows. Virtuosity devoid of taste is a poor substitute for genuine musicianship. The best guitar solos were grounded in that subtle evocation of the many shades of the human voice; the worst merely screamed.
Then music moved on from its rock’n’roll inheritance, and the guitar solo became anachronistic (admittedly such news has taken a while to filter through to numerous American soft metal bands). In part it was a generational thing; in part it was the rise of electronica, beats, and a more manufactured sound. In doing so the music may have lost some of its voice.
Enough of such musings. Here are my top ten guitar solos. Not the top ten, please note, which is a stupid game. They are just ten solos that I particularly admire, for how well they work within the confines of the song they grace, yet how they have a substance that lifts them beyond the confines of the song. And yes they all have that human voice quality, one way or another. So, in reverse order….
10. Tarheel Slim, ‘Number 9 Train’, guitarist: Tarheel Slim (1959)
American guitarist Tarheel Slim (Allen Bunn) had a varied career playing gospel, blues and rhythm’n’blues throughout the 1950s, briefly making his make as a solo artist with this blistering rock’n’roll number in which his solo boldly plays just the two notes repeatedly but wholly logicially in the context of the propulsive nature of the song, before breaking free across the fretboard.
9. Bonzo Dog Band, ‘Canyons of Your Mind’, guitarist: Neil Innes (1968)
Perhaps it’s a bit much to include a parody of the rock guitar solo among a listing of my idea of the best of them, but Neil Innes’s painfully funny deconstruction of the pretensions of the form is also a good deal better than most of the examples that it spoofs. It is off-key, mis-played, irregular and tuneless, but it also perfectly complements the absurdity of the song and in its way displays such invention and variety within a short space of time. Everything that can go wrong with a guitar solo is here.
8. Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, guitarist: Jimi Hendrix (1968)
Of course you have to have Jimi Hendrix, and though this is an obvious choice, for sheer musical imagination and ingenuity of technique, this version of the Bob Dylan song has few peers. The solo perfectly expresses the mysterious adventure that the lyrics describe.
7. B.B. King, ‘The Thrill Has Gone’, guitarist: B.B. King (1969)
Grimes’s thesis could be proven with reference to the work of B.B. King alone, a guitarist whose strong bending, vibrato and unique tone make the electric guitar sing in a form no other instrument can equal. This number is an obvious choice, with the imaginative coup of strings in the background accentuating the melancholic musings of King’s guitar.
6. Kevin Ayers, ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’, guitarist: Steve Hillage (1973)
The late Kevin Ayers had a keen eye for musical talent, and attracted a number of brilliant guitarists who tended to shun the mainstream to accompany his whimsically radical songs, evidenced by two of his numbers appearing on this list. Steve Hillage’s exhilarating guitar breaks on ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ counterpoint Ayers’ miserabilist theme, perfectly illustrating the song’s fatalistic optimism.
5. The Coasters, ‘I’m a Hog for You Baby’, guitarist: Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker (1958)
This is perhaps the boldest, most imaginative guitar solo of them all – Mickey Baker’s one repeated note at the heart of this typically sassy Lieber and Stoller composition. How did he come up with the idea? How could the song be accompanied in any other way? Acknowledgments also to Dr Feelgood’s version of the song with Wilko Johnson applying variations on the repeated note theme, shown in this sensational YouTube clip.
4. Slapp Happy/Henry Cow, ‘Strayed’, guitarist: Fred Frith (1975)
Here’s Frith himself, showing how to work a guitar solo within the confines of a relatively conventional song. The unlikely combination of the wry pop of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow’s austere experimentation yielded this chirpy number with an echo-ey, sharp, earthy, almost parodic solo from Frith that, brief as it is, manages to sound both familiar and yet not quite like any other guitar solo you ever heard.
3. Bob Dylan, ‘Tombstone Blues’, guitarist: Mike Bloomfield (1965)
Strictly speaking this is several guitar solos, and each so brief that there ought to be no space for the expression of an idea that the solo is meant to represent. But Mike Bloomfield squeezes in so much concentrated ingenuity into this up-tempo number, providing both relief and commentary on the rapid outpouring of surreal, insistent imagery. The inspiration for a thousand guitar solos that were to follow.
2. The Only Ones, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, guitarist: John Perry (1978)
This is the most conventional of the ten choices, and in a way it epitomises what the standard guitar solo can be. The Only Ones’ new wave pop number with its mixture of romanticism and space fantasy soars into the heavens with John Perry’s inter-galactic solo. The ultimate guitar solo statement, and perhaps the end of a musical era – it’s the most recent solo on this list.
1. Kevin Ayers, ‘Whatevershebringswesing’, guitarist: Mike Oldfield (1971)
I’m not a fan of Mike Oldfield, at least not Mike Oldfield solo. But when he played with others and was a teenager (he was just eighteen when this recording was made) then his original genius is clear. Another example of Kevin Ayers’ sharp eye for talent, Oldfield provides the solo (and the bass too, I think) for this languid number which doesn’t initially appear that it is going to be anything exceptional, but then the guitar bursts into song. It is not flashy, there are no pyrotechnics for their own sake – it simply finds all the right notes, bends them where it needs to, and shows such invention and good taste. Modest, wistful, earthbound yet soaring, rather English in tone, as idiosyncratic as the human voice itself.
(with apologies to Lou Reed, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Bill Frisell, Duane Allman, Richard Thompson, Ollie Halsall and all those others who didn’t quite make the cut)
- Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos is available from Fred Records. You can hear samples from each of the tracks at AllMusic
- David Grimes’s article ‘String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques‘ is available online from Plos One
- The aspirational art of the guitar solo lives on, encouraged through sites such as My Guitar Solo.com
- A listing of the 100 best guitar solos, full of the usual bombastic candidates. I think two make my list (‘The Thrill is Gone’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’)
And here’s a Spotify list of favourite guitar solos, including all of the above and a few more.