BUT I DIGRESS: Singing (or rather playing) the praises of underrated guitar solos
Wellsir, this week’s edition of the “Uncle Fuddy Won’t Pipe Down” show almost didn’t happen. I can hear the collective groan upon discovering that it did, nevertheless, happen. Sucks, right? Sorry.
Anyway, it almost didn’t happen, but not for the reasons I’m sure most of ya naysayers have in mind. I haven’t had to secretly have a dead hooker removed from my doublewide or been arraigned for stealing a truckload of rhubarb in some time now.
No, this time it was due entirely to not having a single viable topic that sparked my imagination enough to inspire so much as a single sentence. It didn’t much help that when I tried, the entire “asdfg” line of my keyboard only worked once every eight times.
Anyway, as I sat here, bummed to the bejeezis, wondering what the fuck I was going to tell Rich (editor and chief and all things NEPA Scene meister), it dawned on me…
See, once, an eon ago, when I was having a particularly dry period in the realm of tunesmithing (I always hear some effete Victorian era dude with haughty British accent saying, “Smithy! Do pen me a tune?” when I use that term!), I decided I was going to write a song about not being able to write a song.
I’ve always been keen to stretch out when writing music, especially lyrically. My former bandmates and I used to issue challenges to one another. We’d create little scenarios, such as trying to write a song from a woman’s perspective, write a song as yourself at age 5, write a song about what dogs might be thinking about while you’re at work, etc.
So it seemed reasonable to me that if I’m unable to write a song, the best thing I could do about it was write a song about it. And it worked. Actually, it worked much better than I’d ever imagined it would, and the song “Broadcast” came out of it. The only recording I have of it is a really horribly mixed demo that is, to borrow a term from Ani DiFranco, literally “living in clip,” but I consider it one of my best works to date.
Now, whether that’s true or if my bias towards it is due to the fact that it was the catalyst for breaking a very disconcerting and drawn-out bout of writer’s block will forever be a matter of conjecture. There have been opinions to both corroborate and deny both sides of the argument, but fuck ‘em. I love the song.
I always loved challenges like that. If somebody else says, “You can’t do it!” I generally go, “Meh, go fuck yerself, I got nuthin’ to prove to you.” And I don’t. But if it’s me that thinks I can’t do it, I get all huffy and busy falling all over myself to prove I can.
Ferrinstance, on the bike… my buddy Gopher has a superhuman climbing ability. It’s truly uncanny how effortless he makes it appear, almost as though he’s being pulled uphill by magical, inverted gravitational forces beknownst only to him.
I accepted long ago that I would never overtake him on an ascent and that my only advantage was my reckless refusal to give a crap when descending if I wanted to best him. Luckily for both of us, what we’re really into are grueling, long, meandering adventures of exploration and not competition.
But I digress… as I said, I know I can’t beat the dude, but I’ll be damned if I won’t at least try! Even if that consists of me simply trying to keep up. And, every time I do, I improve just a little bit. My tenacity won’t beat his natural ability, but it will add skill to where there once was only the lack thereof, you dig, daddy-o?
So, when I applied the exercise of writing about not being able to write, I assumed it would be just that but, as you can see, true believers, it has, as always, morphed into more of a universally applicable mini-ethos than an adherence to the actual subject matter.
That said, participating in said exercise has led me to recall something more worthy of not only my fingers, but your eyes. So, in grateful recognition of the first half of this installment in inspiring the second, allow me to exclaim…
But wait, there’s more!
Onto something totally unrelated, yet somehow equated otherwise in my convoluted psyche, I was thinking about guitar solos the other day. I’m not sure, because I babble so, but I believe I may have mentioned in a previous installment that although I have some guitarists I prefer over most, it’s guitar solos that I can actually say, “That’s one of my favorites,” about.
See, even players I’ve never otherwise had any use for, or who haven’t ever played anything that would prick up my ears, can surprise me.
Indulge me as I illustrate: Remember the band Scandal? Patty Smythe (not Patty Smith!)? Shootin’ down the walls of heartache, bang bang? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?
Well, I do. More precisely, I remember reacting to the guitar solo in the aforementioned song, “The Warrior.”
As a song, it’s basic pop fodder, albeit better than most, especially considering the era it was born of and its lack of inorganic digitized keyboards (re: nails on a blackboard). But, in general, it’s not totally unforgettable.
But, if I may so bold, please listen closely around the 2:23 mark and you’ll hear what I consider one of the most underrated guitar solos of all time. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
All right, first, I’m sorry you had to see that. Perhaps now that you know what my young eyes were inundated with in the ‘80s, you’ll judge the person I am today less harshly.
But that solo, though! The intro is precisely what the song called for, yet it wasn’t the expected diddling up the scale until you got in key that was so pervasive at the time. Instead, it started in a manner usually reserved for the middle of a phrase and, for all intents and purposes, should have been perceived as abrupt and jarring, but it isn’t!
Instead, it seamlessly leads your ear from the end of the chorus into the rest of the solo with such subtlety, you’re not even truly aware you’re hearing it until the spastic undulations leading up to the final melodic phrase that fades out on a single note.
You’ve been imperceptibly transported from one point in the song to another, all the while your emotions are being groomed to properly accept and understand the breakdown to follow. It’s at this point you actually hear the lyric “shooting down the walls of heartache” for the first time, despite it being repeated countless times before.
The solo defines the song. It’s the lightning bolt that put life into Frankenstein’s monster. The song existed before the solo, but it wasn’t until the solo that the song was actually alive.
And that is why I love it.
Nowhere can I find which of the band’s two guitarists actually played it. A travesty because, whoever it was, their work since then deserves a listen, based entirely on those 35 seconds. So if anyone knows who played it, lemme know. I promise you will go completely unrewarded.
Now, on a more grand scale…
Two years ago, we lost one of the most versatile and expressive guitarists to ever grace us with his playing, Dick Wagner, and it is unforgivable that he goes unnoticed and unheralded by all but the most extreme guitar fanboys, such as myself.
Allow me to illuminate the uninitiated.
First, check out this site dedicated to him and his work.
He has done amazing things. He was all over Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare” (another Alice alumnus to follow, posthaste). He wrote “Only Women Bleed” for Christ’s sake!
That alone is deserving of some sort of medal or statue!
But what elevates him to deific status to me is his work in the original Tim Curry version of “Sloe Gin.” You know, the one where Tim was more than “damn” lonely, he was “fuckin’” lonely, and he wasn’t afraid to say so.
I can’t give a precise location in the song where the guitar work moves me, but 2:24 is a good start.
I can say that even when Joe Bonamassa, whom I adore, plays it, it does not move me in any way remotely resembling the emotions that Dick Wagner evokes. And that isn’t simply due to Joe’s cop-out sanitized lyrics, either. Wagner simply speaks to me with this song in a manner no one else possibly can. Have a listen.
Now, back to Uncle Alice…
The late Glen Buxton has been grievously overlooked (as has the entire Alice Cooper Band, a different entity that “Alice” himself). I intend to rectify that as best I can right now.
Listen. Listen intently. Not only to the solo (around 1:21), but to the guitar throughout the song. The construction of rhythms behind the verse, the subtlety of the crescendo before the chorus, and the tension of the palm muted chords and blaring notes between them during said chorus.
It’s impossible not to be moved to a near anxiety-inducing state by the reserved freneticism of Buxton’s work across the entirety of the song. He is as much responsible for the sinister air of the early Alice Cooper Band albums as Vinnie’s seminal corpse paint and snake. And he should be praised as such.
I also have a thing for Elliot Easton’s masterful continuation of the forlorn resignation to being taken for granted by someone whom you simply can’t refuse that Benjamin Orr’s started in The Cars’ “It’s All I Can Do.”
This was the first solo I ever obsessively had to learn and I still grin like a stoned Cheshire cat whenever I play it. It is more fluid than anything else I have ever heard and, as such, pulls us along with its current. The last two notes are of special interest to me, because it almost seems like he had more to say, but thought better of it, like when you’re dying to get the last word in an argument with a lover, but your better angels know it’ll just cause things to escalate and you just wanna go to bed. Check it out; it’s around 1:55 in.
Finally, since I feel as though I have sufficiently pounded you over the noggin with my personal (yet irrefutably correct) opinion and the fact that there is, in reality, no end to this soliloquy on guitar solos, as I have an unlimited pool of them to draw from jammed into my tiny brain, I will end with what is one of the most hope-inspiring, pro-romance (despite the fact that the content of the song otherwise illustrates the complete collapse of the same) guitar solos known to man.
I give you Thin Lizzy’s “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.”
The interplay between Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham (if I’m asked to pick a favorite guitarist, it’s Scott, every time) is seamless and, although each plays in a distinct voice, they are both speaking the same language.
The feeling this solo raises in me is a mixture of sheer glee, a sunshine and roses on a warm spring day feel, and that twinge of nostalgic regret we all have when we remember fondly a young love that didn’t survive past summer vacation.
It is by far and away the leader in my Top 5 lists pertaining to guitar. The tone, the phrasing, the interplay, the sheer elegance of the guitar solo in this beautiful piece of music has moved me to tears on many occasions, including just now as I listen to it for inclusion here.
Around 1:49 is where the solo that defined and shaped my musical ideals takes place.
As I allow you poor bastards to get back to whatever skulduggery it is you’re going to be forced to complete before you can drink yourselves into a soggy, weeping pile of misery and regret… wait… that’s me, never mind…
Anyway, what I was trying to say is that the thing these and all truly great guitar solos have in common is that that don’t exist simply to showboat the proficiency of the guitarist.
The precious few seconds each of them exists were designed, rather, to complement the whole of the song. They not only make great music better, they can, by sheer virtue of their ability to bring out the nuances of an otherwise unremarkable piece of music, polish the proverbial turd.
I occasionally hear someone say, “I hate guitar solos.”
I’ve never felt more sorry for anyone in my life than I do for those poor, unenlightened wretches.
So go forth and sing the undying praises of guitar solos! Without them, the silence would be deafening.
John "Fud" Zavacki has been a working musician since the age of 15. He owns well over a thousand LPs in every musical genre and erroneously presumes this makes his opinion noteworthy.