The 2011 Great Guitar Solo Spotlight

Echoing last year’s call for discussion about great guitar riffs, this year music journalist Simon Reynolds has called for odes to the riff’s slightly-uncool sibling: the guitar solo. Naturally, you’re all welcome to join the festivities. Unlike the Great Internet Riff War of 2010, it’s a bit of a struggle at first to get people to expound upon how awesome guitar solos are. Consider that entire musical movements have arisen time and again—punk and post-punk, just to name two—that make a point of rejecting the soloing convention. While a lot can be said over the technique’s indulgent, sometimes stodgy nature, I honestly believe that a lot of the grumbling about solos is due to the fact that not everyone can pull them off well.

Really, think about it: a great riff can be just one catchy measure of music repeated for a full minute. A great solo is supposed to be an individual expression, and those by their nature have to be idiosyncratic and nuanced. They require a baseline amount of talent and/or imagination, and furthermore they are often improvised. Factoring all that in mind, even an oft-cited classic solo can have a bar or two that simply does not work for the listener. I for one can rattle off numerous riffs I consider classic, but my list of comparable solos would be much shorter.

Regardless, I’ve never been one to call for the head of the guitar solo on a platter. Having heard Pink Floyd a little too often on classic rock radio isn’t enough to make me want to deny an essential vocabulary element from genres such as blues, heavy metal, and even folk music. Additionally, solos are a handy compositional technique to liven up a song arrangement—the presence of that breakneck riff in Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” might satiate most hungers for six-string mania, but the whole affair would be a little less interesting without that “Fast” Eddie Clark speed freakout after Lemmy shouts out “And don’t forget the joker!”

Now I know I’m jumping into the fray a bit late, so I’m not exactly getting first dibs here. Still, there are a few great solos that I feel it is my duty to highlight. First off, I’m surprised at the relative lack of metal solos/lead guitar lines being talked about so far. This will simply not do. To rectify that, I’m going to up the irons with the full-speed-ahead power of New Wave of British Heavy Metal icons Iron Maiden:

Now this is more like it: denim and leather, harmonized lead lines, and guitars bigger than a battleship. Taken from Iron Maiden’s fifth album Powerslave (the one with the Egyptian theme), “Aces High” is quite possibly my favorite song by the group, and I have to admit that it has more than a smidge to do with me being a history nut. Here, the metal monsters distill the Battle of Britain into a heroic surge of rollicking riffs and urgent energy that makes you feel that you are running, scrambling, flying in the middle of Britain’s finest hour. That sickening dive bomb start to Adrian Smith’s solo creates the sensation of making a sharp turn in a RAF Spitfire in pursuit of the German Luftwaffe, giving way to a flurry of high-pitched notes that are the metal equivalent of exchanging machine gun fire mid-air. The whole sensation is rather invigorating — I don’t know about you, but it sure as hell makes me want to engage in a World War II aerial dogfight.

From NWOBHM to ‘90s alt-rock, I’d be remiss if I didn’t select anything from one of my favorite rock bands, the Smashing Pumpkins. Unlike many of his alternative rock contemporaries, head Pumpkin Billy Corgan was a modern guitar hero who cut his teeth learning licks from Queen and Judas Priest records (and didn’t try to pretend he didn’t when he grew up). Despite his chops, he was very much an alterna-rocker, so his solos would be twisted and fractured affairs that could as likely veer into outright noise as they could into Brian May-style orchestration. The 1995 hit “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is nothing if not angst personified, so Corgan’s solo functions to amp up the intensity of the (already intense) choruses. It’s stripped down to abrupt stop-start riffing and brutal string bends, all run through a pedal called the Fender Blender. Certainly Corgan could’ve whipped out something more frilly or melodic — but it wouldn’t have been right for this song.

Finally, here’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists of all time: Prince Rogers Nelson. For a guy who’s often armed with a guitar onstage, it’s largely overlooked that the Artist can rock, much less whip up one hell of a stringstorm. I suppose that’s what happens when a musician becomes so highly defined by and regarded for his voice, but let’s not forget this is a man who loves Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as much as he does R&B and gospel. Like Hendrix, Prince is a very lyrical player who speaks through his instrument instead of playing merely rigid guitar parts, and like the mighty Zeppelin, the man can write some unforgettable riffs. While the Purple Rain single “Let’s Go Crazy” has without a doubt Prince’s most memorable guitar riff, his solos for the track are equally as compelling. There’s a fluid, melodic solo in the middle of the track that’s certainly cool, yet it’s that suitably orgasmic outro that steals the show. It’s simply awesome listening to the rest of the band drop out so Prince can bring the curtain down all by his bad self with a flurry of guitar-squealing, only joining him for variation on an old-fashioned rock ‘n roll outro lick. Just listening to this song makes me pine for the days when R&B music was as welcoming to guitar virtuosos as rock is.