I love guitars. And I really love a good guitar solo. In the history of recorded music there are so many good ones. We could argue all night about which are the best or the most important. But I want to take a more personal angle. You would no doubt write a very different list, but for me, these are the guitar solos that break me down and start the water works.
A guitar solo is a funny thing. Commonly sandwiched between verses and choruses of sung lyrics, it’s time for the singer to step back and let the music shine. A good guitar solo comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a primal, pre-cognitive scream. Other times it’s a homey, back porch hug from grandpa, all pipe tobacco, flannel and Old Spice. But no matter what shape it takes, its wordless language speaks to the deepest part of us, that part so few things ever reach. In “Yellow Ledbetter”, an outtake from the first Pearl Jam album Ten, singer Eddie Vetter invokes Mike McCready’s guitar solo with the words “Make me cry.” Indeed. Here are the guitar solos that make me cry, even now, after all these years.
I have to start with David Gilmour’s iconic, whammy bar infused Stratocaster manifesto at the end of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” This is as good as it gets. A rich, gorgeous tone, long fluid lines, ice hard flurries, and long shafts of tonal light reaching deep into the chasms of the unconscious – this is what all electric guitar solos aspire to be. Gilmour doesn’t play over the song – he inhabits it. This is the mistake so many lesser guitarists make. They see a guitar solo as an opportunity to stand out and shine. But Gilmour knows better. He knows that a guitar solo is a chance for one pair of hands to lift the whole song into transcendence.
There are many outstanding Neil Young guitar solos, but the one that really gets me the most is the one from “Words”, the last track on his essential album Harvest. Like so many other Neil Young songs, this song is a meditation on the cost of fame and the strange isolation that world adulation creates. With its loping time changes and syncopation, “Words” is one of Young’s most sophisticated arrangements, yet it still retains its rustic recorded-in-a-barn charm. In the middle he builds up a slow solo on electric guitar over a bed of bass, drums, piano and pedal steel. Some critics have compared Young’s guitar work to Coltrane, and no other song makes the point better. The halting, stuttering stops and starts of his lines perfectly embody the uncertainties of any life, let alone the life of a young man on the cusp of wealth and fame in the patently insane world of pop music, a life Young has never comfortably embraced. His confidence in the midst of awkwardness becomes our own.
For sheer minimalist brilliance, let’s turn to guitarist Keith Scott’s work on Bryan Adams’s power ballad “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” from the 1991 Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves soundtrack. Scott and fellow Canadian Adams met in 1976 and began recording together. They’ve been together ever since. In this solo, you can almost feel the trust they have for each other, the way Scott lets each note hang, waiting patiently for the song to shift beneath him. This solo is a perfect example of one of the most difficult things for any guitar player to do – nothing. Wielding silence and emptiness as masterfully as sound and fullness make’s Scott’s solo one for the ages.
At the age of fifteen Neal Schon landed a job as a sideman in an early formation of Santana. It was either that or accept Eric Clapton’s invitation to join Derek and the Dominos. Not bad for a kid. But Schon really made his mark a few years later as a founding member of Journey. Schon’s solo at the end of “Faithfully” is a masterpiece forever schooling guitarists on how to support and stay within the bounds of a pop song while simultaneously elevating its themes to celestial heights. Following a fluid jazz idiom, Schon first anchors the melody, then varies it, then goes completely nuts taking us all with him.
David Lindley is a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire with countless album credits to his name. But his work with Jackson Browne remains his most powerful. In “These Days,” Lindley finds the beating heart of Browne’s paean to lovelorn sadness and lays it bare for all to see. Every time I listen to this solo it seems brand new again. Lindley makes it clear: a solo, like a work of literature, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. A solo is not just noodling around or stringing a bunch of notes, lines and figures together. And a solo should never be about the guitar player and his or her prowess and technique. A great guitar solo burrows so deeply into the soul of the listener that the guitarist and the band disappear leaving only a wide open expanse of beauty, space, light and redemption. That Lindley accomplishes this so effortlessly ranks him as one of the finest instrumentalists of our era. And don’t get me started about his violin solo on “For a Dancer.” Different column.
“Gypsy”, a Stevie Nicks composition that didn’t fit on her solo album, found its way onto Fleetwood Mac’s thirteenth studio album Mirage. Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar solo, echoing the format of their earlier masterpiece “Go Your Own Way”, doesn’t appear until the end. Employing his trademark finger style approach Buckingham creates a cascade of shimmering notes that pour down like stardust and build upon the magic spell that Nicks created with one her most personal and powerful vocal performances. When you hear a song like this you kind of feel sorry for all the other bands that will never in their wildest dreams reach these heights. Buckingham’s solo plays the song out in a long, slow fade. Woe unto the DJ who talks over this solo. I will find you.
The history of pop music is filled with great partnerships and the sub-genre of Americana is no exception, from Buddy and Julie Miller to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. On “Barroom Girls” from Welch’s 1996 debut album Revival Rawlings plays a plaintive and heartbreaking solo that deftly encapsulates the world-weary pathos of this lament – so simple, yet so rich. Who knew two unadorned acoustic guitars could create such a flood of emotion.
Over on the mainstream Nashville side of country music, Paul Franklin’s pedal steel guitar solo on Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” perfectly exploits the inherent ability of a pedal steel to create a shifting, sliding, fading, falling, slippery slope where you can’t find your feet and you fall powerless into the dark heart of the song. I’ve listened to this a thousand times, and never in a million years will I understand just exactly what Franklin is up to. But it breaks my heart every time.
There are others. I could go on. And I know you have yours too. Some other time we’ll argue about “best” guitar solos, or “most important” guitarists. So many of my favorite players aren’t even on this list, like Angus Young of AC/DC, or unquestionable greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. But in the end, the solos that grab me the most are the ones that keep me in the car in the driveway, unable to turn off the radio and go inside. And besides, you don’t want your wife to see you crying.