This week’s question comes from associate editor Erik Adams:
What’s your favorite guitar solo?
I can’t go classic rock, because that would go against my punk-rock ethos, maaaaaan. (Though I’ve heard that Jimi Hendrix guy does some fine work.) So I’m going to go with the raucous, incredible storm of notes on Dinosaur Jr.’s “Not You Again,” which perhaps some readers will remember being covered by Mannequin Men for this year’s A.V. Undercover. I’m not a fan of lengthy guitar solos, and since this one comes in the middle of a song that only clocks in at about 2:30, the solo itself doesn’t have time to fuck around, and it still feels like it’s about to go off the rails at any second. It doesn’t enter the song gently, but rather feels like it’s trying to drown out the rest of the song. It sticks around for about 25 hurricane-like seconds, then calms down enough for J. Mascis to sing those awesome final lines before it intrudes a bit again.
This is the only time I’ll admit to this, but I absolutely love Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” and even though this is the most clichéd response to this question ever, I love the face-melting extended guitar solo at the end. I can probably hum most of it to you. Please do not tell anyone else that I like this song, or I will lose all my cool-person cred. These days, I listen to a lot of music that’s too soothing for guitar solos because I’m not driving down highways at 80 miles per hour quite as much. Still, it’s always a good day for “Freebird.”
As a punk rocker, I am predisposed to saying that guitar solos don’t do much for me. For instance, the first time I saw Josh’s Dinosaur Jr., when I was 17, I grew more annoyed as J. Mascis soloed for what felt like an eternity in every damn song. But even in my most militant days, I had to stand back in awe at the solo in one of my favorite songs ever, “Tilted” by Sugar. The song quakes with agitated anxiety that segues seamlessly into a complex solo that I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out on my own (unsuccessfully). I know it’s an altogether predictable response from me, but c’mon, just listen to that thing.
Unlike some of my really cool, punk rock co-workers, I love guitar solos. They’re like explosions of pure enthusiasm—big, dumb expressions of rock ’n’ roll spirit. There are really too many great ones to choose from, but I’ll settle on a newish favorite: the squealing solo that brings My Morning Jacket’s best song, “One Big Holiday,” to a cathartic close. On record, but also and especially in concert, this noodling climax basically distills the essence of the band’s appeal—and the joy of rock in general—into one virtuosic eruption. Or maybe that’s just my way of intellectualizing a musical moment that gives me chills every time I hear it.
I’ve always liked the noodly little passage that opens The Grateful Dead’s “Althea,” a song I know about not because I’m a diehard Deadhead, but because of television, because that is the only way I know anything about anything. The solo played through the opening moments of every episode of Sons & Daughters, one of my favorite one-season wonders ever. It endeared me to the way the solo sounds like the chaos of early morning in a household packed with children, which is probably not what Jerry Garcia and company were going for, but is now what I will forever associate it with. If it helps, though, that show got me at least a little bit into the Dead, and I’ve enjoyed several of their studio albums, because I rarely like live performances and am the worst.
Massachusetts’ A Wilhelm Scream is one of the most talented bands to blur the line between punk and metal, offering sing-along choruses and fret board theatrics in nearly equal measure. Few of its songs display this balance as well as “Me Vs. Morrissey In The Pretentious Contest (The Ladder Match)” from 2005’s Ruiner, and it’s the 20-second solo that comes in before the final refrain that takes it all home. A Wilhelm Scream may have solos more daring and intricate than this one, but few are as succinct and memorable.
I had a hard time picking a favorite for this question, but I tend to prefer my guitar solos to be on the bluesy end of the spectrum. Since I have no cool-kid cred to speak of, I don’t have to worry about depleting it by going classic on this one. Finally I settled on the Janis Joplin track “One Good Man” from I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The guitarist on the track is Mike Bloomfield, and he provides appropriately bluesy riffs throughout, but halfway through he basically steals the song from Joplin with his solo and doesn’t give it back, try as she might with those plaintive wails. Bloomfield died at the far-too-young age of 37, but it’s clear from all his session work for other acts and his nine solo albums, he was a magician on those frets. This track sums it up nicely with a funky little blues cut.
Every note John McLaughlin picks, stretches, and spirals on the entirety of his 1969 solo debut Extrapolationmakes my nerves sing. McLaughlin was busy at the time playing in one of the greatest lineups of Miles Davis’ group (Extrapolation was recorded just a month before Davis’ In A Silent Way), but he understandably had far more freedom to saunter and sprawl across his own studio date as leader. It’s not his most auspicious work, but the fire and starkness of his fret calculus on Extrapolation winds me up in a way that even his flashiest Mahavishnu Orchestra solo can’t.
For as long as I can remember, my guitar god of choice has been Richard Thompson, and I’ve never heard a solo from him that rattles the teeth and ignites the heart quite like the Herculean workout he inserts into the various versions of his epic “Calvary Cross.” “I’ll hurt you till you need me,” he sings, and that’s a pretty fair description of the effect this music has on me. In keeping with the tone and subject of the song, it really does communicate pain, and listening to it is the best I’ve ever felt.
Well, I guess I’m going to play copycat to Erik here, since my current favorite guitar solo is also one by Lindsey Buckingham, on “Gypsy” from 1982’s Mirage. The album is rightly maligned (it probably ties Say You Will as worst album by the “classic lineup”), but it does also house some of the band’s best work. “Gypsy” is a heartbreaking song all by itself, written for Stevie Nicks’ solo album Bella Donna while she suffered from the loss of a good friend. Sometimes an intrusive solo can ruin an emotional song, and it’s a testament to Buckingham’s reserve that his solo, which closes out the song, feels more like an extra verse than noodling for its own sake. It’s also brilliant in its minimalism—he only uses about three notes, but slowly introduces syncopation or a rare flourish to give the entire solo a beautiful progression. It sounds simple, but is most likely as difficult as most famous guitar solos. Buckingham is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in pop, and “Gypsy” proves the hype without needless posturing or pyrotechnics.
If I think about this too hard, I’m never going to come up with an answer, so I’m just going to go with the one that first leaps to mind, even though it’s really obscure. Back in the early ’90s when I was doing my time in music retail, I fell in love with the music of a guy named Adam Schmitt, a power-poppy guy who was signed to Reprise but seemed to be heralded only by other record store employees and the occasional music critic. His second album on Reprise, Illiterature, found him expanding his sonic palate a bit, moving well beyond the simple form of the three-minute pop song and getting downright epic on occasion. The best of those moments came in the form of “Three Faces West,” which rambles on for almost seven minutes but just keeps building and building and, at least to my ears, getting better and better all the time, and every time Tommy Keene does that solo, I’m in heaven.