Recently, we asked you to share your favorite guitar solos. This week’s question is related, and comes from reader Tim Vines:
“What’s your favorite non-guitar solo? I’d always pick the harmonica solo in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’”
James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” has a few good solos—a sprightly organ riff early on sets the mood, and a tenor sax inspires some good-natured hoots from Brown—but the track’s only got one true solo: Clyde Stubblefield’s eight measures of unaccompanied playing some five minutes in. It’s nothing flashy, but you can feel a calm settle over the universe for those 18 seconds, which laid the groundwork for not just thousands of tracks for decades to come but entire literal genres of music, depending on who you ask. Before it starts, Brown tells Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got,” but there’s a newfound verve to Stubblefield’s playing once it’s just him, an echoing crack to each snare, a polish to each skimmed hi-hat. Speed it up, slow it down, loop it for hours, cut it all apart: It’s a force of nature. Sometimes a solo can just be the absence of accompaniment.
I’m generally not a fan of guitar solos, or any solos, I guess. They’re showy, and my roots are in the indie and punk worlds, where showiness was for your political positions, not your instruments. Anyway, there’s a funny instrument at the heart of Belle & Sebastian’s “Mayfly” that I can point to as mild and non-disruptive, but also unmistakably a solo. It comes about halfway through “Mayfly” from 1996’s classic If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s played on a little keyboard/synth from the late ’60s called a stylophone. It’s called that because it’s played with a stylus, and it sounds like a weird approximation of some kind of brass instrument, maybe? It doesn’t exactly sound like anything else. They were a popular toy in the ’60s and ’70s, and that whimsy naturally led them to Scotland’s most whimsical band. And because everything old is new again, a company just started manufacturing new ones (that look old) this year. And they’re cheap!
Buddy Rich was not a trained musician. He began his drumming career as a vaudeville performer, and coming up through those ranks, he couldn’t read music for the life of him. Everything he knew about playing was learned through intuition, and by the time he achieved fame with his eponymous big band, Rich could burn through a chart with atomic-clock-accuracy. Jazz aficionados, though, never gave Rich the respect they gave to “pure” drummers like Elvin Jones or Max Roach—Rich’s music was geared toward the mainstream, for fair-weather jazz fans (some even found his arrangements corny). But no one can deny Rich’s talents, the kinetic energy in his beats: Witness his medley of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” in particular the drum solo leading up to the rousing finale. He improvises mostly on the snare drum, and the stick control he exhibits is nothing short of astonishing.
Considering the trumpet’s centuries of history and iconic practitioners, it seems weird to pick a two-minute solo from a Western as my favorite, but I can’t deny just how important the “Theme From A Fistful Of Dollars” is to me. Not to be confused with the film’s main theme, “Titoli,” this is the incredible piece that signals the final duel of A Fistful Of Dollars. I first heard it at a time when I was developing my own playing voice, and Michele Lacerenza’s iconic performance spoke to me in a way that history’s more famous trumpet masters never had and never will. The brilliant vibrato, the expressive shifts in dynamic and tone, Lacerenza’s transition from delicate slurs and intonations to explosive attacks as he finally reaches the climax and soars into the upper register—it’s one of the most stirring things I have ever heard, and it forever changed the way I play this instrument that’s been bringing me joy for nearly 20 years now.
The guitar-bass-drums rock setup is so prevalent that unusual instruments easily stand out—especially when it’s a piece more suited to a beer-soaked polka band than an ’80s pop song. So I find the accordion woven throughout The The’s inspirational anthem “This Is The Day” mesmerizing, likely the element that has helped the song still sound as modern as it does 30 years later. As we’re led in by some delicate keyboard plinks, the accordion lays in for the first of its lulling, wavy solos during the short song, providing the ideal soundtrack to the 24 hours that could indeed change your whole life. The accordion is so lively, in fact, that the rest of the song—particularly the vocals—is decidedly low-key. The imbalanced dynamic works, because like all great solos, The The’s climactic accordion takeoff at around the two-minute mark is not only a highlight but also the heart of the song itself—leading you to believe that this is indeed the day when things finally fall into place.
With all due respect to George Martin’s sped-up piano solo on The Beatles’ “In My Life,” Stan Applebaum’s gorgeous string arrangement on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Steve Winwood’s pitch-bend synth masterclass on “Valerie” (as well as all the other solos posited by my fellow A.V. Clubbers), there’s only one real answer here: Clarence Clemons’ sax solo on “Jungleland.” Clemons had many stand-out moments in his amazing career with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, whether as the driving force on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” or the sultry saxophone of the oft-slept-on “Prove It All Night,” but none rise to the level of the two-plus minutes at the climax of Born To Run’s closing track. The solo itself seems to encapsulate all the epic themes that have come before it on the record before giving way to Springsteen’s coda. It’s breathtaking and gorgeous, but, hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. How about hearing it from the big man himself, who was once quoted as saying of the spotlight-stealing moment, “That’s one of the classic saxophone solos in the history of the world, if I may say so myself.”
Leonard Cohen’s lifelong thematic preoccupation with the blood and rage of the Old Testament, the romantic capriciousness of gypsy nomads, and his perpetual hangdog sadness about women he’s no longer sleeping with comes together perfectly in “The Gypsy’s Wife,” an anthem to his dissolved relationship with Suzanne Elrod from his 1979 album, Recent Songs. It’s a mournful and violent track—appropriately so for the story of a man searching vainly for his vanished gypsy wife—and anchored in the middle by a Romani-influenced violin solo. The piece begins warmly, with long and drawn-out notes that arch playfully upward only to abruptly grow cold and slowly drop dying to the ground. By being both playful and mournful, the solo captures a relationship that begins with dancing and intimacy, only to grow distant. There were quite a few session violinists involved in the studio recording, which makes finding proper accreditation for the solo difficult. But musician Raffi Hakopian is the musician credited on the album who also traveled with the ensuing tour. It’s as beautiful a piece as was ever written about a woman dancing with a severed head like Salome and John The Baptist.
There’s no pop song more blissfully bleak for me than The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” and nothing sells that sunshine pop depression like the alto flute solo at the song’s halfway point. Since they weren’t Jethro Tull (and thus, didn’t have a full-time flautist on call), the band recruited jazz performer Bud Shank to handle the duties, laying down a solo that hammers in just how shitty and oppressive a New York winter could be. You can almost feel the cold (wood)wind trying to work its way under the singer’s coat to chill his bones, even as he fakes piety and dreams of the California sun.
Keeping with the mandate that every AVQ&A contain some endorsement of Talking Heads or Stop Making Sense, I’d like to endorse Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, specifically the dueling synth solos laid out by Jerry Harrison and Bernie Worrell on “Life During Wartime.” Worrell joined the band after parting ways with George Clinton And The Parliament Funkadelic, where he’d taken these stiff machines full of circuits and oscillators and turned them into expressive, freewheeling voices of intergalactic funk. It’s that dimension that he brought to the P. Funk-worshippers in Talking Heads, where he took the group he once jokingly dismissed as “Stiff, no rhythm, man” and loosened them up with scorching Clavinet lead lines on “Once In A Lifetime,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” and “Life During Wartime.” There Worrell’s bending, soaring notes intertwine with Harrison’s Prophet-5 to create a minute-long synth frenzy so propulsive that it makes you want to run in place.
The tension between the organic and the inorganic was a major driving force in the early recordings of Devo, a handy symbol of the man-versus-mechanization themes in the band’s music. And that battle receives its most literal translation in the second half of the two-part Duty Now For The Future cut “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” when keys and strings face off in a call-and-response battle to the death between brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh. Keys emerge victorious, but it’s an ugly fight: The relative crudity of synthesizers circa 1979 fits the rough-edged Duty Now For The Future to a T, and the machine’s initial volleys in this sibling rivalry are tinny squawks, followed by the revved-up, scale-descending gloat that takes the song to its coda. The members of the band aren’t fans of the way Duty Now For The Future sounds—“He ‘de-balled’ us,” Jerry Casale has said of the album’s producer, Ken Scott—but I’ve always thought “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” sounded plenty ballsy. That said, if you want to hear a version that’s probably closer to what Casale and crew wanted on record, watch this bootleg from their disastrous 3-Devo concert. The spuds’ evident frustration with the glitchy, gimmicky Halloween-time simulcast produces a ferocious take on “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” yet another benefit of the group’s uneasy alliance with technology.
Since Leo already provided the correct answer to this question—Clarence Clemons in “Jungleland,” followed closely thereafter by his solo in “Born To Run”—I’ll go with a slightly more obscure one that deserves some acclaim. The cover of the Cows album Cunning Stunts perfectly mimics an old Blue Note jazz album, right down to the font and dark-hued imagery. The group played a form of bluesy noise-punk that was utterly singular, and still one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. But amid all the squealing guitars and full-speed-ahead rhythms, there’s a laid-back track, “Mr. Cancelled,” that still possesses one of the only times I’ve really loved a harmonica solo in a rock song. In the middle of the riffing and Shannon Selberg’s raspy fuck-you vocals, suddenly the handheld instrument soars over the track, melodic yet ramshackle, maintaining the two-steps-from-collapse vibe of the song while still managing to be downright beautiful. It’s a rare feat for an act as provocative and noisy as Cows, but it puts a beating heart square at the center of both the album and the song.