1. Jimi Hendrix – ‘Are you Experienced?’
History is littered with people who are bestowed with the title of ‘genius’. It’s as much an abused, misunderstood term as ‘celebrity’ is these days. I’m drawn to artists who are auteurs, but at the same time completely hatstand: Picasso, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Yeah…
As Gigslutz readers will know, Hendrix spent most of his brutally short life in this dimension trying to recreate the sounds he heard, freefalling as a paratrooper. He was also not afraid of his sexuality, allegedly receiving a dishonourable discharge for a quick one off the wrist whilst on guard duty.
So, let’s not beat about the bush: this song is about sex. The guitar solo is discordant, out of control, looped backwards by a tape engineer. It is the sound of someone, trying to cop off with someone who is beautiful, yet maddeningly unobtainable. It’s lust, mixed with the sound of a lonely fox. It works because of it’s unorthodox nature. It’s backed up by that chiming guitar and military drumming. It’s the sound of a man finding his place in the world, through the act of making the beast with two backs.
Original, instantly recognisable, sampled to buggery. It is the best guitar solo.
2. Richard and Linda Thompson – ‘Shoot Out the Lights’
Despite being a key figure in popular music for over 40 years, Richard Thompson is unlikely to be the first name that comes to mind when you ask someone for a list of their top guitarists. He is simultaneously eclectic and trend-setting in style, impressionistic and subtle, and yet few below the age of 50 will remember the extraordinary impact that his group Fairport Convention had on the future direction of mainstream rock and pop in the later 1960s.
1982’s Shoot Out the Lights, with a title track of the same name, is as good example as any of a Thompson solo that proves he is as face-meltingly excellent as the best of them. It’s not ostentatious, and it doesn’t run at a speed of 20o0 bpm, but it represents what a solo is in the true sense: a celebration and extension of the song that surrounds it. There’s nothing mechanical or over-polished about this intriguing collection of open-string hammer-ons and bends; Thompson just feels his way up the fret board with a calm and roguish charm, somehow walking the tightrope between nonchalant precision and expressionistic soul.
3. Prince and the Revolution – Let’s Go Crazy’
In 1984 Purple Rain signalled the onset of the reign of the Purple One and sent Prince to his destiny: the realms of rock monarchy. Opening track ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ begins with the preachy “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…“ a sermon that decrees we should live in the present, and going crazy (even alone) is the only remedy for daily existence. Better out than in.
The guitar solo is oft articulated in sexual cunny lingo, a subject deeply delved into by Prince Rogers Nelson on every album released, overtly and (under the) covertly. Here, two minutes forty one into foreplay, the guitar as phallus ascends to passion for 20 seconds before the rhythm steadies until three minutes thirty seconds, when our narrator exhorts “He’s comin’…” for a further sixteen seconds before we are privy to frenetic fret wanking, mono-masturbation and onanistic orgasm climaxing with our hero ejaculating ‘Take me away!’
Prince himself has said the song’s coded message is about the age-old dichotomy between the Devil (the de-elevator) and God, the light and the shade, sexuality and spirituality. As ever, the Imp of the Perverse’s use of metaphwooar is second to none. Amen.
4. The Smiths – ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’
What could be more Smiths-esque than the immortal line “I was bored before I even began”? It’s interesting to ponder if the same notion crept into Johnny Marr‘s head when he was trying to work out what kind of guitarist he wanted to be: he had the ability to be anything he chose, so why, one has to ask, did he so rarely venture into the realm of the guitar solo? Was it a reaction against the order of the day, or was Marr simply operating on a different musical plain?
‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ is, perhaps, as close as you’ll get to a Smiths’ guitar solo in the traditional sense, but even in similar instances, Marr preferred to call them ‘guitar breaks’, and avoid comparison altogether. Why include it here then? Because, whatever the man himself might say, it’s an extraordinarily heightened instance of guitar virtuosity and that both expresses the song of which it’s a part, and accentuates it – often to the point where we now remember the solo before we remember the song.
Johnny can solo, alright; the problem is only that his playing is so surreptitiously complex it’s impossible to work out where he ends and everyone else begins.
5. The Stone Roses – ‘I Am The Resurrection’
A number of great bands may count one virtuoso musician among their ranks; it’s rare to find a band that are blessed with three players as special as John Squire, Mani and Reni in the Stone Roses. Their debut album contains many wonderful moments: the deep rumbling bass line that opens ‘I Wanna Be Adored’; the beautiful arpgeggio guitar part on ‘Waterfall’; the effortlessly cool, shuffling drum beat to ‘Shoot You Down’. But on album closer ‘I Am The Resurrection’ the Roses take things to another level.
After the ‘song section’ ends, the band loosen up for an extended instrumental jam that channels Hendrix, James Jamerson and Clyde Stubblefield and elevates the Roses from great band to greatest of their generation. John Squire takes centre stage, dishing out one distorted funky guitar lick after another, like Nile Rodgers jamming with Jimmy Page. Mani and Reni get in on the act too, laying down a groove that demonstrates why they’re considered one of the best rhythm sections of all time. Together, the three produce the most euphoric coda you’ll ever hear without (or, indeed, with) chemical stimulation. Epic.
6. Guns ‘n’ Roses – ‘Estranged’
It’s safe to say without any doubts that a Slash solo has to be included in this feature. However, the real challenge rests in deciding which one of the Guns N’ Roses guitarist’s to choose. Obviously, classics such as ‘November Rain’ and ‘Paradise City’ figure in our thoughts, while lesser known works like ‘Slither’ (from his time with Velvet Revolver) also come into contention. And how can we ignore ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, which was once voted the greatest solo ever by NME readers?
Well, the thing is, we’re not NME, and we’ve gone for something a bit different. ‘Estranged’ is an enchanting song to say the least, with its haunting tone, epic grandeur and guitar vs piano dynamic. Throughout this nine minute behemoth, Slash has the fretboard of his trusty Les Paul at his mercy; his soloing brings the track together, providing its signature line and serving as the perfect accompaniment to Axl’s soft/heavy vocals and the elegiac rolling piano.
The image of Slash playing guitar is one of the most powerful in rock ‘n’ roll: top hat and sunglasses, cigarette dangling from his lips, and that iconic sunburst Les Paul slung low from his shoulder. Yet somehow his playing carries even more meaning in ‘Estranged’, a song much overlooked in the GN’R arsenal.
7. Dinosaur Jr. – ‘Start Choppin’
These days J Mascis may look like a slacker version of Gandalf, but don’t be fooled by his appearance – this dude still rocks like a motherfucker. Since forming Dinosaur Jr. with Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) in the mid-80s, Mascis has had a big influence on numerous guitarists, most notably Kurt Cobain, who took direct inspiration from the band’s fusion of classic rock with elements of hardcore punk and even asked him to join Nirvana back in 1989.
‘Start Choppin’, the second song on their breakthrough album Where You Been, reached number 20 on the UK Singles Charts in January 1993. The song itself is a typical example of Dinosaur Jr. in lo-fi, Neil Young mode – until Mascis breaks into the first of two solos at 2:18. A howl of distortion and the wail of feedback collide to devastating effect, and the whole thing sounds like its about to explode, before Mascis reins things in and pulls the song back from the brink of collapse.
“When I play a solo I’m just expressing that moment. It can go horribly wrong easily enough”, Mascis once said. On ‘Start Choppin’ you can hear exactly why Cobain wanted this six-string sonic maestro in Nirvana.
8. Rage Against the Machine – ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’
When looking at great guitarists and their greatest solos, Tom Morello cannot be overlooked. Producing a suitably powerful sonic backdrop to the politically-charged songs of Rage Against The Machine is no easy task, and the band arguably wouldn’t be the same without its brilliant guitarist. Not only is Morello essential to the band’s politics and music, he is also undoubtedly one of the most innovative guitarists in the world of music. Unbelievable technique, poise, funk, willingness to experiment, this guy has it all.
The obvious choice for the solo to represent Morello’s pivotal role in RATM would be the one in ‘Killing In The Name Of’, but we’ve decided to recognise another example. ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ is unrelenting from the opening note of its ferocious guitar riff; it’s impossible not to feel a rush when the song kicks in. Once again, Morello finds the perfect sound to accompany the political angle of the song. And when the solo comes around, it’s unstoppable, raising the intensity levels even higher, before returning effortlessly to the guitar riff.
9. Wilco – ‘Ashes of American Flags’ (live in Chicago, 2005)
Imagine Jeff Beck in The Rolling Stones. Or Bernard Butler in the Verve. How about Zakk Wylde in Guns N’ Roses? They all nearly happened but there’s a very good reason they didn’t. Even the tightest of groups are such multi-headed, schizoid beasts at the best of times that the extra addition of a lead guitarist’s ego, let alone an already established six-string titan, would inevitably spell disaster. Except for when it doesn’t.
For their tour behind 2004’s Grammy-winning A Ghost is Born, band leader Jeff Tweedy opened Wilco’s ranks to help fill the void left by the departing Jay Bennett (a key collaborator who sadly passed away in 2009) and to cope with performing the challenging material on that record and 2002’s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from which this cut originates. First through the door was highly regarded avant-garde jazz guitarist Nels Cline. While his ability was never in question, Cline’s fingers dart over the fretboard like a dragonfly on water, his incredible chemistry with the rest of the band came as a surprise. Just listen to how his leads expertly ebb and flow with Mikael Jorgenson’s organ and the rhythm section of Glenn Kotche and the veteran John Stirratt as the track builds to its frenzied climax. Effortlessly epic.
10. Kanye West – ‘Hold My Liquor’
Although Hip Hop isn’t the most obvious choice of genre when considering great guitar parts, Kanye West‘s ‘Hold My Liquor’ contains a solo worthy of mention. Kanye is known for fusing genres together, and this track – my favourite on the Yeezus album – is simply brilliant. The first time I heard Yeezus I was at my desk in my lunch hour – I wanted to pull the headphones out and blast it through the office.
Reviewing Yeezus, the late Lou Reed said of ‘Hold My Liquor’: “And then that synthesized guitar solo on the last minute and a half of that song, he just lets it run, and it’s devastating, absolutely majestic”
Throughout the song the guitar threatens to take over, and when the solo kicks in it hurts my heart. Kanye allows it to almost consume the song, letting it run until long after the vocals have ended. The mighty Mike Dean, who produced the track with West, said that West wanted Yeezus to sound “more like a rock-band album”. This guitar solo proves that the rapper got his wish.