What happened to the guitar solo?
*** Disclaimer: Impending rant from an aging musician. Not interested? Check out this behind the scenes studio take of the guitar solo from “I’ll Always Take You Back” instead. ***
We have no less than three proper guitar solos on our new album. In addition to these solos we have a collection of notable riffs that are something of a chore to dissect and execute in and of themselves. It should be no surprise, then, that the perceived absence of this rock staple in contemporary popular music leaves me feeling unsettled.
Within the songwriting universe the guitar solo holds a creative space similar to the bridge. They both present a dynamic and aesthetic shift from the verse-prechorus-chorus cycle that is something of a wink to the listener indicating “one more thing…” before we push for the finish line. They both necessitate careful planning and writing such that when executed poorly they leave the listener with the desperate Michael Bolton circa Jack Sparrow urge to get “back to the good part”.
Because of this challenge I will forever be partial to artists who intentionally carve out room in their songs for their instrument to shine.
Speaking broadly as a guitarist who cut his teeth in the early 1990’s through metal, grunge, alternative, and classic rock, I spent much of my youth collecting Guitar Player magazine and feverishly scraping the early internet for tablature. The reason this was necessary was because much of the music recorded in this era is comprised of PARTS – minuscule pieces of creativity that can be reduced to raw mechanics on an instrument. I’m using the word PARTS in direct contrast to the word SOUNDS. By comparison, we currently exist in a music climate defined almost entirely by SOUNDS. Lots of loud, digital, programmed, sounds. Sounds that, if the grid collapsed tomorrow and we were huddled around a campfire, you would only be to recreate for as long as your MacBook Pro could sustain itself on battery life.
As an accessible example, think of the legendary guitar riff in Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child Of Mine” – a riff that is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful, and a familiar rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist born between the years 1975-1988. This is the epitome of a PART. If Slash collapsed from a stroke on stage the performance would necessarily stop because there would be no possible way of continuing without him (in addition to a variety of other more pressing reasons). Conversely, I recently watched a live performance by Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden. There must have been thirteen people on stage at the same time each grinding away individually at what I can only imagine they believe to be sounds of irrevocable importance. I thought to myself “If every member of the audience shut their eyes more than half of this band could spontaneously combust mid-song without anyone even noticing.” Speaking sonically, of course.
The most egregious artistic crime I have encountered, though, was a live performance by Twenty One Pilots at Lollapalooza. At least as far as I could tell, the entire set was performed over pre-recorded studio tracks with live drums and some occasional terrible bass playing. And as I watched, routinely scratching my head in a depressed confusion, the entire audience was going absolutely nuts.
Perhaps this is merely symptomatic of the fact that I have a growing number of years spent on this planet. Perhaps I am culturally stuck in a prior decade, hoping for a return to prominence that may never arrive. Or perhaps I am just bitter because thus far we have been unable to achieve any true commercial success.
But, even if the above statements are true, what I can state with absolute empirical certitude is that there is simply no comparison to the mechanics of a musician who deeply understands his instrument, and the implications of this understanding is visceral even to the untrained ear. Say what you will about John Mayer, and there are many disparaging things that can be said, but as I watched him open with “Helpless” in the Facebook live stream of his Dive Bar tour, the care with which he constructs his tone is undeniable. I see the summation of a cocky 16-year-old-pop-songwriting-blues-guitarist tirelessly working through Pentatonic drills in his parents’ basement like a self-imposed musical boot camp reciting to himself ”…this is my Stratocaster, there are many like it but this one is mine…”
I can only hope that somewhere in the wilderness we have a listener who appreciates how tirelessly we work on our craft as well.