Monday, December 26, 2011

Play it!--Guitar Solos, pt. I

People who know me know that the guitar is my number one hobby.  I've been playing in earnest for over 25 years, and as I always say, I should be a lot better.  I don't currently play any better than I did on the leads of this song back in 2003

I mean, I do ok; and I have a style which incorporates a variation of hybrid picking that gives me my own sound.  But besides a failure to practice consistently, I have always had the serious weakness of not learning songs.  I have always been impressed by people who can learn songs, and famous guitar solos.  While I would always want to inject my own "thing" into any song, I do wish that I could play some trademark guitar parts "note for note".  Honestly, I should just dedicate a summer (I am a teacher, and I get long vacations) to doing this.  Style differences don't matter: after all, Eddie Van Halen famously claims to have learned Eric Clapton's solos this way, and there is no hint of Slowhand in Mr. 5150's playing.

Thinking about this made me want to come up with a list of solos that I would like to learn.  They are presented below, in no particular order.  Some would not be all that tricky, others might take a lifetime.  But if I could play these solos, I would really consider myself an adept guitarist.  To other musicians out there, what are the solos you want to learn?

Ok, let's start out with the white whale.  This is probably unattainable, even if I live to be 106 years old. This duet, "Mediterranean Sunset", between fusion master Al DiMeola and flamenco genius Paco DeLucia can be found on the album Friday Night In San Francisco (which also features the legendary John McLaughlin).  I bought this my first year in college and literally wore out the vinyl listening to it.  One of my best friends was a very talented heavy metal guitarist, who used to play me the latest from all of the big haired, spandex clad wielders of Floyd Rose equipped shred machines.  I would play this piece to shut him up.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is one of my all-time favorite simple solos.  I actually figured this one out while writing this post!  Anyway, it is a great love song by Paul McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed", off his first solo album.  The guitar solo is by Henry McCullough and it is nearly perfect.  To me, a great guitar solo needs to be hummable, and have a melody that either complements or transcends the song in which it is encased.  This is one of those solos. 


Another solo that has always totally transfixed me is "25 or 6 to 4" by Chicago, off their second album.  The solo is played by Terry Kath, a seriously underrated guitarist of the late 1960's and early 1970's, who died tragically in a Russian Roulette accident at the age of 27.  Jimi Hendrix famously declared Kath one of the best players of the time.  It is a sad cosmic co-incidence that they both died at 27.  Even weirder is that Kath's widow later married guitar playing actor Kiefer Sutherland who starred in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon, making Kath's "Bacon Number" 2 (mine is 3).  Kath's fills throughout the song seem to emphasize the urgency implied by Peter Cetera's vocals and the horn arrangement.  The solo is a masterpiece of wah-wah infused energy and passion.  This is one of those solos that is a song unto itself. I know there are numerous YouTube pages out there teaching this solo, but I feel like I need to teach it to myself.  But I will probably break down and use them to get me started.  And I don't know what I will need to do to capture the emotional energy of the piece.

 "Rock Around The Clock" is one of the earliest songs I can remember noticing the guitar on (it was the theme of the tv show "Happy Days" , a staple of my youth).  This early rock n' roll song (it is more of a Texas swing/rockabilly hybrid to me) legendarily caused riots among youths in England in the 1950's.  The solo (which is almost bebop in its speed running through the song's chord changes) was recorded by Danny Cedrone, who died shortly after recording this at the age of 33, due to falling down a staircase.  The speed and precision of this solo takes my breath away every time I hear it.  Cedrone was replaced in the Comets (and in the video below) by Fran Beecher, who I used to see shopping at a local guitar shop when I was a teenager.


Sticking with the rockabilly theme, I have always been impressed by players who pluck the strings with a combination of pick and fingers (as I do).  The following video comes from Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads guitar festival, and features several legendary guitarists.  The song is "Mystery Train", made popular by Elvis Presley.  The vocals are sung by Vince Gill, who also picks a breathtaking second solo.  The third solo is played by British guitar legend Albert Lee.  But the fills and the first solo come from the amazing James Burton.  Burton made his claim to fame as a teenager playing on Ricky Nelson's songs (and on tv).  He was one of the first players to substitute thin banjo strings for the then heavy guitar strings, which enabled him to bend the strings like a steel guitar player.  He later directed Elvis's band (which is where Gill's Elvis reference comes in) and also played with Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. I love the "chicken pickin" on display from all the players, where they pluck the strings in a rapid, staccato style.  The players also expertly mix open strings with fretted notes.  I would feel like a complete guitarist if I could master the neck of the instrument like these men can.

One of the early giants of rock/rockabilly was Gene Vincent.   Along with his group, the Blue Caps, he made stirring, stunning music that was danceable but also had a dangerous edge.  Vincent had a tough life.  While in the Navy he suffered grievous injuries in a motorcycle accident.  In 1960, while on tour in Britain, Vincent was a passenger in car alongside teen guitar hero Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran.  Vincent's leg was injured again, and Cochran perished.  Four years later, again on tour in England,  Vincent stopped at the Air Force hospital where my father was stationed and asked to see a doctor--Gene wanted his leg amputated.   My father turned him away, only to be surprised that the British nurses were all agog at the rock legend limping away.  Vincent died of an ulcer in 1971 at the age of 36.

The guitar on this song is played by the legendary Cliff Gallup.  Gallup played on a number of Vincent's early hit songs before giving up the rock life to settle down in Virginia and play in his church.  Rock legend Jeff Beck (who was turned onto guitar on Vincent's tour of England) has made the study of Gallup's playing his lifelong pursuit, eventually recording a tribute album, and acquiring one of Cliff's guitars. 


Ok, one more hybrid picker.  Probably my all-time favorite musician, if I had to pick, would be British singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Thompson.  While I could go on and on about Thompson (I have over 28 hours of his music on my computer), I will save that for another blog post.  In addition to his deeply sad and moving songs, he can also write brilliantly funny tunes, like the one here.  "Tear Stained Letter", which contains lyrics like "My head was beating like a song by the Clash/ Writing checks that my body couldn't cash" or "Well I like coffee and I like tea, but I just don't like this fiddle dee dee/ Makes me nervous, gives me the hives/ Waiting for a kiss from a bunch of fives".  He can also blast epic guitar solos like nobody else.  The extended solo in this version from the 1980's is a great example.  Honestly, (an alternate version of) this song is a great "shut up" tune to play to shredders who have a narrow view of the instrument.  This solo makes me begin to understand the way that saxophonists in the 1940's must have felt about Charlie Parker. This is some serious blowing!

Finally, for me it is impossible to talk about great guitar solos without mentioning Steely Dan.  Not only were their hits staples of Album Oriented Rock stations when I was growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, but their subtly coded (and not so subtly coded) messages of drugs and illicit sex were quite scandalous when I would figure them out.  Steely Dan featured a revolving cast of legendary studio musicians, which helped make each song sound different.  When I was a teenager I got guitar lessons from a local guitar genius who had studied in LA at the Guitar Institute of Technology.  He was deeply into jazz fusion, and turned me on to the deeper coolness of these songs.  

"My Old School", from the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" is a fanciful story about the group's time at Bard College.  Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (now a Defense Dept. contractor) played the lead on this number, featuring great use of pick harmonics.

Elliott Randall  did the amazing lead guitar on "Reelin' In The Years", from 1972's "Can't Buy A Thrill" record.  Randall was a session player who was also the first guitarist in the debut Broadway run of "Jesus Christ Superstar".   The speed and energy of this solo, along with the call and response style make this easy to hum, and the devil to play!  As I've said before, a great guitar solo is like a song in itself, and this solo could definitely stand on its own.

Finally, "Bodhisattva" (also from "Countdown to Ecstasy") and is a warp speed blues featuring solos from Baxter and Denny Dias.  I never get tired of listening to this song.


Well, there they are.  I have more, but I am running out of room.  And my all-time favorite guitar solo ever (David Grissom on Joe Ely's "Letter to LA" off the "Live At Liberty Lunch" record) is impossible to find online in a version I can share with you.  Please write in the comments about songs with your favorite solos!  And keep on pickin'!

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