Let’s get it out in the open– guitar solos are boring. Even drum solos– the punchline to every musical parody– are less predictable in their arc and placement than the guitar solo. They’re also rarer, so points for that small mercy.
Some disclosure: I approached musical maturation under the tutelage of Queensryche, early Metallica, and Helloween. 1989 Me had a mullet bigger than an Iron Maiden stage show and pant cuffs that were tighter than an Anthrax bass line. My bands, unlike the pussy pop you listened to, performed long, complex songs. But with six-string interludes so boring I wanted to trade places with those Judas Priest kids. (You get that right? Am I the only one who remembers?) Those metal records are still fun to listen to, but time has not improved their axe-fronted bridges.
The problem with guitar solos isn’t the skill of the musician– there’s no questioning the chops. The problem is that they are so very rarely justified. A guitar solo should occur only when it is inevitable—when there is nothing left to say, lyrically, that can further express the emotional reach of a song. The good guitar solos– and there are only five— are a necessary component to the song and companion to the lyrics because they make us feel the ecstasy, sorrow, or frustration that lies at the end of the vocalists’ journey, the place he/she wants to take us but can’t with words alone.
That being said, here are the five guitar solos worth the time and cocaine they took to record.
1) Queen – We Will Rock You
The payoff to the promise, Brian May’s shredding is the only possible climax to an almost-acapella threat. And if the minimalist approach seems too sedate by today’s standards, listen to the 1991 remix masterminded by Rick Rubin– a man who otherwise exercises good judgment– to learn just how perfect it was as-is. Some things, like a hammer, don’t need to be changed: there’s no design improvement that will make them smash shit better.
2) The Hold Steady – Most People are DJs
Perhaps the Hold Steady were self-conscious of their fourth track off their debut. After all, the heart of the band had spent so much time in the anti-rock Lifter Puller that a guitar solo must have felt both foreign and cliche. What would all the punk rockers at the Triple Rock think of them going hair-band all over their first album? Wasn’t it bad enough that they were gentrifying E Street? And that rhythm guitar sounds suspiciously like Ugly Kid Joe’s 1991 screwball hit Everything About You. Perhaps that’s why this early gem didn’t get more attention, or get played live as often. Like We Will Rock You, Tad Kubler’s frantic and searching shred is the only possible outcome to the chaotic abandon Craig Finn describes with his words if not his voice. You can almost hear the 2000 kids falling in love, gushing blood, and not getting that much sleep through Kubler’s maneuvers on the fretboard.
3) Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain
This wasn’t easy to reconcile. How could 1989 Me dig an androgynous man in heels? And for God’s sake, he used synthesizers! Go join the Pet Shop Boys, you wispy-mustached twink curio! And make sure your marriage to Grace Jones is traditional; take his last name!
Sorry, that’s the 1989 Me talking. I’ve grown.
4) Family For Sale – No Comment
This rare gem is so obscure, I can’t even say for certain what country its from. Possibly Germany, possibly Eastern Europe, quite likely recorded around the time the Berlin Wall fell, it scores big for two reasons. First, unlike their Western counterparts, Family For Sale knew that a good guitar solo isn’t limited to high-pitched dancing on the near end of the guitar neck. No Comment’s deeper octaves suggest a grizzled maturity to what I think is a “Despite everything, I’m glad we’re together” love song, keeping a positive head but without the dreaminess of full-tilt Whitesnake mewing. It may be the most sentimental a band from beyond the Iron Curtain gets. I must qualify all this by saying it’s possible I’ve missed something key in the raspy, ESL lyrics. I would love to be corrected on this point only because it would prove the band actually existed.
5) The Knack – My Sharona (extended album version)
Every good rule has an exception, and My Sharona is it. The extended guitar solo– NOT to be confused with the shorter radio edit or the 1992 “enhanced” edit or anything else more recent– does not add to the body of the song; the body of the song detracts from the solo. The body of the song is the Forrest Gump of rock– catchy on its first listen, boring on its second, and painful thereafter. You can actually feel Western cultural advances losing ground with every “Woo!” Without the triumphant and ringing guitar that separates this wasteland of a song in two, The Knack would be recognized as the most derivative band of their time outside of The Georgia Satellites. But damn, Berton Averre’s playing makes a masterful and soaring piece of rock’n’roll.
Honorable Mention: The Hold Steady – Lord, I’m Discouraged
Two Hold Steady songs? That sounds like favoritism, you object. Allow me to invoke 1989 Me by telling you to shove your judgments up your dickhole. And while you’re impaled on that judgy lance, I’ll explain why The Hold Steady gets two songs while Metallica, may Satan forgive me, gets none.
To begin with, Lord, I’m Discouraged bears all the eerie similarities to Purple Rain that Most People Are DJs bears to Everything About You. I daresay, moreso. I daresay, its a patent fucking ripoff. But to the extent that it mirrors Purple Rain, it also extends the sonic and emotional boom of that song. Instead of reaching the lofty peaks of what Prince wishes could be, Lord wails from the swamp of what Finn knows never will be. Where Prince had love and says goodbye to it, Finn hungered for love and found it unattainable. And Kubler’s guitar echoes every frustration– frustration at being used, frustration at being jilted, frustration at knowing that the narrator would be the better choice than any of the other lovers that were let past the velvet rope while the narrator watched from the outside.
In conclusion, please give Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Phil Keaggy my regrets. But be clear about it– I don’t regret not including them on this list, I only regret they never had a chance to play guitar on a song that warranted their existence. 1989 Me will always have Hot For Teacher, Still of the Night, Eyes of A Stranger, Fade To Black, Keeper Of The Seven Keys, and many, many more. But 2013 Me willl continue to fast forward past the bridge.
Brian Forrest is a freelance garage sale scavenger and salutatorian of the School of Rock.