Thursday, November 24, 2005

Holy Guitar Solo!

For a rock n' roll afficionado, nothing beats a good guitar solo. Not just the noodling and squealing that is de riguer in the middle of 90 percent of rock songs, but an instrumental break which grabs a song by the scruff of the neck and takes it somewhere new and beautiful. More than the most impassioned vocals, a great guitar solo expresses for the listener who he wants to be and how he wants to feel.

And I say "he" advisedly. Girls, you want to know how a man thinks about sex? Don't watch how he eats; watch how he plays air guitar.

Here, for my money, are the ten best guitar breaks of all time.

10. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Sultans of Swing"

An upbeat song about a jazz band playing in rough Newcastle bars. At song's end Knopfler takes off into a piece of virtuosity which totally gives the lie to the image of the song's "guitar George" who knows all the chords but "doesn't want to make it cry or sing". Knopfler builds it up into a series of rapid-fire hammer-ons as if to say: "take that, punks". He earns himself a beer.

9. Prince - "I Never Could Take the Place of Your Man"

An unusually modest Prince confesses that, while he "may be qualified for a one-night stand". he's no good for the long haul (though that could just be a smart way to get off the hook). To underline the point he then grabs his pink guitar, which is shaped rather more like a rare orchid than a classic axe, and absolutely nails a lead-out with clever call-and-response parts working towards a spiralling climax and some long, pleading string bends to fade.

8. Slash (Guns n' Roses) "November Rain"

The comes close to being the best power ballad of all time, employing all the cliches of scale and bombast with just enough G 'n R gruffness to cut through the cheese. Slash lifts the song into lofty flight with a long guitar break full of precise string bends and thoughtful, melodic passages. The solo gets reprised after the last chorus, until it all breaks down and the band decides that actually they're going to be Wagner.

7. Roger McGuinn "Eight Miles High"

Not my favourite Byrds song, and I'm not even that enamoured with the guitar breaks, but the sheer "what the hell was that" factor gets "Eight Miles High" in here. There seems to be influences from the mid-60s obsession with Indian sitar music, while McGuinn has explained that he was trying to play like Miles Davis. Trumpet riffs on a 12-string Rickenbacker? Well, the 1960s do seem to have been a more free-spirited time.

McQuinn sounds like he's playing all kinds of notes at random, but is actually fully in control. This was well ahead of its time; the way the song gets more and more chaotic and eventually collapses in on itself presages the Violent Femmes and many other acts who tried to do this.

6. Neil Young "Like A Hurricane"

Hugely influential on 80s American alternative heroes like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior, Neil Young is often credited with pioneering the use of noise and feedback as expressive elements. The raw--or, as his album titles would suggest, "rusty" sound is certainly original. But for me the key attraction is the casual spontanaeity of his playing. Not cultured, jazz-like spontaneity, but a slacker looseness - as if him and his guitar just turned up in the middle of the song and he's going "yeah, might play this note, yeah, might play this one. It'll turn out alright". And it does.

5. Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower"

"Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" have great riffs, but for me this song has the best solos. It's one of Hendrix's more restrained moments, and to my mind, one of his best. There's colourful, rather than indulgent, use of the wah-wah pedal. And while in some of his other stuff he heads off on a wild tangent with a vague promise to meet the rhythm section sixteen bars hence, here the breaks stay short and to the point.

Like the Byrds with "Mr Tambourine Man", Hendrix totally reinevented the Dylan original. You build up a picture of a desert at sunset, smouldering gypsies, and minarets on the horizon. When Hendrix sings "two riders were approaching", you are on that watchtower, watching the horse's hooves kick up the sand. OK, so maybe I have an overactive imagination.

4. Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson (Big Country) "Where the Rose is Sown"

The first time I heard this song and it exploded into the chorus, every hair on my neck stood on end. Big Country's twin-lead "bagpipe" guitar was pioneered on "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire", but for my money it is here that it is used to the most stirring effect.

This is an anti-war song, but the music deliberately provides a soundtrack to the empty jingoism which it is critiquing. The soaring melodies of Adamson and Watson evoke the mythical lone Scots piper leading brave men into glorious battle. Fortunately, the lyrics are strong enough to help you interpret the visceral thrill the music gives you as tragic pathos.

3. Carlos Santana (Santana) "Samba Pa' Ti"

This is actually a whole instrumental song. Nick Hornby reckons that it's the song he planned to lose his virginity to. Things don't necessarily work out how you plan, of course, but I kind of know what he means--this is a smouldering, lyrical piece of guitar playing.

When I worked in a game on the carnival midway in Miami, a lot of beautiful women would walk past. But one time there was this girl who stopped near our game who looked like she'd lost her friends. She was the absolute image of angelic Latin beauty and, looking around herself with concern, caught in a temporary moment of complete unselfconsciousness. I said to Rick, the guy I was working with, "Ah, the young Fermina Daza" (the main female character in Love in the Time of Cholera), and he knew exactly what I meant.

The best thing I can think of to say about "Samba Pa' Ti" is that whenever I hear it I think of that girl on the midway, and whenever I see a girl like her, I think of this song.

2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) "Stairway to Heaven"

Absolute cliche of course. But whatever you think of the meandering, psuedo-mystic beginning to this song, pretty much everyone remains in awe of the massive, piledriving conclusion of thumping drums, guitar and a possessed-sounding Robert Plant. Jimmy Page's solo starts as Plant reminds us that "the stairway lies on the whispering wind". Slipping between major and minor scales, it twists and turns, evoking dark winding hedgegrows, lit candles, and ladies shining white light.

Page knows the value of repetition to build tension, before he bursts off into another fluid run. The solo builds to a wailing crescendo before plunging into that thunderous ending. Led Zeppelin were the band who made pretty much everyone who came after them seem a little like Spinal Tap, and only they could really get away with a song like this. You have to admit, it fully rocks.

1. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) "Tunnel of Love"

Close for No. 1, very close. But in the end Knopfler gets top spot as well as No. 10, and not just because I said in my top 10 songs blog that "Tunnel of Love" had "the best guitar lead-out in the history of rock 'n roll". This is a work of art, where your regular guitar break is a can of paint thrown at the wall. It's fluid, precise playing, relying not a jot on overdriven sustain. Every note counts, and the rest of the band understand this as well as Knopfler.

There's sexiness here. But also romance and poetry, the tumbling-butterflies feeling of fleeting passion. Something you can't recapture--but won't ever lose.

Categories: , , ,


Kevin H said...

Nice; and beautifully written. No room for Joe Walsh or Angus Young on your list? Perhaps I'm biased re the latter, being a big AC/DC fan (pre-1980 Bon Scott era). Hard to pick a fav cos Angus' guitar work is so prominent in all their stuff; maybe 'Whole Lotta Rosie' stands out.

Simon Bidwell said...

Kev, I'm aware some popular choices might be "Hotel California" (nice twin-guitar harmony/stereo effect)and something by Pink Floyd (maybe "Breathe" off Dark Side of the Moon ?? Like you say, no more room in my personal choices. Maybe could have mentioned Eddie van Halen on Michael Jackson's "Beat It".

Amanda said...

Search out some old (pre-Stevie Nicks, thank christ) Fleetwood Mac and have a listen to "Black Magic Woman". There's a guitar solo in there that's nothing short of marvellous. Growly, gruff, elegant, bluesy, and oh so soulful.

Simon Bidwell said...

Sorry, the song I was thinking of from Dark Side of the Moon was actually "Time".

monster paperbag said...

Great list! "November Rain" and "Stairway to Heaven" would also be in my top five. I also like "Comfortably Numb" (Pink Floyd) and "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Queen).

Joe Manak NYC said...

Without a doubt the outro solo on Tunnel of Love by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits is the best solo I have ever heard. I am studying this entire solo and its so darn hard because it is immensely subtle, techical profound and highly sophisicated. Every lick is a challenge to get right; no two bends are the same and the runs fit right over the chords like a glove. But, most of all, as the solo builds up energy, it renders heartbreak as much as any great piece of music composed. Please let me know if you are learning it or can already play it too. Joe Manak, NYC

Zogby said...

Old blog, so you probably won't see this, but I'm so happy to see Tunnel of Love getting some, well, love. I've been playing guitar for years, and have been influenced by a number of different guitarists during my development, but perhaps none more than Knopfler. He's not the world's most technical guitarist - but he never had to be. He's an artist. Every note has meaning, and it sounds like he's telling a story when he plays, not just trying to show off how fast his fingers can move on the fretboard. I can still hum the notes to many of his solos, even for songs I haven't heard in years. It's a hard thing to put your finger on- what makes this particular collection of tones so inspiring, so chilling? I don't know what it is, but nobody in my experience has ever done it like Knopfler did on Tunnel of Love.

Simon Bidwell said...

Comments still get sent to my email :) Longer comment on ´Tunnel of Love is at

It also shouldn't be underestimated how much is contributed as a foil to Knopfler by Roy Bittan on Making Movies and Tunnel of Love in particular. Check out: