I may be part of a dying breed of people who even care about guitar solos. But I love ’em. I play guitar but I loved solos long before I knew which end of the thing to hold. In fact it was the desire to play blues that inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place.
And so for the two of you who may even care, I thought I’d break down what I love in a guitar solo. I’ll use certain solos to demonstrate, but this is by no means my list of favorite guitarists per se (although they’d all be on that list.)
–Phrasing – “Musical phrasing refers to the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music to express an emotion or impression,” saith Wikpedia.
It’s certainly that but it’s more than that. It’s akin somewhat to the way a person talks. Do they stop for breath or do they plow right through? My favorite guitarists allow the song to breathe, stopping at the end of a passage, often very short passages. You may not notice it but it’s there. Two masters of this are Eric Clapton and David Gilmour.
Listen to Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt2.” It starts at 2:11, he plays through 2:15, then another phrase, play, pause, etc. It’s all phrases. It breathes. You can sing it. It’s like somebody talking who stops for breath and doesn’t run on and on. There’s places where he doesn’t play at all. Space. Sinatra’s noted for his phrasing.
This is my problem with the shredders like Van Halen. Great player but take a breath once in a while, Eddie.
–Feel. Duke Ellington said, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.” Well for me, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that feel. I don’t give a shit how technically competent a guitar player is. If he or she can’t convey feel, count me out. This is why I love blues players. Again, it’s all feel. It’s sensuous. Wild thing I think you… move.. me.
Check out Clapton’s intro to “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” from the Layla sessions. It’s all great blues with tremendous feel and of course, tight, concise playing and phrasing.
–Vibrato and bending. Vibrato is that that shaking/quivering of the string that gives it a voice-like quality. Violinists do it too. B.B. King played vibrato because when he first heard slide players he didn’t realize they were using a slide and tried to imitate them.
Bending, of course, is pushing that string so it pushes the note up a couple higher. (Or even lower.) Albert King used to bend halfway up the neck. Jazzers tend to do it less, rockers more, and don’t even try to play blues without it.
B. B. is the master of the vibrato and the man to copy. Everybody learned how to play vibrato and bend from B.B. (He learned it from, among others, T-Bone Walker.) It’s all there in his intro solo to “How Blue Can You Get.”
–Tone. If you read any guitar magazine for any length of time, they’re always talking about tone. Tone is that thick, warm sound or maybe even that brittle, sharp sound. SRV played with the heaviest gauge he could find and had tone to burn. As a dude on one site said, “to me, fat and round are the same – well defined, sustained, loose, wide or well-dispersed, good depth.”
Carlos Santana has tone to spare – warm, with tons of sustain. (Another good thing to have.) Here he is on “Europa.” (Song starts at :10)
–Excitement/Intensity. No, not every solo has to be exciting. But when a song is cooking, I want a solo that’s exciting, that gets me revved up and air guitaring along. And even if the song is mellower, there’s still something charged about the solo that makes me pay attention.
Studio guitarist Larry Carlton is great for this. Listen to his outro solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” (Starts at 3:51)
–Improvisational skill. I’m sticking to rock guitarists here but could easily add in a bunch of jazz players here. But for rock I’m going to go with Duane Allman. Duane has everything all these players have but he could stretch out a solo and keep it interesting for quite a while.
I hadn’t heard “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East in a while. It came on the Jam channel on Sirius while I was driving around the other day. And again I marveled at Duane’s ability to just churn it out over very simple chord changes. (Dickey is no slouch on this number either.)
Check Duane out starting at 1:45. His solo has everything I talked about above – phrasing, tone, excitement, feel. All in bluesy/jazzy context.
Larry Carlton’s solo demonstrates what I don’t necessarily look for – length. The “Charlemagne” solo is 44 seconds long! Hey, if a solo is long, fine but it has to hold my interest. (Duane’s is long but kicks it.) As mentioned, I also don’t listen for some dude that knows the exact right scale to play over the right chords. Unless he’s got the above shit goin’ on he’s just wanking IMHO.
And I am definitely not looking for that guy that can play a million notes a minute. I’ll take Angus Young or even Kurt Cobain over those guys. Unless, blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, that’s my 2 cents on the matter. Feel free to chime in even if you’re not a guitarist. I may be able to play some shit but that doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than anyone else’s. I dug these guys before I could even play. I just didn’t have the vocabulary.