Who needs clarity, precision and elation when you can be bewildered and terrified?
If a rock song is like a drive along a winding mountain pass on a vintage motorbike, your traditional guitar solo is the stretch of road where something happens that’s appropriate to this terrible metaphor that I no longer feel committed to.
But, if done correctly, the guitar solo could also be the emaciated, scar-covered demon that lurches out from behind a rock, smashes you off the bike with a pickaxe handle and steps on your already-shattered teeth while you lie quivering in the sand.
Here’s a list of solos that fall into the latter category.
The guitar solo could also be the emaciated, scar-covered demon that lurches out from behind a rock, smashes you off the bike with a pickaxe handle and steps on your already-shattered teeth
Marc Ribot. ‘Hoist that Rag’ – Tom Waits
Tom Waits’ crazed, barking delivery and barley decipherable lyrics simply can’t be accompanied by a traditional solo. Indeed it’s almost unthinkable that he would even consider an interlude that passé.
Fortunately, Marc Ribot is a cast-iron genius and here he manages to deliver a piece of guitarwork that somehow complements the artist’s bewildering persona.
He toys with the primary riff, poking at it with a rusty syringe filled with Waits’ own blood, equal parts friend and enemy.
And then, just as you realise that it’s a solo you’re listening to, it’s over. He slides back into the melody as if he’d never left. And the whole scene was just a nightmare that the song would have forgotten by the time it woke up in the morning.
Joe Calandra. ‘Look to Your Orb for the Warning’ – Monster Magnet
Any band… hell… any THING endorsed by Mitch Hedburg (see 5:10 here) deserves a place on a list as important as this one. The comedian, and advocate for the consumption of psychedelics, once referred to the indestructible New Jersey band in a joke, saying “Man, they were heavy, boy”.
And he wasn’t wrong.
In this epic track, frontman Dave Wyndorf sings about what could either be an extraterrestrial visitation or the results of getting really, really arseholed on mushrooms.
His cryptic lyrics are delivered over an ear-blisteringly infectious riff that feels like it’s going to live forever. At one point the song teases that a hook is forthcoming but doesn’t deliver, opting to revert back to the riff rather than giving your ear the break it’s craving. On and on it crunches. Forever.
His cryptic lyrics are delivered over an ear-blisteringly infectious riff that feels like it’s going to live forever
And then, just as you feel like you may never stop nodding your head in praise of the Riff (which, at this point, has earned the right to be capitalised), the song delivers what it promised earlier. Not in the form of a traditional chorus. No catchy lyrics over a heavier, slightly modified version of the Riff. No howl over a fuzz-drenched bass line and change in time signature.
No. What you get is a wailing whiplash solo drenched in the acid-laced sweat wrung out of the leather pants Wyndorf wore at a gig two nights earlier.
You’re given time to recover when the solo segues back into the immortal back and forth of Riff (let’s dispense with the article, these four bars of music is now an entity). The buildup comes again. Will it deliver another solo?
Yes. It will.
And we’re gonna need a bigger solar system for this one.
Adam Jones. ‘Third Eye’ (Salival version) – Tool
I just realised that it’s virtually impossible to write about Tool without sounding like one of their notoriously pretentious and confrontational fanboys.
So I’ll say very little because apparently it’s important to me that I don’t identify as one anymore.
Listen to this song. The whole one. The solo is at the end. Jones’ guitar screeches then growls through the otherwise impenetrable wall of bass and drums. A perfect introduction to the song’s breathtaking climax.
Achieving enlightenment sounds scary as fuck.
EDIT: I just read this again and realised I may as well have written another 300 words.
Andy Fairweather-Low. ‘Money’ (In the Flesh version) – Roger Waters
You know how when you’re at a show and you see a quiet unassuming dude with a guitar in the back, behind the posturing frontman and the lead guitarist slapping the strings with his genitals? Yes him, the guy who’s guitar you can’t hear.
Why is he on stage? Do the rest of the band know he’s there with them? Will his presence be explained has an underwhelming prank on the audience at the end of the show?
Well, if you’ll excuse the romance of the notion, in all probability this guy is the best musician in the band. Or at least that’s what all the older kids will tell you after the show.
You see a quiet unassuming dude with a guitar in the back, behind the posturing frontman and the lead guitarist slapping the strings with his genitals?
I was fortunate enough to witness one of the all time great ‘guy making all the unheard, inbetween-sounds’ guitarists, Andy Fairweather-Low, perform with Roger Waters on his In the Flesh tour in 2001. True to form, the legendary guitarist remained largely unseen, laying down little licks, harmonies, picks and other things too subtle for me to understand.
And then, during the obligatory rendition of Pink Floyd’s crowd-pleaser, the nebbish Fairweather-Low emerged from behind Waters and scenery-chewing leftie Doyle Bramhall II, and slapped out a solo so eccentric, so discordant and beautiful that all I could do for the rest of the show was look forward to the end of it. So that I could buy the DVD and watch those 25 seconds on repeat when I got home.
Tim Sult. I have Discovered the Body of John Wilkes Booth – Clutch
This is the perfect solo for a song about a strung-out, destitute Susquehanna River fisherman auctioning off the bloated corpse of Honest Abe’s assassin.
There’s really nothing else I can say about it.