I don't like guitar solos. I'm not sure when this certainty formed in my mind. I certainly thought I liked guitar solos when I was younger. Well, I certainly thought I liked guitarists when I was younger, and I think that blurred unthinkingly into imagining I liked guitar solos. This struck me recently because the guitar solo seems to have almost completely disappeared from pop music. I'm sure it still hangs around in metal but how often do you hear a chart single - even from a notionally guitar-based indie band - with a guitar solo?
Now don't get me wrong, I love a riff. Hell yeah. A really good guitar riff is great, but as a gorgeous pop hook. Some of the greatest records of the last two decades - 'Richard III' by Supergrass, 'Seven Nation Army' by The White Stripes, 'Acquiesce' by Oasis (I know, I know, I'm sorry), 'Wake Me Up' by Girls Aloud - are stacked on top of gorgeous guitar riffs. But these are pop songs, tricked up in a rock style, and are the better for it.
I was struck by this recently, reading Nicholson Baker's Travelling Sprinkler which meditates very interestingly on pop music and in which the hapless middle-aged narrator buys a $70 guitar from Best Buy and tries to write and record songs. He struggles with soloing. I've never much bothered with it in my hobbyist guitar-plonking, always happy with chords and little flat-picking. I guess it's my age being so much a post-punk music listener. I did like Pink Floyd as a teenager and still like quite a lot of their stuff but, while I can appreciate the technical virtuosity of David Gilmour and I do think he's a gloriously articulate guitar player, fundamentally it leaves me a bit cold. The guitarists I've always really liked are ones who don't really play solos - Pete Townsend, Johnny Marr, Keith Richards, for instance - who mix rhythm and drop in little riffs and move between them without ever luxuriating in an extended guitar solo.
But there are exceptions and I wanted to write about them. What's interesting is that the few guitar solos I like have almost the opposite of virtuosity. One would be Pete Shelley's three-note solo on The Buzzcocks's 'What Do I Get?' which, with supreme literalness, picks out the melody of the verse, such as it is. In the official video Shelley stands virtually motionless as if even offering this solo is a chore.
But there are two other solos that I really do like. The first is George Harrison's solo on the album version of 'Let it Be' (it starts at 1'58"). It's a solo that should probably never have been released. George Harrison had recorded a number of guitar solo overdubs on the song but when Phil Spector put together his mix of the album he used an early, very rough solo that Harrison had probably just laid down as a placeholder until something more melodic and appropriate came to him. Its virtuosity is not show-iffy; it's just a workman musician putting down something intuitive, trying something out. On the single version, there's a rather muddier and slower solo, still melodic (Harrison seemed incapable of not playing a melodic solo), but bogged down by the Leslie effect that turns it into a fairground pipe organ to my ears. I guess the idea is to keep with the 'organ' theme but it sounds to be rather unctuous and picks up the po-faced aspects of the song. What Ian Macdonald calls 'complacent uplift rather than revelation' (Revolution in the Head, p. 338). I can see that and, no, it's not my favourite Beatles song by a long way, but on the album version, Harrison's gritty, grainy, metallic guitar solo seems to me both to toughen up the song and make the sense of acquiescence more hard-won. It's beautifully placed, too. The song appears to come to rest, angelic church organ echo the finality and then Harrison's guitar just erupts into the song. It's so unexpected, so crude, so harsh. Even the little errors in it - around 2'06"-09" his fingers seem to get away from him - make it seem movingly effortful. It does a rather conventional guitar solo thing of slowly working it way up the scale, but it does so not to soar but to find new melodies; the very final little wobbly melody at 2'22" is filled with feeling, not the boring 'woman wailing' tone that a generation of guitarists schooled in Claptonism went with, but something much more confined to the world of the song. Bluesy but still part of a song.
The other guitar solo I love is related. It's Paul McCartney's guitar solo on 'Maybe I'm Amazed'. It's quite a similar song to Let it Be: piano-based, build around a descending bass line, hints of church organ and angelic choirs, but this one is Paul in his Little-Richard-blue-shouter mood and it's probably the rawest song he ever recorded. And he does a solo in it? In fact, he plays every instrument on the song. This is from his first solo album, mostly recorded on a home studio on his farm in Scotland while the Beatles were breaking up. 'Maybe I'm Amazed' was apparently recorded at Abbey Road, though still with Paul playing all the instruments. Paul is, as any fule kno, one of the greatest bass guitarists ever but in fact he had to be coerced onto the instrument through necessity, not wanting to be the guy who stands at the back. He saw himself, rightly, as a front man. So he started as a guitarist and, occasionally, as a drummer. McCartney was his chance to show off his multi-instrumental talents. In some ways this is the strength and weakness of the record; McCartney really needed someone to bounce ideas off, someone to occasionally say no to him. Recording all the parts yourself, the risk is that you keep adding and you try out ideas and you get used to them, however bad, and you lose perspective. You can hear that in 'Maybe I'm Amazed' at 2'05" when he dubs over the verse a series of reggae-kite guitar chops which come close to ruining the song.
But then he has this guitar solo. In fact, to be fair he plays it twice, once at 1'12" and again at 3'05". It's the second one I like the most though you need to have heard it once before for it to work. He's got an effect on the guitar that makes it sound cheap, almost plastic. Google tells me it may be a Fender amp with a little bit of reverb, which I guess is not that strange, but it makes the solo seem modest. The solo has its own little bluesy tune; you could set words to it. The thing that, I'll be honest, brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it is the moment where he repeats a little phrase twice over the song's great chromatic run up the piano at 3'14". It seems to me a solo that is every bit as expressive of longing and loneliness as the lyric and the melody of the song itself. It's aided, in my mind, by the image of this pop genius, alone in the studio, feeling his life falling apart and reaching out to the person he loves through an experiment on an unfamiliar guitar fed through a little buzzy amp.
Someone has got hold of the isolated solo tracks and they're here. It confirms that sense of a technically awkward player fumbling his way towards something graceful and elegance, but it's the lack of sheeny virtuosity that makes it so moving.
UPDATE: I have been mildly inundated* with suggestions of other songs with great guitar solos. Of course, what I say above is an overstatement, though I really do have a problem with virtuosity in guitar solos. I am however happy to agree that the solos on 'Taxman' and 'Something' by The Beatles, 'Pale Blue Eyes' by The Velvet Underground (or indeed Edwyn Collins & Paul Quinn) 'Come Up And See Me' by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, 'I Guess I've Come To Live Here In Your Eyes' by Willie Nelson, 'The Late Great Cassiopeia' by The Essex Green, and 'Rock God' by Roddy Frame are all excellent...
* How can you be 'mildly inundated'? Talk sense, man.