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Guitar Solos of the Gods
Three epic solos — and then one more
Coming off the back of a previous post — and in hopes of sharing and learning some cool music — here’s a few of what I think are the best live guitar solos of all time. Got others you think I should know about? That’s what the comments are for.
Note: I like solos that are relevant and musical. I want some soul. I actively dislike “shredding”, the metal practice of whacking up and down mixolydian arpeggios as quickly as possible, or fusion artists playing jazz scales to the point where it sounds like the fretboard’s on fire and they’re trying to put it out with their fingers. This is an example of what I was talking about in another post: someone shared in the comments a quote from Debussy — “Music is the space between the notes”.
Do stick around for the second bonus at the end… one of the themes of this so-called post is musicians enjoying each other, and it’s really sweet.
Dire Straits — Tunnel of Love, 1985
If I had to list one favorite album of all time, it might be Making Movies by Dire Straits. The freaking hours I spent try to learn those songs note-for-note off the record, before you could go on the Internet and find five transcriptions in two seconds — and so you had to sit there with a cassette and go play/rewind/play/rewind/play/rewind until the tape eventually snapped. I still almost always play without a plectrum to this day.
I can’t say for sure, because I believe they played more than one night, but I saw the band at the Wembley Arena in 1985, so there’s a decent chance I’m out there in the audience. Speaking of which — look at them: happily clapping and dancing along throughout a five-minute guitar solo. You’d be pressed to find people who’d do that even now, but it was pretty extraordinary then too, given what most 80s music was like (and I liked a lot of that, too). These aren’t middle-aged musos but actual teenagers. John Illsley on bass is doing the same, dancing along, well-aware that Knopfler’s killing it and letting him do his thing.
If you’re impatient, the main solo starts at about ten minutes in. Or ya could just sit and listen to the whole damned song, because there’s stellar work before that too and the reason why Knopfler’s the best guitarist in the world is his solos don’t sit on top of the song: they’re the song. Makes me think again of that Frank Lloyd Wright quote about architecture, and how best to design a house… so it’s of the hill, not on it.
David Gilmour — Comfortably Numb
I know, obvious choice. I’m not actually a huge Floyd fan: I don’t mind a few tracks, but I’m not someone who’s listened to Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here two million times. Gilmour, however, is amazing. He knows exactly what notes not to play, and the ones he does play… his touch and tone are beautiful.
There is so much hidden stuff going on with guitarists who can play like this — partial muting with the right palm, pinching the string to get harmonics, varying the intensity of pressure in the fingers of the left hand to govern the tone of each note — but they make it look effortless; just as you’d have to be a guitar nerd to notice the hybrid-picking, double-stops and two-finger bends that Knopfler spreads throughout the solo above, somehow without making it sound like country.
Speaking of not-playing notes, my pal Howard and I were at the first ever series of gigs Eric Clapton ever did at the Royal Albert Hall. When they started playing we were so psyched that we were finally seeing Clapton live (a wholly different experience to hearing him on record) that it took a couple of minutes for us to realize that Phil Collins was on drums, and the rhythm guitarist was… Mark Knopfler. Something we both remember very clearly was a magical moment in a solo where Clapton was in the middle of a series of licks, about to play another, and instead… just left it. Ran his fingers down the strings instead, for texture. Then went back to playing.
The gap made all the difference. That’s what you get live, amongst real musicians.
One of my favorite things about this video is when, early into the legendary solo, there’s a cut to the drummer, who’s grinning his head off as if thinking — “I’m sitting here doing this, while he’s doing that, and everything is fucking awesome.’
Prince — Play That Funky Music
The people who realize what an astonishing guitarist Prince was tend to cite the solo for While My Guitar Gently Weeps in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gig. And hell yes, it’s great. But the one here, about a minute and a half in… whoa. He rips back and forth through three genres in a couple of minutes, and meanwhile adds unbelievable texture and joy to a performance that was already stellar. Dude was like some kind of elemental musical spirit, and — in common with the other videos here — I love the fact that the other musicians are so clearly loving it too.
BONUS: Dire Straits — Brothers in Arms 1988
Yes it’s Knopfler again, deal with it. This whole performance at the Concert for Nelson Mandela is superb, but the end solo (starting about 4:40) gives me chills. If you’ve got Eric freakin’ Clapton riding shotgun and even he seems to know his job right now is to just stand at the back and play the chords, because this is a moment, then you’ve got it going on.
Yes, these are all very “middle-aged white guy” choices, but you know what? I’m a middle-aged white guy. I would have loved to have included Joanna Connor or Joanne Shaw Taylor on the list, for just two examples, but couldn’t find a performance for either that truly nailed it to the mast.
So, what have I missed. Why am I wrong about everything, as usual?
Note: they have to be live. Angus Young does a great, compact and percussive solo in the studio, but twiddles about for hours on stage — and if you’re there it’s fun in the moment, but after the fact it just seems to go on forever. I’m talking about relevant and electrifyingly good performances out there in front of people… with no retakes and no safety net. Show me.
This warms my heart, and is one of the sweetest videos I’ve ever seen. A not-young Mark Knopfler and Brian Johnson — singer for AC/DC, ostensively a very different kind of band to Dire Straits — meet up at a common stamping ground to wander around and chat about the Spanish City at Whitley Bay, inspiration for the first song in this post. I especially love that all the people around them have no idea that they’re in the presence of members of two of the greatest bands of all time.
And that’s always true. Those two seventy year-old women in the corner of the tea shop, or that pair of octogenarian codgers in the pub, who got in the way when you went to the bar? They starred in their own lives, whatever they involved. These people did things and withstood stuff and they’re still standing.
Give them respect. That’ll be you, soon.