Solos, Soli, Flat Picking, Shredding, Mind Blowing, And Cetera

While explaining to me the merits of John Mayer, my friend, who has not similar but overlapping tastes, said he was first drawn into the sordid world of Try! and Continuum when he heard a John Mayer song on the radio, and it had an actual guitar solo. Music for the past ten years has focused on vocalists and not bands, so a guitar solo in a song on the radio can be cause for jubilation, but a solo good does not a song make.

Driving down the highway yesterday, I tuned into 94.7 as Jackson Browne came on (I think “Running On Empty,” if not, definitely one of his hits,) and his song had a guitar solo. An absolutely lifeless, tepid guitar solo. After that, the station played “Let It Be,” the 1970 album version—important because The Beatles released three distinct versions with three distinct solos—and it was great. Typical George Harrison, carefully choosing his notes, his tone, his contribution fit the emotion of the already moving song. The two solos had one key difference, and it wasn’t the quality of the guitarist. A session musician played the solo for Jackson Browne; a Beatle played the solo for The Beatles.

For the third anecdote composting this thought process, I was recently exposed to the musical wrecking ball that is youtube. I saw videos for chart toppers, cheesy eighties music, a rather terrible band performing “The Final Countdown” (people, a cheap Casio is not the same as the fat synths of Europe,) and an onslaught of guitar clips of shredding solos, fret board gymnastics, blues riffs, finger picking, the works… so many people can play guitar so amazingly, and that is why Jackson Browne’s guitarist failed to impress. Browne, a singer/songwriter, wanted a guitar solo on his song, so he hired a session musician. Once the session man finished, he took his check and went to his next gig with no investment in the final product other than to do a merely good job. At the end the day, he doesn’t do anything he couldn’t already do, as no one would commission a session musician who can’t already play at the audition what he is expected to wax.

In contrast, a guitarist in a band, when it comes time to solo, needs not only to play well, but stretch his own ability, work for a better sound, and strive to be an artist, not an artisan because no one else can do it for him. I don’t mean to rag session musicians (I’ve sung my praises for The Funk Brothers,) rather I’m saying a guitar solo might as well be lyrics to the song. The truly great solos, the ones that make us wave our lighters or pick up our air Les Pauls, have never been about how technical proficiency of the solo, but how the guitarist uses his guitar as his own voice. Just as it makes no sense to hire someone to write a verse for an already finished song, it similarly makes no sense to hire someone to record a solo for your song. Unless you like flaccid solos.