The Death of the Guitar Solo

I was walking to the bank today, toting my “portable digital music player” [note: I’m not putting that in quotes to be trite, it’s just that I neither want to use the ubiquitous i-word, nor do I want to suggest that the mp3 format is the best as regards quality], listening to the song “Shoot Out The Lights” from Richard and Linda Thompson’s same-titled album. Critically hailed when it came out in ’82, it has since faded into obscurity, not helped by the fact that they divorced shortly after its release. I remember seeing it listed in a Rolling Stone magazine (again with the magazines, Cahill, you hypocrite), in a Best Albums of All Time issue in the mid-to-late-80’s. I’d never heard of them, but for some reason, when I see something I’ve never heard of before listed so plainly amongst the likes of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, I just have to take notice.

When I got around to picking it up on a whim – about 20 years later – I liked it, though the production on it is terribly dated [note: I can’t hold this against them or their producer since it was done on a shoe-string budget in a decade of much more heinously, shittily produced albums. And yes, “shittily” is a word I’m making up on the spot. I’m prepared to stand my ground on its use.]. The stand-out of the album is the previously mentioned title-track. It has a pair of guitar solos that remind me of what guitar solos were meant to do: attach themselves to the spirit of the song as an extension of the musician’s soul. The song and the solo are one; the solo extends the reach of the song, articulating something akin to a dialogue with the larger body of the piece.

When I listen to the likes of Link Wray, Tom Verlaine, and other great guitarists, I’m reminded that – as opposed to what took root in the 80’s, which was the Top40-EZ-Radio-Softcore-Metal wankfest we still have today – guitar solos weren’t necessarily about razzle dazzle. Yes, since the Classical period when soloing took root, one of the reasons for a solo was to display the technical proficiency of the player – this cannot be denied. However, technical proficiency and artistic discipline are not mutually inclusive – one does not necessarily carry both traits by developing one.

I suppose I’m writing this because North American mass media is only interested in easily-digestible razzle dazzle. This is why a band such as Green Day was successful; they’re entirely about “lite punk” attitude, the inoffensive appearance of rebellion. Soul is neither required nor condoned. Neither is subtlety. This is why even the “classic rock” radio stations clip off the best parts of songs such as Television’s “Marquee Moon” – it’s simply too long for them. They’ll take shitty and short, thank you very much.

This is not to say that, musically speaking, I’m living in the 70’s, or that I’m some sort of acetic. I honestly don’t have a favourite genre of music – picking one has always seemed futile. I just like what I like. But one thing is clear: with few exceptions, my playlist contains musicians, groups, and styles that will never see the light of day on current FM radio. I was raised in rural areas where, waaaay pre-internet, the radio was the only escape for a confused kid. All I know is that I feel sorry for kids exposed to most of the crap currently out there, and I only hope that the proliferation of independently controlled internet radio stations succeed. For sake of variety. For sake of exposure.


2 Replies to “The Death of the Guitar Solo”

  1. I pretty much gave up on rock some time around 1991 when grunge started peaking — do you have to be depressed to do rock? But now, subjected to my stepdaughters’ American Top 40, I almost long for the days when Kurt Cobain had a head. American Top 40 is so lacking even in razzle dazzle that finding a good guitar lick is about as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. And “shittily” should be adopted as an adverb.

  2. Yeah, grunge. Someone please tell me what Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots ever contributed to music. That said, it was necessary step – prior to grunge, the guitar had all but disappeared until the late 80’s. That said – not that they are classified as grunge – the Pixies and Jesus and Mary Chain got me through college w/ my sanity intact.

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