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What happened to guitar solos?

February 13, 2014 | Opinion | Column | 3 Comments »


Guitar solos used to be a mainstay of rock, and most pop music in general. Now they are almost nonexistent. And on the rare occasion there is a solo, it’s usually only a couple of notes that are tucked in at the end of a song, like the band is smuggling illegal contraband. On the other end of the spectrum, there are headache-inducing speed runs that are meant to display a guitarist’s speed, and not to compliment the song and create a narrative with the notes.

This is a real shame because guitar solos, if applied correctly, can add so much depth and enjoyment to any and every song. And they need to come back.

I’ve never listened to a song where a solo of some kind would not improve it. It doesn’t have to be a face-melting screamer (they’re awesome, though). An acoustic arpeggio can be a sweet chocolaty center to a smooth melodic song. A twangy string-bender can get any cowboy to stomp his boots. And a slick blues solo can lull you into musical nirvana.

A great guitar solo is like an event. When the “Stairway to Heaven” solo comes on, everybody shuts up and listens. And great guitarists can find a way to include a solo into any song. Eddie Van Halen was a master at this. There are very few, if any Van Halen songs in the David Lee Roth era that lacked solos. And each of them feels appropriate and unique.

The thing that truly baffles me with the lack of solos today is the immense group of talented guitar players who litter our fine planet. Guitar playing has come so far, and there are so many avenues to learn, that it has given birth to thousands of aspiring ax-men. Just look up “guitar solo” on YouTube, and you will find a smorgasbord of people who have some serious chops. They may not be totally original, but they can seriously shred. Even the mediocre guitar player today can do things that experts of yester-year couldn’t even fathom.

If a band or artist were able to incorporate solos, they would have a million people ready and willing to play for them. And most would probably do it for free. Sadly, these disciples of rock are born into a world that no longer wants to hear them.

Music has been moving towards more simplistic pleasures and electronic beats that don’t appeal to those with high-musical IQs. Solos now require too much thought for the common listener to comprehend. This has seeped over into rock, or what I like to call “wuss rock”: rock with whiny lyrics, monotone singers, simplistic melodies and no freaking solos. Popular bands like      Fun., Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon and One Republic fall into this category.

The lack of solos is also stagnating the evolution of the instrument. What’s the point of redefining the guitar if nobody is listening? As a result, we don’t have universally acclaimed trailblazers like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton for our generation. The last batch of greats debuted all the way back in the late 1970s and 80s, virtuosos such as Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Buckethead, John Petrucci and others.

I know that there are a few modern guitarists who are very talented, including Mark Tremonti and Andy James, but they aren’t taking the instrument to new places or making noteworthy music.

I’m worried that when the last remaining greats fade away, the art of guitar will totally stagnate and start to wither. We’ll always have the old material, but nothing to look forward to.

Let’s stand up for guitar solos, and not let one of the greatest pleasures in music die. Support musicians who encourage intricate solos, and ignore those who don’t.