As a pianist, I grew up listening to the twentieth century masterpieces of melancholy French composer Erik Satie, and my affinity for film score by Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Clint Mansell was never-ending.
But as I grew older, I realized there was a place for my rebel soul amid the circus lifestyle of the dedicated touring rock musician as opposed to, say, the likes of the orchestra where cellists, violinists, and masters of the harp followed the rules. It’s not to say there is anything wrong with orchestral perfection, but the music my rock idols made took my understanding of musicality to another level. It was transcending, with a power equal to the rage of a starving jungle animal racing for a kill.
You know what I’m talking about! The boom of the kick drum, the dangerous scream of every vocal line, and those provocative, steamy guitar solos!
“Guitar isn’t the forefront instrument like it was when guitar solos were more mainstream but when people actually see something like that live it’s engaging, like a magic trick.” Johnny Monaco
Some say rock is dead, and with it the iconic guitar solo has met its death as well. But I say ouch. What a punch in the gut! It’s not true! While I could discuss the matter for hours over diamond encrusted goblets of fine whiskey, I will simply state that the hard beating heart of rock has proven its immortality, and therefore the famed guitar solo has not gone anywhere at all.
But what happened to its undeniable presence? Undoubtedly matters of the rock genre have changed throughout the years, but why do some feel the guitar solo has become extinct? Is it a lost art?
What is the importance of the guitar solo?
In the heyday of the blues era, legends such as BB King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters put a stamp on the guitar solo by morphing the pentatonic scale of Delta blues artist Robert Johnson into a storytelling phenomenon. But it wasn’t until the 70s when rock and roll brought it to the forefront, ultimately perfecting the guitar solo as a tasteful centerpiece in every song.
Consider Jimmy Page with “Stairway To Heaven” or David Gilmore with “Another Brick In The Wall”. Incredible guitar solos that spoke—complete with a beginning, middle, and end. A proper story!
Then came the 80s, and big hair and spandex weren’t the only things that defined the era. The guitar solo took a turn, with perhaps Yngwie Malmsteen taking it to the next level by turning the art of the solo into a competition: who can play fastest, and who can play loudest?
Esteemed rock guitarist Joel Hoekstra is well known for his technique and musical standing in rock and metal; and as he parades throughout Japan as a current member of Whitesnake, I was surprised to get ahold of him! But who better to turn to than one of the greatest guitarists of present day?!
“Guitar solos never really went away,” he says, “but during the 90s people wanted them to. That was pretty typical of our constant fixation on what’s “supposed” to be cool. At the end of the day it’s all about music, and while I don’t need to play guitar solos to make me happy as a guitarist, I saw no point in that cultural blanket statement that they somehow were all crap!”
Moving forward to the 90s, grunge really did smash the guitar solo into an idea of yesterday. Nirvana’s 1991 “Come As You Are” paints just the tip of the iceberg. A no frills guitar solo that had more to do with the effects on the instrument than the flashy guitar licks utilized by other guitar heroes.
Johnny Monaco, Chicago-based guitarist and front-man for pop rock band Enuff Z’Nuff says, “Guitar isn’t the forefront instrument like it was when guitar solos were more mainstream but when people actually see something like that live it’s engaging, like a magic trick.”
Like a magic trick? Well, I never thought of it that way, but what a great comparison. Watching Zakk Wylde on stage in 2011, I was taken aback by his fluidity and intonation.
It was like watching a magic trick. Wylde combines every interpretation of the guitar solo, ultimately creating his own style in tribute to the days of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, and even Yngwie Malmsteem.
Today when I turn on the radio I hear modernized versions of sound likely influenced by the grunge movement of the 90s that pushed the guitar solo out of the limelight. The focus is now on sound effects and sonic shock factors rather than the character of the guitar, which was such a dominating factor.
“It seemed that there was a lengthy period from the late 90s until the mid 2000’s where guitar solos, in the traditional sense, seemed to vanish almost completely, ” says Faster Pussycat guitarist Ace Von Johnson. “They were replaced by a myriad of other things, from hip-hop breakdowns to layers of over produced soundscapes, and other things cementing them into whatever dated tactic was used at the time… Within the last few years, there has been a resurgence in hard rock and metal acts who have brought back the coveted guitar solo.”
No. The guitar solo has not bid us adieu, it’s just not in our faces the way it used it be… unless you know where to look.
Story: Kate Catalina