I’ve always been a bit envious of lead guitarists, and melodic musicians in general. I’ve never been much of a guitar soloist. Solos strike a chord with me. While I’ve occasionally recorded guitar solos I’ve never really had the skill to keep the story of a song going through purely instrumental means, and I’m not much of an improviser. For no apparent reason I’ve been thinking about key guitar solos I’ve come across in my musical development. I’ve learned to play all of these in some shape or form.
Habanera – Carmen (Bizet)
I first learned guitar when I was about 9 or 10, before I knew I was a left-handed musician. I didn’t enjoy it in the slightest, the learning didn’t ‘stick’ and my main memory is playing My Darling Clementine over and over again. I must have given up after a term, but we had an instrument in the house. I remember picking out this tune on one string. I knew nothing of opera, but I’d watched a lot of Sesame Street.
The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel
I loved the Bridge Over Troubled Water album when I was a kid, and played it all the time. Again I found I was able to pick out the solo, on that dusty guitar, playing by ear. That lovely, keening sound is actually a mix of pedal steel and piccolo trumpet.
Walk Don’t Run – The Ventures
Once I was a teenager I started again, learning guitar from a chap called Rob Knight. By this time I realised I was left-handed and had bought a guitar off my art teacher and re-strung it to suit me. I’d cycle to Rob’s flat after school, guitar on my back in the sweaty sunshine. I believe he was a rock musician from the 60’s. He would print out hand notation of various tunes on fax paper, as I struggled to translate the dots to finger positions and sound. I learned a blues riff or two, and this tune, which I’d never heard before.
I was starting to fall in love with the instrument, but this wasn’t ‘my music’. I suppose pop music was doing its work, simultaneously bonding and differentiating me from my elders.
Michelle – The Beatles
Rob also taught me a chordal solo version of Michelle, which I played for a while, but I was more enamoured of the mellow solo which is played twice in the song. I’d worked this out by ear, and alongside the revelation Rob shared that many songs share similar chord patterns, plus my up-take slowness with musical notation, I discovered I was OK to keep on developing my practice by ear.
I think I learned guitar for 6 months total – he must have been a good teacher to have made himself redundant (or so I thought) so quickly. My technique is terrible and my knowledge of notes on the fretboard still dims the higher I go.
King of Pain – The Police
I loved The Police and had photocopied pictures of them on my wall. My dad kindly photocopied sheet music (it was the chords I was interested in) and I was able to work out how the tunes went. Not too many chords in ‘King of Pain’ but I remember working out how to play this solo (just the song’s melody of course) very high up on the fretboard. To me it seemed an achievement to be playing that high up and having to reach for and nail those high notes. That’s what real lead guitarists do, isn’t it? Play real high?
Reckless – Australian Crawl
I’d linked up with my mate Michael Shipman at high school – he’s still a great player – and we played Cold Chisel and Dire Straits, me on rhythm, him on lead. I never really ‘got’ his love of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin at the time, I came to them later. I really liked playing rhythm guitar, and playing with Michael to get inside the songs, and sometimes under the hills hoist at parties.
If you’re unsure if you’ve got what it takes to be a lead guitarist, then just hang out with a real one for a while.
I still kept learning solos though, I loved the way this passage leapt out of chord shapes and then went from nylon to strat in the coda. Oz-Rock is much maligned as a genre but it’s teeming with great songs and musicianship amongst all those splashing snares.
You’re the Best Thing – Style Council
I loved the Jam and followed Paul Weller’s musical movements with fascination. I had no idea of the influences he was channelling as he shifted style. I bought the sheet music for Café Bleu and worked this out note by note on a nylon-string.
I’m Almost with You – The Church
Speaking of Spanish guitar. Anthony and I bonded over this song when forming our first band. We shared influences we’d been gathering for years.
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – The Smiths
I spent a LOT of time in front of cassette players working out how to play Smiths songs, without realising just how layered Johnny Marr’s sounds were. He tended not to play solos at all but rather built riffs into sonic landscapes for Morrissey to wander wonderously over.
Sweetheart like You – Bob Dylan
All of these solos are by men, even this one, which is mimed by a woman in the clip. The real player is Mick Taylor who was in the Stones for a moment. I’ve always loved the yearning in this piece – the way he bends the strings seems to grasp the deeper feelings that other guitar solos reach for. It balances deep skill and off-handedness in the way the very best players should.
Vicente Amigo – Roma
On reflection I can see how studied and premeditated these fragments of music are. I could have chosen many more, but these sprang to mind, or rather, ear. I do like musicians that can ‘cut loose’ and people who feel free enough to show off without shredding. Django springs to mind. I’m still more interested in chords and what they can do ins symphony and sequence. Maybe that says something about me as a musician. These pieces of music go back thirty years and I still sit in front of the speakers when I have time and try to learn guitar solos. Now, finally the internet can show you exactly how, I find I have little time to give a solo the time it needs, but I still give it a shot.
My friend Luis told me about Vicente Amigo last year. I like the Spanish/celtic crossover on this tune. I’ll never play as well as this, but it’s fun to play along. It’s great to have music made with love that makes you feel like a beginner, it keeps you learning.