These days, solos are like nights out after age 30: they’re pretty tedious if they go on for more than four bars.
Nirvana and grunge pretty much obliterated the virtuoso solo from the lexicon of acceptable rockisms back in 1991 with their weapon of mass lameness destruction, Nevermind, and with good cause: the rock world had been in the grip of hair metal cheeseballs for a decade, and people were getting tired of sitting through songs that should’ve ended a good 40 seconds earlier.
That being said, not all extended solos were wank-fests! Just because a musician couldn’t resist injecting some freestyle fretwork into the back half of their songs didn’t always mean they needed to beat listeners over the head with blazing fast hammer-ons and pull-offs (see: Neil Young, a master of the understated guitar solo). Some of these solos are so awesome, so face-melting, so utterly devoid of cheesiness, we just had to show them off. And some of them just flat out suck, which is also fun to point out.
Most Awesome: Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel – “Maggot Brain”
The 10-minute opening solo that kicks off Funkadelic’s 1971 classic is the essence of everything positive and authentic about the extended guitar solo; in other words, guitarist Eddie Hazel is the Gallant to the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen’s and Michael Angelo Batio’s luscious-locked Goofuses. Famously, and probably apocryphally, George Clinton told Eddie to “play like his mother had just died,” and the rest is history. The entire solo was recorded in just one take, and after Clinton and the band realized how powerful it was, they faded down all the other instruments in the mix to showcase Hazel going nuts.
Most Indulgent: Poison’s C.C. Deville – “Guitar Solo” on Swallow This Live
It’s hard to argue that Poison (and “Cherry Pie) guitarist C.C. Deville suffers from an overabundance of good taste. Sure, it’s hair metal, blustery guitar wankery goes with the territory just as much as leopard print bandanas and troubling alcoholism do, but 11 minutes of it on an official live album? I’d rather sit through a Rock of Love marathon.
Most Awesome: Robert Fripp, period
Much of Robert Fripp’s best guitar work, which spans everything from King Crimson to Windows Vista to the Davids (both Bowie and Sylvian) doesn’t really qualify as a traditional ‘soloing.’ This is mainly because Fripp basically solos through entire songs (see: “The Sheltering Sky”, “Evening Star”). His tasteful runs throughout Brian Eno’s Another Green World standout “St. Elmo’s Fire” do what every good solo should strive to do: accentuate the song as a whole rather than drawing attention only to itself. Kind of the opposite of:
Most Indulgent: Yngwie Malmsteen, period
There’s way too many wanky solos to choose from when it comes to the ‘Steen’s oeuvre, so let’s just go with one of the innumerable from this bloodless performance of “Tocatta” with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Yngwie clearly has more chops than a Houston BBQ, but aside from the obvious technical mastery on display, is anyone really awed by 8,000 plinky, tremolo-picked acoustic notes per minute?
Speaking of wank-masters:
Most Indulgent: Santana – “Game of Love”
The one thing this Michelle-Branch-featuring schmaltz-fest needed was another interminable Santana solo that sounds just like every other interminable Santana solo on record. You know it’s bad when this is a much better alternative in the Santana solo division.
Most Indulgent: Steve Winwood – “When You See A Chance”
The rest of the song is pretty good (that synth tone!), but the solo, aside from being the epitome of early ’80s AOR lameness, is completely unnecessary and overwrought. Sounds like the outro muzak to a soon-to-be-cancelled game show, probably hosted by Steve Winwood.
Speaking of synth tones:
Most Awesome: Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks – “In The Cage”
Like a lot of prog-rock synth solos, this one kind of straddles the line between awesomeness and cheeseball… until 3:40 hits and Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks sends you into space, which scanners show is mercifully Collins-free… until re-entry.
Most Awesome: The Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes – “Bye Bye Love”
Ric Ocasek and co. always knew how to craft a quick, vibrant keyboard solo riff that never overstays its welcome. If Greg Hawkes’ Prophet-5 acrobatics went on any longer, though, you might want to run him over with a car.
Most Awesome: Prince keyboardist Doctor Fink – “Head”
Longtime Prince collaborator Doctor Fink unleashes a torrent of squiggly Oberheim OB synth riffs on “Head”, as Prince sings about unleashing a torrent of squiggly… well, you know. Of course, the Artist Currently Known As Extremely Litigious takes keeping his tunes off YouTube as seriously as he takes forcing 3RDEYEGIRL on the world, so you’ll have to turn to your legitimately purchased copy of 1980’s Dirty Mind to get some “Head.”
Solo Indulgence Lifetime Achievement Award – Runners-Up:
Behold! The Arctopus!
And, of course, the less said about this guy, the better:
And finally, no list of solos would be complete without the one that most expertly straddles the line between cheese and mindblowing. The Daywalker, the Darkness and the Light, The Solo that Shall Not Be Named, You Know Whose: