Some of my favorite guitar playing
Sean here from Zuffalo. I’d like to share some of my favourite guitar solos, although calling a lot of these examples lead guitar might be more accurate. These are formative moments that made me want to keep playing. There have been times when I have been completely uninspired by the idea of being a lead guitarist, and years have gone by where I have barely touched the instrument. But here are a few examples of guitarists reminding me why I first became interested when I was a teenager watching Led Zeppelin DVD’s in my parent’s basement. These are just my silly opinions, and they’re written in no particular order. There is no such thing as the best solo, or the best musician, because everything is happening all the time. This list represents guitar playing that I continually come back to whenever I lose the plot.
Neil Young’s solo on “Cinnamon Girl”
If I ever feel clueless as a guitar player, I always come back to Neil. In particular, I come back to this song. At 2:06 in the song, Neil rips what is essentially a one note solo, then takes a little break and does it again as the chords swing around the horn once more. Immediately after Neil tears into that great guttural riff at the end that really put drop D tuning on the map for me. The electric guitar can be delightfully dumb sometimes, and slamming out that drop D chord with a loud tube amp always feels good, and I’m pretty sure Neil knows it. He is probably the most inspiring lead guitarist for me as a player over the years. I love the intensity and the lack of technical precision, which always just seems more fun than precise execution. For me, rock music is for fun, and I have fun every time I hear Neil use that battered black Les Paul to tear into a solo. He doesn’t even need two notes to hold my attention.
For ten years I played lead guitar in a garage soul band called The Wedding Band on the West Coast, and we sometimes played “Louie Louie” once in every set (we always played three sets). A good friend of mine was usually in the audience, and I would rip a one note solo inspired by Cinnamon Girl which never failed to make him laugh uproariously. For me there is no better reaction to something I play than laughter. Whenever I am truly enjoying a band, my reaction is to laugh. In the past some people have thought I was laughing at the band, but that is almost never the case (although I have laughed at a band that took itself so seriously that it became a Spinal Tap-esque parody of itself). I love how music is the result of hundred (or thousands) of tiny little decisions, and my laughter is due to the sheer delight I feel that the band, in that moment, made that musical decision. And I am continually delighted that Neil Young just stuck with that one note on the “Cinnamon Girl” solo.
D’Angelo and the Vanguard: All the guitars on “Sugah Daddy”
Sometimes I think that the electric guitar shines most when it is doing this kind of funky stuff. By that I mean that although the electric guitar is capable of many sounds, I often find myself thinking that my personal favourite use of the instrument is in the way it is played on this song. The sharp attack of a clean tone is perfect to cut through a mix, and nowhere is this more irresistible for me than the guitar breakdowns of this song. The guitars here simultaneously grab my ear without inappropriately commanding my attention. It’s laid back and when that first guitar break emerges at 1:36 it is impossible for me to be still. One of the funniest things about this fantastic guitar playing is I’m still not sure who’s doing it. The info online lists D’Angelo, Spanky Alford, Mark Hammond and Isaiah Sharkey all contributing guitar to the album. Whoever it is, I tip my hat. As far as I’m concerned, that’s how it’s done.
Nels Cline – solo on “Either Way”
Wilco has long been a source of inspiration for me. I’m a fan of nearly all of their different iterations, and am continually impressed by how the current six member line-up fits together, listens to each other, and creates a sound that always serves the song. On the first song of the 2007 album Sky Blue Sky, which was the first of many Wilco records to feature Nels Cline, there is a short solo that I always go back to. At 1:46 in the song, Cline’s lead lines climb up from out of the string section. There’s something about the mixture of melody and dissonance that I have loved since the first time I heard it. Cline is able to play beautiful lead lines that float overtop of the band, but he’s equally at home creating destructive noise. As a guitarist, I am always seeking a balance between these two extremes, and for me few people toe the line between gorgeous lines and elbows-on-the-piano chaos than Nels Cline.
Jeff Tweedy – solo on “Kidsmoke”
Although I just mentioned my love of Nels Cline, I am also absolutely in love with the brief period in Wilco’s history when Jeff Tweedy was the de facto lead guitarist. 2004’s A Ghost is Born is my favourite Wilco album, and the extended guitar work by Tweedy on the eleven minutes of Kidsmoke is among my favourite guitar solos ever recorded. I also happen to be a passionate fan of the so-called Krautrock – which is, in my opinion, more appropriately and perhaps less pejoratively called Kosmische Musik (“cosmic music”) – and “Kidsmoke” drives forward with the motorik beat featured on so many German rock records from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Tweedy’s guitar sounds like a panic attack, an erratic expression of the addiction and illness he was experiencing at the time. It sounds somewhat desperate but also cathartic. It also sounds like someone exploring what sounds are possible from an electric guitar fuzzed out and turned up. The solo moves back and forth from melodic lines to scraping, squealing, scratching, feedback induced noise. I love it every time I listen, and I listen to it all the time. My guitar solo on “Wide-Eyed,” the last song from my 2018 album Admiral Nelson Mandala, is a direct homage to Tweedy’s playing on Kidsmoke, which will be immediately apparent upon first listen.
Fela Kuti – “Expensive Shit”
The interlocking grooves of guitars played by members of Fela Kuti’s band have been another longstanding source of inspiration. I can recall playing extended improvisational jams with friends in the basement of a shared house many years ago. We would often search around until each of us, in turn, locked into a groove, an idea, a riff, or a chord, and then proceed to repeat it ad nauseam. We were young and fortunate to have the time and space to play the same thing for half an hour, just to see what happened. As John Cage rightly points out, repetition is a form of change, and I still remember the amazing trance-like experience of playing the same thing for so long, with eyes closed, that I eventually forgot that I was the one playing it. I would open my eyes and look down, half in amazement, at my hands still playing the same pattern over and over. There was sometimes a need to wade through an initial period where boredom appeared. Several minutes into a repeated pattern, I sometimes found my mind wandering, and becoming bored of what I was playing. But if I pushed past that boredom, there came a point where something else would happen, and then it felt like it would be stranger to stop than keep going. Something like the musical equivalent of the runners high, I suppose, but it always left me feeling transported to somewhere else.
Anyway, when I listen to the guitar work on a record like Kuti’s 1975 Expensive Shit (rhythm guitar by Leke Benson, tenor guitar by Ogene Kologbo) I am transported to a similar trance-like place. It would be amazing to be Benson playing that repeated figure, heard on the left in this recording. He trucks along on this great repeated pattern and I can never seem to get tired of it. I guess at this point I never will.
B.B. King – Live at the Regal
I know earlier I said something about the electric guitar at its best doing the funky rhythmic work on a D’Angelo song, but then I return once again to B.B. King’s Live at the Regal and think to myself: no, maybe this is where the electric guitar truly shines. Obviously the instrument is great in both settings, plus a host of others, but the point is that this is another record I keep coming back to. King’s beautiful phrasing, blaring clean tone, his great singing, and the backing band just rolling along all add up to some wonderful electric blues music. When he’s talking between songs, King is telling stories. When he’s singing, he’s telling stories. And when he plays the guitar, he’s telling stories. I happen to find pretty much every story he tells on this album a great one. Long live B.B. King!