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Unplugged: Is the Guitar Solo Finished?

Every song used to have one — including massive pop hits — but today it’s an endangered species. Can old-school shredding ever return to the mainstream?

st vincent john mayer death of guitar solo

Dave Simpson/WireImage, Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

About two minutes into “Outta My Head,” from the new album Free Spirit by pop-R&B star Khalid, a strange, foreign sound bubbles to the song’s shiny disco-pop surface. It’s a squiggly, pitchy thing that echoes the melody for about 15 seconds before receding into the background.

Could it be … yes, it’s a guitar solo!

The solo on Khalid’s album, played by John Mayer, is a way for the genre-hopping Khalid to show off his omni-directional vision. But in 2019, there’s no denying that the flashy guitar-breakout moment, one of the most prominent and primal components of rock & roll, is an increasingly endangered species. On the most recent releases by the leading mainstream rock and/or rock-adjacent groups of our era—Imagine Dragons, the 1975, Twenty One Pilots—you’ll hear plenty of rubbery beats and programming but barely any guitar, much less anything close to traditional shredding. And while elements of rap-rock, Nineties alt-rock and emo occasionally show up in modern pop, hip-hop and R&B, guitars rarely do. When you do hear a break on a pop record—Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” for instance—you’re more likely hearing some type of synthesizer or keyboard.

Tellingly, the few recent guitar-hero moments that have made a mark in the culture have been on film, not record. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury pushes Gwilym Lee’s Brian May to improve on his original guitar break in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” urging him to put his “body into it.” The sight of a man standing in front of his amps, perfecting every note of his solo, feels even older than rock itself; it’s like you’ve watching a ritual from ancient Egypt.

Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born is set in today’s musical world, but Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine may as well be operating in the ’70s alongside Queen. With his self-serious, man-of-the-wilderness air, Maine already feels like a ghost from rock past, especially compared to the music and look of Lady Gaga’s more stylized Ally. Maine’s increasing irrelevance is rammed home when he and his band play some sort of outdoor festival and launch into their metallic rocker, “Black Eyes.” Bloated and oozing flop sweat, Maine drops his head and breaks into a guitar solo, pulling angry, sputtering notes out of his strings. One supposes such violent manhandling of his instrument is meant to symbolize his inner pain, but the scene also screams out: This dude is so over that he’s even playing a guitar solo.

For much of the previous sixty-plus years, starting with moments like Scotty Moore’s piercing twang on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel,” the guitar has been part of rock’s DNA. Some of the instruments responsible for those sounds can be seen up close in “Play It Loud,” a newly opened rock-instruments exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. On display are the guitar Jimi Hendrix used for his beautifully ravaged shredding of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, the red-painted one Eddie Van Halen employed for “Eruption,” and the various instruments Jimmy Page used for part on “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Yet the mere fact that those instruments are behind glass in a museum exhibit only reinforces the sense that the guitar solo as a musical or cultural force has peaked.

In the realm of mainstream rock and pop (and not metal, where the solo still reigns, and country, where guitar players are allowed to show off now and then), it’s hard to pinpoint when guitar breaks began to spiral downward. For a while, it felt as it every pop hit (most notably “Beat It”) had a solo, which lent it a certain cred. Certainly the alt rock scene of the ’90s thrust the first stake in its body. Kurt Cobain allowed himself a solo in “Come as You Are,” and Billy Corgan made plenty of rock critics employ the phrase “peels off a solo.” But textures and splattery, unshowy moves were more prominent than the plastic flashiness of the hair metal scene grunge and alt-rock had supplanted, mirroring the often messy, complicated emotions in the lyrics of artists like Cobain and Corgan. (From what I remember during the few times I saw Nirvana, Kurt would never even walk to the front of the stage during his individual part.) The guitar parts on records by bands like Pavement added a new level of irony to the solo, and when hard-rock came back during the early ’00s in the form of nu-metal, the riffs on songs by Korn or Deftones were often even more damaged and mangled than Cobain’s playing.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the guitar solo would outlive its usefulness. After all these years and innovations, what can it offer? What hasn’t already been done, from Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan? But the rise of hip hop, dance music and modern pop cemented the solo’s irrelevance. In those genres, guitars are often sampled or used for rhythmic patterns, but solos are largely non-existent. It was that telling that “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé’s snarling Led Zeppelin-esque collaboration with Jack White on her 2016 landmark Lemonade, didn’t feature any prominent guitar playing.

Equally noteworthy is that during the last fifteen to to 20 years, the artists who played guitar in a way Jimi or Stevie might recognize were self-consciously backward-looking. During the first decade of this century, White and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach kept the guitar solo out of the morgue. White’s solos in particular were frenetic, frazzled, sharp and point, and the Black Keys’ new single, “Lo/Hi,” sports a brisk, sinewy Auerbach solo. Texas blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr.’s current This Land finds him both rejecting guitar-hero clichés and still spewing lots of slithering parts all over songs like “Low Down Rolling Stone.” Yet, even in retro-feeling rock, the guitar has become a second-class citizen. Cage the Elephant’s “Ready to Let Go” sports the briefest and most unguitar-like solo; it sounds like a slide guitar learning to whistle, and it’s over before you realize it’s even begun. Their new single, “Goodbye,” is a ballad driven by a piano—no solo allowed.

Beyond sonics, it’s hard not to think that the tradition is a cultural relic, as well as a musical one: Is there anything more male and (largely) white than a guitar solo? Then again, at this year’s Grammys, two women staked their claim to the tradition with genuine guitar-hero moments. During their live performances, both Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and R&B artist H.E.R. let fly with solos that were succinct and tasteful, the opposite of garish or macho.

Clark’s approach to guitar is less ostentatious and more textural; her lead lines and occasional solos don’t announce themselves so much as blend into the arrangements, fitting for someone whose guitar influences include the more subtle likes of Robert Fripp and Marc Ribot. “Every few years someone says guitar is dead,” she said last year. “… And it’s just simply not the case. It’s going to get reinvented and the cycles are going to continue. The guitar is never going to die or anything.” The solo may never dominate the way it once did, just like rock itself, but with the aid of people like Clark, it may yet escape a premature burial.

 

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