It's official: the guitar solo is dead
For today's bands, the solo is "dinosaur stuff." Blame show-off musicians, grunge, hip hop ...
KATE KENNEDY | July 16, 2008 |
Chances are the last guitar solo you heard was on a classic rock radio station. Once a rock mainstay, the solo is scarce in today's Top 40. "If you play one in a rock tune right now — and you're a current band — it's almost laughable," says Joe Freedman, a guitarist from Toronto who's been playing for 45 years and takes the lead in his band, SuperBall. "It's almost considered taboo."
The solo's popularity has always depended on what bands grew up listening to, he says. And today's bands were influenced by '90s grunge and alternative rock — which pretty much abandoned the solo and focused on lyrics. The solo disappeared because rockers just didn't find them cool anymore. "Doing guitar solos," says Freedman, "was more like what your father did — it was dinosaur stuff."
Add in the current popularity of hip hop and dance-based tracks, and solos just don't stand a chance. "You've now got a whole generation of kids listening to this stuff who do not hear guitar solos," says Freedman. "Unless they're listening to classic rock or older rock 'n' roll, they're not hearing it at all."
Canadian rocker Kim Mitchell, formerly with the band Max Webster, says solos may have died because of guitarists' reluctance to put in the time and effort it takes to learn them. "I think a lot of these guys sat around, learned five or six chords, went into songwriting, and that was enough for them to get their own private jet and five or six tour buses."
But it's not just bands that are responsible for the solo's decline. Many guitarists say the general public doesn't appreciate musical skill like it used to. Julien Kasper, a professional guitarist and associate professor of guitar at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., plays solo-heavy music and he's noticed a clear lack of interest in musicianship from the public. "For the most part, it's not valued by listeners," he says. "It's very discouraging."
He says that over-the-top "hair bands" of the '80s turned people off solos when they became more about showing off than about adding an interlude that really fit with the song. It was a stark contrast to the more "singable" and blues-influenced solos of legends like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. Lyrically focused mega-hits from hip-hop producers, divas, and boy bands (now soloists) have been the go-to popular music from the mid-'90s to today.
"When a lot of pop tunes on the radio stopped having guitar solos, probably the powers-that-be at the labels realized, 'Hey, guitar solos aren't necessary, it just wastes time,' " says Kasper. "You weren't just losing guitar solos, you were losing everything to samples and beats."
Some say the solo isn't exactly dead — it's just hiding out in genres on the fringe. Nearly every hit song that comes out of Nashville has a solid guitar solo, says Toronto-based professional guitarist Clifton David. "They have so much integrity in their musicianship . . . God bless them."
Today it seems people are more enthusiastic about solos that are played with colourful buttons on miniature plastic guitars. Just a few weeks ago, the video game Guitar Hero released an all-Aerosmith version, and it's rumoured the creators may do the same with Van Halen — a band notorious for finger-blistering solos. Some hope the game's popularity will spark an interest that will eventually translate into actual skill. David Brackett, a musicologist with the department of music research at McGill University in Montreal, has a more pessimistic outlook. "We may see down the road that there are in fact fewer guitarists because everyone's out playing Guitar Hero and not learning how to play the guitar."
Chris Murphy, of the band Sloan, doesn't miss solos, which he says are in many instances just showing off. "I've often thought of taking, say, my favourite Led Zeppelin songs, and editing the guitar solos out because I find them boring," he says. Often in his songwriting, he'll leave no space for his bandmates' solos.
For his part, Kim Mitchell still holds the solo in high regard. (During an interview for this story he compared playing one to sex.) He says he's waiting for the next Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix to revolutionize the solo and, hopefully, bring it back to life.