By Josh Templin
A regular column ripping into some of music’s best guitar solos.
From a purely musical perspective, there isn’t much to distinguish a guitar solo from any other kind of instrumental solo aside from the instrumentation. And yet, culturally, the guitar solo is loaded down with all sorts of baggage: it’s often conflated with masturbation and seen as a symbol of rock’s inherent machismo. It’s a vulgar display of power, to use a quote from Pantera (itself borrowed from The Exorcist).
The origins of the guitar solo as we know it are deeply rooted in the traditions of jazz and blues. Black artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters laid a groundwork for the electrification of blues and gospel. But to narrow it down for the sake of simplicity, it was Chuck Berry’s 1958 single, “Johnny B. Goode” that blew the doors open. Berry’s fiery tones and fast tempo reinforced his earlier manifesto “Rock and Roll Music.”
The groundwork for electric rock was set, but also the mainstream appeal of the guitar solo swelled. In a kind of arms race throughout the ‘60s, new musicians were deified for their ability to rip the frets. Players like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix paved the way for an extremely technical style that became increasingly complex and further removed from the concision of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
But there was a reaction to this overindulgent progressive rock. In the late 70s, punk musicians sought a return to rock ‘n’ roll, free of excess frills. One of the first frills on the chopping block was the showy, overwrought solo. But while bands like The Sex Pistols and The Ramones either trimmed their solos or eliminated them entirely, CBGB favorites Television stretched the length of “Marquee Moon” with monumental, improvisational solos. Talking Heads played with spastic funk and brought in African influences, but what made these artists punk was their razor-sharp focus.
And the punks were absolutely right to call rock out on its bloated excesses. Groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer pushed a style of rock that was more about virtuosic technicality than musical expression. But even though some solos meander, the solo itself can’t be put into any box. While it’s been mostly associated with rock and metal, guitar solos have worked their way into funk, pop and even hip-hop. At the height of his fame as a rapper, Lil’ Wayne dropped the noodling guitar album Rebirth, which, if nothing else, proves that the mystique of the guitar hasn’t been tarnished entirely.
With the long history of the guitar solo in mind, this column aims to illuminate some of the most interesting examples of the form. Rather than listing a bunch of solos in an arbitrary order, the column will select one solo for each article and explain why it works. Some of the solos may be lyrical and expressive, while others might be macho and overbearing. The hope is to reveal how the guitar solo can vary wildly not just from song to song, but even from moment to moment.
The inaugural solo for the column is the aforementioned scorcher from Marquee Moon. While it’s lengthy and technically masterful, Tom Verlaine’s solo could be seen as a perfect foil to classic rock indulgence. Like a lean prizefighter, Verlaine’s virtuosity ducks and weaves, never staying in one place long enough for you to pin it down. But Verlaine never pulls his punches, either, claiming the rightful title for “Marquee Moon” as one of the all-time greats.
Artist: Television Song: “Marquee Moon”
Album: Marquee Moon Year: 1977
Genre: Punk Soloist(s): Tom Verlaine
Solo begins at: 4:54
For Television, “Marquee Moon” is not merely a high watermark. In around 10 minutes, Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca laid out the kind of manifesto that made the rest of their careers seem redundant. That isn’t to say that these musicians didn’t have a trove of other accomplishments. But “Marquee Moon” has neither peers nor equals.
Television is often classified by their context as “punk,” but the length and complexity of “Marquee Moon” push the boundaries of that label. The band might be better described as “post-punk” before such a term even existed. But despite some of the technical complexity, the inner-workings of the song are relatively simple: there is an interplay between verse and chorus, and the verses are driven by a two-chord progression (which is actually only implied by dyads, commonly called double stops).
The solo itself starts off with a wiry tremolo line, with the distortion on the guitar calling back to Link Wray. Like Wray, Verlaine calls up images of the city streets through his rough and guttural tone. The first few lines, like in many solos, seek to establish the ballpark that Verlaine will play in. Verlaine then sketches out a breathless run up the jazz-inflected scale, carefully looping back in on certain phrases like lightning striking itself.
What is interesting about Verlaine’s choices as a soloist is that he walks a fine line between intellectual technicality and ballsy rock ‘n’ roll. Verlaine’s use of a mixolydian scale is unusual for a rock band, but he uses it to build licks that are direct and driving. Verlaine doesn’t rush ahead of his band mates; only as the intensity of the rhythm section surges does Verlaine become louder and more insistent.
They begin a harrowing climb with a simple staccato figure, pushing their way up the scale. It’s the first and only time that all of the members of the band are playing in unison. It’s that union of voices that makes the buildup so powerful.
And just as the song seems like it’s ready to bust open, it recedes into pastoral impressionism, with Verlaine plucking out sparse notes that seem to shimmer like fireflies. The song returns to the more complex progression of the chorus and then back to the simple jam of the verse.
When the song ends, it is clear that not a moment was wasted. In contrast to the free-for-all jamming of “classic rock” live acts like Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead, Verlaine starts his mission and accomplishes it with little diversion. That is perhaps the most punk thing about Television; they weren’t afraid of complexity, but they honed those aspirations into something jagged and pointed.
Television walked a razor-thin wire between two worlds: calling to mind the working-class Bowery but also the surreal worlds of Baudelaire. Their approach to guitar rock would go on to influence countless “alternative” acts who wanted to bridge the gap between no-nonsense punk and high art. But the greatest testament to Television’s power is that no one who came after would quite equal this masterpiece.