Crosstalk: Are Guitar Solos Lame?

Crosstalk: Are Guitar Solos Lame?

Noel: Kyle, we recently got a follow-up "Ask The A.V. Club" question prompted by something you wrote in an earlier column—the one about whether music critics should be musicians and whether music critics underrate musicianship. You wrote, "Fine musicianship needn't stand out and scream 'Notice me!' Sometimes the best stuff is the subtlest. Elaborate solos and that kind of thing are masturbatory, especially in the rock world (not so much in jazz)."

This prompted reader Andy Oberhausen to write:

Is improvisation in rock always bad? I would expect that Kyle would probably change his statement in hindsight to usually masturbatory. Hendrix's, Clapton's, Bonham's, and even Van Halen's solos go beyond the masturbatory level. There's a lot of potential for improv in rock 'n' roll that could be organic, honest, and transcendent—just like in jazz. Are rock musicians, critics, and fans too dismissive of improv in rock to accept it for what it is, and judge it based on its own merits? Are jam bands too often ignored by rock critics because of these potential biases?

Now, while slamming guitar solos isn't really the same thing as slamming improvisation, Andy does raise some interesting questions. Because rock critics do seem to draw a line between the respectable improvisers—like Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, or any heroin addict with a horn—and straight-up wankers like Phish. And a lot of acts fall in between. As I write this, I'm listening to the new album by The Sea And Cake, one of the more accessible bands to emerge from the mid-'90s "post-rock" movement, but one still dismissed by many critics as frivolous and indulgent.

It took me decades of rock fandom to develop any kind of appreciation for The Grateful Dead, largely because their critical reputation was so poor. But while most of the major critical voices in rock don't have much nice to say about the likes of Yes or Emerson Lake & Palmer, indie-rock jammers like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo get cut a huge break. And as for bands like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, and Stereolab, critics tend to be divided between those who hear something profound and personal in their sprawling, instrumental-passage-heavy records, and those who can't get past the heavy aroma of pretension.

I have some thoughts about what kind of improvisation appeals to me personally and why, and I even have a defense of guitar solos I'm ready to offer. But since you were the one who made the initial inflammatory statement, you should probably get a chance to defend yourself.

Kyle, why do you hate art?

Kyle: As a shirt I saw in Ministry's old In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up video said, "Fuck art, let's kill."

That just makes me chuckle, but I think it has a figurative relevance to the matter at hand. I've always favored music that hits me in the gut (the killing) more than music I appreciate on a more theoretical level (the art). I grew up in the punk scene, which started amid the bloated excesses of '70s rock and its guitar wankery, so I'm inherently suspicious of soloing rocker dudes—walking into a Guitar Center on a Saturday nearly sends me into psychosis.

That said, Andy is correct in his assertion that I meant guitar solos are usually masturbatory, not inherently. Do I really need to cite examples here? I remember seeing the video for "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses—that's the one with Slash's two solos filmed with sweeping helicopter shots—and thinking, "This must be destroyed."

My disdain isn't limited to cock-rock. When I saw Dinosaur Jr. for the first time in 1992, I was completely disappointed, and not just because they didn't play "Freak Scene" or "I Live For That Look." J. Mascis soloed for what felt like an eternity in every song, which completely bored me. And though I'm a Sonic Youth fan, I have a low tolerance for its noisy self-indulgence. Did you hear its installment of the In The Fishtank series with The Ex and The ICP Orchestra? It sounded like it was tuning up for half an hour. Zzzzzzz…

But like you mentioned, Noel, there's a distinction between soloing and improvisation. Again, though, it comes down to a gut feeling for me. I can't get into Yes—and believe me, I heard plenty in college, thanks to my roommate—in part because the music sounds aloof. Ditto for the Dead (who are further hindered by the hippie factor) and for a lot of post-rock, such as The Sea And Cake, Tortoise, or Joan Of Arc. I like my music to have a visceral quality, and sometimes those groups sound like the musical equivalent of solving calculus equations.

A good example of what I like would be Russian Circles, an instrumental rock band with obvious technical skill. But its music never strikes me as wanky, even though its harder, more metallic moments could easily devolve into that. Russian Circles experiment with post-rock, but use it to move toward something. I've noticed some post-rock lacks that feeling of motion; it's just noodling in place.

Not that there isn't room for that—I think a lot of this boils down to knowing when to quit. Musicians in general—and jammy types in particular—are terrible self-editors. Maybe they need someone there who can stop recording when things become excessive.

Noel: I'm with you there. As much as I like some of the more freeform, rambling Jimi Hendrix songs—like "Machine Gun"—I prefer the ones where he contains all his mind-bending improvisational frenzy in the space of a three-minute single. A song like "Stone Free" delivers a concentrated dose of everything Hendrix can do—but not an overdose.

Similarly, I've always preferred The Band to The Grateful Dead, because The Band boiled all that spooky Americana folderol down to fairly tight little folk-rock songs, while The Dead would start with a good melodic foundation and some mythologically trippy Robert Hunter poem, then squander audience goodwill with indifferent noodling. But then I started to turn around on The Dead, after I read Dennis McNally's book A Long Strange Trip, which humanizes the band's excursions into the cosmic, and allowed me to hear the beauty in their imperfection. Even a simple song like "Bertha" exists mainly as an idea: one that The Grateful Dead could express eloquently some nights, and some nights couldn't get out of their heads. For devotees, there was real drama in waiting to hear what kind of night it could be for "Bertha"—let alone something really way-out, like "Dark Star."

The problem with musicians who improvise a lot—for me, anyway—is that I demand a certain amount of finality to recorded music. I'm not a big one for collections of alternate takes of songs by my favorite bands. I can handle a live version or a re-recording that's been radically altered from the original, but if it's a matter of a different guitar solo, or a missing French horn, I'd rather not deal with it. I'd like to think that recording artists know what they're doing when they finish a record and submit it. I don't always trust those who dick around.

At the same time, I can understand the paranoia that some bands feel when they're talented enough and imaginative enough to take a song in a dozen different directions. That's one of the most fascinating things about the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: watching Jeff Tweedy fiddle with songs, unwilling to lock them down into a finalized form. It's torture for Tweedy, who can change a song through jamming, or can radically alter it through production trickery.

But the problem with excessive production is the opposite of the problem with excessive improvisation. It can make a song sound too tight, rehearsed and polished into robotic perfection until there's no human feeling left. The trick is to retain the spark of imagination that gave birth to a song in the first place, while delivering it in a way that feels finished. Like, I love the way that a typical Spoon song progresses with a logic that lets the listener hear how it was built, while still sounding urgent and fresh, as though the band pressed and distributed the song at the moment of completion, before it could get overthought.

Because in a musical landscape that's gotten way overcrowded, with very little room for true innovation, what's left to surprise and delight us is performance. When a talented performer catches a moment of inspiration, it almost doesn't matter if the music is fundamentally derivative. The way it's delivered can still amaze us.

I have some more thoughts along those lines, plus an explanation of why American Idol is better than rock snobs think, but first, back to you, Kyle, with a question: Can't the aloofness of high-minded progressive and jazz-pop bands be, in itself, a kind of personal expression? Isn't Donald Fagen just taking us on a journey inside his head, which happens to be filled with complicated horn charts and lounge-lizard misogyny? Even if his head's in a different place from yours, couldn't you grow to appreciate what comes out of it for what it is?

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Kyle: Hmm, enjoying Steely Dan… sounds unlikely for me. However, there are a number of artists whose work I respect, even if I'm not really a fan (e.g., The Beach Boys or Pink Floyd). I can certainly appreciate music for what it is, but that doesn't mean it will move me. The Dead are a perfect example: I've gone from liking them a little in college to disliking them to something like respecting them from a distance. The music doesn't do a lot for me, but I appreciate its better qualities. It's funny you mentioned "Dark Star"; I listened to the version from their live CD to help my insomnia when I was 19. It was something like 27 minutes long. Twenty-seven! Seriously, that's just for people on drugs. Hey, I'm not judging: The first time I "got" Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon was with the help of the psilocybe cubensis. (I even scribbled "It all makes sense now!" on some paper. Yikes.)

Like you, I prefer bursts of improvisation. One band that did that well was Fugazi, which was adventurous enough to experiment, but disciplined enough to keep it manageable—both live and in the studio. I think its longest song is "23 Beats Off" from In On The Kill Taker, and it clocks in at a relatively quick 6:41. Fugazi's Ian MacKaye said something interesting when I interviewed him: The songs on his records don't sound right to him. He played the "definitive" versions on some stage somewhere, and that's how he hears them in his mind's, um, ear. Like you, Noel, I generally avoid hunting down obscure live versions of songs, but hearing MacKaye say that almost sent me on a quixotic search for his "official" versions.

I, too, appreciate finality in music, but as a songwriter, I also understand the urge to change it up. You get bored. Think about The Rolling Stones shuffling through "Satisfaction" for the 8,000,000th time. So I don't begrudge bands that avoid old material when performing, or others that rework their songs live. Take, for example, TV On The Radio and The Mars Volta. Especially in the latter's case, you don't go to the shows expecting to hear the albums note for note. The albums are basically snapshots from a specific time in a process that continues after the group leaves the studio.

It isn't a matter of having the chops, necessarily, to pull it off live. I think the performances that really affect us are the ones where feeling plays as powerful a role as skill. Technique doesn't equal soul.

Noel: No, but it doesn't not equal soul, either. And it can be impressive to watch—and occasionally even to hear. The title of this discussion is "Are Guitar Solos Lame?", and while that's really just a hook for hanging a conversation about improvisation in rock and pop, the question is still worth answering, even if the answer's just "Sometimes."

True, the short list of guitarists whom I look forward to hearing solo—a list headed up by Anne McCue, Doug Martsch, and your quasi-nemesis J. Mascis—aren't technically "clean" players. They struggle, honestly and engagingly, to translate their emotions into squall. But just like it can be exciting to watch a veteran figure skater execute a jump that he's practiced until it's flawless, there's something impressive about watching a virtuoso stand on a stage and just play. And while there's a big difference between artistry and craftsmanship, both deserve their due amount of appreciation.

Nothing drives that home to me more than my yearly immersion in American Idol. About half the contestants who make it to the final 24 have a certain baseline level of technical polish that they've obviously picked up through years of training, and about half have interesting voices and enough personality quirks to woo the voters. Then there's a rare one or two with naturally strong vocal tones and the passion to connect with a song on any given night, and deliver a performance that sends genuine chills down my spine. Those are the kinds of performances that people who stubbornly refuse to watch the show can't imagine ever happen.

I admit that they don't happen that often—maybe four or five times a season at best. But I also enjoy hearing the contestants with technical skill and little originality, especially after suffering through a string of performances by wacky amateurs. Every time one these Idol contestants walk onto the stage, I tense up, worried that they're going to flame out, and when one of them steps into the spotlight and sings a song free and easy, it's a real treat.

Understand, I'm not talking about those crazy melisma-ridden vocal runs that some AI contestants build to after mumbling a song for two minutes. I'm talking about nice, full, rangy vocals that stay in tune, even if they never rise above the bloodless.

So it goes with guitar solos. They can be warm and impassioned, or self-indulgent, or crisp as a cracker. I prefer the first, I don't much like the second, and I've learned to appreciate the third. Because sometimes I need some simple competency in my aesthetic life, just to show me where the baseline is.

Let me leave with you an exercise. Go track town a copy of Steely Dan's "My Old School," and if you can make it through the laid-back boogie and cryptic Fagen lyrics about decade-old college slights, listen to Denny Dias—or maybe it's Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, I can't tell—bringing the song home with his third solo in six minutes. His first two are tight, rhythmic little solos, playing off the staccato horns and driving beat. But on the third, Dias (or maybe Baxter) pumps some pedal or another and simultaneously ratchets up the tension and provides a release. The album is called Countdown To Ecstasy. That solo is the ecstasy.

Kyle: Although that solo doesn't leave me ecstatic, I certainly found it and its two (!) predecessors intriguing, mostly because of the air Dias or Baxter gives them. The first two, in particular, have what sounds like a bit of hesitation between segments, like Dias/Baxter was still figuring out where to go. That reminded me of the "struggle" Martsch, McCue, and Mascis exhibit. (By the way, J. & I are all good after Dinosaur's performance at Lollapalooza '05.)

Coincidentally, Steely Dan falls just before Sugar in my iTunes, and if I have a personal guitar god, it's Bob Mould. I doubt anyone has affected my playing and my perceptions of guitar more than he has. He represents my ideal: a technically gifted guitarist who plays with emotion—to see that emotional squall you mentioned, Noel, check out Mould live—but doesn't wank.

You left me with a song, so I too send one your way: "Tilted" by Sugar. About halfway through it, Mould unleashes the kind of rapid-fire solo that would floor the longhairs shopping for a new Warlock at Guitar Center. Where I enjoyed your Steely Dan solos for their air, I enjoy Mould's for its suffocating density. "Tilted" shakes with relentless unease, and the solo sends it into a full-on seizure. The fretboard pyrotechnics are tethered to the song's energy and theme, so they don't sound masturbatory.

American Idol's seemingly chronic oversinging strikes me as masturbatory, but that's a discussion for another day. I don't really watch the show, so I'm not an expert, but I can understand the point you're making. Talent is always something to behold—whether it's delivered via self-indulgence, understatement, or the ideal in-between—even if the result is lame.

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