In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it
“My solos are my trademark,” announced Nigel Tufnel in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. Cue footage of the topless musician performing some signature fret-fondling while curling his lip in satisfaction, then swapping his plectrum for a violin. Before long, the real-life rock stars satirised by Spinal Tap were handed a second blow – when the irreverent grunge scene of the 1990s arrived, ripping up the guitar histrionics rule book, and instead favouring scuzzier playing. Yet, while not as revered as it once was, the guitar solo remains the benchmark of musical brilliance for many.
To pinpoint the best guitar solo we need some criteria. It must have appeal beyond those prowess-adulating progheads who know their pentatonics from pinched harmonics. Nor can it be too obvious. As the Wayne’s World screenplay says, “NO STAIRWAY!” Furthermore, it cannot involve Eric Clapton. London’s graffiti may have pronounced him “God” in the 1960s, but Clapton was soon usurped by Jimi Hendrix and later spouted racist drivel.
Hendrix is our benchmark, really. The lead guitarist all others were chasing. In his hands the instrument was a window to the soul. Crucially, he is appreciated by virtuosos and unpolished thrashers alike. Hendrix had admirers in the krautrock scene, for instance, who valued texture over technique. Punks preferred immediacy to flair, and Hendrix had fans there, too. “He makes the guitar speak,” said the Damned’s Captain Sensible. While some would plump for Purple Haze, Hendrix’s most searing axe work appears on Machine Gun from Band of Gypsys. Don’t take our word for it – when Miles Davis was asked what he liked about Hendrix, he replied: “It’s that goddamned motherfucking Machine Gun.”
Seeing as humans are storytelling beings, it helps if there’s a good yarn behind the solo. In Lemmy’s autobiography the few solos he praises are Motörhead’s most unorthodox, recorded while guitarists were falling over sofas, giggling uncontrollably, struggling to hit the notes. “It sounds like it’s being played backwards,” he marvelled at Phil Campbell’s prostrate take on 1995’s Make ’Em Blind. Lemmy was rarely impressed by rival bands’ faster and fancier solos. “It’s just playing scales,” he noted.
Our winner takes scale-playing to another level. There’s a good tale behind it, too. It wasn’t one of Hendrix’s, although it did pay tribute having been recorded shortly after his death. Troubled guitarist Eddie Hazel even claimed to carry Jimi’s spirit inside him. The title track to Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (1971) was performed in one take while on LSD, after band leader George Clinton instructed Hazel to play like his mother had died. The resulting solo takes up the entire 10 minutes of this transcendent song. It is a soul-bearing, pain-exorcising, utterly engaging gift from the heavens. It ebbs and flows between lightness and shade. It is delicate and dexterous in some places; cosmically slipshod and backwards-sounding in others. Almost 30 years after Hazel’s own passing, Maggot Brain still feels as defiantly alive as Miles Davis’s most powerful pieces. The guitar solo to beat all solos? It’s that goddamned, motherloving Maggot Brain!