Rock On!

One of the things that drew me to the guitar is the incredible power of the instrument in a great solo. Few other instruments can so fabulously capture the melody, embrace it, extend it, run away with it, and take it off on complete tangents and bring it back to the grove and sound so darn cool doing it. A guitar can do it all, when you just need melody you just have melody, when you need some base or some harmony, or counter-point, it’s right there.

The rock solo, be it improvisational or orchestrated, is in some ways the quintessential “guitar sound.” For many of us, the dream of playing one really great solo is more or less why we keep strapping up and plugging in. For the more proficient, the power of personal expression in owning a solo is often the height of our playing experience. In any case, for those of us who love the rock guitar sound, listening to a few great soloists now and again is a great way to help our own playing advance, if only a little bit.

As always the number of really great guitarists is much greater than the length of time given to write an article, besides, it’s more fun to focus on a few really fantastic players and then discuss how those players inspire us, and who else inspires us as well.

I’m not going to point out the folks we’ve all heard. Sure Page’s solos are remarkable; and there is no doubt that Gilmour’s play is worth listening too; and who doesn’t think Allen Collins’ playing on Skynyrd’s Freebird is worth hearing over and over again? My purpose isn’t to point out the great players with whom we’re already familiar; rather, my purpose is to provide a glimpse at some of the lesser-known, but still great players who can expand our own guitar playing (and listening) horizons.

John Petrucci (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Age of Impact, solo)

I first heard Under a Glass Moon at the urging of a friend whose primary genre is mellow smooth jazz. I was blown away. The oddness of having a smooth jazz fan recommending progressive metal is soon lost once you start listening. John Petrucci is all about good music.

Petrucci grew up on Long Island, NY, and attended school with fellow Dream Theater musician John Myung. He started playing guitar in seriousness when he was 12 years old. Myung and Petrucci both ended up at Berklee together, and there formed Dream Theater.

Dream Theater is an amazing band, great musicianship from all quarters combined with an excellent understanding of composition makes this progressive metal band readily accessible to even non-metal heads.

The entire Dream Theater back catalog is worth owning. There simply isn’t a bad disk in the mix. Live at Budokan is a great live recording that captures the magic of the band in a great concert performance. Images and Words presents some of Petrucci’s best work in the track Under a Glass Moon.

Jeff Beck (Lord Sutch, Yardbirds, Honeydrippers, Beck, Bogert & Appice, Jeff Beck Group, solo)

Beck has never been the household name fellow Yardbird Clapton became, nor has he been seen as visionary as Page, though he is at least as innovative. Beck’s lack of commercial success and popular recognition may be due largely to Beck moving from jazz fusion to heavy metal to easy listening and back whenever the mood struck him. This lack of focus on a single genre makes it hard to sell a record and an artist.

Still, his great sounds leave little doubt that Beck is a worthy guitar idol.

Beck attended Wimbledon Art College where he was able to parlay his work with Lord Sutch into the lead guitarist role with the Yardbirds after Clapton left. (As an aside, if you aren’t familiar with Lord Sutch, you’re missing a wonderful bit of music and anti-cultural history!)

After 2 years with the Yardbirds, Beck “retired” only to return to the music scene in 1967 with the Jeff Beck Group, which included Ron Wood on bass and Rod Stewart on vocals. Even though neither of the groups’ two albums prior to Wood and Stewart’s departure in 1970 were particularly successful commercially, the sound they created was an innovative addition to what would become heavy metal.

Beck re-formed the Jeff Beck Group, but it never had the power of the original line-up. He joined with Appice and Bogart in 1972, but never went anywhere as their lone Japanese release suffered from weak arrangements and poor performances all around.

In 1975 Beck emerged from an 18-month hiatus with a rock/jazz fusion album. After the jazz foray, Beck retired again, but soon returned with a new offering. Beck sometimes teams up with other musicians and artists, such as Roger Waters, Mick Jagger (on his second solo album), and others, but his best work is undoubtedly his solo material.

He’s still going strong, his latest album, the 2003 Epic label release Jeff is well worth the price of admission. Still, if you’re just looking for the seminal Jeff Beck disc, you have to look to the first two Jeff Beck group albums, Truth and Beck-Ola.

Richie Blackmore (Blackmore’s Night, The Lancasters, Rainbow, Deep Purple)

Blackmore started life as a session guitarist before becoming one of the founding members of Deep Purple in 1968. He stayed on for twelve albums before leaving the group in 1975 when he formed Rainbow with the remains of the New York group Elf.

Rainbow suffered from a continuous string of personnel changes, and never seemed to really find a lasting combination. The second and third Rainbow albums, with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, Jim Bain on bass, Tony Carey on keyboards, and former Jeff Beck Group drummer Cozy Powell were some of the best offerings. Dio stayed on for a fourth album but left half-way through the recording of their fifth. After Dio left, the band seemed to lose it’s magic. Rainbow disbanded in 1984 after eight albums and Blackmore joined a reformed version of Deep Purple.

Blackmore has a huge discography. Some of the more “shouldn’t miss material” includes the CD Take It!, a 1994 release of Blackmore’s studio work for producer Joe Meek. It’s amazing to hear how one great guitarist can totally lift an otherwise horribly bad recording! More conventional recommendations for Blackmore’s work include the seminal Deep Purple album Machine Head. Released in 1974, this album is in many ways the triumphant maturing of Heavy Metal into a genre all its own. Sure, there are earlier examples of the musical stylings that would mark Metal as a style. But few albums captured the minds of other musicians the way Machine Head did. I remember as a kid listening to Blackmore’s solo work on the track Lazy with my friends over and over and over again. It still is an awe-inspiring track. And since 1974, what guitar player hasn’t learned Smoke on the Water? It was an instant standard.

Dimebag Darrell (Pantera, Damageplan)

Born Darrell Lance Abbott in 1966 in Dallas Texas, Pantera’s lead guitarist learned his chops imitating Kiss’ Ace Frehley. He co-founded Pantera in the mid-80’s with his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul, and bassist Rex Smith. Their early recordings are really fairly pedestrian offerings of an average metal band. Fed on a heavy diet of Zepplin, Def Leppard, Judas Priest and Deep Purple, the early songs have a predictable, amateurish feel to them.

After lead singer Terry Glaze left after the third album, the group found their own way with new singer Phil Anselmo. By 1990 they had signed with a major label, received some high end production advice and backing, and began tearing up the metal charts.

Sadly, in December of last year (2004) Darrell was shot by a member of the audience while on stage in Columbus, Ohio. Dead at only thirty-eight years of age, the rock world lost a true visionary. Darrell’s death was a loss to metal on par with the death of Stevie Ray Vaughn on the blues/rock world.

Darrell’s shred technique is second to none. He’s been recognized as a real genius of the metal realms and was often invited to appear on other artists’ recordings. On top of that, he’s remembered as a very down-to-earth, approachable person. Numerous Texan musicians will tell stories of Darrell coming up to talk to them after a show in one club or another in Dallas or Austin.

It’s hard to go wrong with any Pantera release in the post-Glaze era, but Vulgar Display of Power has been called “one of the most influential heavy metal albums.” Perhaps the best track for displaying Dimebag Darrell’s fabulous gift, though, is the track Floods from the 1996 release The Great Southern Trendkill.

Frank Zappa (Frank Zappa and the Mother’s of Invention, solo)

Frank Zappa is perhaps the most under-appreciated musical artist of the last century. A composer with stunning range and command, a band-leader with extraordinary charisma and presence, and a guitar virtuoso, Zappa simply defined excellence in everything he did.

Sadly, Zappa seems to be remembered more for his non-conformity and his children’s odd names than for his musical talents. He started composing seriously in high school, and was largely self-taught. He managed to write the score for a B-movie while still in High School, which included a piece written for a fifty-two piece orchestra.

As a composer, Zappa will surely be being appreciated for his genius for decades to come.

As a producer and label owner, Zappa was largely responsible for a host of artists getting their starts: Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, GTOs, Tim Buckley, and The Persuasions.

Zappa was also a political activist driven by his distrust of authority and big government. He played an important part in the Parents Music Resource Center hearings in Washington in the early 1980’s. And then turned around and used sound clips from the hearing for the twelve minute long Porn Wars.

But it as a guitarist that Zappa is most often imitated, but least often appreciated. One of the more amazing bits of Zappa’s history is that he recorded nearly every one of his performances. In the mid-1970’s Steve Vai began the job of transcribing Zappa’s guitar solo’s. The result was released as a three hundred page book of guitar solos, which contain some of the weirdest rhythmic groupings imaginable, but whose sound is amazing.

Zappa released several of his best guitar solo’s in the two collections, the three album set Shut Up and Play Your Guitar and the 1987 2-CD release Guitar. Both are still available on CD.

Of course, these artists are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great solos. I’m sure you have your own favorites as well. If you have any comments on these artists, or other artists you’d like to see reviewed, please write me at [email protected].

Until next time – Happy Listening!