Artists-On-Artists: Justin Buckley of Tarcutta on the Art of the Guitar Solo

It seems to be an unavoidable conclusion that the rock guitar solo is officially extinct. It’s been nearly 20 years, I’m guessing, since most of the songs you heard on the radio featured one. How did this staple of music disappear after 20 years dominating various genres? And how, in an age of 80’s revivalism, can men wear spandex, women wear bubble skirts, but no self respecting young muso is willing to risk their cred by noodling away on a pentatonic scale?

I, like thousands before me, spent my early teens wanting to be Jimmy Page. Sitting by the stereo trying to learn solos for hours – I was yet to find extended blues jams interminably boring. Things started to change when I heard Sonic Youth for the first time and was absolutely stunned by some of their incredible walls of chords. A harmonic world I’d never heard before because no one had ever strung their guitars that way and recorded it. On learning this, I promptly re-tuned a couple of strings. Instantly I was unable to bend the 2nd string and E became a key to avoid – My name is Justin and it’s been 3000 days since my last solo.

That’s my conversion, but what brought on the wider demise of the solo? I have a couple of theories. By the 80’s the solo had become so highly evolved that if you couldn’t finger tap your way through “Flight of the Bumblebee you weren’t that good. Like a highly evolved orchid reliant on a single pollinator to survive, the solo was beyond the common player and in the hands of a few whose solos were blistering but whose music wasn’t that good. It seems hard to believe but people actually bought Joe Satriani’s albums, lots of them.

I also wonder if the crisis of faith affecting the established churches has struck the darker “I sold my soul to be this good” guitar church too. Have we seen through the image of Ralph Macchio trading licks for his soul with Steve Vai in Crossroads like so many Hail Mary’s?

It has got me thinking of solos that, for me, bridge the gap between all important rock heritage and a post rock or more deconstructed world. Solos that have relevance for musicians who would never contemplate playing one. Solos that have a point, and support the song’s structure. Solos where, dare I say it, somewhere in the wailing, a subtlety can be found that gives the post-rock meanderer such as myself some inspiration. The following are four solos that do this for me and the albums they’re off.

Mick Ronson “Hang on to Yourself” from Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture, David Bowie

David Bowie covered a lot of things through the 70’s. Hippy quirk (Hunky Dory), white soul (Young Americans) and, the critics favorite, high-brow kraut electronica (Heroes, Low etc). For a couple of years he was the king of glam rock and this recording of the final Ziggy Stardust concert shows that it was about rock as much as glam. Leading the Spiders from Mars, Mick Ronson has his gear cranked, in fact beyond cranked, in a deafening example of rock’s natural advantage – sheer volume. After introducing the first four notes of the studio solo, he proceeds to hammer and pull the same two notes for an eternity with his right arm raised in the air. After a suitable amount of worship, he returns to a conventional two-handed technique to play some stuff that defies logic or physics under 100dB. And it sounds great. Somehow, you can glimpse a future world beyond soloing from this point. A bunch of 14 year old Londoners with lightning bolts painted on their faces go beserk, and that was just the opening number. Queue Bowies’ first costume change.

See also: the long, long echo laden solo in Moonage Daydream. An under-celebrated point in musical history where glam rock and space rock should have gone and got a room.

Angus Young, “Whole Lotta Rosie” from Let There Be Rock, AC/DC

No such list could omit Angus Young, the purest of axe-wielders, the problem is choosing which one? Is there an AC/DC song without a solo? Is there a euphemism for sex that they haven’t found? In “Whole Lotta Rosie” the essence of Young’s playing is featured in its entirety. He throws the entire kit and kaboodle into this solo, somehow, without ever sounding over the top or fussy at all. Yes, it’s a little ridiculous at times but this is rock demon on duty. What makes it work is that, amongst all the notes, is a structure supporting the song itself. Solos that are simply two minutes to showoff helped kill solos. It takes thought to trade the riff back and forth with the band, building tension, as well as indulging in guitar epilepsy. Whilst not one of their ‘hits’, it’s still a staple in their live sets today – complete with giant inflatable Rosie. Acca Dacca are also a salient lesson in humour, which post-rockers, like myself, should keep close in case of earnest emergencies.

See also: That sound. These guys tour with a dozen or more massive truck loads of gear. They don’t waste a cubic foot on guitar pedals for Angus. Pedal stomping is becoming as much a problem today as finger tapping was in the 80’s.

Jimmy Page, “Dazed and Confused” from Led Zeppelin I, Led Zeppelin

As a former Page disciple I am duty bound to include something of his work. Soloing is a big chunk of any Zeppelin album but “Dazed and Confused” is a standout. Far from a blues jam (see the two Willie Dixon tracks) its Page as a late 60’s experimentalist. While the vocals are straight from blues 101, the rest is more psychadelic than blues worship. From the chromatic riff, the trippy violin bow middle stuff, to a ripping solo that beautifully blends the thoughtful and the mindless. Starting in unison with Plant, before long it’s all over the fretboard, with piercing trills and some unconvential bending of strings behind the nut with left hand. Guitar geeks should lookout for the footage of Page playing this on a Fender Telecaster with summer of love, LSD artwork on it.

See also: If the studio version isn’t epic enough for you try the live one from ‘The Song Remains The Same’. At an entire album side, complete with sidetrack into “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, I now find it the equivalent of being in a restaurant with a bunch of people all speaking fast and loud in another language. In your bamboozlement you can only listen in hope for a word you recognize.

“Fast” Eddie Clark, “Overkill” from No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, Motorhead

Ok, so there is a definite theme running here. Those who don’t get rock stopped reading at Mick Ronson anyway. If anyone is still reading, I like to think this takes it from the ridiculous to the ridiculous. And it has to be said, is there anything more quintessentially rock than Motorhead? Loud, aggressive, intense, whilst only too happy to take the piss out of itself. Humour is as much a part of their arsenal as that distortion on Lemmy’s bass. So too, a constant theme of ‘rocking out’, playing music ‘cause it makes you feel good. Enter “Overkill”, as appropriately titled as Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling movie “Over The Top”. Mechanical double kick beats, dominant bass and superfluous lyrics about the music itself, who says the head banger and the clubber have nothing in common? The four guitar solos jammed in here are, of course, a point of difference. What I love about Eddie Clark’s playing is the solos are more like a series of repeated themes than gymnastic ways of getting from high notes to low notes. When you get on a good thing like those unison string bends, you stick to it and find three or four ways to do it. And that’s your solo. In the case of ‘Overkill’ you blend it with three epic finishes and that kick drum that keeps coming back to belt you one more time. If post-rock is about the subtleties, grasshopper, first you must know all you can about the unsubtle.

See also: I’ve chosen the live album rather than the studio Overkill. I once saw it on a serious list of Greatest Live Albums…at the top! I wholeheartedly agree.

Notes on the Artist:

Justin Buckley - Photo by Dean Jones

Justin Buckley is one third of the Australian instrumental band Tarcutta. The band is named after the truck stop town halfway between Sydney and Melbourne near where Buckley grew up. Although Tarcutta’s self-titled debut on Hidden Shoal doesn’t feature any blistering rock n’ roll guitar solos, Buckley – a self-described post-rock meanderer – finds plenty of inspiration in the subtleties of a wailing solo.