Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Take One)

Steve Stevens

What do we expect from a great guitar solo? A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.

Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.

Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.

So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz. (With a disclaimer: lots of great guitarists missed the cut including David Torn, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, John Scofield, Skip McDonald, Bill Frisell, Billy Gibbons, Terje Rypdal, James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, just because I couldn’t think of era-defining solos, and maybe also because they played so much guitar…)

26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)

25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)

24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’

The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping, hammering and plain old melody. No overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.

23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)

An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (though apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:

22. Talk Talk: ‘I Don’t Believe In You’ (Guitarist: Robbie McIntosh)

This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:

21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’

Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:

20. Bootsy Collins: ‘Kissin’ You’ (Guitarist: Stevie Salas)

From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, often used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Gets started around the 2:44 mark:

19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)

The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:

18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’

The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.

17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’

You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:

16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’

A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee finally showed exactly what he could do – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:

15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’

McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43, with crap sound quality:

14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)

One of those great, unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his due and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.

13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’

This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal. Starts around 0:29:

12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)

The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’. Starts at 2:21:

11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)

The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:

10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)

He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes. Starts at 2:27:

9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’

Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen, no doubt helped by the cool little drum fill that introduces it at around 1:15:

8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)

This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller. Starts at 1:50:

7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)

One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and it frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:

6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)

In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a guitar classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:

5. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (Guitarist: Hiram Bullock)

Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, but this one from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was just sublime. Starts at 1:27:

4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)

Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:

3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)

He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rather rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic, chiming classic. A few phrases even bring to mind Robert Fripp. Starts at 2:08:

2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’

The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the best. Starts at 1:35:

1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’

This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:

Next time: Part two of our rundown of great 1980s guitar solos.

Prince: Batman Motion Picture Soundtrack 30 Years Old Today

At the beginning of 1989, the tabloids were full of rumours that Prince was in dire financial straits.

While that seems unlikely, with hindsight it does seem a curious decision for him to take on a soundtrack gig for such a huge mainstream movie, stepping right into the belly of the Warner Bros. beast.

But then it’s also not much of a surprise that he smashed Batman out of the park. On many levels, it was the perfect project for the time – the movie’s themes appealed to his post-Lovesexy spiritual concerns and also tapped into his own feelings about fatherhood. He explored those themes poignantly on ‘The Future’ and ‘Vicki Waiting’.

Musically, in the main he retreated from Lovesexy‘s album’s dense, complex, band-inspired sounds and went back to a minimalist approach, pushing his guitar right to the fore and making liberal use of samplers and a Fairlight.

But even though ‘The Future’, ‘Electric Chair’, ‘Partyman’, ‘Batdance’ and ‘Lemon Crush’ are essentially one-chord jams, Prince knows exactly how to hold the attention with false endings, escalating riffs, hysterical guitar solos and quirky chord voicings. The net result is a somewhat forbidding but still undeniably funky album.

Also he doesn’t scrimp on the dancefloor classics – put on ‘Partyman’, ‘Trust’ or ‘Batdance’ (a UK #2 and US #1) and to this day you’ll get any party started. Elsewhere, ‘Scandalous’ is a brilliantly-sung, sometimes funny seduction ballad in the tradition of ‘Do Me Baby’ and ‘International Lover’, while ‘The Arms Of Orion’ is a pretty – if somewhat trite – ballad.

The album was a smash hit, selling over a million copies in its first week of release and becoming his first US #1 album since Around The World In A Day. Prince was almost returning to his Purple Rain popularity, no doubt helped by the huge success of the movie too.

But this kind of mainstream success was short-lived. Something was eating him up inside – in typical form, he regrouped immediately and took on a deeply personal project, the doomed Graffiti Bridge movie/album.

It was a funny old end to the decade. But a totally Prince one. Probably his least-remembered album of the ’80s – though arguably the last great album he delivered – Batman is ripe for rediscovery as we reach more end-of-the-decade, spiritual/political uncertainty.

Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Prelude)

You’re the new kid in town, the young gunslinger, the sh*t-hot guitarist du jour. You’ve been called up to play the solo on Mr X’s new single.

He’s already had two number ones this year. The money is good but the stakes are high. 

You buzz the front door of the studio just off Portobello Road in West London and get let in. They know you well here – you’ve done various sessions before. The pretty receptionist greets you warmly as you carry your three guitars past her into the recording area. 

The star producer – who contacted you about the session personally, ringing you at home –  greets you first. He’s jacked up on adrenalin, in your face and full of enthusiasm, his spectacles almost clouding over with excitement. He’s saying how he’s your greatest fan and how excited he is to work with you. There’s no sign of the singer or any of the band yet.

After a cup of tea, he ushers you into the ‘live’ area. You notice that your favoured amp is already set up. A thin, nervy character appears – the engineer. The producer introduces you and promptly disappears into the control room. As you chat about technical matters with the increasingly shifty engineer, you notice the star producer light his first spliff of the day.

You quickly get a passable sound. The engineer mumbles a lot and strokes his chin, then proceeds to f*ck about for an hour with different mics and leads. Does he know what he’s doing? You’re losing your mojo fast.

You’ve heard a very rough, umixed version of the track with a hole where your solo is going to go. It’s fairly standard stuff, a nice groove with a cute melody and neat key change that you’ve got to watch out for in the middle. You’ve worked out a few little things here and there but will leave the rest to chance.

Are they going to give you one or two passes at it, or are they going to make you play 20 takes and then comp the best bits? You can never tell how it’ll play out. You peer into the control room. That guy with the crazy hair and thousand-yard stare – is that the singer? Maybe. Then you notice the singer’s famous manager – what’s he doing lollygagging in there?

They run the track a few times and you try a few passes. It sounds OK, though no one gives you any direction, and the producer and engineer are frequently having ‘chats’. The paranoia starts.

On your third run-through, you play an absolutely blinding solo. Your ideas are flowing. You’re ‘in the zone’. All your woodshedding has paid off. All those crappy gigs for crappy money, all of those expensive guitar lessons – it was all worth it. That time when Mr Mills said to you, ‘You’ll never make it as a musician – try something sensible, like accounting.’ Well, he’ll hear your solo on the radio when the song gets to number one and wish he’d never said that.

You grin up at the control room, happy with your day’s work. ‘Sounds great, mate. OK, stand by. We’re going to record one now’, comes the weary voice over the talkback device.

B*st*rds. And so begins another session…

Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

Story Of A Song: David Sylvian’s Pop Song

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at Marcus Studios, Fulham, West London, during late summer 1989, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out (30th October 1989), and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.