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.

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Breakthrough Blues: The Robert Cray Band’s Bad Influence

Bad-Influence-coverHightone Records, released summer 1983

9/10

I was watching a newly-discovered Jaco Pastorius Q and A session from 1985 this week. Poor Jaco clearly wasn’t in the best of health, neither mentally nor physically. Apparently he turned up at the Musicians Institute in LA without a bass and had to borrow a student’s axe. But when he played it, despite the instrument’s shortcomings, he sounded exactly like himself. In other words, his sound was completely in his fingers, not in any amp or effects pedal.

It got me thinking about other players who always sound only like themselves, no matter what axe they use or what kind of music they’re playing. Near the top of that list would have to be the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Cray.

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

In guitar terms, he sticks pretty rigidly to his tried and tested sound: a Fender Strat plugged straight into the amp, no effects apart from a very occasional tremolo pedal, and very, very hard picking. But, in the process, on Bad Influence he plays three or four of the most electrifying guitar solos of the ’80s, proving himself a worthy heir to Albert King and Albert Collins. But his tough guitar style is a contrast to a fairly sweet, soulful vocals and songwriting which reflect the influence of Al Green and BB King more than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Bad Influence was Robert’s second official release, and it was pretty much the one that alerted the wider world outside of blues aficionados to his potential. The Robert Cray Band had built up a formidable live following in the early ’80s, touring relentlessly on the West Coast and in Europe. With the help of producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were ready to take that consistency into the studio. And it certainly helps that there are no trinkets of ’80s production present on the album, no synths or dated drum sounds – Bad Influence mostly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio, with the occasional addition of horns and Hammond organ.

Bad Influence is mainly known for its superb cover versions: Johnny Guitar Watson‘s ‘Don’t Touch Me‘ and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Got To Make A Comeback’, both slow 6/8 jams, the former angry and biting, the latter sweet and soulful. ‘The Grinder is another slowish 6/8 with a killer Cray solo. The CD version also comes with a great cover of the New Orleans R’n’B classic ‘I Got Loaded’.

The best-known songs from the album are probably the minor-key blues/funk standard ‘Phone Booth’ (featuring not one but two classic guitar solos), later covered by Albert King, and the title track which was subsequently covered by Eric Clapton on his less-than-essential August album (the two have collaborated many times since). Also essential are the super-funky ‘So Many Women So Little Time’ and Bo Diddley-esque ‘No Big Deal‘. Lyrically, my personal favourite is probably ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’, a kind of ‘ironic’ blues about procrastination. Vocally, ‘March On‘ is also fantastic.

To date, Bad Influence has (according to some accounts) sold over a million copies, showing how much the blues was a hot ticket in the ’80s. Cray’s two follow-ups False Accusations and Strong Persuader sold even more, but arguably placed more emphasis on production and songwriting than on uncut guitar playing. Production was also a bit of an issue on the Cray/Collins/Johnny Copeland collaboration Showdown, which could and should have been a classic. But no matter – Robert is the real deal.

The Dude Abides: Johnny Guitar Watson’s Love Jones

johnny guitar watsonDJM Records, released 1980

When it comes to the arts, ‘nobody knows anything’, as screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed. But the music biz sure knows a good formula when it sees one. And in the late-1970s and early ’80s, formulas didn’t come much more successful than Johnny Guitar Watson’s. His fusion of funk, blues, disco, jazz and R’n’B even gave Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money.

1280px-Johnny_Guitar_Watson-1996

He was simply one of the coolest musicians ever to walk the planet. A Texan blues master who influenced many guitarists including Frank Zappa (the two would collaborate regularly in the ’70s and ’80s), Watson relaunched his sound with Ain’t That A Bitch in 1977, a superb marriage of hilarious lyrics, double-tracked vocals, cool Stevie/Sly/Curtis grooves, ambitious horn arrangements and searing guitar solos.

It was a big success and Watson spent the rest of the ’70s repeating the formula with minor variations and, to be honest, diminishing returns. But on 1980’s Love Jones, Johnny expanded his sound to include influences from P-Funk (which he had started flirting with on the previous year’s What The Hell Is This), gospel, bebop, bossa-nova, Afro-beat, hip-hop and even country, and the result is one of the weirdest but most interesting albums of his career. A lot of it sounds very rushed, as if his mind wasn’t really on the job, but that sometimes works in its favour!

Johnny_Guitar_Watson_1977Ain’t That A Bitch hooked me right away. My dad had a knackered old cassette copy which came in a really horrible silver-and-yellow design, but for some reason I was fascinated by it. There was something seriously dodgy about the cover photo, title and…everything, really. But then I listened to it. By the late ’80s, I was getting into Sly, Stevie and The Isleys, so Bitch fitted in like a dream and became an essential soundtrack to summer 1989.

With hindsight, Johnny should be included alongside Sly, Prince, D’Angelo, Stevie and Lewis Taylor as one of soul music’s finest multi-instrumentalists – on his great albums of the 1970s and early ’80s, he plays all the keyboards, bass, guitars and some drums, as well as producing and arranging. His keyboard playing gives guys like Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann a run for their money, and he even once recorded a whole album of piano/vocal ballads, 1963’s I Cried For You.

Love Jones kicks off with the infectious ‘Booty Ooty’, powered by the great, unsung drummer Emry Thomas, which adds a touch of P-Funk to Johnny’s classic horn-driven sound. The title track is a fairly cheesy soul ballad, while ‘Goin’ Up In Smoke’ continues his strand of state-of-the-nation political funk/blues tunes which began with Ain’t That A Bitch‘s title track in ’76. ‘Close Encounters’ is just plain odd, a bossa-nova with some funny lyrics about a mistaken love affair – ‘It was close encounters of the wrong kind’!

His update of ‘Lone Ranger’ is a classic, featuring some outrageous vocal scatting and some nutty electric piano and bass solos. The gospel curio ‘Jet Plane’ has a criminally-out-of-tune bass, badly-recorded keyboards and amateurish drums (presumably played by Johnny), but it still works. Ditto the seriously weird ‘Children Of The Universe’, a country-rock coming-of-age piece which sounds like The New Seekers backing Sly Stone.

But Love Jones‘s centrepiece is of course the mighty ‘Telephone Bill’, oft cited as one of the first rap tracks. In 1994, Watson was asked if he had anticipated the hip-hop movement: “Anticipated? I damn well invented it! And I wasn’t the only one. Talkin’ rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you’d hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talkin’ has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I’m talkin’ in melody. When I play, I’m talkin’ with my guitar. I may be talkin’ trash, baby, but I’m talkin’!”. Yessir, but more importantly the track features his best guitar solo on record, an amazing mash-up of bebop (check out the ‘Salt Peanuts‘ quote), blues and angular fusion.

Compared to the lush, meticulously-arranged Ain’t That A Bitch, Love Jones sounds like a series of demos but it still works, like pretty much all of Johnny’s music. He carried on touring and recording right through to his death in 1996. I wish I’d seen him play live. See ya, Johnny.