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.

Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings 35 Years On

Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom? Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue surely still cuts the mustard.

The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.

I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983, at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.

Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.

The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’). But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.

It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.

’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums. Happy birthday to an unsung classic.

Sideways & Steve Jobs: An Invitation To Windham Hill 30 Years On

Windham+Hill+An+Invitation+To+Windham+Hill+164800DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.

One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti. You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…

frass canyon

For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi. I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t have bought it but he certainly seemed to play it quite a lot anyway.

It has since become one of those weird albums that I can’t shake despite having no particular interest in its musical genre or artists. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?

The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview: ‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’

Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments, eliciting a ‘back to nature’ vibe. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix. The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were certainly important to Windham Hill.

Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).

The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething’. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography).

But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:

‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!

There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).

Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. The title track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.

The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…

Track listing:

A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)