The age-old question that has haunted rock musicians since Jerry Lee Lewis busted vinyl arises again: Is the guitar solo dead?
They played in smoke and flashing lights. They played with the whole spectrum of human emotion in their eyes. Some played with blurring speed and some with slow, fluid grace. Some played behind their heads or with their teeth. Many years ago, these guitar virtuosos ruled the world of music.
But that world has changed. Recent music has seen many of these respected guitarists stepping out of the limelight.
This was evident in 2004’s Some Kind of Monster, a documentary about heavy metal band Metallica’s struggle to record its latest album St. Anger. Drummer Lars Ulrich urged guitarist Kirk Hammet not to solo on the album, calling solos outdated.
Visibly upset, Hammet responded: “If you don’t play a guitar solo in one of these songs, that dates it to this period. And that cements it to a trend that’s happening in music right now. I think that’s stupid.”
Hammet could find a chorus of musicians to disagree with him. Joe Perry of Aerosmith, John Petrucci of Dream Theater and Alex Lifeson of Rush are other guitarists who are taking fewer, shorter or simpler solos in their bands’ latest albums.
Despite their movement away from shredding, these and other guitar gods are still worshipped. In Reno, their temple is Bizarre Guitar. The walls of this music store on Oddie Boulevard are lined with acoustic and bass guitars clear to the back of the store. Electric guitars hang from the ceiling, making a multicolored curtain. A roomful of cymbals, stacks of drum shells, aisles of amplifiers and rows of music books help make the place a veritable candy store for musicians.
Shannon Lawson is the sales manager of Bizarre Guitar, but with his black Thin Lizzy shirt and frizzy hair, he could be mistaken for an ‘80s rock star. With authority and earnestness, he says this is just a phase in which guitarists are trying to appeal to a younger generation not used to guitar solos.
In the more toned-down setting of academia, Louis Niebur, a young lecturer of musicology at the University of Nevada, Reno, says guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, who many consider the world’s fastest guitarist, are the least-fashionable in music today. Niebur’s cheerful, neat image gives the impression of a jazz connoisseur, but he talks familiarly about a wide variety of musical genres.
He says soloists like Malmsteen appear stale because the guitar solo closely relates to the image of 1980s heavy metal. Modern music, however, is shaped more by the sound of the punk movement, says Niebur.
“The point of punk is anti-virtuosity—you know, the [do-it-yourself] philosophy,” he says. “Anybody can make this music.”
The do-it-yourself aspect of the guitar recently attracted one red-headed UNR junior, Joel Luckemeyer, 21. He’s been playing the guitar for only a few months, and he doesn’t aspire to become a virtuoso. Luckemeyer only wants to gain enough skills to play songs in one of his favorite musical styles, bluegrass.
“It’s real simple chords and stuff, but it just sounds really good to me,” he says.
And yet, the solos in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” are among his favorites.
Here to Stay
By the looks of local guitar sales, it doesn’t appear that guitars, at least, are going out of style.
Both Lawson at Bizarre Guitar and Stephen Greenlee at 99 Dollar Guitars on Moana Lane say their stores have been experiencing steady interest in guitars. Both say the music scene strongly influences what types of guitars sell, be they top-quality models or unembellished instruments targeted at those still living on a weekly allowance.
Earlier this year, 99 Dollar Guitars, which sells entry-level guitars, opened a new store in Carson City. Greenlee, the young manager of the small store, says the hard-core and emo genres, which appeal mainly to teenagers, are getting youth interested in strumming.
He adds that this interest is not just in electric guitars. Emo bands like Dashboard Confessional, which has a cleaner acoustic sound, are inspiring young fans to play unplugged.
But increasing interest in louder, rawer music is also easy to hear in modern music, says Greenlee. Heavy distortion pedals are more popular than simple blues overdrives in his store. The distortion used in the 1960s, when musicians started to overdrive their amplifiers, pales in comparison to the distortion heard today, he adds.
But Lawson says the sound of older amplifiers is still important in music. He says technology has upgraded in many cases, but some of the decades-old merchandise will always be around.
“The serious guys come in and get Marshall stacks (amplifiers),” he says. “That’s the sound the American ear is used to.”
But Sean O’Hair, owner of the Record Street Café near UNR, says leaving traditional sounds behind is important in modern music. O’Hair, 29, casts a serious and intelligent glance through his glasses. Because there have been so many rock guitarists, he says it’s now “damn near impossible” to gain recognition by simply following in their footsteps. The key to getting recognized, he says, is “genre-busting"—blending sounds from different musical genres.
O’Hair, who books performances of unconventional musicians in his small, art-bedecked café, says the complexity and skill level is increasing for underground music, both hip-hop and rock. He cites k-os, a Canadian hip-hop artist who’s also been recognized for his guitar skills, as an example of someone moving toward live instruments and not just recorded beats.
“Hip-hop has become more sophisticated, outside of the mainstream, and I would expect rock and roll to do the same,” he says. He adds that he thinks local hard-core bands are more melodic and talented than they were 15 years ago.
Greenlee at 99 Dollar Guitars also says some heavy metal bands’ guitar playing is becoming more intricate, even though they are not showcasing virtuosity as they were years ago.
“Bands like Avenged Sevenfold … are starting to come out with the double guitar solo thing, and I think that’s becoming a little bit more popular,” says Greenlee.
With American bands, the timeless focus on guitars is rooted in the image of masculinity, says Niebur. He cites Bruce Springsteen, in opposition to the disco movement, as a classic example.
“You have Bruce Springsteen holding up his working-class credentials and using the guitar as emblematic of his credentials,” he says.
Niebur adds that this masculine ideal in American rock has also prevented guitars from losing ground to synthesizers, which some Americans fear in their rock music. Guitars represent authenticity and sincerity while synthesizers represent insincerity and artificiality, he says.
“People feel uncomfortable about electric music in this country,” says Niebur. “They feel like jobs are being taken from ‘real’ musicians.”
Despite declining emphasis on guitar solos recently, Niebur says guitars in general are not going out of style.
“I don’t think we’re moving away from guitars,” he says. “That’s just one thing I think is not gonna change in America. It’s such an American sound.”