Alex Skolnick: Ten Overlooked, Essential Solos of the '70s

January 31, 2012
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To guitar players of a certain generation, it may be hard to accept the following solos as ‘overlooked.’ After all, these songs were mostly hits by superstar acts—it’s difficult to imagine them not having a serious impact on anyone playing guitar back when the songs were new. But for some reason, in the years that followed, these solos would rarely come up in conversations amongst aspiring guitarists.

I’m not letting myself off the hook here. I can remember my pre-teen and teen years, being glued to Van Halen, Ozzy, and Yngwie albums, ignoring guitar playing that felt less ‘current.’ But eventually, I opened my eyes (and ears) to something very important: that in order to be a more complete, well-rounded and diverse musician, no matter what musical style one is drawn to, it is essential that one explore the music of previous eras. And for aspiring lead guitarists, this means listening to and studying some of the great guitar solos of the 1970s.

Still, to this very day, among a majority of guitar players my age—give or take a generation or two—I’ve found scant acknowledgment of guitar solos from this era.

Why is that?

Here’s my theory: those of us who were drawn to lead guitar during the '80s and later were under the shadow of one of the greatest guitarists of our time and arguably of all time: Edward Van Halen. With his lightning fast licks—speed picking, two-handed tapping, harmonics, feedback squeals, dive bombs, and other groundbreaking technique—not to mention grooving rhythm playing, all delivered through a crunchy, "not available in stores" tone, Eddie Van Halen (or, as he’s referred to nowadays, EVH), had unwittingly ushered in the '80s a couple years early. Beginning with Van Halen’s 1978 debut, right up to the Orwellian titled 1984, Eddie changed the vocabulary of guitar forever (note: although Van Halen’s next period—with Sammy Hagar on vocals—was more commercially successful, it was far less musically influential and is considered by many, including yours truly, to be not in the same league). Not since Jimi Hendrix’s arrival in the late '60s had the rock music scene experienced a virtuosic assault of such magnitude, the impact of which has been unparalleled since.

And not only was EVH the "cutting edge" of lead guitar, Van Halen (the band) was a powerhouse, a supergroup, the epitome of "coolness." David Lee Roth’s pairing with EVH was a caffeinated, sunny California version of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards—with a harder sound, faster tempos, flashier clothes, and wilder hair. Rock from the '70s suddenly sounded like a leftover relic of a bygone era—hearing it next to Van Halen was like watching The Way We Were on your VCR after you’d just been to a big screen movie theater with Dolby Surround Sound to catch Back To The Future.

So to the up-and-coming generation of guitarists who began during this period—the thousands (millions?) of us locked away in our rooms attempting to woodshed to "Eruption," there was little interest in learning anything B.V.H. (Before Van Halen). And no sooner had we gotten a grasp on Eddie’s playing than along came Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and so many others who helped define modern lead guitar well into the '90s and beyond. Enter the era of P.V.H. (Post Van Halen). 

But, somewhere along the way, a strange thing happened: a lot of '70s guitar solos held their own, withstanding the test of time. In fact, many have arguably held up better than a some of their more "modern" counterparts (early Van Halen being a notable exception, of course). Take the solos on this list, for example: they may not have the flawless execution that was expected by guitarists after 1980, but they represent guitar playing that is considered "undeniably good" according to many experienced ears. They combine feel, taste, dexterity, and memorable melodies, as well as fitting the mood of the songs and helping tell the ‘story.’ They are all worth learning note for note, and playing them will make your licks of the 80s and later sound better (disclaimer: the author admits to not knowing all of these solos note-for-note).

In a recent post, while describing what makes a great recorded track, popular music biz blogger Bob Lefsetz said it best: “It’s not about perfection, it’s about capturing lightning in a bottle.” These words apply equally to guitar solos, and those listed here certainly qualify. Though they may not have the flash, sizzle, screams, pizzaz, and perfection that came with the '80s, when it comes to building a solid foundation, these ten overlooked solos of the '70s are beyond essential: 


Song: “That Smell” 
Band: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Album: Street Survivors (1977)
Soloists: Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Steve Gaines
Although this band is best known for a timeless redneck anthem contagious enough to catch on North of the Mason Dixie line ("Sweet Home Alabama") and an epic jam whose title has become a source of comedy ("Free Bird"), it is this tune that truly captures the full potential of Skynrd’s triple-guitar-solo threat. There are several solos throughout, all worth learning. And while every lick here has a great feel, my personal favorites are played by Steve Gaines, who mixes blistering speed with emotion and extremely innovative slides and bends—a bit like Hendrix gone country. Tragically, Gaines passed away in the infamous 1977 plane crash that killed several members of the Lynryd Skynrd band and crew.

Song: “Blue Jean Blues” 
Band: ZZ Top
Album: Fandango! (1975)
Soloist: Billy Gibbons
Sharp dressed and cheap-sunglass wearing Billy Gibbons is one of the most successful guitarists of all time (and with his famous beard, one of the most recognizable). Although his unique signature sound—a mix of Texas bar blues, heavy rock, and strong pop melodies—has always been appreciated by guitarists, it has rarely been considered "essential." But upon hearing the guitar licks of this "obscure" track (by ZZ Top standards), some might think they’re hearing Stevie Ray Vaughn, while others have guessed it could be an early recording of Joe Satriani (that one’s a bit of a stretch, but there are some similar elements). So, while ZZ Top may have a lot of big hits with guitar playing that’s considered "cool" and "fun," it is this lesser-known track that places Gibbons in a level of much higher importance than previously realized.

Song: “Bat Out Of Hell” 
Artist: Meat Loaf
Album: Bat Out Of Hell (1977)
Soloist: Todd Rundgren
In terms of tone and energy, I’d say that Todd Rundgren (along with Ritchie Blackmore and a few others), was one of the few playing with a dexterity, energy, and attitude that foreshadowed EVH. Yet this track is a relatively recent discovery for me and an interesting story: upon moving to New York in the late '90s, I was surprised that everyone seemed familiar with the album Bat Out of Hell except me. Friends back in the San Francisco Bay Area weren’t familiar with it, either. We’d all heard of it, but few had actually heard it. How could that be? The answer came in 2006, when I was hired to play guitar in a series of concerts in collaboration with the composer of this best-selling album, Jim Steinman, who’d also written hits for Bonnie Tyler and others. A reliable source (other than Jim) gave me the scoop: back in the '70s, there’d been a falling out between Meat Loaf and the late Bill Graham (the Bay Area’s legendary music business patriarch). In the aftermath, venues in the Bay Area had stopped booking Meat Loaf and radio stations stopped playing this album. So by the time I finally heard this, I realized there were some serious licks to catch up on! Check out the solos throughout, but especially at 1:00 and 6:30 in the track.

Song: “Don’t Take Me Alive” 
Band: Steely Dan
Album: The Royal Scam (1976)
Soloist: Larry Carlton
Jazz and jazz-rock guitarists are no strangers to the work of Larry Carlton—but that hasn’t always been true of rock players. A good place to start is this tune, which could be an "honorary" metal song (an outlaw anthem along the lines of Judas Priest’s "Breaking The Law," with angry verses that could have been penned by Dave Mustaine). Its not only a great tune, but a perfect showcase for Carlton (one of many Steely Dan collaborators)—who was considered one of the great players of the second half of the decade. There are great Carlton licks all over this track, combining the blues-rock feel of vintage Beck and Clapton with just the right touch of modern jazz vocabulary. Learning this stuff as a prerequisite to Van Halen is a great idea. Although in later years, Larry Carlton would find success as a smooth-jazz artist playing music tailor made for ‘Lite FM’ radio stations, it is his work in Steely Dan that remains quintessential, as well as essential. (Also recommended: "Kid Charlemagne,"  "Josie.").  

Song: “Bohemian Rhapsody” 
Band: Queen
Album: A Night at the Opera (1975)
Soloist: Brian May 
This example is a bit of an exception since the song, with its anthem-like solo, is anything but overlooked, thanks to a couple of resurgences. But, in the mid to late '80s, many of us young guitarists weren’t aware of it. That’s a shame since the solo, with its crying bends, fast runs, and strong melodic fabric, is a perfect prerequisite to harder rock and metal (check out guitarist Michael Schenker’s great solo on UFO’s "Rock Me Rock Me," a clear descendent of "Bohemian Rhapsody"). Awareness increased in the '90s—first in the U.K. (following the death of vocalist Freddie Mercury) and then in the U.S. (via comedians Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and their hit movie "Wayne’s World"). Interesting fact: while May’s guitar prowess is well known, in his spare time, he is one of Britain’s leading authorities on astrophysics, a respected University Chancellor, and a prominent animal rights activist.

Song: “Comfortably Numb” (second solo) 
Artist: Pink Floyd
Album: The Wall (1979)
Soloist: David Gilmour
This example is another exception—guitar players generally acknowledge David Gilmour’s incredible feel on this song. But it is the second solo that needs to be further appreciated and considered more essential. Most seem to zero in on the first solo in Dmaj which, with its wonderful melody, perfect bends, and emotional delivery is essential in its own right. But it is that second one, in Bmin, where Gilmour shines on like a crazy diamond—his screaming bends, blues attitude, pinched harmonics, slides, vibrato, and other basic elements have a conviction and clarity that rival any '80’s metal solo. Of course, check out both solos, but be sure not to overlook that second one. 

Song: “Breakdown ” 
Band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)
Soloist: Mike Campbell
Since the mid-'70s, Mike Campbell has been a purely supportive guitarist—he is there to help veteran rock superstar Tom Petty do what he does. But listen closely and you’ll hear a guitarist that makes really great note choices. His solos may not dazzle, but they more than make up for it in terms of being memorable. This track is a good place to start, since Campbell’s licks help introduce the verses, and are as much a signature of the song as Petty’s lead vocal. Guitarists in their formative stages would do well studying all of Campbell’s licks on this tune—they’re not too complicated to learn, but simply sound great. Advanced guitarists, especially those knee-deep in their hammer-ons and arpeggios, ought to step away from their shred albums and spend some time with this track, just to be reminded how effective good taste and simplicity can be.  

Song: “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
Band: Blue Oyster Cult
Album: Agents of Fortune (1976)
Soloist: Buck Dharma  
This is a song that anyone who listened to rock radio in the mid-'80s heard a zillion times. And for me, a teen in Van Halen mode at the time, these lead guitar parts just blended into the background. But listening to the solo today reveals that there was some really interesting, impassioned, even exotic playing going on, courtesy of BOC guitarist Buck Dharma. The solo section employs a harmonic minor feel, giving it an electrified Middle Eastern or Mediterranean quality, unusual in rock at that time. It ventures away from the mode at one point (around 3:00), but is otherwise true to form. A great place to begin learning licks with a bit of international influence.

Song: “Never In My Life”
Band: Mountain
Album: Climbing (1970)
Soloist: Leslie West   
When I was starting out, Leslie West was a name I didn’t know—I discovered him by reading an interview with my favorite guitarist at the time, Michael Schenker. Afterward, Mountain’s best known tune, "Mississippi Queen," would re-enter the public consciousness every few years via beer ads, soundtracks, and cover versions. But there are many more gems besides that one big hit. Case in point: "Never In My Life," which features one of the most underrated riffs of all time, in a class with Led Zeppelin and Cream (whose producer, incidentally, was Felix Pappalardi—the bassist in Mountain). The main solo is fairly short—more important are the little fills of licks spread throughout. Damn are they good! Highly recommended for building a vocabulary of great slow bends and vibrato.

Song: “Do You Feel Like We Do” 
Artist: Peter Frampton
Album:  Frampton Comes Alive (1976)
Soloist: Peter Frampton

Peter Frampton is seen as a cautionary tale of the music business. After years of hard work, mostly under the radar, he released an album, Frampton Comes Alive, that rocketed to #1, becoming the best-selling live album the world had ever seen. But, as quickly as he’d risen to the top, Frampton fell from grace, not due to scandals, addiction, or anything typically sinister, but several career missteps: an unsuccessful follow-up album, a bad Rolling Stone cover photo, and most damaging of all, an ill-fated musical film, Sgt. Pepper, in which he co-starred alongside the Bees Gees (that’s right, not the Beatles, the Bee Gees). But underneath this "Behind The Music" drama, Frampton had done some really interesting guitar playing. “Do You Feel Like We Do,” in its bid for live album feel, is riddled with crowd-pleaser moments (the "talk-box," is showcased like a product demo at NAMM). But look beyond and you’ll find many flowing, interesting, and unique melodic lines. A good place to start is the natural (no talk-box) solo at 2:20. Being in D, it brings to mind Eric Clapton’s "White Room" solo, but soon gets a touch of jazziness that brings to mind Larry Carlton and Carlos Santana. Although Clapton, Gilmour, and others may have more clarity and "blues attitude," Peter Frampton’s melodic content is in a class of its own. He deserves to be looked at beyond the now-faded hype surrounding him.
 

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