Everybody has their own moment. That moment when you listen to something that hooks you onto metal for a lifetime. It could be a riff, a bass line or an insanely catchy chorus. For me, it was a solo. The solo in “Holy wars . . . The punishment due” by Megadeth. The first time I heard the solo, it blew me away. The speed, the virtuosity, the technique, everything was brilliant about it. And thus started my love affair with solos.
Solos for me are the best part of a song. In fact, my favourite song is “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic, a 10 minute long guitar solo released by Funkadelic in 1971. It was the first song which moved me. No praise is high enough for that song. The crying wah, the soaring crescendos, the psychedelic effects. Eddie Hazel was an underappreciated genius. The 80’s saw the rise of thrash metal and thrash metal songs have some of the best solos I like –Tornado of souls, The four horsemen, Raining blood. With the solo being the centerpiece of the song, songs were built to showcase it. It even led to jazz guitarists crossing over to play in metal bands – like former member Alex Skolnick rejoining Testament after making a name for himself in jazz with the Alex Skolnick Trio. Some of the most famous songs can attribute their popularity in part to their solos. The 90’s saw the decline of thrash and metal in general, but the solo remained as popular as ever. Bands like Rage Against The Machine continued to write innovative solos with Tom Morello utilizing his full pedalboard to give us some memorable solos.The solo was still the highlight of the song. Guitar players were judged on their ability to play solos. The rhythm guitarist was never thrust in the limelight. The solo gained mainstream acceptance and so did metal to some extent.
But today, it has all changed. With the rise in importance of a tight rhythm section and shift in focus from indulgence to content, the solo has had a steady decline. Part of it can be attributed to the development of music. Music today has become much more precise and focused. There is no place for over indulgence and flashiness. Tastes in music have changed and become much more specific. Earlier, most people could only listen to the local bands playing live, whereas you and I are allowed to pick and choose. And the audience for instrumental speed metal with a large emphasis on shredding has been declining, as witnessed by the lack of albums released and the poor performance of those which did. It could be said that shredding reached its zenith in late 80’s and has been in decline since. Metal has become one of the most technically challenging genres of music. In my opinion, most of the developments in metal, whether it be downtuning, polyrhythm riffs or 7/8 string guitars, have been made in the rhythm section of the song.
The only true development in solos in the past decade has been sweep picking. Sweep picking is a difficult technique in which the guitarist plays single notes on consecutive strings in a sweep motion from the top to bottom and vice versa at great speeds. When used properly, it adds an interesting and different dimension to songs. But even then, it is used very rarely, and generally by technical/progressive metal bands. And there are already indications that originality in sweep picking has reached a saturation state. After a certain point, sweep picking cannot redeem a guitarist’s lack of writing ability. Volume of notes is no substitute for a slow, well written melody. I would rather listen to a slow yet brilliantly written John Frusciante solo than listen to Micheal Angelo Batio hit 200 random notes a minute.
How many solos do we remember from music released in the last decade? There aren’t many. There are very few guitarists today with the ability to write an interesting and meaningful solo. Synyster Gates, despite Avenged Sevenfold’s credibility (or lack of it ) is one of the most technically proficient lead guitarists today and his solos showcase an interesting mix of mini sweeps, shredding, and innovative use of oriental scales. Francesco artusato of All Shall Perish, Mark Morton of Lamb of God, Jeff Loomis of Conquering Dystopia and John Petrucci of Dream Theatre are some of the well known comtemporary lead guitarists. John Petrucci’s solo album “Suspended Animation” remains one of the most influential instrumental albums of recent times with its disntinctive mix of high speed shredding and soulful melodies. Some shredders still continue to release music but they have mostly become paid session musicians rather than breakthrough lead guitarists.
Solo writing is a delicate and intricate art. Most guitarists fall in the trap of performing mindless scale runs or, as Lars Ulrich would say, “stock” pentatonic based solos. But the solo is much more than that. It is an embodiment of the theme behind the song. Maybe this is an evolutionary demise. Maybe there is only so much innovation that can be done in something that has been around for as long as the solo has. Maybe this decline is irreversible and permanent. Or maybe a band will emerge who can prove us wrong and restore the solo to its former glory. Protest the Hero anyone?