“Go wrong strong.” ~ Miles Davis

“New ears for new music.” ~ Nietzsche

For the last 50 years, a seminal part of Western popular music has been the guitar solo.

What makes an epic guitar solo and how does it interact with and add to a song?

As a psychotherapist, my theory regarding popular music in general and guitar solos in particular is that they allow us to feel and express (cathartically) a wider range of emotions than we are allowed to feel or express in society. Rock concerts are our society’s condoned way of blowing off steam.

I look at guitar solos the same way I look at magic tricks and jokes: there are set-ups that lead the audience in one direction and then the magician or comedian goes someplace unexpected. Amusement is your brain’s way of reconciling your expectation with reality.

Here’s a visual analogy: there was a brilliant meme going around last year that read, “There’s a time and place for decaf coffee! (Never and in the trash.)” This is funny because when you hear the set-up: “There’s a time and a place for decaf coffee!” your mind scans through times (10pm? after lunch? after dinner?) and places (at the beach? at your favorite cafe? in bed?) but doesn’t think “never” is included under the rubric of “times” and “trash” is a place to enjoy something (because it isn’t).

This is how guitar solos work too: there are lyrical phrases, emotional builds with soaring riffs then releases, apparent calls and responses, and also some intellectual components – phrases that are unique, maybe nostalgic, or possibly even “wrong” (but not too wrong) – phrases that are titillating because they are somewhat transgressive – notes that do not immediately make sense intellectually like playing the major 3rd over a minor vamp.

Lists of greatest guitar solos of all time are filled with highly-emotional – I daresay “screaming” – solos of guitar heroes such as Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, David Gilmore, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Brad Gillis, Slash, Randy Rhodes, Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan, et al. And there’s also a lineage of more intellectual players starting with Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and carried on by George Benson, John Scofield, Pat Methany, Bill Frisell, Yngwie Malmsteen, Guthrie Govan, Steve Vai, Mike Stern, Biréli Lagrène, Joe Satriani, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Al DiMeola, Larry Coryell, Dweezil Zappa, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson and others.

And then there are outliers such as Adrian Belew, Alex Lifeson, Mark Ribot, Andy Summers, Mark Knopler, Steve Howe and Tom Morello who are difficult to categorize.

And then there is Michael Schenker.

For me, Michael Schenker is something like “The Blair Witch Project” of guitarists.

For the last 35 years Michael Schenker’s solo on “Rock Bottom” from U.F.O.’s 1978 album “Phenomenon” was outside of the scope of my guitar playing. Although my mind quickly recognized the solo as beautifully phrased, I literally needed new ears to “hear” many of the notes in it because I could not reconcile them within the key of E minor.   And then I stumbled upon Danny Gill’s two videos of the solo in LickLibrary and it opened up a whole new world of musical poetry to me:

So that’s Danny impeccably replicating the brief symphony composed by Michael Schenker.

And below is the slow version that allowed me to see and hear all of the notes from the dorian scale and see all of the odd bends and trills for the first time.

After learning the solo I decided to research U.F.O. and how “Phenomenon” and “Rock Bottom” were recorded. Besides one or two British documentaries on youtube and a few interviews with Schenker and vocalist/lyricist Phil Mogg, not much is known about this solo besides Schenker was 18, didn’t speak much English, and the main riff seemed to occur out of thin air one day in the studio.

But watching Danny Gill play it both fast and slow above, the solo sounds like a song in itself – doesn’t it?

In particular, there’s a major 3rd used as a passing tone in the opening riff and then Schenker hovers around the 9th (F#) and the 6th (C#) of the dorian scale. I asked Danny if he thought Schenker made a conscious choice to play around the dorian scale and Danny told me, “Schenker could definitely hear the notes of the scale. I don’t know whether he could intellectualize and explain the theory behind the notes but that’s besides the point. He plays passionately and fearlessly; each improvised note sounds worked out because his ears are so musical that they guide him through this epic solo. He was definitely in ‘The Zone.'”

I mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk to Danny and asked if he thought the 18 year old Schenker could have been channeling – if knowing the “rules” might have actually hindered Schenker in some way.

Danny finished by saying, “There is a great Billy Sheehan quote that is plastered on the walls of Musicians Institute where I went to school: ‘You need to know the rules in order to break them.’ I have tried to live by this creed during my own musical journey but wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just know the rules instinctually… and then when to transgress them and explore new territory?  Knowing some musical theory can create a safe zone for a player. The downside is that safe can equal boring. There is also the question of musical style: jazz accepts ‘outside’ notes in a way that pop music doesn’t. Blues is very emotional with alot of note bending designed to emulate the cry of a vocalist. And a great rock guitar solo is a perfect storm of blues emotion, classical melodic sensibility and jazz risk taking.”

Big thanks to Danny Gill for giving me new ears for new music!