DOIN’ THE DOZEN: THE 12 GREATEST OVER-THE-TOP ROCK GUITAR SOLOS OF ALL TIME
1. Dickey Betts on “Whipping Post”
2. Johnny Winter on “Be Careful With a Fool”
3. Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven”
4. Jimi Hendrix on “Little Wing” (or about 15 other numbers)
5. Freddie King on “Remington Ride” (second solo)
6. Bruce Springsteen on “Kitty’s Back”
7. Duane Allman on “Loan Me a Dime” by Boz Skaggs or “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad” by Derek and the Dominoes
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan on “Double Whammy” by Lonnie Mack
9. Ritchie Blackmore on “Highway Star” by Deep Purple
10. James Burton on “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson
11. Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Ed King on “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
12. Carlos Santana on “Samba Pa Ti”
Christmas came a little early this year (1997) when I received a package from Capricorn Records that contained remastered versions of all the early albums of the Allman Brothers. The best reissues are the ones that instantly take you back to a particular time and place in your life, and when I put on the still-remarkable “Live at the Fillmore East” CD I was suddenly transported to an era that I would’ve long forgotten if the student loan people didn’t keep tracking me down. There was a period (called the ’70s, I believe) when my record collection, and therefore my free time, was dominated by albums of men with long hair, parted in the middle, who engaged in exhausting quests to contort their guitars into long, fast successions of shrieks and screams.
The blues, originally the sound of raw emotions coming out, had practically become an athletic event and I was in the stands cheering. The longer and more extravagant the solo, the better, and my heroes included Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and just about any other guitarist who could turn a three-minute song into a superjam that filled the whole side of an album. I owned Mahogany Rush records (that’s right, plural) and preferred Lou Reed’s “Rock N’ Roll Animal,” which was really a Steve Hunter-Dick Wagner guitar duel album, to the quieter, artier original versions of the songs by the Velvet Underground. Lyrics? Those were just words that separated the solos.
At the apex of this era of overextended jams were the Allman Brothers, those soulful longhairs from Florida, who turned Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain” ditty into a 33-minute noodlefest that filled two sides of “Eat a Peach.” If you were to gather all the joints smoked during that track, you’d have a pile of roaches big enough to build a bonfire (and still be done with the task before the song was finished). But that was the point in the late ’60s/early ’70s, when playing the guitar became an endurance test — sometimes for the listener as well (especially on Alvin Lee’s notes-per-second land speed record which recalls Truman Capote’s
putdown of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”).
My friends and I used to argue about guitar players the way other kids rated athletes against each other. “Jimi Hendrix could rip up anyone,” I’d say and one of my friends would answer, “Not John McLaughlin,” and we’d play cuts to back our stance. Then there was the never-ending “Free Bird” vs. “Green Grass and High Tides” (by the Outlaws) debate.
But we all agreed that the most amazing 10 minutes of guitar heroics were contained on the first half of the Allmans’ “Whipping Post,” recorded “Live at the Fillmore East” on March 12, 1971. Seven months later, group catalyst Duane Allman (who also scorched the earth with his guitar work with Derek and the Dominoes, as well as in sessions with Wilson Pickett, King Curtis and Aretha Franklin), died in a motorcycle accident in the band’s adopted hometown of Macon, Ga. He was followed in tragedy a year later and three blocks away by bassist Berry Oakley, also the victim of a motorcycle crash.
On that glorious recording of “Whipping Post,” however, the band is frozen alive in classic form. Besides featuring the best rock guitar solo of all time (the second one, by Dickey Betts), the track is a lesson in full band chemistry and intuition. You will not only play air guitar, but you’ll also find yourself playing air drums and plucking at an imaginary bass when listening to the “Post.”
It starts off with Oakley’s relentless rumble, then Duane Allman and fellow guitarist Dickey Betts do a little tornado tease over the double drumming of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johannson before singer Gregg Allman comes in like the hippie Ray Charles: “I’ve been run down/ I’ve been lied to/ I don’t know why I let that woman make me out a fool.”
Some weaker souls might strike back with their fists after being treated so bad by a woman they caught “with one of my good-time buddies,drinkin’ in some crosstown bar,” or maybe even go get a gun. But Duane and Dickey filter all their aggression through that shapely peninsula of wood and wires in their hands. Suddenly, they’re in control of the situation, bringing order and passion to the hollow chaos that spills from a broken heart. Forget Sinatra’s motto about living well — kicking ass is the best revenge and these two guitarists pound some serious posterior.
Duane Allman is first to solo and he makes full use of the space, displaying his fluidly flying fingers and soulful bites for about three minutes before brother Gregg breaks in. “I drown myself in sorrow when I see what you’ve done …” First-time listeners will be satisfied that they just heard a magnificent solo, but this ride ain’t close to being over.
Betts starts slowly. Like the first round of a championship fight, he sort of feels things out. He gains confidence with a quick gypsy run, then without the use of lyrics, he confronts the two-timing girlfriend. At first trying to reason (and he knows he’s right), Betts builds up anger through his guitar, cutting through the complacency. It gets hotter and hotter — a passionate symphony unto itself — and then it climaxes in a burst of exhilaration, as Betts finds his independence by producing notes that are thick enough to clog your esophagus. The listener is delirious, exhausted, as the song dissolves into trippy indulgence. Betts’ 31/2-minute solo is more moving than the entire Pearl Jam catalog.
That’s my favorite guitar solo. Here are others’.
Usually when you poll musicians about favorite this or best that, you’ve gotta give them some time and call back later. But when we asked these top local guitarists to name their all-time favorite guitar solos, the answers were instantaneous. It was like asking them to name their parents.
JUNIOR BROWN: “Blues Power” by Albert King. (“That guitar solo openedthe doors to so many other types of solos.”)
DAVID GRISSOM: Neil Young on “Cinnamon Girl” and Wes Montgomery on “Caravan.”
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: James Williamson on “I Got a Right” by the Stooges.
GUY FORSYTH: Johnny Winter on the live version of “Deep Down in Florida” by Muddy Waters.
DAVID HOLT: “Wind Cries Mary” or “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix.
JON DEE GRAHAM: Chris Spedding on “Hurt by Love.”
DON MCLEESE: Robbie Robertson on “King Harvest” by the Band.
CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER: Keith Richards on “Sympathy for the Devil.”
MICHAEL POINT: Frank Zappa on “Hot Rats” or Vernon Reid on “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour
ROB PATTERSON: James Burton on “Number One Lovin’ Man” by Jerry Lee Lewis.