Driving home from work (anywhere from a 45-60 minute commute depending on weather) I was playing random songs from my iPod Shuffle, the exercise iPod I wrote about last week. The device is like looking at tree rings, where the farther down the list of songs on the device the older the song is. “Master Exploder” by Tenacious D, for example, has lived on the iPod for many years.

As I was daydreaming the song “Faster” by the Manic Street Preachers popped up. I love The Holy Bible (the LP not the book) and this is consistently one of my favorite Manics songs. And so I’m listening and getting into the wacky, dense, almost too-intelligent lyrics when I hear something that I had not heard or noticed in some time: a guitar solo.

How had I not noticed these before? Why this one in a song I’ve heard thousands of times ? Why did it take me 11 years of listening to hear it?

Guitar solos are just a part of music, not nearly as full of shit or distracting as drum solos. With all the music I hear and listened to how come alluvia sudden this solo caught my ear?

I think that we hear too many guitar solos. They’ve become a basic part of the structure of a song. Verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus-verse-end. We don’t hear them anymore. I don’t think they have the heft they did in the past.

I looked at the tunes on my iPod and as I use it for exercise I found a lot of dance music, up-tempo stuff, and things that I find propulsive. I don’t find guitar solos propulsive. Modern songs on my iPod are the likes of Animal Collective, TV On The Radio and LCD Soundsystem. I can’t think of a solo in any of their songs.

Now it can’t simply be guitar entropy I’m suffering from. There has to be something bigger at work here with my gradual forgetfulness. I can’t have spent all this time being a music listener and now find myself forgetting something as primal and central to all songs as a solo.

I think there are two explanations:

  1. I listen to lots of jazz. Jazz is not without solos or guitars but guitar solos aren’t as unique or central an element in jazz songs.
  2. Dance music and hip-hop are genres built on sections. They build and repeat without a solid focus on one instrument. The main theme of the song or chorus is repeated where once there could have been a guitar solo.

I think the two things merge together into a solid reason why I hear guitar solos yet I never “hear” guitar solos. Other than the Manics song the most recent song I can think of I have where I remember guitars is “The Musical Box” by Genesis. (10 minutes of prog mayhem with a wacky story I will write about in a later column.) At ten minutes into the song there is a big vocal flourish followed by a guitar explosion. There are others in the song too. But I don’t hear those parts of the songs as solos; rather I hear them as sections and moments of an overall song. Do I know the players associated with the guitars? Yes. There are three at the beginning of the song in question, and I know their names and a bit of their styles. But the big solos don’t feel like big solos. They don’t feel separate from the song. They establish and reinforce the overall mood and feel of the song. Genesis might be a bad example as there are plenty of what one could describe as solos in their songs (I am thinking of “Firth of Fifth” in particular, which begins with a long instrumental piano opening that is restated later in the song and really is nothing other than a solo, in all traditional senses of the word). My favorite part of the song, now that I am relistening to it, builds to a flute solo, a piano bit and then a farfisa solo then on to a loooong guitar section before Peter Gabriel’s voice floats back into the song.

The Big Star song “In The Street” has this wonderful bit where the guitar apes the chorus of the song and sounds, and feels, like there are words that are missing. Is it a solo? It feels like there is something that is supposed to be missing there. This bit comes AFTER a traditional solo guitar section of the song. I never really noticed it as a guitar part before but it kinda is. But it isn’t. But it is a part of the song, a section of the song.

Back to the Manics. The Holy Bible was a record that came out of lots of personal pain, particularly for the guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards. There aren’t a lot of “hits” on the LP but there is plenty of catchy music. Find the lyrics to “Faster,” check them out. Fascinating stuff. And then listen to the song. Crunchy and catchy and there is tons of guitar in there. Tons of it. How could I not hear it? How could I not focus on it? Have I divorced myself from structures of traditional popular music? Maybe it was just time away from songs with sounds like this solo, so much so that when a flipping great section of a song rises above the din I take notice. But maybe I think that a lack of attention to the song coupled with not paying much attention to anything at the time allowed me to arrive at the solo without focusing on the overall song as a whole. It was nice but superfluous at the same time and it was great.

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