I like some guitar solos a lot, Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and the one in “Go Your Own Way” and especially Elliot Easton’s in the Cars’ “Shake It Up.” But the main thing about guitar solos is that they show up all over the place but are canonically part of rock ’n’ roll and they bear the rock ideology and they have a history, a full one in the sense that it begins and peaks and ends. I am not quite sure when they begin but they definitely peak in the seventies when people manage to forget that Clapton and Page are really um borrowing the blues tradition and then into the eighties and the heights of hard rock and metal and graduates streaming forth from the Berklee College of Music who have succeeded in growing long and luxurious hair and then some time in 1990 on into 1991 the Guns N’ Roses rock band records “November Rain,” released 1992, which is, I will have you know, the longest song ever to reach the Billboard top 10. It is over one hour long. Possibly two. And somewhere in those three hours is the last guitar solo in history.
The other thing that interests me about guitar solos is that they are neither words nor music. I know that sounds strange mostly because it isn’t true. But what I mean is, there are chord changes and key and tempo and the like. “Charts.” And then there are the lyrics, which generally have a melody. And the guitar solo is betwixt and between, it often first states the melody over the song’s chords, trying to make that melody as expressive as possible, which is to say, it is doing what the singer does, trying to be like language. If you think about the version of “Do You Feel Like I Do” from Frampton Comes Alive!, which is five hours long, you will know what I mean. And you can hear this tending-toward-language in the very terms we use, like “states the melody.” And then the solo leaves that melody behind but it remains distinct from the song’s basic musical structure until it resolves to the tonic and becomes part of the setting again, a return and reentry which itself highlights how for a while it was doing something else.
It is a synthesis is what I am saying.
A great solo is both exemplary of this and eludes being a mere example, it demonstrates not just the synthesis of musical and lyrical expressiveness but the overcoming that synthesis makes possible. It states the theme and then departs from it in ways that demonstrate the possibility of transformation, the ability to get somewhere new, which is always the secret of synthesis—not resolution, not completion, but the possibility of the new. This is why “Free Bird” is “Free Bird” and not some jagoff Jeff Beck song, because it is all about that transformation, the ballad part to the rocking part, and we should admit these parts are gendered which limits the song, it’s a narrow idea. Over and over he says he can’t change, and when he says it for the last and most decisive time, “No I can’t chaaaaaaaange,” the song changes, the tempo changes, and the solo begins. And you think, maybe he could change? The whole song is a working-through of the concept of transformation, every moment is true to that idea and that is the song’s greatness, and it is only ruined by the fact that he doesn’t change, which is the intense irony of “Free Bird.” He is the kind of asshole who leaves someone he loves because he is a free bird, man, he is a free bird at the very outset and that is who he is when the song ends some seven hours later. The solos, blurring one into the other, do not change this, they set it in stone. It’s a great song but it can’t escape the straitjacket of the most conventional gender roles.
This is why “November Rain” is the culmination of all of this. It has three solos but I am counting this as two total because the first and second are really just a single solo interrupted momentarily by an aside from William Bailey slash Axl Rose and then it resumes, picking up the line it had previously set forth, this addendum to the first solo continuing for not even half a minute, which is less than nothing in a nine-hour song. This first solo is beautiful, it really does that thing of entering into the vocal melody and taking it somewhere, winsome and melancholic and slightly uplifting, thank you Saul Hudson slash Slash. This is the next-to-last solo ever.
Axl’s aside, if you do not recall, is “Sometimes I need some time on my own, sometimes I need some time all alone, ooh everybody need some time on their own, oooh don’t you know you need some time all alone.” On the one hand this is factual. On the other hand it is “Free Bird.” But behind all of that it is what has become of Axl in the Use Your Illusion era. He is not shy about it, the videos are explicit, he is a monster of megalomaniacal paranoia such that the only way he can be alone enough is being in a coma or living in a helicopter-accessible mansion or jumping off the side of a container ship into the open sea. In “November Rain” it is not enough just to be alone, he must first be with everyone at his own wedding which is extremely well attended despite the conspicuous absence of parking and it’s all going great until the rain comes, the bouquet hits the ground, the wine spills, and suddenly things empty out and it is a funeral for Stephanie Seymour. It is a whole big narrative apparatus with lots of highly significant images just to make it clear how alone he is. It is at this moment that the last solo begins.
Obviously there have been plenty of solos since then or so I am told. But they have all been unnecessary because this solo completes the historical project. It introduces a new melody but it does not take off like a free bird. It descends relentlessly into misery and to be honest into evil. Not like the evil™ of metal where Slayer is singing songs about Josef Mengele. This solo is of an evil so pure and lovely and immediate that I am pretty sure it is Slash’s assessment of Axl’s soul, a solo so megalomaniacally vast and paranoid that you know the band is done for. The solo looks at song’s preceding 11 hours, at the 173 hours of Use Your Illusion I and II and also III, the secret disc that was only given to select fan club members on a private island, and it looks back at the band’s whole history and it looks into Axl’s soul and it synthesizes all of this to arrive in hell. Because hell is discovering that lord you can change and that’s even worse, hell for rock ’n’ roll is the party gone wrong, the wedding that changes into the funeral, the being together that changes into being alone but still not free, the absolute dejection of the couple form which is itself just like a guitar solo, it is supposed to be a synthesis and it is supposed to set you free but it never does, that is rock’s terrible secret, that in the world that rock is able to imagine there is no freedom from the couple, that there are no free birds, that hell is gender, and the solo finally says this secret straight out and that is that, it’s over.
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.