(Preface: The author’s knowledge of all things guitar is frighteningly lacking. Any regards or mention to ‘hooks’, ‘riffs’, ‘chords’ or ‘shredding’ may be completely wrong to literally anyone who has picked up a guitar for more than five seconds. This is not the intent of the author. The author simply lacks patience and wishes to sound cool. It’s okay – he knows he isn’t really.)
There’s a reason guitars are seen as being cool. They can bring the dirtiest riffs, sharpest solos and subtlest undertones to any song, from any genre. They can make almost any type of noise, on any pitch, with gain, without, distorted, reverbed; if you can think it, chances are you can do it to a guitar.
And in no genre are these beautiful concoctions of science and sonics more prevalent than good, old-fashioned rock. So today, I’m looking to look at my ten favourite pieces of guitar in rock music. They may be introductory riffs, openings that stand that test of time again and again. They could be ear-piercing solos that invoke the true headbanger in each and every listener. Or they may just be a slide here and there that add something so uniquely brilliant to their accompaniment. Without further ado, here are my picks – in no particular order other than chronological because I’m indecisive like that – and why.
Ride A White Swan – T.Rex (Stand Alone Single – 1970) – The first hit of legendary glam rockers, T.Rex, this track supposedly inadvertently gave rise to the mania of glam rock in the early 70s, and that should come as no surprise. Bolan’s seminal overlaying of an epic four guitar tracks turns this jaunty hair hit into a two-minute groover packed with mythological imagery. I’ve always loved T.Rex, and my passion for Bolan et. al stemmed from this song alone. The raw, almost dirty opening hook is impossible not to jam along to and signaled the start of many a glam band.
The Chain – Fleetwood Mac (‘Rumours’ – 1977) – One of the best-selling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s legendary Rumours is packed with great songs, and great guitar from longtime producer and songwriter, Lindsey Buckingham. From his self-penned ‘Never Going Back Again’ to the poppy ‘I Don’t Want To Know’, this record is truly a testament to such an instrument. But nowhere are Buckingham’s skills more evident than the album’s most recognized song, ‘The Chain’. Sure, bassist John McVie laid down a hook that’s etched into British minds forever (thanks to its appearance as the Formula 1 theme for many years), and every member did their bit, but it’s guitarist Buckingham’s end solo that climbs and climbs from it, a phoenix from the ashes, until it’s a blinding crescendo of shredding noise.
We Will Rock You – Queen (‘News of the World’ – 1977) – 1977 brought many a great album to the rock fold, from Fleetwood Mac to ELO’s chart-topping ‘Out of the Blue’. But when Queen released their latest effort, ‘News of the World’, in all its stripped back rock ‘n roll glory, history was made. The record’s opener, ‘We Will Rock You’, is just two minutes long, making use of the fans’ limited space at their gigs. Stomp, stomp, clap is the iconic beat. But when Brian May blisters into a raw solo by the end, it truly brings this track to a momentous close. It’s something he does very well, and this can be seen on other pieces from the album, such as ‘It’s Late’, or ‘Hammer To Fall’ from their later record, The Works.
You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC (‘Back in Black’ – 1980) – Aussie rockers, AC/DC’s return with Brian Johnson, Back in Black, went on to become the second best-selling album of all time. And though this is largely in part to Johnson’s iconic raspy vocals and borderline predatory lyrics, no one can question the sheer amount of awesome riffs this album holds. The title track, Shoot To Thrill, Givin’ The Dog A Bone, the list is endless. But my favourite has to remain You Shook Me…, a ridiculously catchy hard rock number, with a blinding solo to match. You can just imagine guitarist Angus Young’s synonymous duckwalk onstage as he shreds and headbangs along. Brilliant.
Only Lonely – Bon Jovi (‘7800 Fahrenheit’ – 1985) – A somewhat unknown choice here, Only Lonely appears on the titans of American glam rock, Bon Jovi’s second record. The album itself is full of hidden rockers and headbangers, but it’s this song where the talents of Richie Sambora really makes themselves known. As Jovi wails into the void, Sambora moves like lightning up and down the fretboard, creating a beautiful cacophony to the ears.
Lil’ Devil – The Cult (‘Electric’ – 1987) – Bradford-born rockers, The Cult, have had their fair share of big hooks and big choruses. It’s what they do best. Even Billy Duffy’s enchanting opening of ‘Spiritwalker’ from their debut, Dreamtime, is great, and with each album it just gets better and better. Fast forward to the year of great rock albums, 1987, when they released Electric, featuring the likes of ‘Wild Flower’ and ‘Love Removal Machine’. But the opening – and sustaining – riff of the three-minute ‘Lil’ Devil’ is infectious. It’s so simple, but impossible not to move in time to. It’s perfect live, chugging away again and again, each time catchier than the last. But that can be said about many songs from The Cult – just look at ‘Rain’ or ‘Fire Woman’.
Little Liar – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (‘Up Your Alley’ – 1988) – Few rockstars ever looked as cool as Joan Jett, let alone sounded it. The black-haired goddess of voice and guitar gave us many great tracks and covers, but for me it’s their 1988 single, ‘Little Liar’, that trumps them all. It’s so quintessentially 80’s in its sound, a rock ballad of heartbreak and adultery, ending in one of Ricky Byrd’s best solos. The amps are up high, and the screeching solo that follows is one of outright sorcery.
18 And Life – Skid Row (‘Skid Row’ – 1989) – Bon Jovi had already paved the way for American glam rock/hair metal with their albums, Slippery When Wet and New Jersey. Fast forward a year and it was time for fellow New Jersey-ians, Skid Row, to have a go. Their eponymous debut unleashed the anthem of a generation, ‘Youth Gone Wild’ unto the world. But possibly their biggest hit, ’18 And Life’ features one of the best guitar solos ever. As Sebastian Bach lets loose his savage, piercing vocals, telling us of a child called Ricky who went bad and commits a murder (‘He fired his six-shot to the wind, that child blew a child away!’), guitarist Scotti Hill gives the kind of solo you’d expect to see performed atop Mount Olympus. In the wind and rain, he gives us everything he has; a penetrating wail of a piece.
Runnin’ Down A Dream – Tom Petty (‘Full Moon Fever’ – 1989) – The name Tom Petty is practically synonymous with good, old-fashioned American rock ‘n roll, keeping things basic with his famous backing band, the Heartbreakers. After a slew of successful albums and chart favourites, Tom enlisted the help of ELO frontman Jeff Lynne to produce his debut solo record, Full Moon Fever. With a polished, more glossy touch than the earlier albums of Damn the Torpedoes or Southern Accents, it was a huge success, home to hits like ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’. But it was the album’s fifth track, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ that caught the attention of many. With great vocals from Petty and guitar work from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, it’s a song begging to be played with the roof up and pedal down. The last minute of the track is nothing but bewildering guitar work, and boy is it sublime.
Mutter – Rammstein (‘Mutter’ – 2001) – Possibly the most unexpected entry on the list (sorry), German Neue Deutsche Harte band (imagine someone throwing industrial metal, techno and a splash of pop into an abandoned cauldron) Rammstein are no strangers to big, catchy guitar hooks and choruses. And controversy. The biggest single from their latest album, ‘Deutschland’ is one of many examples of this. But back in 2001, the band released possibly their biggest album, entitled, simply, Mutter (meaning ‘mother’ in German), featuring, among other singles, ‘Ich Will’ and ‘Sonne’. The title track, however (which was still big), has some incredible orchestration running throughout. As the song’s narrator cries out for the mother he never had (born of some ‘experiment’, thus depriving him of parents), we get these heartbreaking sting arrangements that rise ever higher. They’re only matched by the beautiful solo of guitarist Richard Kruspe. It makes for a haunting song, but a great one, nonetheless.