Classic musicianship provides relief from mainstream tunes

Column by John Crowell

Whatever happened to guitar solos? For that matter, whatever happened to musicians taking pride in learning how to play their instruments?

It is true that the punk movement and other forms of experimental rock have made their own statements about the nature of music outside the bounds of technical prowess. There have been important statements made about tone, song structure and composition. By the same token, I never really find myself driving around listening to long tracks by classical guitarist Andres Segovia just because of his technical chops. However, after jamming for a while on a nonstop diet of Calvin Johnson, Man Man and noise rock, don’t you just crave listening to an artist who can really just play an instrument?

I know I do. I’ve compiled, after much deliberation and time randomly scrolling through my iPod, a list of songs that display admirable musicianship and are also, you know, good.

Led Zeppelin — “Moby Dick” — Led Zeppelin II

The whole band really shines on this track, although I guess this was Robert Plant’s opportunity during a live show to grab a beer and kick back, as there are no vocals. The guitar and bass sound amazing on the opening and closing sections, and the tune is definitely catchy as can be. What really amazes, though, is the two and a half minute-long drum solo in the middle of the song.  Even more admirable than John Bonham’s constant amazing drumming is the fact that he did much of it with his hands, because he preferred the sound and control he was able to gain this way. Think about it: bare hands on a two and a half minute-solo on a full-sized drum kit. Have Brian Eno hit a crash symbol bare-handed and then get back to me about how musically gifted he is. Just saying.

Jimi Hendrix — “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” — Electric Ladyland

It’s a shame NASA doesn’t allow astronauts to take acid a few minutes before taking off into space because we will never know for sure how much it feels like “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” sounds. I’m pretty sure it’s quite similar. Some people might regard this as an overrated classic rock song, but I would suggest simply listening to the entire thing on headphones in one sitting. Guitar parts zoom in from the left and right speakers dramatically, the rhythm inexplicably yet flawlessly slows down and speeds up and verses blossom from instruments sounding like they were submerged in water even as they attack your ears. Hendrix was a master not just of guitar technique, but in the areas of guitar effects and record production as well. This is the quintessential song that proves it.

Liars — “Mr Your on Fire Mr” — They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top

This track from Liars’ first album is a good example of an indie-rock band that actually has its musicianship down pat. Most of the song’s instrumentation consists of a fuzzed-out bass line and spastic drums, combined with occasional bursts of guitar squeals and feedback. Both the bassist and drummer propel the song forward with admirably complex and catchy parts, redefining the term “rhythm section.” It is the bass and drums that drive the song. Liars obviously weren’t the first or last band to have such a dynamic. “Mr Your on Fire Mr” is just the coolest song to demonstrate it so far.

Jerry Lee Lewis — “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” — 25 All-Time Greatest Sun Recordings

Why don’t people play guitar rock anymore? It seems like the instrument is currently regulated to classical, jazz or “serious, emotional” rock. Jerry Lee Lewis proved the piano could be an instrument of rock destruction. The way he played piano was absolutely ridiculous and as inventive as any lead guitarist. What’s more, Lewis’ stage presence was some of the wildest in history, giving some later punk bands a run for their money. Other artists, such as Little Richard, had a similar aesthetic. However, I’ll have to give Jerry Lee Lewis preference because of the fact that he continues to go strong today, as is evident by 2006’s excellent Last Man Standing.

Lynyrd Skynyrd — “Free Bird” — Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd

Drunken forty-year-olds scream this song’s name out at concerts for a reason: “Free Bird” is awesome. Once again, having it forced upon the ears of listeners over the last 30 years has left some forgetting how truly great this song is. Occasional homage paid by bands such as Built to Spill hopefully has inspired some to remember. The guitar mastery on this 15-minute-long epic is staggering. I tried to learn the solo myself once and seeing the whole thing transcribed on paper in front of me made me want to cry. What’s even more amazing is the two original lead guitarists of Lynyrd Skynyrd played the song live, in unison, note for note. Before you write this song off as an antiquated parody of itself, just sit and listen to it in its entirety. Its power is hard to deny.

I’m not saying that experimental music has no purpose in the rock world. I personally enjoy it a great deal and think that some of the most important and entertaining music in the last few decades has been of the “experimental” or “progressive” variety. Still, there really isn’t anything that replaces blasting a song on your stereo that is played by musicians who have learned their instruments and know how to make amazing, passionate music with them.

John Crowell is a journalism senior. E-mail at [email protected]