This Rabbit Hole is the Empire Strikes Back of my three-part series on my favourite guitarists. (Here's Part 1 if you missed it.)
Growing up in the burbs, there wasn't much to do on a Saturday night. At 16, my friends and I would hang around a liquor store, waiting until we could convince someone to buy us beer. Then we'd go back to someone's house, drink the beer and listen to music. After that we'd go out again and yell obscenities at bogan rednecks from a great distance and run for our lives.
Where I grew up, getting chased by people who wanted to beat you up was a good night's entertainment. In fact, that was pretty much the only entertainment.
I was pretty unhappy as a teenager. Who wasn't, I guess? But it was as much a reflection of my environment as it was something to do with a personal disposition.
Getting into music and learning guitar was a way out of that unhappiness. The people I listened to, admired, put pictures of up on my wall, seemed to have magical powers. They were nothing like the people I knew. They had these amazing abilities, a purpose—they were themselves, they were misfits, they transcended that ordinariness that seemed to be choking the life out of me and those around me.
And so every new artist I discovered was a window onto a new world—a world that sometimes looked like mine, sometimes more wonderful, sometimes more awful, but all transformed by being rendered into sound.
And it was through these players that I met more like minded people, and found a life that was bigger than spending your Saturday nights being chased by bogans for fun.
4/7. Vernon Reid (Living Colour) — "Information Overload"
The fact that Vernon Reid has the most un-rock 'n' roll first name in rock 'n' roll history is not the only thing that casts him as an outlier.
I'd never heard of Living Colour until late one night, lying in the dark, I heard "Information Overload" on the radio and it was such a shock.
Vernon Reid came into my life at precisely the time when I thought rock guitar was in decline. I thought I'd heard everything that could be done on the instrument, but this track was a revelation.
Reid's guitar playing on "Information Overload" does exactly what it says on the box. It's an excess of flurries, bends, slides, tweaks and glitches. The 30-second intro sounds like the Pshhhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkakingtshchchchchchchchcchof a 90s dial up modem. And then there's the extended solo in the middle where Reid plays every note of each twist and change in the tonal harmony, and all the notes in between.
Even though Living Colour's music is no longer my cup of tea, Vernon Reid still holds pride of place for me. And without "Information Overload" I wouldn't have been able to appreciate John Coltrane's 'sheets of sound', or Ornette Coleman or Bad Brains, and all the rivers and tributaries that flow in and out of what Vernon is doing on this song.
(Sidenote: The 'wunderwand' thing from the title comes from a Guitar Player article on Vernon I once read many, many years ago. It said something like 'Vernon Reid proves he's not just some new turk with a wunderwand.' At the time it made me guffaw out loud and it's stuck with me ever since.)
5/6. Prince – "Batdance," "Electric Chair" and "Kiss"
If Prince wasn't Prince he'd be one of the greatest guitarists ever.
He is of course. It's just all the other things he's great at eclipse his brilliance on the guitar. So sadly, his guitar playing is often relegated to a footnote.
(He didn't even make it on to Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, which just goes to show how silly and arbitrary these lists are, including this one.)
Prince can do anything on the guitar. He's part Jimi, part Carlos, and a million other things too. His lead breaks are often raw, libidinal, and a little out of control. His playing on "Batdance" and "Electric Chair" for instance sound like orgasms, while his playing on "Kiss" is more restrained but no less titillating.
And he does this thing I said about Jimi in the first installment. He creates these multi-vocal guitar solos using different sounds and styles that seem to be in conversation with each other.
6/5. Junior Marvin (Bob Marley and the Wailers) — "Waiting in Vain"
If you've come this far and thought to yourself— "Vernon, ok. Prince, sure." —maybe you could come just a little further. Yes it's a Bob Marley song, but I'm not asking you to 'blaze one down or nuttin.'
Junior Marvin's solo on "Waiting in Vain" is perfect. To me it's like Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"—you know, the drawing where da Vinci marked out the ideal geometric proportions for the human body. It's my "Vitruvian Man" for constructing any solo because it's melodic, it's spacious, and it's well proportioned. It seems to mimic bird-song and the sing-songiness of human speech in parts too.
You could take this solo and drop it into any pop or country song and it would sound great.
7/4. Alan Sparhawk (Low) — "Words"
Which leads me to this last artist, solo and song for this installment.
If Vernon Reid and Prince are all about excess, then these last two entries are all about economy and restraint, and Alan Sparhawk's guitar playing on "Words" is surely those last two things.
I've seen Low play a few times now, but none of those occasions compare to the first time I saw them. It was during a period when all their songs were slow—real slow. Slow and sparse. The songs were so slow it slowed down your metabolism to hear them. You became painfully and beautifully aware of each chord, each brush fall. It was amazing. No one in the audience spoke. Everyone just stood and listened.
"Words" reminds me of that concert. It's such a delicate song. The guitar is Twin Peaks-esque, Duane Eddy, melancholic.