Why rock’s guitar heroes are facing the axe

Eddie Van Halen playing the final chord of Jump in 2004 - AP
Eddie Van Halen playing the final chord of Jump in 2004 - AP

I think I was about 13 when I saw my first guitar hero. As I parked myself in front of the family television set early one Friday evening, ready as ever to watch the Channel 4 music show The Tube, there he was: shoulder-length hair (likely dyed), bare arms, a bright orange electric six-string, shapes thrown everywhere, plus an arsenal of amplifiers piled high at his rear. The musician’s name was Jeff Beck.

As is sometimes the way of these things, the track itself (Ambitious, from 1985) wasn’t much cop. Perhaps more than any other wildly esteemed plank spanker, Beck didn’t seem much interested in anything as humdrum as writing songs. As a player on the London session scene, in the 1960s he’d seen just how easy it was to conjure up an appearance on the singles charts. Really, there was nothing to it. He even regarded his own mega-hit, the thrice issued Hi Ho Silver Lining, with something approaching contempt.

Rather, Jeff Beck was all about technique. Following his death earlier this month, from a bacterial meningitis infection, the 78-year old was publicly mourned by the finest guitarists in the world. “The six stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave,” wrote Jimmy Page.

Billy F. Gibbons, from ZZ Top, credited Beck as being the “guy who showed me how this guitar playing thing should be approached”. Joe Satriani described the Englishman as “a genius, a stunning original” and “an astounding guitar player with more ways to make you go ‘WTF was that?’ than any other”.

Doubtless it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the death of a pioneer to remind others in the field of their own mortality. But as it relates to guitarists of a certain kind – specifically, show-stopping lead guitarists – it might even be that an entire species feels that it is reaching the end of the road. After all, to address Satriani’s point directly, when was the last time you heard something manufactured with a plectrum, nickel-wrap strings, a distortion pedal and an amplifier the size of a wardrobe that made you sit up in surprise?

I’ll go first, if you like. For me it was probably Matt Bellamy’s solo in the middle of Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist, by Muse. Double-checking its release date, I was surprised to learn that this year the track celebrates its 20th birthday. It’s getting old, I guess, and so am I. Despite being a fixture of the 21st Century rock establishment, Bellamy is one of a vanishingly rare breed of “younger” guitarists who looks as if he’s at least considered the idea of playing his instrument with his teeth. Or setting it on fire. Then again, onstage, he plays the grand piano, too, with all the reserve of Liberace’s troubled ghost. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure multi-instrumentalists qualify.

I should perhaps point out that this isn’t meant to be one of those dreadful think-pieces about how rock is dead. Because it isn’t, and likely it never will be. But the terrain has changed. Of the stadium and arena-bothering groups who made their bones in the 21st Century – Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, The 1975 spring to mind – I can think of none whose songs have regular space for the tasteful talents of a signature lead guitarist. Biffy Clyro and Bring Me The Horizon, the big beasts at the louder end of the market, have also found ways of structuring their material without the support-column of the fret-shredding solo.

Time was, of course, that this kind suppleness would be regarded as heresy. Bands that gave it some welly were required by law to feature at least eight bars of high-octane histrionics from a musician whose facial expression mirrored someone in the throes of an orgasm. Even groups whose métier was more restrained understood the importance of the guitar hero. The final act of Comfortably Numb, by Pink Floyd, would be a heck of a slog without the fingertip-firework display from David Gilmour.

Close, but no guitar: Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Jamie Cook - Getty
Close, but no guitar: Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Jamie Cook - Getty

And, anyway, these were the rules that served us well for years. Even the advent of punk couldn’t upend the natural order of things. Sure, Johnny Ramone had about as much chance of conducting the New York Philharmonic as he did of peppering Blitzkrieg Bop with diminished arpeggios but, on the other side of the sea, the Sex Pistols had plenty of guitar solos. Because those who tell you the punks couldn’t play don’t know what they’re talking about. Mick Jones, from The Clash, had so many licks that he might easily have done a job-swap with his namesake in Foreigner.

Rather than portending doom, rock’s next great convulsion, at the start of the 1990s, brought to the fore the brightest array of virtuosic talent in a generation. Sure, the playing of many of the leading lights of America’s chart-dominating Alternative Nation may have been unconventional, but the manner in which players such as Larry LaLonde, from Primus, Tom Morello, of Rage Against The Machine, and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction subverted the role of the lead guitarist was enough to rescue the gig from the clutches of cliché and conformity that had preceded it.

Because, to tell you the truth, it had got a bit much. It’s one thing to hear Randy Rhoads pumping out the irresistible riff to Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, or to have Eddie Van Halen laying down the lead break in Michael Jackson’s Beat It pretty much in his lunch hour. But by the second half of the 1980s, every LA hopeful with a Kramer Baretta and a Marshall stack imagined themselves the next Jimmy, Jeff or Jimi. Rockers such as Warren DeMartini and George Lynch, from Ratt and Dokken respectively, could play, for sure, but their songs sucked. Elsewhere, at the lower end of the market, the only thing that mattered was how many notes one could cram into a single bar of music, melody be hanged.

James Hetfield (L) and Kirk Hammett of Metallica in 2023 - AFP
James Hetfield (L) and Kirk Hammett of Metallica in 2023 - AFP

Believe it or not, though, it was the usually indulgent world of metal that struck the first blow in the ongoing diminishment of the lead guitar. As the genre maneuvered its way out of the long black shadow cast by groups such as Metallica and Slayer, the final years of the 20th Century saw the emergence of new sounds from Korn, Deftones and System Of A Down that had no use for the template that had served the scene well since the days of Black Sabbath. As “nu metal” found its groove, in place of solos came rappers and turntables. Imagine that.

Certainly, it spooked the older horses in the stable. One of the most pitiful sights from this period is of Metallica, in the documentary film Some Kind Of Monster, from 2004, deciding that they too would forego the kinds of solos that had elevated almost all of their songs since the release of debut album Kill ’Em All in 1983. The only person whose opinion in the matter didn’t seem to count for much was placid lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who was left to explain to the press the absence of his signature sound on St Anger, the group’s hot mess of an LP from that time.

But all’s well that ends well. This summer Hammett, one of the most tasteful and virtuosic player of the past 40-years, will play the solos to songs such as Battery and The Unforgiven as a member of Metallica at the largest stadiums in Europe and the United States. With similar elegance, Slash will perform with Guns N’ Roses at Hyde Park for an audience that will pay up to £750 for a ticket. Someone wants to see world-class musicians dance their way across a fretboard.

And, anyway, no trend lasts forever. So what if there is little chance of Alex Turner busting out of a scorching solo during one of Arctic Monkeys’ increasingly dreary songs in a stadium setting in Britain this summer? As Dylan once said, “Don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin”. Because, for an emerging generation of listeners and creators, music is no longer constrained by either time or genre. Future audiences might find their way to Free Bird and Purple Rain just as easily as last year’s streamers and downloaders found Kate Bush and Metallica. The guitar solo being down is not the same as it being out.

In the meantime, rest assured, the electric soloist continues to live on upon the stages of social media. I don’t know if it’s the algorithms, but my feed on various platforms is alive with the sights and sounds of women and men young and old shredding their way through the rock’n’roll songbook.

My favourite is John Wines, who on Instagram trades under the name Old Grey Guitarist. A guitar tutor from the south coast of the UK, Wines appears to have mastered every solo of note from the past half century and more. For viewers hoping to hear artists as diverse as Pink Floyd (Mother) and Green Day (American Idiot), Gary Moore (Parisienne Walkways) and Nirvana (Smells Like Teen Spirit) replicated with remarkable accuracy, you’ve found your man. Certainly, he has more than enough material to see us through this current drought, no matter how long it lasts.