Column: The Death of the Guitar Solo

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performs at the Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in September 2019.

Big World, Small Town with Charles Thomas

Maybe it was lockdown anxiety or just my soft heart, but my daughter finally talked me into getting a premium Spotify account recently. She got her long-desired account and I ended up with one too. 

Since I’ve opened it, I’ve been enjoying the almost complete access that it provides to any music recorded in the past 100 years. Maybe I’m just getting old and a little out of touch, but the ability to type any obscure band name into a search bar and instantly hear as much of their music as I want to, well that really amazes me.

I’ve been revisiting some of the music and the albums I loved when I was in high school and college since I opened that account. I’ve returned to listening to the old Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Steely Dan albums I used to play on repeat when I was younger. It’s been tremendous to rediscover some of this music, songs that I last listened to when I played them on cassette tapes in my Chevy Chevette decades ago.

But my Spotify listening hasn’t been totally consumed with nostalgia tripping. I’ve also dove deeper into new popular music that I have in quite a long time. Without the cost of downloading and paying for an album, I’ve been more open to streaming new music by artists like Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and Cardi B. Although I’m well outside the target age group for this music, I’ve really enjoyed much of what I’ve heard, especially the song “Say So” by Doja Cat. That song is just pure sugar. 

I know a lot of people my age often talk about how contemporary music isn’t as good as it was when they were younger, but that hasn’t been my impression. There’s still a lot of great music being made in 2021.

What has struck me, though, as I compare the music of my youth to the music of today is the general lack of musicianship in today’s popular music. I’ve sampled dozens of popular songs in the last few weeks and I’ve been struck by the total and complete lack of songs featuring a guitar solo, or any instrumental solo for that matter.

When I was growing up in the 80s, almost every top forty song featured a guitar solo. Even artists like Michael Jackson, who didn’t play the guitar himself, would bring in virtuoso guitarists to play on his best tracks. For example, when Jackson recorded “Beat It” he called up rock god Eddie Van Halen to play the song’s blistering solo.

Other bands that I enjoyed when I was younger, like Genesis, included at least one instrumental song on their albums. I fondly remember listening to their “Invisible Touch” album on repeat through my high school years. That album featured a five-minute-long instrumental track called “The Brazilian” that was synth heavy, modern, and gave the members of the band a chance to show off their substantial musical abilities.

But today, technology has made it possible for people with little or no musical training to compose and write music. It’s no longer necessary to practice playing your guitar for hours on end if you want to be a musician. All you need now is a Mac Book and the GarageBand app. In a few minutes, you can program a simple synth line over a drum machine beat and you’re creating music.

Technology has democratized music in a way that opens the door of musical expression to those who might not have access to expensive instruments or have the patience to spend hours learning cords. Opening that door to more people is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s a good that you don’t have to learn to play an instrument in order to create music anymore. This technology will allow new artists to create new kinds of music. And the world will be a better place because of that.

But after listening to hours of contemporary music, I remain nostalgic for the days when musicianship was still valued. I miss being impressed the playing ability of people like Mark Knopfler, Slash or Alex Lifeson of Rush. As Prince once said, I miss “real music by real musicians.”

And yes, I know that saying that makes me sound old. As I reread this column, it sounds like something an old out of touch white guy would write.
Oh, well. 

It’s certainly true that I’m getting older. But old or not, I think I’m in very good company when I say that I miss the feeling music gave me, back in the day.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.


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