Eric Clapton: the fate of guitar solos

You know the world is upside down when the Financial Times is not talking credit crunches, but guitar shredding!

Sterile virtuosity and chronic self-indulgence gave the solo a bad name in the 1970s: Clapton, in his alcoholic phase, once performed an entire show lying drunk on the floor of the stage.

Yet guitar solos survived punk – Television’s album Marquee Moon is a shrine to soloing – and then the rise of pop and R&B in the 1980s. Prince’s playing on “Purple Rain” and Eddie Van Halen’s turn on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” belong in the pantheon of classic guitar passages, while contemplative scenes in Top Gun or Miami Vice invariably found characters gazing at the sea as a moody solo delineated their inner lives.

However, a new type of lead guitarist also emerged in the 1980s. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and U2’s The Edge led the way towards the more textural, less showy style that dominates today. Old-fashioned axe heroes still survive, in the form of The White Stripes’ Jack White or Clapton acolytes such as John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa, but the general trend has been away from soloistic virtuosity.

Jonny Greenwood is a prime example. The Radiohead guitarist is capable of cathartic bursts of action, as on “Paranoid Android” – but he more often seems content to hide himself in a wide range of tones, as if wielding multiple shimmering guitars rather than a single shrieking one.

As a schoolboy Clapton saw his first Fender guitar while watching Buddy Holly on television. “That’s the future – that’s what I want,” the thunderstruck schoolboy thought to himself. In contrast, Greenwood played viola in his school orchestra in the 1980s and claims to have been influenced as much by Messiaen as The Pixies. As rock has outgrown its blues and rockabilly roots, so the solo has lost its central role.

Can it stage a comeback? Guitars still exert much the same fascination they did in Clapton’s youth: sales last year reached a record £110m in the UK. Yet the strongest boost to axe heroics lies in an unexpected source, in the un-rock ‘n’ roll pastime of computer gaming.

A generation of tyro guitarists is being raised on games such as the Guitar Hero franchise, which has sold over 25m copies since 2005 and involves players mimicking famous rock songs on a fake guitar. There are band-themed spin-offs, with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica set to be joined later this year by Guitar Hero: Van Halen. The accent is on hard rock and heavy metal: the chances of Guitar Hero: Simon & Garfunkel appearing are slim. “Shredding” – a term aficionados use for the insanely rapid fretwork of soloing heavy metal guitarists – is the principal currency.
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