Category Archives: Great Solos

Great Solos: Omar Hakim on “I Burn For You”

Song: I Burn For You

Solo performed by: Omar Hakim

From the movie Bring On the Night

Drum solos are tricky things. In rock music, they tend to be geared toward an audience that just wants to scream and hold up lighters/cell phones, which usually translates to drummers playing really loud and/or really fast. They are almost non-existent in pop music. In jazz, drum solos are common. They are usually very intricate, but often sail over the heads of the audience, occupying a space just above the bass solo in the hearts and minds of the listener.

In most cases, alas, drum solos are performed unaccompanied. I hate unaccompanied solos.

The trouble with unaccompanied solos is, in the absence of any harmony or melody to play off of, the solos tend to veer toward extreme displays of technical ability. This is true of all instruments, but especially drums. It is rarely impressive, and almost never any fun. After a few seconds, it’s obvious what level of technique the player is at, and from there it gets boring real fast. The exceptions are usually in those players that are so technically gifted that it boils down to spectacle, a “holy shit how does he/she do that” kind of awe. Dennis Chambers comes to mind; Steve Smith and Victor Wooten too. But even then, after a few minutes I always find myself just wanting to hear some music.

So how to combat this and transform an unaccompanied solo into a musical moment? One word: ostinato.

An ostinato is a musical phrase or riff that is repeated over and over, creating a sort of musical “bed” over which additional rhythms and melodies can be layered. The ostinato can often create a hypnotic effect, and sets the mood for the soloist. Anything can be an ostinato – a simple bass line, a vocal phrase, a piano or guitar chord sequence.

Thankfully, Sting is a thoughtful musician with a tremendous ear for melodic sensibilities. He gets extra credit here for setting up the structure of this arrangement to give maximum emphasis on the music and the musicians. Sting always plays with the best musicians around and he always finds ways to spotlight them, to highlight their strengths. And the bass/vocal ostinato is key to this song’s success.

On its own, “I Burn For You” is a nice song with a cool, mysterious, almost vengeful tone. But in this performance it is elevated to greatness by two masterful solos – the first by Branford Marsalis, and the second by Omar Hakim.

This essay is specifically about Omar Hakim’s drum solo, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the beautiful soprano sax solo that Marsalis plays leading up to Hakim’s tour de force.

Branford’s solo is an excellent example of both tension/release as well as theme/development. Using short bursts of three- and five-note clusters, Marsalis gradually ratchets up the tension by playing angular polyrhythms and wonderful harmonically dissonant scalar passages over the solid groove set up by Hakim and bassist Darryl Jones (Sting plays guitar on this one, then switches to “Brian” the upright bass during the ostinato section), punctuated with impossibly long sustained cries.  Hakim’s drumming under Marsalis builds as well, until Branford drops back down and let’s Hakim take over. And that’s where things really take off.

Now, I’m not a drummer, and I know almost nothing about the technical aspects of drumming beyond the basics. But listening to and watching this solo quickly modulates from an intellectual to a visceral emotional experience. What I love most about this solo – well, both solos really – is that it begins by lighting up the technical side of my brain, with Branford’s beautifully dissonant melodies and rhythms playing against the groove set up by Hakim and Jones, and then it morphs into such a pounding, hypnotic, emotional experience that just washes over me and leaves me wanting to start primal screaming.

The solo is crafted beautifully, with a perfect attention to dynamics. As the solo proceeds, the tension and emotion builds to an impossible crescendo, ready to burst. Hakim ends it at the perfect moment, with a cathartic barrage of triplet snare hits, leaving us delirious and wanting so much more.

Have I seen and heard more technically impressive drum solos? Certainly. So why does this solo in particular affect me so much? I think it’s because every time I listen to it I am struck by how musical it is. For me, Max Roach was always the most musical drum soloist around, and I think in Hakim’s solo I hear the next evolution of his approach. It’s not just a show off moment – it’s a complete part of the song. I’ve always said a great solo can elevate a good song up to a great song, and this solo is the perfect example of that. This is one of the great solos, and also one of the great moments in music.

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Great Solos: Unit 7

Song: Unit 7

Solo Performed By: Wes Montgomery

Album: Smokin’ at the Half Note

 

I’ve wanted to write about this solo for a long time.

Everything I’ve ever heard or read about Smokin’ at the Half Note mentions any number of the following things: the excitement of two titans coming together in a live gig, the exceptional rhythm section of Miles Davis alums, the epic solos on the tune “No Blues” (clocking in around 13 minutes), the beautiful ballads. But I never heard anyone talk about “Unit 7”. It was as if it didn’t exist. Which boggled my mind, because since the first time I heard it I’ve considered it my favorite Wes solo ever, and one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.

The song itself is basically a 12-bar blues with a bridge. The bridge is fairly simple, winding through a few II-V progressions on its way back to the blues section, but it is different enough to provide the soloists a little harmonic interest to work with. In fact it is this bridge section that, in my opinion, serves to elevate this tune above the others on the album. Without the bridge, you’ve got just another blues, and it’s pretty damn hard to beat “No Blues” in that department. But the addition of the bridge provides Wes with the platform to showcase his two best qualities as a musician: (1) his soulful blues playing (over the blues sections), and (2) his melodicism (over the bridge sections).

The solo follows Wes’ favored solo structure of single note lines, followed by octave lines, followed by block chords. After a nice piano solo by Wynton Kelly, Wes comes in around the 2:30 mark with a classic blues lick, and the first thing you notice is his tone. Big, full and round, and surprisingly present.

The next thing you notice is Wes’ patience. I once read a quote about Wes from Lenny Tristano (as told to Joe Satriani): “You know, Wes never played a wrong note. He never played an extra note, he never left one out”. Listen to these single note lines, and he always sounds completely relaxed, and never overplays.

There is a quality that the best players have that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you hear it. It’s a quality of being in complete control of their instrument. It’s not so much in the notes they choose (which are usually great), but the quality of the sound, the tone, the command you hear in their fingers. You can hear that their instrument is a part of them, that it’s some kind of wild thing that they have not only tamed but mastered. Stevie Ray Vaughan immediately comes to mind when I think about this quality. John Coltrane had it too. And Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Kenny Burrell, Jeff Beck, Michael Brecker, George Benson, Clifford Brown, Joe Satriani, Pat Metheny…you get the idea. Wes had that quality in everything he did, and it is on full display here.

Over the first bridge (at about 2:56) Wes plays a really nice counterpoint line, keeping a sort of pedal tone in the upper register while he subtly moves the lower notes around. It’s a beautiful example of his melodic sense – where most players see a II-V progression and jump all over it, blowing a million notes per second or playing one of thousands of rote patterns, Wes plays a simple melody that just sings.

At about 3:18 Wes plays a really nice melodic quote from the Sonny Rollins tune “Pent-Up House”, made famous by Clifford Brown (another great solo, by the way). This kind of musical quoting – where a soloist will mimic a melodic line from another song or even another solo – is a long-standing tradition in jazz. Charlie Parker was the king of it.

When I listen to this solo, time and again the most prevalent thing I take away from it is movement. Try listening to the solo while keeping your body perfectly still. It’s impossible. Particularly the section starting around 3:42. It’s another bridge section (can you tell I’m a sucker for the melodic stuff?), and Wes falls into it by playing a beautiful cascade of notes. It’s really just a descending C major arpeggio, but he plays it by sliding up to each note, creating a sort of leaping-up-the-down-escalator sound, before landing solidly on the minor third (F) of the Dm7 chord that starts the bridge. Too much! But that’s just the beginning – he plays some more tasty lines in the bridge, and then at about 3:50, Wes plays my favorite lick of the solo, and one of my all time favorites. When you analyze it, it’s really a fairly basic turnaround lick, another set of II-Vs. But somehow it manages to sound so fresh and invigorating, mainly due to the interval leaps he makes, which recall Charlie Parker’s intervallic gymnastics (who in turn was influenced by Bach). This is one of those magical musical ideas that defies analysis – even though I have studied it and can even play it pretty well, I still shake my head in joy and wonder every time I hear it.

Wes ends his single note lines with, appropriately, a few blues licks, before moving into the octave section.

I’m not sure if Wes was the first guitarist to ever play solo lines in octaves (I doubt it, but it’s certainly possible), but he was far and away the master of it. Ever since, anyone who has ever played an octave line on guitar immediately invokes a comparison to Wes.

When a guitarist plays lines in octaves, their hand is essentially locked in a specific position, and the entire arm from fingertips to elbow must move as one in order to navigate the fretboard.  Now, Wes was by far the fastest octave player around, but even having said that, the technique still forces the player to forego any really complex lines in favor of more melodic ones – it’s a technique that actually takes “technique” out of the equation. Most techniques are developed in order to facilitate the playing of more complex musical ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the music itself, the melody. Playing in octaves achieves just the opposite; it’s a technique that actually hinders the playing of more complex ideas, therefore putting more focus on the music itself. It’s a brilliant concept when you analyze it, and it becomes even more brilliant when you take away the analysis and understand that that’s just the sound and the melodic lines that Wes was hearing in his head.

In Wes’ hands, the octave section provides not just a melodic boost, but also a rhythmic boost as well. The solo really picks up steam when Wes starts in with the octaves. Check out the line at 4:30 – it’s another escalator-type descending octave run leading into the bridge, and when you hear it you can feel it in your gut, pulling you back down to begin another ascent. This leads to an extraordinary section that builds the momentum even more with just a few simple syncopated lines (4:40-4:50).

Which leads us to the block chord section. Until I started to really study Wes, I was completely befuddled by block chord solos on guitar. I’d listen to Wes, and George Benson, and Joe Pass, and think, “How do they DO that? They must know every possible chord voicing known to man! If I practice for the rest of my life I’ll never learn all those chords.” Well I did try – I went so far as to purchase the classic book “Chord Chemistry” by Ted Greene, which takes a systematic approach to learning, well, every chord voicing known to man, many of them difficult or even impossible to play on guitar, unless you’re Allan Holdsworth. The book remains in pristine shape to this day – I barely cracked it open.

But once I started to actually listen and study Wes, I sort of got it – I couldn’t necessarily do it on guitar, but I could at least wrap my head around it. The thing is, Wes never played more than a dozen or so different chord voicings in his solos. That’s right – a dozen or so. No chord chemistry nonsense – just the basic forms in the higher registers, with a few variations thrown in for various extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc).

The block chord section is similar to the octave section, in that it is so rhythmic and it grooves so hard. Most of the “A” sections are dedicated to syncopated chord strumming, often on the same chords for long periods. Then the bridge sections are used for more complex chords and rhythms. For example, listen at around 5:15, just before the bridge – this follows a long string of very similar chords, with a common top note providing a sort of pedal or anchor. Then the bridge kicks in with another patented rapid-fire descending chord cascade before going back to the syncopated pedal chords.

The solo winds down and it’s back to the main melody and out. When the song is over, I always go back to the feeling of movement. I’m almost physically exhausted by the end of this solo.

Joe Satriani was once asked in an interview to name three of his musical heroes. Naturally his first hero was Jimi Hendrix. His second, Billy Gibbons, was a bit of a surprise but not a stretch. The third musician he mentioned was Wes Montgomery. I’ll close with this excerpt:

“When you sing one of his solos you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. It’s like reading a poem that’s perfect and you just can’t believe someone came up with that combination of words that you use every day but just in a different order. And that’s kind of like what music is. We all have the same notes in our pocket, but the great ones pull out the right ones at the right time. Wes was one of those guys. He had the timing, the rhythm, the note selection, he had an incredible sense of melody and harmony, and he performed impeccably.”

Other writing on Wes Montgomery:

You can read the full Joe Satriani interview here.

You can read Pat Metheny’s fantastic liner notes to the Jazz Icons DVD featuring Wes here.


Great Solos: Machine Gun

Song: Machine Gun

Solo performed by: Jimi Hendrix

Album: Band of Gypsys

Recorded live at the Fillmore East, December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970

It’s THE NOTE.

Thousands of words have been written about Jimi Hendrix and his guitar playing. We can talk about the man, the guitars, the amps, the effects, the tone, the style. But it all comes back to THE NOTE. Those of you who know the Machine Gun solo know exactly what I’m talking about. It is the very first note of the solo, the single greatest rock guitar note ever played. THE NOTE comes at about the 3:59 mark, a huge, sustaining scream that lasts for the first 10 seconds or so of the solo (the note is picked only twice in that time). Hendrix probably could have ended the solo after that note, and the emotions behind the music would have been fully conveyed, but thankfully he didn’t stop there.

There is a kind of mythology surrounding the recording of the Band of Gypsys album, and this song in particular. The details vary and are a little vague, but the gist of the story is this: at the time, numerous sources had been giving Hendrix a hard about the nature of his live shows. The argument was that he jumped and writhed around so much in concert that his actual guitar playing suffered in the process. Some versions of the story attribute the criticism to Bill Graham, famed promoter and proprietor of the Fillmore. So Hendrix decided to show them what he was truly capable of, and when he went out on stage that night he stood in one spot the entire show and did not move, and gave us the best playing of his life.

The song itself is deceptively simple. Like Voodoo Child (and many other Hendrix tunes), it’s basically a jam in E that provides a framework for Hendrix to hang some brilliant solo work on. It starts off slow, with a short intro solo leading up to some sparse guitar licks interspersed between vocal verses. The first thing you really notice in these sections is the guitar tone. Full, round, glassy and shimmering, the tone is classic Hendrix tone even at the low volume of the intro. To get the tone Hendrix employed his usual cadre of effects like the UniVibe, Fuzzface, Vox wah wah, and Octavia.

The solo itself is basically a jam, and for the most part Hendrix remains above the 12th fret on the guitar throughout. He stays in the familiar “blues box” for the first minute or so (after THE NOTE, that is), and then at around 5:18 he embarks on some extended whammy bar manipulations. While doing a slow trill between two notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs to you guitar geeks), he raises and lowers the pitch with the whammy bar, creating an otherworldly fluid sound. This may sound tame compared to more modern whammy bar craziness from the likes of Brad Gillis, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai , and Joe Satriani, but at the time this was innovative stuff. Consider that most whammy bar usage at the time was limited to simple dive bombs and noises, but Hendrix incorporates the bar into the solo, creating and weaving new melodies that at the time were never heard before.

Hendrix caps off the whammy bar section with some wrenching double stop screams and howls, enhanced by a wide vibrato courtesy of more whammy bar usage. He returns to the main theme, only this time an octave higher, then continues with the wails. This is the emotional high point of the solo for me, a catharsis of screaming anguish.

Just when you think the solo must be winding down, at around 7:20 Hendrix launches into a manic legato flurry of notes. At the same time he flips the pickup selector on his Strat to the neck pickup, resulting in a warmer, slightly fuller, slightly fuzzier sound, which blends perfectly with the more legato playing. The effect is exhilarating.  He sticks with the neck sound until the solo finally does wind down, ending in a plaintive feedback cry.

As with any great blues-based solo, it’s never so much about what specific notes are played, but more about the feeling conveyed. This is a fascinating solo to me because it starts on such a high emotional level (THE NOTE), and then stays there, even going higher, throughout the entire solo.

After the solo, but before continuing the vocals, Hendrix plays a short little interlude pentatonic riff. I have always been fascinated with this section. The main riff played by the guitar and bass is the exact same as the end of the main riff played by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. I have always wondered if Page was “inspired by” (i.e. stole) this lick, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any interviews or official story. If anyone out there knows please don’t keep it to yourself.

Links

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Amazon (single – mp3)

Amazon (CD – mp3)

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