Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time captures the typical idea of a great "guitar"—for the most part thick, chunky, riffs and howling, blues-jam solos. But what I think of as excellent guitarwork has little to do with anything the likes of Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn have ever done. The best guitar songs to me are muddy, textural, more concerned with atmosphere and aesthetic than with technical proficiency. No, I don't mean punk—in fact sometimes it still means a jamming solo. Other times it means a simple chord or progression, played to fragile perfection. Here's a dozen tracks (in almost chronological order) that, on a cursory look through my collection, totally kill me from a guitar-playing perspective (including some overlap with RS's list).
- The Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966)
The genius of this song, beyond the Coltrane and raga influences, is the way Roger McGuinn took the quintessential Byrds instrument—the twelve-string—and applied it in a wholly different way. This isn't the ringing arpeggios of "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Turn! Turn! Turn!"; this is the lead. Despite having the exact same instrumentation as any other Byrds song, "Eight Miles High" sounds unlike the rest of their material, and it's all due to that twelve-string lead, which sounds like the aural equivalent of a scribbling crayon.
- 13th Floor Elevators, Slip Inside This House (1967)
This epic track is hardly stunning for its guitar solo, which lasts less than thirty seconds near the end of the eight-minute track and is comprised of all of five notes. Yet this song, to me, is all about the guitar. The tone of the guitar is just fantastic—not much treble, and the distortion sounds like there is literally just a tear in the amp’s speaker. Then there’s the riff that carries the song, that propulsive slide up the neck over John Ike Walton’s marching beat. The song is ominous in its repetition.
- The Electric Prunes, General Confessional (1968)
This is probably my favorite Electric Prunes song, and it would be unfair to say it succeeds purely because of the guitar. Every component of this near-instrumental is flawless: the organ, the drums—the drums!—the strings, and the guitars. As far as that guitar goes, again like the Elevators I just love the tone, which sounds as if it were made of glass during the rhythm portions and then becomes a sharp, tinny spike during the solo. Interestingly, looking at the wikipedia page for this album, it’s no wonder every player on this track kills it—they were apparently all session musicians and not actually the Prunes themselves!
Both of these tracks (and the albums they come from) are fairly new to me—purchased within the last three months or so. Listening to them at different times, I had the same thought pass through my head: “I bet this blew young Tom Verlaine’s mind when this came out.” Both albums were released in 1969, when Verlaine was 20. He’d go on to throw down the gauntlet eight years later with his own guitar classic, “Marquee Moon.”
Likewise, hearing “Marquee Moon” for the first time only about two years ago, I had the immediate understanding of what made John Reis’s mind tick when it came to Drive Like Jehu (who I've gone on about before—including more about this song in particular). Sure, Jehu was a lot noisier and more chaotic, but the germ for their aesthetic is there.
- My Bloody Valentine, To Here Knows When (1992)
Any song from Loveless belongs on this kind of list (Rolling Stone picked the opener, “Only Shallow”). Without understating the impact of the entirety of the album, I picked “To Here Knows When”—the song in which the guitars are at their most abstracted. The whammy-effected warping is there, but the whole notion of hitting a string with your pick seems to be absent. The guitar sound is totally effaced; it could very well be all synthesizers or samples. The song is MBV at its least rocking, least melodic, most blurred, most lush.
- The Dirty Three, Distant Shore (1998)
Like the MBV pick this is one song to illustrate the overall greatness of Mick Turner. His delicate chords are the heart of the Dirty Three’s sound—he keeps each song grounded while Warren Ellis’s violin takes center stage. But listen to those chords! Turner’s fingers sound as if they can barley stay on the fretboard long enough to let the notes ring out. Stray notes sneak into every Dirty Three song and they’re all the more beautiful for it. It’s an extremely subtle playing style but he absolutely raises the level of every song he’s on. I’ve said this before, but Turner is precisely the reason why Cat Power’s Moon Pix is her best album. Listen to any of the songs from that record—take American Flag, for instance—and listen to the guitarwork, how fragile it is. That’s not Chan Marshall playing guitar. That’s Mick Turner.
- Low, Born by the Wires (1998)
I’ve written about this song before, so you may know my feelings already. Suffice to say I could listen to that single, beautifully moody chord for hours. At their best, Low make you listen; they make you appreciate the smallest changes. I like to play this song loud, and one of my favorite parts comes in the last minute of the song when Alan Sparhawk has stopped playing the chord, instead letting a low, humming feedback build—and he just touches a string. It’s a short, taut sound and it makes my ears twitch every time I hear it. To me that one moment is the whole point of the song, and it’s a guitar lesson in and of itself.
- Sigur Rós, Svefn-G-Englar (1999)
The breakout track on Sigur Rós’s breakout album has never been topped by the band. It is pure transcendence. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a track that evokes the feeling of floating quite so perfectly as this. Not to mention that sudden, brief chord change midway through. This song is a lesson in dynamics, in tension and release—put to use in toward beauty, which is not often the intent for post-rock bands—that I think not even Sigur Rós has quite grasped ever since.