Guitar and amp

A brief revelation

This may seem like a digression but I’m going somewhere with it, I promise. Soon, I’ll also have new posts about more design-y things.

I had a revelation just now about music that was so simple, so fundamental, that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. It’s about heavy metal guitar solos.

Christopher Lee with guitar
You shall not thrash

You see, living in the Midwest, it’s difficult to find anything worth listening to on the radio when I forget to bring my iPod with me in the car. I usually settle for the “hard rock” station, even though the embarrassingly awkward DJs rarely leave any time to hear any music during my short commute.

Listening to the station in question is a lot like unearthing a fossil. An impossible fossil. A unicorn fossil, let’s say. Taking it in, you have the usual thoughts surrounding ancient artifacts. “Wow, that takes me back…” and such.

But this station gives regular play to groups like Limp Bizkit, Nickelback, and Crazy Town, as well as a host of other bands I just assumed had dried up and blown away. Turns out they’re still making music. And, apparently, people here listen to it a lot. It seems unnatural.

But I digress…

I love rock music. Especially metal. I grew up listening to it and it still moves me. But most of the metal that has come out in recent years, especially what they play on this station, is so terribly lackluster that I end up suffering my drive time in endless silence. The worst crime that new metal has committed against the genre is the thoughtless resurrection of the guitar solo.

I have to admit: I missed guitar solos when grunge and nu metal gradually killed them. I was happy when indie rockers like Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley brought technically proficient musicianship. But when modern metal bands started playing solos again, I thought, “What are you doing?” These new solos were impossible to listen to, poorly crafted, and embarrassing. They seemed so out of place, so heartless, so gaudy. But classic guitar solos still sounded great to me. What was the difference? Today I found my answer.

While listening to one of the many (really good) guitar solos on the new (really good) Sevendust album, it hit me:

Every solo should say something.

The reason you can practically (and I often do) sing along with guitar solos of days of yore is because the soloist is saying something with the notes. It’s a monologue, a complete thought.

It seems the kids in these new heavy metal bands, while learning to play as fast as they could, forgot the WHY of it all. They aren’t saying anything. Listening to a guitar solo in one of these new, terrible songs is like listening to a monologue written by a Lorem Ipsum generator. It fills the space but it doesn’t mean anything. When these songs were written, it’s like the musicians said, “The guitar solo goes here.” Then, “Here’s what the solo sounds like.” Every time.

The takeaway:

The difference between a good and a bad heavy metal guitarist is this: if you’ve got nothing to say with a solo, leave it out of the song. Putting in blank, meandering notes in a space created for something meaningful compromises the integrity of the entire composition. Just like in design.

The next time you go to put a flashy piece of something in a design composition you’ve worked really hard on, question it. Figure out what it’s saying. If it turns out you’re only putting it in your composition because “that’s where the [insert ubiquitous design block] goes,” take it out right away. Your design will be stronger and more enjoyable for it.

Bang your head.

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