|Les Paul with an early prototype in 1947|
The first generation of electric guitar players were probably so delighted that they could finally be heard alongside brass and drums, that they didn't do too much experimenting, though Les Paul is credited with quite a few innovations in multi-tracking. Here is what the first generation of electric rock n roll guitar players sounded like. Keith Richards makes a few cameos in this Chuck Berry clip, but I think you get the idea:
The early George Harrison comes out of this kind of playing with some "rockabilly" influence from Carl Perkins as well:
Here is George Harrison with a smooth, jazz-influenced solo (at the 1:08 mark):
Another influence that was to become important in the 60s was that of an earlier, non-electric, tradition from the black blues singers and guitarists of the 30s and later. Here is Robert Johnson, the most famous of these:
This kind of blues just kept being played and after the electric guitar came along, the guitar solo got to be a lot more important. Here is B. B. King, one of the great electric blues guitar players:
So take the rock n roll foundation, add in the blues influence, give the players some new sounds with the wah-wah and fuzz pedals, add in the experimenting with psychedelic drugs and you get a positive explosion of creative innovation from 1966 well into the 70s. One important figure is Eric Clapton, who was most influenced by the blues. Here he is at the beginning of his career:
And here he is using a wah-wah pedal a few years later with Cream on a song from the album Disraeli Gears:
That gives you a nice feel for the 60s. Incoherent lyrics--and camera work, probably due to drugs! But notice also the big amplifiers by Marshall and the sound of the wah-wah on guitar. Towards the end they get into the kind of inspired, rhythmically-complex improvisation that Cream was famous for. Eric Clapton's most famous guitar solo was one that for many years he got no credit for. When George Harrison needed some very special guitar playing on his song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" he asked his friend Eric to sit in, anonymously. Here is the result:
Eric Clapton is certainly a virtuoso and on electric guitar that means not only being able to use and control all the electronics, but also to use the long sustain to develop new kinds of vibrato not possible on acoustic instruments. But he is also a great musician and is able to use the resources of the electric guitar to create and shape solos that are powerfully expressive. He uses tone-color, volume, bent notes and other devices all constructed on the foundation of the blues, to create some remarkable solos that are really only comparable to the cadenzas of opera singers of the past.
Another great guitarist developing a new style built on the blues was Jimi Hendrix, a more spectacular soloist than Eric Clapton, but whose career ended prematurely. Here he is with an iconic song of the 60s, "Purple Haze":
That song also demonstrates some of the problems that began to pop up. As the music of the 60s left its roots behind and began experimenting with new techniques, it also began to become incoherent and self-indulgent. We see a small example here in the guitar solo from 1:30 to 1:40 where nothing relates to the rest of the song. Wild, instinctive and self-indulgent improvisation became the typical failing of the later 60s. Here is an example:
I can only repeat what the Emperor Joseph said to Mozart: "My dear fellow, there are simply too many notes!"
The era of the big electric guitar solo didn't last a long time. Bands like The Police and the Talking Heads largely banished the guitar solo and that continues with contemporary bands like Radiohead. Still, there was that golden period from the mid-60s to the mid-70s when it all started to go to seed, when the electric guitar solo strode the earth like a colossus. Here is a late example, where the guitar sounds very much like some ancient dinosaur coming to life. The solo is from 3:10 to 3:42 and the end, with the rising unisons, probably is a reference to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" where he does the same thing.
The guitarist on "Beat It" also didn't get credited--nor paid! It was Eddie Van Halen. I probably should mention some other great guitarists who came along a bit later. Prince is certainly one. Just ignore the video for this song from the movie "Purple Rain" and listen to what you can do with an over-driven Stratocaster from around 3:40 to the end:
One last great guitarist is one who also died tragically young but seemed at times to be almost the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. Here is Stevie Ray Vaughan doing an instrumental version of the Hendrix tune "Little Wing":