All posts by Jeff Koke

Solo #2 Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
2:52 – 3:33

Here is Kurt Cobain’s left-handed Lake Placid Blue Competition Mustang, which he famously played in the Smells Like Teen Spirit music video. This is not his most well-known guitar, which is the baby blue Jag-Stang that he designed for Fender, but this one is more iconically related to this song.

For each solo, I will post a link to the full song, so that you can hear the solo in its full context. Click this link, then come back here and read the post while it plays in the background.

I was a little late to the party with Nirvana. I didn’t listen to much radio back then or watch a lot of MTV and when Nevermind came out, I was oblivious to it for a few months. Then one night at our band practice, our backup singer and rhythm guitarist, Donna, started playing the main riff for Smells Like Teen Spirit on her Strat. It was a very compelling riff, and I asked her what it was she was playing. She told me it was this new band called Nirvana.  I went out and bought the CD the next day.

I was blown away. Smells Like Teen Spirit is a near-perfect rock anthem. It has amazing pacing, incredible dynamic range and the production is flawless. It was the kind of song that you wanted to turn up as loud as it could go in the car and just roll, with your head practically banging on the steering wheel. I was an instant Nirvana fan.

The solo is considered pretty easy, and technically it is, but there is a lot of nuance to the sound and the playing style that will be a challenge to capture. He plays “behind the beat” for most of the solo, which most people who cover it on YouTube don’t seem to be able to replicate. He also adds vibrato to nearly every note. Nonetheless, because this solo is not as challenging, and I’m betting this is a fun song to play, I’m going to go ahead and learn the whole thing.

Getting past the first solo was a huge step for me, and I hope to build some momentum and get this one knocked out quickly. Now to work.

Resources

Instructional Video — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xA2q7r46O-Q

Tabs — http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/tabs/n/nirvana/smells_like_teen_spirit_ver10_tab.htm

Backing Track — http://www.guitarbackingtrack.com/play/nirvana/smells_like_teen_spirit.htm

Inspiration

Nirvana playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on Britain’s Channel 4 — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgxkAXqP6kY&feature=related

Kurt Cobain smashing a guitar at a concert — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGWDTiQ4LfA

Performance: We Will Rock You

Here is my performance of Solo #1, Queen’s We Will Rock You.

I have said before that my criteria for “completing” a solo is whether I would feel comfortable playing the solo live in front of an audience, and I feel I’ve satisfied that requirement. I’m never going to be able to play it as well as Brian May, but that was never my goal.

Here are a few thoughts about my experience:

  1. I probably should have picked an easier solo to begin with. My goal was to start with fairly easy solos to build my confidence going into the harder ones. I thought this one wouldn’t be bad, and chose it mainly for it’s symbolism, but there are some pretty tough parts.
  2. My index finger is really freaking sore. This solo makes heavy use of bar chords, especially the high A, and man does it wear out the index finger.
  3. There are some intricate details that I’m sure I’ve overlooked. I could probably work another month on it and have everything better… but it still wouldn’t be perfect and if I shoot for perfection, I’ll never get through this. I feel like I captured the essence of the solo.

I’ll be announcing solo #2 shortly, so stay tuned…

    A Diversion: The Allure of Vinyl

    While I go through the daily grind of repetition to try to make this solo performance-quality, I thought I’d write a bit about my recent rediscovery of the joy of vinyl albums. I dug up my old box of records recently, pulling it down from a shelf in the garage and putting it in my small practice area. I bought a Crosley turntable with speakers so I could listen to them as inspiration for my project. Many of the albums feature the solos I’m trying to learn.

    There have been countless arguments about the sound quality of analog vinyl records vs. the pristine digital sound of online music or CDs. The truth is, it doesn’t matter which one ekes out a victory among the audiophiles. Vinyl wins because of the experience. The tactile, visual and auditory experience that only a record can provide.

    Apple made an attempt to resurrect the experience with their iTunes “LP Format” for digital downloads–certain albums have artwork, photography, video and animation to enhance the experience–and I applaud them for it. At the bare minimum they’ve brought album art back to music, and that’s a huge victory. But listening to a record is so much more than looking at a picture while you listen to the music. There’s a heft and size to an album. It’s big and beautiful. A lot of them have fold-out insides with big paintings and photos. Lyrics or liner notes are printed on the sleeve. Physically placing it on the turntable and moving the needle to the proper spot takes time and effort. There’s even a meaty smell to a well-used album that exists nowhere else.

    For reasons I can’t describe, this makes the music sound better. I listened to the whole first side of AC/DC’s Back in Black the other night and it brought back so many good memories. Holding the liner notes while the songs played is a rare treat that I hope others will explore. If you haven’t listened to a good record in a while, maybe it’s time to dig out and dust off those old albums and remember what it really feels like to experience music. And if you never have experienced the allure of vinyl, what are you waiting for?

    Progress Report

    I’ve been working on the We Will Rock You solo for about 2 weeks and put in probably 10 hours of practice on it. Here’s a video showing where I am. Obviously there are some timing issues and sloppiness, but all in all, I’m pretty pleased.

    I’m playing this with a backing track that does not have any guitar, so everything you hear is me. Let me know if you think the sound of the guitar is pretty close, and if the format of the recording works. The mic on the video camera is picking up a lot of the sound of the strings which doesn’t sound great. I’m going to see if I can run directly from my amp to the video camera and bypass the mic.

    You’ll have to click through to watch the video — apparently enough of the original song is in the background that YouTube won’t embed it.

    Breakthrough Moments

    I have never spent much time learning someone else’s work. I played cover songs in Second Glance before, but in all those cases I made it a point not to try to sound too much like the original. I “made it my own” as they say, and thus I only had to approximate the original. I’m not ashamed of that. In that situation, I think it was the right thing to do — we weren’t a cover band, so we wanted to bring our own sound to the songs.

    But with this project, the point is to learn the solos as the original guitarist played them, and it’s definitely challenging. Tonight I had a breakthrough moment with this first solo. It’s that moment where you not only know the notes the guitarist is playing, but the intent behind the notes. You suddenly understand the way they are supposed to be played. It’s that moment where it all makes sense and you understand what Brian May was thinking when he crafted the solo.

    I don’t want to oversell the moment. It wasn’t a life-changing epiphany, but it was enough of a genuine breakthrough that I wanted to write about it. I’m only at the foot of this tall mountain that I’ve set myself up to climb, and each encouraging step makes it seem worthwhile.

    As far as learning the solo for We Will Rock You, it’s still pretty sloppy, and I’m only half-way through the hard part, but I “got it” tonight in a way that I hadn’t been able to the last few times. I had forgotten how much joy there was in working on something until it clicks. I’m glad I’m rediscovering that.

    Practice: Day #1

    My guitar came back from the shop today, so I figured I had to go ahead and practice. My goal throughout this project is to practice an hour a day. This is highly ambitious given my work, family and community duties, but I figure it’s better to set an ambitious goal and fail, than to succeed at mediocrity. I put in more than an hour today, and I’m happy with where I am.

    My guitar had been at Austin Instrument Repair for 10 days. It’s a Gibson Les Paul Studio, from 1989. I hadn’t played it in probably 12 years, since my second band Love Blender broke up. There was a ton of rust on the frets, a lot of the hardware was broken or missing, and the pots were all crackly. But Richard Fry fixed it up nice — the only thing keeping it from looking brand new is the wear I put on the paint in a couple of spots. He even fixed a small crack in the head that I had put there when I swapped out the original machine heads for Grovers.

    I’ve gotten the basic structure of the solo down. It’s got three parts, a brief “power chord” introduction, with the last part of that played up on the neck. Second, there’s a set of arpeggios centered around the A chord up on the neck, and then there’s a series of repetitive power chords at the end.

    I worked a lot on playing “clean” power chords, which means when I pick each string slowly I get a clean note. I wasn’t succeeding very well, and this is partly because I’m rusty and partly because I was always a little sloppy with power chords, since there’s usually so much distortion and effect on the guitar, most people can’t tell. But Brian May is playing it clean, so I’m going to try to do the same.

    The arpeggios are going to take some time, but in my brief practice today, I did not feel they were out of reach, and that has given me a much needed sense of confidence on my first day of practice.

    Solo #1 Queen We Will Rock You 1:20-2:01

    Listen to the song first.

    This is a replica of Brian May’s “Red Special”, a hand-made guitar that he and his father constructed in 1963. There’s an excellent article about it’s construction on Wikipedia. He used it to play probably the most well-known rock guitar solo ever recorded, the blistering last 41 seconds of We Will Rock You.

    I remember sitting in our family room, shortly after we had moved to Texas. It must have been sometime in 1979, and my Dad was putting a record on. He handed me the cover of the album he was about to play. It was a painting of a confused-looking giant robot apparently murdering the members of the band as they dangled from his hand. Not particularly shocking these days, but I remember thinking of it as exotic and cool.

    Then I heard We Will Rock You for the first time. The tribal beat and raw, stream-of-consciousness vocals were unlike anything I’d heard before. Behind the final chorus grew a single resonant note, building with the vocal crescendo, and evolving into a raunchy solo that was so tight and perfect, while at the same time reckless and raw. I listened to that song over and over again as a kid.

    Later, the chorus of the song became a cliché, to be banished to the purgatory of professional sporting events, with AC/DC and Bachman Turner Overdrive. But the solo has always remained separate and beyond reproach, rarely played and yet always remaining shocking in it’s simplicity and uniqueness.

    I picked this as my first solo to learn not because it’s the easiest, but because it represents the perfect beginning to this project — an homage to one of my favorite bands and their amazing guitarist, Brian May.  And I picked it because it’s short.

    Resources

    To learn this solo, I’m using the following web resources:

    Tabs: http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/tabs/q/queen/we_will_rock_you_solo_tab.htm

    Instructional Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ70BVAIkj0

    Backing Track: http://www.guitarbackingtrack.com/play/queen/we_will_rock_you_(2).htm

    Inspiration

    Here’s a girl playing the solo very well. She says it’s the first solo she learned, and she’s got a full YouTube channel of solos that’s she’s covered.

    The original music video. Classic Freddie Mercury in star-shaped shades.

    Queen performing it live at Wembley Stadium in 1986. Note Brian May’s extended solo at the end. I will not be learning this version.

    I Wanted to Be a Rock God

    Foreigner 4In the summer of 1981, Foreigner released their fourth album with the simple name of “4” or “Foreigner 4” as we always called it. I would hole up with my best friends, Andy and Kevin, in Andy’s parent’s cabins on their land and “air jam” to Jukebox Hero, over and over again.

    At first, I was relegated to the imaginary drums, which I was sort of lukewarm to. After a few times through, I asked for us to switch around, and I got to be the guitar player.

    There I was, a 14-year-old boy fantasizing about being a rock star, pretending to play a song about a boy who fantasizes about becoming a rock star. It was very meta.

    Later, I would actually buy a beat up six string and learn how to play. I didn’t make it to rock stardom, but I was in a band long enough, that was successful enough, that I realized a lot of my boyhood dream.

    But I didn’t realize all of it, and that’s what this project is about. I learned to play guitar well, even above average, but I never got the point where I thought I was great. I never learned to play like the great guitar players that I grew up listening to.

    Now I have that chance. I know it will be hard, and there will be times where I want to give up, but I’ll keep thinking back to those summers in the cabins, playing a scratchy Foreigner album over and over and imagining the guitar solo that I knew I would someday play.

    I may not learn Jukebox Hero — that’s part of the mystery of this blog, and you’ll have to wait and see — but the spirit is the same, and I have similar, strong connections to the songs on my solo list. I’d love for you to follow along with me and give me company on this long, interesting journey through my youth, the history of classic rock, and the talent and unmistakeable skill of some of the best guitarists in the world.