Petulant instigator Kurt Cobain famously detested Guns n’ Roses, openly commenting in published interviews about how he believed the band to be “pathetic and untalented,” (1992, The Advocate) asserting that the band was boring because some comparable form of their music has existed “Ever since the beginning of rock and roll” (Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana). It’s unsettling for me to realize that over two and a half decades have passed since my sister, in an effort to save second-grade me from the near-hopeless path that I was on, pulled me into her room, took my favorite Paula Abdul cassette, and made me take Appetite for Destruction, with a stern and serious warning that I never tell my parents what she had done.
Since then, my phases of musical interest have bled into and out of one another. I’ve appreciated the grunge era’s lazy, backward-kicking assault toward the tumbling remnants of glam, stadium, and cock rock. I’ve warmed to the casual, low-fi efforts of mid- and late-’90s alternative to reassess the glossy, polished rock aesthetic of the ’80s and early ’90s (Archers of Loaf, Dinosaur Jr, Pavement). And I spent the better portion of my twenties enamored with punk rock bands who were violently deconstructing the formula of big, mainstream music, literally and figuratively, both in terms of sound and venue. It is worth noting that my second favorite band of all time is Against Me!, whose now-legendary 2002 folk-punk album Reinventing Axl Rose is not shy about its ambitions or target. But with all that, I adamantly disagree with Against Me!’s intention, and I still not-so-secretly roll my eyes at Cobain’s juvenile dismissal. As much as I love all of the music that has spawned in a somewhat-tangential rebuke of everything that they represent, Guns n’ Roses is still my my favorite band, my road trip go-to any time I drive for longer than the length of an album, and the reason my girlfriend has implemented a volume-rule in my car.
If time has shown us anything about this raucous rock group it’s that there actually wasn’t anything quite like them before, and there certainly hasn’t been since. If a retroactive, attentive listen doesn’t reveal their unmatched talent to you, at least consider that many of the surviving members of the bands that openly criticized Guns n’ Roses now make music that sounds more like lesser versions of their critical target than improved versions of their rebellious, earlier selves.
Guns n’ Roses may be the only band in history for which it is impossible to measure comparative worth between the sum and its individual parts, the most pure and realized manifestation of the cliche “Rock ‘n’ Roll Gods.” If good rock music really is a drug, then Guns n’ Roses is the metaphorical equivalent to Heisenberg’s 99.1% pure meth. During their heyday, it felt like the best musician to play each respective staple rock instrument was in the same band. This talent, combined with Axl’s steadfast, tyrannical control and drive, meant that success was assured. Perhaps this is what alternative and punk’s insecurity really swings at with their criticism. For Guns n’ Roses, the much questioned stadium set-up with thousands upon thousands of astonished faces turned to observe the talent and achievement of a small handful of individuals, an almost Reagen-like concept that suggested a Nietzschean Superman structure of worship, is the only structure that makes sense. They were peerless. They were above and apart from the rest of us.
And yet, in full measure of iconicism, talent, and mystique, one band member is even more prominent than the rest. Saul “Slash” Hudson might still be the world’s best living guitar soloist. In the height of their popularity, Axl Rose performed and positioned himself as the second best rock front man of all time (behind admitted influence Freddie Mercury), and even so, the most important part of the band stood unassumingly behind Axl. Shirtless beneath a leather jacket, equally iconic hair splaying out from his trademark top hat and covering his face, and a cigarette dangling from his lips (at least that’s how we remember him), Slash always made it look easy and sound so, so difficult.
Measuring his individual contributions is a daunting effort. A now famous anecdote tells how once, at practice, Slash was warming up with a finger skipping exercise and the band liked the sound of the practice lick so much, they wrote it into a song. As bandmate Duff McKagan describes it, Slash was just “fucking around,” and he accidentally inspired arguably their most popular single (“Sweet Child O’Mine“). We’re talking about a lead guitarist who buried transcendent solos beneath a song that sounded better as a cohesive collection of instrumentation (Rocket Queen), who often soloed his way through entire anthems (concentrate on Slash the whole way through Night Train).
But, in honor of his 50th birthday, I’m going to attempt to pick Slash’s five best solos. And if you’re wondering what business this sort of list has on a site like this, rest assured there is a distinct cinematic tie-in and if you aren’t already aware of it, you’re in for a treat. I encourage you, as a gift to a musical demi-god, to listen in appreciation to all five. If you don’t get chills by the end of this list, then, I don’t know; I guess I could always suggest… well, Nevermind?
5. Welcome to the Jungle – Appetite for Destruction
Selected more for pronouncement than precision, “Welcome to the Jungle” is fittingly titled for its position within both the band’s canon and this list. If you play their discography in order, you’ll note that this is the first song on Guns n’ Roses’ first album, and the declaration of their arrival, at least for a few seconds, belongs to Slash. The opening of Welcome to the Jungle isn’t too technically complex, but it is biting, sharp, menacing. Axl’s hushed “Oh my God,” recorded breathless beneath the riff feels sincere, as if even the maestro behind the talent can not believe what is coming, and before that turns to his shrieking self-hype-man battlecry, we know that something big is coming. Something, dangerous, mean, abrasive, and, honestly, fucking scary. It is scary how good the opening track of their first album really is. By the time the song is handed back to Slash at the 2:50 mark, there is, at least for new listeners, a sense of fatigue, of being worn out, of the band already being too much. Perhaps that’s why there is a short cushion between Slash’s late-track solo and Axl’s return. When the singer brings it back with “You know where you are?,” the only honest answer is, “No. Not at all.”
4. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Appetite for Destruction
I discussed the opening lick in my long-winded intro, but that’s not a solo. A solo is what happens at 2:30, when Slash takes Axl’s love letter to Stephanie Seymour and shreds it so thoroughly that it almost feels unfair to use the word “shred” in relation to any other guitarist’s performance in any other song. Slash makes it almost necessary to invent new descriptive language. The difference between stellar power ballad and all-time great rock ballad is Slash’s contribution, an assured and determined counterpoint to Axl’s rare lyrical vulnerability. If Axl’s submissive poetry is the bait-and-switch seduction, Slash’s solo is the punctuating intercourse, and the heightened aggression of his guitar at 3:06 marks the moment where love-making becomes full-on fucking.
3. Estranged – Use Your Illusions II
If “November Rain” exhibits a sort of cataclysmic confession of a problematic chasm between the band’s two larger-than-life icons, and “Don’t Cry” symbolizes their after break-up fight, then “Estranged” marks their mutual cries of resignation. While many irony-infected critics have prodded and criticized its self-importance, grandiose over-reaching ambition, and determined insistence on melodrama, I think of the Use Your Illusions album pairing as the great swan song in Rock n’ Roll history, a goodbye leap from the tallest platform that music has ever climbed. If we can fault their insistence on bringing too much music to a singular effort — choirs, orchestras, and covers of rock royalty Bob Dylan and The Beatles — then we also have to praise the musicians for their readiness to meet the challenge and bring the best of their own music. Case in point: Estranged. Here, Axl and Slash seem to duel with one another on an even plane. Slash is permitted four (think about that: four) solo sessions in this song, one in reply to each of Axl’s gut-wrenching verses. Also worthy of note, this is the most evident example of Slash’s solo-ing interrupting Axl’s vocals in an extensive library of music where the opposite proves far easier to observe. In the end, regardless of retrospective symbolism, “Estranged” is a heartbreaking piece of music, a song that is perhaps their single best, elevated by the two legendary musicians at their very best: each reserved, honest, and soulful.
2. Godfather Theme – Live
I promised a cinematic tie-in, and if you weren’t already aware of it, I’m sure you weren’t expecting anything as absolutely mind-blowing as this. In terms of marrying two pre-existing epic icons, Slash’s cover of The Godfather‘s theme stands shoulder to shoulder with Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. It’s a shrill and piercing grassroots rendition of one of the most recognizable pieces of music in film history, marrying film’s most prominent encapsulation of power and American perseverance to the bluesy roots of American Rock ‘n’ Roll. And it’s a contemporary event; the video embedded above captures a performance from 2011. Notice how band members back up the composition at first, to elevate it into recognition, and then slowly step back out of the performance as Slash lifts a knee and leans into an extended reassurance that he still is, in the current decade, the greatest living rock soloist.
1. November Rain – Use Your Illusions I
When Guns n’ Roses convinced Geffen records to release both Use Your Illusions albums concurrently, on the exact same day, rejecting the label’s plan of releasing the albums one year apart, they were marking their target. In more ways than just physical media, they aimed to achieve 200% more than any comparable band before them. And considering that the band was just four years old at the time, who can really fault them for their shortcomings? A mathematical consideration might paint their failure in a more flattering light: If you aim to travel 100% beyond where anyone has ever traveled, and you fall 25% short of your marked destination, you’ve still managed to push 50% farther than everyone else. “November Rain” is a veritable checklist of all of the elements that are given as evidence of Use Your Illusions‘ problems: the sophomoric metaphor, the perhaps melodramatic piano accompaniment, and a big budget music video (the most expensive of its time) that comes out looking like a cheap Lifetime movie. But none of those assessments are fair to the music here. Focus your ear to this song and listen to it elementally. There’s no denying that “November Rain” captures the height of one of the greatest bands of all time, an intersection of some of the greatest musicians of all time, each playing at their very best toward a stunningly perfect complete product. A debate could be had as to whether “November Rain” represents the best popular song of post 1990-rock ‘n’ roll, but it is, without debate, the single most epic song of that same stretch, elevated to that status, of course, by the superhuman contribution of Slash. Similar to “Estranged,” “November Rain” provides Slash with multiple solos, creating a charged conversation between Axl’s shrieking pleas and Slash’s screeching but clean instrumental lyricism. The emotional, confessional honesty of that conversation explodes at the 7:09 mark, when Slash pours everything into the song’s last guitar solo. At 7:24, production layers in Axl’s raw screaming and a bridge of stacked chanting, and even in that intersection of noise, it is Slash’s Gibson Les Paul which holds center, somehow still very much a solo both in terms of sound and emotion, helping us understand that the only reason Slash shouldn’t be crowned the voice of a generation is our own human inability to speak his divine language.
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