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For many guitarists, lead guitar and guitar solos are where the excitement is at, while for non guitarists these parts are often just additional pieces of the song, nothing special. As a guitarist, I am a bit more prone to noticing great guitar parts over other parts of the song, but in the end, I think it is the sum of all the parts that determine a song's value. I don't think this diminishes the importance of a great guitar lick or lead, as a great guitar part can take an ordinary song and push it that extra little bit to extraordinary.
I think these 7 songs from throughout rock and roll's history are a great example of this fact. Each song has a far more subtle guitar lead part than a full out, barn burring solo, but what is played is enough. Each song is a great representation of how a simple little guitar lead can push a song to the next level. They serve as a reminder that a great guitar part can be just what song needs to be amazing, and a reminder to guitarists that you don't need to play a million notes to have an huge impact.
1: "Nowhere Man" The Beatles
The Beatles were always known more for their songwriting than for their guitar playing. This is quite unfortunate because has left George Harrison as one of the more underrated guitarists in history despite some amazing work. The subtlety of this song's central lead part is a great example of a perfectly crafted guitar lead. It has a simple counter melody that plays off the feel great as it descends. The phrasing fits around the vocals perfectly, echoing the same feel and melody, but it is that ringing harmonic at the end that really makes it stand out. It is like a period to the phrase that leaves it hanging to slowly fade away as the song returns to the verse. One of my favorite guitar licks of all time, this part just adds that little something else, and combined with the lead parts throughout the rest of the song, ups the feel of this surrealist song that much more.
2: "I Feel Free" Cream
I've written about this song before as one of my all time favorite songs by the late great Cream. The lead is probably one of the more subdued ones that Clapton committed to record with the Cream, but it puts the perfect emphasis where necessary. As it rises through short phrases the feel builds until there needs to be some sort of release. With a switch of the pickups, (or a turn of the tone knob, or both) Clapton takes his guitar tone from round and full to gritty, rough and bright. This change in instrument timbre is so perfectly timed for this song that it really pushes the entire song back into the verse that much harder. Great example of how the timbre of the instrument can change the entire feel.
3: "Stand Inside Your Love" The Smashing Pumpkins
Although it is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, "Stand Inside Your Love" holds more than just a great catchy power pop rock feel and great lyrics. It also has an incredibly subtle lead guitar part. Done either with feedback, slide or digital support (a whammy pedal I'm thinking for you guitarists) this round pure tone lead just goes above and beyond without doing anything fancy at all. It's just a pure tone from nowhere that rises and falls in such a way that it creates a great counter melody that makes this song soar. Great lead, absolutely spine tingling in how it heightens the feel.
4: "Store Bought Bones" The Raconteurs
This is the counterpoint to the previous example as it uses a similar technique as "Stand Inside Your Love" but to the opposite affect. Instead of using a pure tone, slide, feedback-esque technique to make the song soar, this lead is screaming taking a mystic flavored groove and punching it into overdrive and putting the emphasis on the frantic as the band goes along to build and build its pace before returning to the original feel. Definitely nothing overly complex going on musically (and I put the emphasis on musically because how to accomplish this technically is a little more involved), but this screeching guitar riff is the perfect addition to the pumped up, high speed middle section of this song.
5: "Run Run Run" The Velvet Underground
Another one of the all time underrated guitarists, Lou Reed is not only an amazing songwriter, but also has quite a knack for adding the perfect guitar parts to his songs. Definitely not known for virtuoso skill when with the Velvet Underground, his parts are not overly complex, but always seem to push the feel subtlety that much further. In "Run Run Run" the middle lead guitar break is a franticly picked set of notes spiked with screeching feedback and subtle blues licks. Although the rising and falling rapidly picked parts are a perfect addition to this song, adding a hypnotic feel to otherwise straight forward rock and roll, and his blues licks fit perfectly within the context, the feedback, oddly enough, is really what makes it for me. Whether intentional or not, these few bits of screeching are that rough edge, just enough fingernails on the chalkboard, to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Definite proof that sometimes the screeching howl of a too loud guitar is exactly what a song needs and that feedback is not always a bad thing.
6: "Sympathy for the Devil" The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards has always been known for his subtle guitar work and this song, one of my favorite Stones songs, is perfect proof of that. Primarily piano and percussion with a sing along feel, when there finally is the addition of short guitar phrases, they are just simple blues phrases, but again, it is the timbre of the instrument that makes it great. Don't get me wrong, there is definitely something about the subtlety of these licks that works with the feel of the song, especially in their phrasing, but what I really like is how pushed the guitar sounds. Overdriven like can only happen when you put the amp on 10, there is a grit and fuzz to the riffs that makes them work with a sort of "in your face" subtlety as the notes screech and throw off harmonics like crazy adding a lot of depth. Great subtlety and phrasing, but with right guitar tone these blasts of blues become nearly perfect.
7: "Reptilia" The Strokes
A band that has been significantly hyped since their first single, the Strokes vintage tinged minimalism works perfectly with their pushed frantic rhythm guitar. On this song, they also hit the subtle guitar lead perfectly with a simple, slightly progressive riff. Although the slightly offbeat descending notes definitely add to the feel without falling into any sort of clichÃ©s, it is the rapid flairs in the middle that really up the ante. They're like the perfect little self contained phrases, technical but restrained enough not to sound flashy. When it comes to subtlety in guitar work, this song is a great example of incorporating flair without sounding showy or over the top. Plus they work in a way that builds with the opening descending line, peaks with the flourishes and then recedes again with another descending line. This works as a great musical peak as well as a bridge between the first half and the second half of this song.
Bonus:"Girl from the North Country" Bob Dylan
I'm including this song as a bonus because I love the lead part, but it is not done on guitar at all. Instead, Dylan's subtle blasts of harmonica are the perfect addition. These parts are definitely nothing to be amazed by as they're simple riffs. Still, in their subtlety they add such an earthy feel to an already folksy song. I find the second part especially effective even though it is primarily just a few notes held longer than they were in the first riff, but in its subtlety is such a sad and authentic. Although as I said, not exactly a guitar lead, these subtle additions are a great example of how it doesn't take much to add that perfect feel whether it be on guitar or any other instrument.
This list is in no way definitive, as I purposely left out songs where the lead and rhythm parts are more blended together (like Led Zeppelin, or Jimi Hendrix or almost all blues artists). Still, I think these songs are some fine examples of subtle but powerful lead guitar parts that really help the song. It'd be interesting to hear each of these songs with out the leads I've discussed and see if they still have the same impact. Take a listen to each of these songs if you can, and see if you think the lead guitar helps the song of not.
Guitar leads, like just about everything music related, are subjective and a matter of personal preference, but in my opinion, sometimes a guitar part just seems perfectly crafted to the feel of the song and turns a great song into an amazing song.