The other day, I was watching a fascinating archive video of George Harrison in the studio with Dave Stewart and Bob Geldof.
Fly-on-the-wall clips like this are often full of great insights, and this one was no exception. I’d definitely recommend watching it in full.
One part that particularly caught my interest was Harrison and Geldof debating the merits of Neil Young’s guitar playing. In the conversation, which starts around the 14-minute-mark, Geldof extols the virtues of Young’s “Arc/Weld” live album, and singles out his lead work for particular praise.
“I think his lead playing is…” Geldof intones, ready to ascribe another superlative.
Then, Harrison cuts him off.
“I hate it. I can’t stand it. It’s that one string… [Imitates Neil playing] I mean, it’s good for a laugh, but he’s serious…”
“Well, I love it,” a slightly deflated Geldof responds.
Hearing rock royalty debating the merits of Mr. Young’s playing was strange, yet relatable. I’ve had the exact same conversation with many a guitar-playing friend, usually in a bar, and usually lubricated by a brew or three.
Neil Young is a legendary artist. But he’s one of the most divisive guitar players in rock n’ roll history. While plenty, like Geldof (and, full disclosure, myself) champion his unique approach to the instrument, others can’t stand the way he attacks his six-string.
So why is Neil so divisive? Is he really a great guitarist, or do his detractors have it right? Today, I’m going to try and get to the bottom of it.
I’ve read myriad articles on Neil Young’s playing style over the years. Over all those pieces, two words seem to pop up again and again; “unconventional” and “avant garde.” This quote from an aptly named article – “Why Neil Young is Considered a Guitar God” - is pretty typical of a Neil-friendly appraisal:
“…Instead of scorching hot licks and Keef-style riff swagger, he’s all about piercing, one-note solos, fuzzy stoner-drift… on top of all that, his playing is shot through with a primitive, minimalist sensibility.”
That terminology is crucial to understanding the love-it-or-hate-it response to his lead work. Neil Young’s “primitive” playing style goes resolutely against the grain of what we expect from a “great” lead guitarist, it’s anti-technique and often eschews tasty, musical licks for piercing, disruptive playing. Infamously, as George Harrison hinted at, Young will often play single string, or even single-note solos. A classic example is the solo to “Cinnamon Girl,” which, as Ultimate Classic Rock notes, “consists of one note, a D played on the high E string that's been tuned down a step, repeated multiple times over 10 bars, with only the song's two-bar riff interrupting it.” You don’t get much more primitive than that.
When it comes to understanding what drives Neil’s unconventional style, this quote from a 1992 interview with France’s Guitare et Claviers magazine is particularly illuminating. Asked what he thought of musicians that went to school to learn to play guitar, Young responded:
“It would give you a rather sad view of your future, wouldn't it? First off, nobody cares if you know how to play scales. Nobody gives a shit if you have good technique or not. It's whether you have feelings that you want to express with music, that's what counts, really. When you are able to express yourself and feel good, then you know why you're playing.
The technical aspect is absolute hogwash as far as I'm concerned. It bores me to tears. I can't play fast. I don't even know my scales. I know that most of the notes I play aren't where I play them. They're simply not there. So you can play any note you like. I think about it on another level, I don't care about that sort of shit.
On the other hand, I appreciate really great guitarists, and I'm very impressed by those metal groups with their scale guitarists. When I see that, I go “Holy shit, that's really something.” Satriani and Eddie Van Halen are guitar geniuses. They are incredible musicians, at an amazing level. But it doesn't really grab me. One note will do."
I suspect it’s his blatant disregard of the technical aspect of guitar playing that rubs some people up the wrong way. Sure, we expect great guitarists to bend the rules of theory and tradition in pursuit of a unique and connecting sound. But Young goes a step further and tears up the rulebook entirely. For many, that iconoclastic approach is abrasive, and flies in the face of what great guitar players should aspire towards.
I get those criticisms. And yet, I still find Young’s playing absolutely captivating. The closest I’ve come to understanding “why” was when reading this piece by Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Taken from Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list (Neil ranked 17), Trey gets to the heart of what makes Young such a compelling six-string slinger:
“If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original "Down by the River" solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience…
“Traditional concepts of rhythm and keys are great, but music is like a giant ocean. It's a big, furious place, and there are a lot of trenches that haven't been explored. Neil is still blazing a trail for people who are younger than him, reminding us you can break artistic ground.”
It ain’t always pretty. It often flies in the face of musical theory. But, for me at least, Neil Young’s lead playing feels like it comes straight from the pit of his soul. And ultimately, I’d take that over technically brilliant sterility any day.
So that’s my take. But what do you guys think? Is Neil Young a guitar god? Does he push primitivism too far in his lead playing? And have you ever seen him live? As always, share your stories in the comments.
Header image credit: Dick Barnatt/REDFERNS