Saturday, September 21, 2013

Twelve Against Nature: Steely Dan Guitar Solos Part 1

There are plenty of good rock guitar solos but for sheer consistency of fine playing it's hard to beat what Steely Dan achieved on its first six albums - Can't Buy A Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Aja from 1972 to 1977 (the title of this post is modified version of the title of a later Dan album).  In the next two posts we'll count down THC's picks for the Top 12 guitar solos by the Dan.  In this post we'll go over the criteria, rules and talk about the Honorable Mentions. (TH
In selecting the top solos, THC has focused on three aspects; melody (as opposed to blizzards of notes demonstrating virtuosity but nothing else - sometimes Eddie Van Halen, a spectacularly good guitarist, can lapse into this), tone (THC does not like tinny, listless sounding guitar) and creativity; is it something you've never heard before or is it predictable like one of those songs that after you've heard the verse and they get to the break you can probably already hum the solo they are going to play?.  Here's an example of how this affected the Dan selection process: let's take Larry Carlton's solo from Don't Take Me Alive; just about the best tone you'll ever hear, good melodic flow but very predictable so low on creativity and doesn't make the Top 12.
With only a couple of exceptions, Dan guitar solos come in two varieties.  The most common is that the lead guitar makes its first big appearance at the break after the first two verses and then shows up again in the closing.  By the way, some of the best Dan guitar licks are in the last ten seconds of the fade outs so make sure to listen to the end of the songs.  The other form is where the guitar pops up throughout the verses and choruses and is found almost from start to finish.  To accommodate this the links in these posts are done in two ways; when the lead shows up at the break click on the link and the YouTube video will start at the guitar solo (but stick around and listen to the encore soloing at the end).  For those songs where the playing is scattered throughout the song the entire video is embedded in the post.

The last thing to mention before we get rolling is the sticky issue of identifying the guitarists.  THC didn't realize this for years, but the Dan were never a conventional band, except briefly during the Countdown to Ecstasy period.  The band was founded by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker who wrote the songs and they treated everyone else from the start as hired hands and increasingly over the years used flocks of studio musicians on the recordings. This also poses difficulties in figuring out who played lead on some of the tunes as you'll see in the next couple of posts.                                                                                        (Becker & Fagen)

THC used to think of Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter as the Dan guitarists.  Dias does occasionally play throughout this period but Baxter quit halfway through the third album because he could not longer stand Becker and Fagen.  Before joining the Dan, Baxter was the guitarist for Ultimate Spinach.  After leaving the Dan, he joined the Doobie Brothers, an experience he always said he liked much more than playing in Steely Dan (though his finest playing was with the Dan).  More recently Baxter has been a missile defense consultant to the Pentagon. THC is not joking, if you doubt it please read this article  and you can hear directly from Skunk about how a self-described "hippie guitar player" got started with his new career by listening to the first few minutes of this talk).
(Dias)               (Baxter)
As a result, you will hear the work of seven different guitarists on the twelve cuts.

Honorable Mentions

Fire In The Hole (Skunk Baxter).  Nifty pedal steel guitar at the end.  Good piano solo also.

Parker's Band (Denny Dias).  Unusual in that lead guitar is only at the start.  The Dan's tribute to Charlie Parker.

Throw Back The Little Ones (Elliot Randall)

Rikki Don't Lose That Number (Skunk Baxter).

Part 2 is coming on Monday

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