In the world of 1980s guitar music, bands didn’t come any more uncompromising than Living Colour. At once fiercely political and nonstop party-starters, the New York foursome were a true anomaly: an all-black rock band. While their sound incorporated elements from more traditionally African-American genres like jazz and funk, there was no mistaking Living Colour as anything other than a hard rock outfit, complete with monster riffs and mind-bending solos.
Those were thanks to guitarist Vernon Reid, who took the shredding techniques employed by the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, ramped up the ferocious speed, and created his own signature style. During live performances and jam sessions, Reid remains notorious for his improvisational skills, which often come in the form of lightning-fast fills that can leave even the most hardened of speed freaks catching their breath.
Living Colour was fully formed from the very first notes of their very first record, 1988’s Vivid. The opening track on that album is also the band’s biggest hit, the intense and energetic ‘Cult of Personality’. Bursting out the gate with an iconic and brain-bruising riff, ‘Cult of Personality’ finds Reid playing so intensely that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was his one and only opportunity to get on record.
Reid shows off every last trick up his sleeve: shredding, harmonics, bends, dive bomb, and intricate scales are all featured. While the song lives and dies by that muscular riff, Reid also throws in power chords, some lighter picking work in the song’s bridge, and some improvisations. Before each new verse, Reid gets an opportunity to let loose with fills – the results are searing and nearly impossible to replicate.
It all serves as an appetizer to Reid’s true spotlight moment during the song’s solo. With a flurry of notes that would break any guitarist’s mind, Reid is a tornado of distortion and sweep picking as he tears through the whammy bar runs and rapidly ascending/descending lines. While it might sound like a jumbled mess at times, Reid never sacrifices technique for flash and style. The ‘Cult of Personality’ solo tells a story, even if the story is just that Vernon Reid is one of the most underrated guitarists of his generation.
Check out the isolated guitar for Living Colour’s ‘Cult of Personality’ down below.