Neil Young is as well-respected as any songwriter on the planet. However, despite his legacy, one facet to his greatness which makes him such a special talent and is often taken for granted is his guitar playing. This ability is what helps make his songs so perfect, on top of being a world-class wordsmith, is that he can also play the guitar like nobody else.
For some reason, Young is viewed as a divisive guitar player due to his unconventional technique. He doesn’t play by the rulebook and his wild stylistic approach is often why either love him or, somewhat remarkably, attempt to write him off. Many argue that Young isn’t a great technician by the standard definition, however, his ability to express emotion in abundance through his guitar playing is remarkable and there’s a unique subtlety to his style.
George Harrison famously loathed Young’s music, once telling Bob Geldof on camera, “I’m not a Neil Young fan,” after The Boomtown Rats probed him on his thoughts on Young. Harrison then went on to cruelly say, “I hate it, yeah I can’t stand it. It’s good for a laugh. We did this show with him, I saw it from the other side of the stage and looked around, I looked at Eric (Clapton) and said ‘what’s going on?’ He did the solo in the middle then he kind of looked at me like – ‘don’t look at me, it’s not me’.”
This sort of criticism is like water off a duck’s back for Young, a musician who couldn’t care less what people say about his unique style. In 2014, he gave France’s Guitare et Claviers magazine the best insight yet into how he wants the guitar to be played when he was asked about his thoughts about musicians who went to school to learn the guitar.
“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,” he said. “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.”
You don’t learn to play like Young by being taught at school, his style is innate to him which makes it so special. To celebrate his underappreciated guitar greatness, this feature will take a look at six of the greatest solos from his legendary career. Let’s dive in!
Neil Young’s 6 best guitar solos:
‘Down By The River’
One of Young’s most arresting pieces, ‘Down By The River’, taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, is a nine-minute murder ballad and sees Young beginning to flower properly as one of the finest songwriters of his generation.
More importantly, however, ‘Down By The River’ is unequivocally one of Young’s finest moments on guitar. Using ‘Old Black’ a faithful Les Paul, Young delivers some laconic yet searing licks and completes a fantastic track with it. The chemistry that he has with his band is heavenly on this iconic track which is up there with Young’s finest moments on a six-string.
‘On The Beach’
Another poignant moment in which Young proved himself as a master of the guitar was on the jaw-droppingly captivating ‘On The Beach‘. The title track from his fifth record is one of the most gorgeously understated pieces of Young’s canon. Lilting and delicate, his guitar adds a reflective tone that is unmatched in any of Young’s other work and does a fine job of running parallel to his unique vocal.
“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day,” a disillusioned Young sings. His guitar manages to perfectly capture the disenchanted nature of the song and Young finding himself at a loose end. This subtle playing manages to add an extra level of raw emotion to ‘On The Beach’ it what makes it the stone-cold classic that it is.
‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)‘
Both ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ and its sister track ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ are effortlessly heartbreaking. The latter is an utterly beautiful piece of music, one that is not only up there with anything that the former CSNY man has ever made, but one of the finest lessons in the art of songwriting to exist.
However, the genius idea to start the album with the alternate acoustic version of the track, which formed the narrative for the faultless Rust Never Sleeps record and conclude with the rockier, grittier take of the same track titled was an inspired call.
‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ is another splendour example of Young being able to convey his emotion through his ferocious guitar playing. The infamous lyrics of the track have overshadowed the guitar masterclass on offer and have become ingrained in popular culture in the decades that have followed due to Stephen King’s heavy usage of “out of the blue and into the black” in his novel It. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain also quoted from the song in his devastatingly sad suicide note in 1994, a time when he wrote the damning line “better to burn out / than to fade away” in tragic significance.
‘Cortez The Killer’
While the destruction of the Aztec Empire isn’t the most popular subject to create art about, that didn’t stop Neil Young presenting the story in a seductively enchanting manner. The spellbinding nature of the track all originates with the epic storylines Young creates with his guitar.
Often thought of as an allegory for Young’s wild lifestyle of the time, which is an example of the kind of songwriting genius he is, the guitar is what makes the song flow so valiantly. Young’s instrumentation reaps heavy emotions out of the listener who can feel the musician’s pain bleed out across the seven-and-a-half minute track.
Lou Reed once revealed: “It makes me cry, it is the best I have heard in my life. The guy is a spectacular guitarist, those melodies are so marvellous, so calculated, constructed note to note… he must have killed to get those notes. It puts my hairs on end!”
‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
‘Rockin’ in the Free World‘ is impossible to listen to without breaking out into air-guitar. This one may lack the subtle beauty that is embedded in the other songs mentioned in this list and on the surface is just an all-out barnstorming anthem.
President George H.W. Bush had only been sworn into the Oval Office four weeks prior to Young writing this anthem, a track in which he doesn’t leave much to the imagination about his thoughts on the newly elected figure. Not a great deal of good came out of his spell as president but at least he was the man who lit a spark in Young to write ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’. This solo is Young’s way of kicking back at the administration who had just taken power and showing that he was ready for the fight.
‘Like A Hurricane’
If you’ve read this far and somehow still remain in doubt about Young being one of the great guitarists then let ‘Like A Hurricane’ change your mind. Young’s most underappreciated weapons in his arsenal remains his canny ability to find a groove and stick in it. On ‘Like A Hurricane’ he does just that as he and Crazy Horse go riding off into a tornado of feisty tunes and expert licks which create this amalgamation of aggression and beauty.
Crazy Horse at full gallop were not an animal to be messed with and, just to top it off, Neil Young then arrives on his own stallion to deliver a guitar solo for the ages. ‘Like A Hurricane‘ is a masterclass in distortion from Young, that is simply unteachable.