The relationship that Steely Dan had with guitar players is notorious. Originally, the group had two permanent players who ace 1970s jazz-rock musicians: Denny Dias and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter. But from the very start, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were eager to bring in sessions players.
Just eight minutes into their very first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, Becker and Fagen employ their first in a long line of hired guns: Elliot Randall, who had known Baxter throughout his childhood and who had befriended Becker and Fagen while the latter two were still musicians in Jay and the Americans. His lead work on ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ set a precedent for the future: the guitar parts are up for grabs.
Over the next decade, Becker and Fagen dissolved the permanent members in favour of employing session musicians full time. Some of the world’s top players came and went from the band’s recordings, including a number of ace session guitar players. Rick Derringer, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Steve Khan, and even Mark Knopfler were brought at different points to try and realise Becker’s and Fagen’s collective vision, and even the best players weren’t exempt from having some of their best playing thrown away.
When Steely Dan reunited, Walter Becker stepped in to record most of the band’s guitar parts. Even before then, Becker had begun to leave his bass at home and begin picking up the six string with increasing frequency. Whoever it was who stepped in the studio, there was a mythos around the two main figures: these were the guys who went through eight different players just for a 30 second solo on ‘Peg’. These were the guys who were so negligent of their own guitar talent that one of their players jumped ship to The Doobie Brothers. These guys were exacting, almost to an unnecessary degree.
But it was always necessary, as can be heard throughout the band’s work. There’s not an errant note, misplaced chord, or flubbed bend in their entire catalogue. Instead of just ranking the greatest guitar solos, we’re looking at six of the greatest guitar players to ever step foot into the Steely Dan orbit and honing in on some of their most unique contributions to the band. These are the solos that are some of the best, but also some of the most important.
The six greatest Steely Dan guitar solos:
6. ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ – Elliot Randall
It was a small miracle that Steely Dan ever found two permanent guitar players in the first place. Before landing a contract at ABC Records, Becker and Fagen were playing in faded doo-wop groups and scoring low-budget Richard Pryor movies. The fact that they made it to California and scored two of the top six string players on the scene was an unlikely coup.
However, being the kind of people they were, Becker and Fagen brought in hired guns from the very start. The first of which was Elliot Randall, who provided the lead guitar to ‘Kings’ and ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ for the band’s debut. His opening solo is one of the most complicated and mind-bending in the band’s catalogue, pairing just the right amount of jazzy complexity and off-the-cuff rock and roll wildness.
5. ‘Bodhisattva’ – Denny Dias
When Becker and Fagen were still working in New York, they befriended a young guitarist by the name of Denny Dias. Dias wasn’t much of a rock player: his roots were in jazz. When Steely Dan began to solidify, Becker and Fagen insisted on bringing Dias into the fold to make sure that the band never got too “rock”.
Dias and his partner in crime, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, spend most of ‘Bodhisattva’ in perfect harmony. But when Dias peels off for his guitar solo, you can feel the energy of the song change instantly. Dias incorporates pulls offs and runs that were more common of bebop trumpet players, not rock guitarists. But the results are fluid, dynamic, and completely enthralling. Dias was never the type to just let loose: everything he played was perfectly placed and expertly timed down the millisecond it happened.
4. ‘Kid Charlemagne’ – Larry Carlton
As Steely Dan gained increasing levels of success, Becker and Fagen were bolstered in their attempts to bring in some of the best players from not just the rock world but the jazz world as well. To get fusion great Larry Carlton, who spent most of his time contributing to Joni Mitchell and Michael Jackson records, was a major grab, and they made sure to make his work count.
Carlton has a few great solos that could have had this spot (shout out to his work on ‘Deacon Blues’ and ‘Third World Man’), but one solo sits head and shoulders above the rest. His lead lines of ‘Kid Charlemagne’ are intense, fluid, and frequently on the brink of spinning out of control. And yet, Carlton always manages to reel it back in and keep the song tightly wound. Even when you think he’s done, Carlton throws in a few final licks for good measure, with Becker and Fagen knowing better than to discard these gold nuggets.
3. ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ – Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter
Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter didn’t actually need Steely Dan. That man had backed up Jimi Hendrix once upon a time (granted, only for a single night, but still). He was an engineering genius and got so enthralled in the specifics of military weapons that the US government actually hired him as a consultant. But Baxter was getting ignored at his day job, and by 1974’s Pretzel Logic, he decided it was time to jump ship over to The Doobie Brothers.
As a parting gift, Baxter recorded one final guitar part for the band on what wound up being their highest charting single, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’. Like all of Baxter’s solos, this one pairs his killer chops with a wild unpredictability that kept the band from lapsing too far into soft rock or jazz. The Baxter left, Steely Dan lost a vital edge that they never quite got back.
2. ‘Bad Sneakers’ – Walter Becker
Steely Dan went through a lot of guitar players. So many, that you’d be forgiven if you forgot that there was a perfectly capable guitar player among the most exclusive ranks of the band. Walter Becker might have played bass in the original incarnation of the group, but he was a guitar player by trade, and after Chuck Rainey became the band’s go-to session bassist, Becker began to reconnect with his main instrument.
The lead lines in ‘Bad Sneakers’ are the least flashy, least bombastic, and least showy on this list. But they are the perfect illustration of Becker’s style: restrained, but incredibly adept and wickedly surprising. When the Dan stepped back on stage in the ’90s, Becker proudly played some of the band’s most iconic solos himself, revelling in the chance to show off his proficiency and skill for audiences night after night.
1. ‘Peg’ – Jay Graydon
The most infamous case of Steely Dan’s overbearing attitude towards exacting perfection comes from ‘Peg’, a goofy four-minute pop song that somehow became the song where the most skilled performers couldn’t live up to the central duo’s expectations. Michael McDonald struggled to hit the notes that Becker and Fagen requested, but it was the guitar solo that wound up being the most frustrating for all involved.
After an alleged seven different guitar players tried and failed to play what Becker and Fagen were looking for, Jay Graydon stepped in with a multi-string tour de force that wound up being perfect. Graydon wasn’t a fixture of Steely Dan’s studio squad, but he made his rare performance count by doling out one of the most unique and thrilling solos in the band’s entire catalogue.