‘Cinnamon Girl’ by Neil Young is a straight-up classic. The Canadian troubadour has given us so many brilliant moments over the years, but this 1969 track ranks close to the very top. It was early moments like these that helped to solidify his unquestionable status as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ and definitively confirm his legacy as your favourite musician’s favourite musician.
Debuted on the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young’s first with Crazy Horse, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ was also one of the earliest indicators we got that Neil Young was one of the best modern guitarists out there, with a penchant for a lick or two.
Covered by every icon from Type O Negative to The Smashing Pumpkins and even Radiohead, you could argue that ‘Cinnamon Girl’ was also the first true alternative rock track. If you watch any live version from the time of its release, you’ll head at just how visceral of an experience it was.
Just like ‘Cowgirl in the San’ and ‘Down by the River’ on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young wrote ‘Cinnamon Girl’ whilst suffering from a nasty bout of the flu accompanied by a terrible fever at his home in Topanga, California.
Famously, the song was written in double drop D tuning (DADGBD), one of Young’s go-to tunings. This gives his material a heavy and melodic undercurrent, and many of his most beloved works are played in this traditionally folk set-up. Other corkers such as ‘The Loner’, ‘The Old Laughing Lady’, ‘Ohio’ and the emotive journey, ‘Cortez the Killer’ utilise this tuning.
‘Cinnamon Girl’ is one of the best riffs ever written; there can be no argument. Simple, punchy and groovy, it’s everything you want from a guitar line. In fact, every aspect of the music that comprises the ’69 classic is brilliant. This early chapter with Crazy Horse, which produced many incredible moments over the coming decade, featured some of Young’s most dynamically interesting work.
Aside from Young’s riff, the key change at the bridge or the descending bass line, the song is also iconic for another reason, the “one-note guitar solo”. Famously, the solo is mainly a repeating high pitched D note, which is used in the fashion of a pedal note, augmented by his whammy bar, ringing out over the top of the chord progression. The brilliance of it is, upon first or even tenth listen, it might not even sound like it’s one note that Young’s playing.
Praised for this reason, its simplicity but ingenuity, at the root of it, is another factor that’s added to Young’s status. He’s the master of simplicity and has always tacitly understood the meaning of ‘simple but effective’. It was via technique and emotion that he was able to drive the solo home, something that many guitar players forego when writing their lines.
Explaining the thought process behind the solo, Young said: “People say that it is a solo with only one note but, in my head, each one of those notes is different. The more you get into it, the more you can hear the differences.”
During the solo, Young drags you into thinking that he will relieve himself of the D, and opt for some even more emotionally charged change in note, but he doesn’t, and this serves to embody the girl in the lyrics’ unwavering, lovelorn plea. Incredible.
A masterful outing, owing to the emotive power of Double Drop D, Neil Young‘s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ remains one of the most simple yet captivating guitar solos ever recorded. Next time you’re overthinking your guitar work, think, ‘What would Neil Young do?’.
Listen to ‘Cinnamon Girl’ below.