Neil Young is one of the greatest iconoclasts
of the rock guitar, someone who has achieved his own sound that is far removed
from conventionalism and traditional technique. If we focus only on technique
we would have to say that he is a very limited guitarist but, thank God, music
is much more than technique, and Young covers any deficiencies with an overdose
of passion and emotion. There are those who play with their brain and those who
play with their heart, but Neil plays from his guts, from the most primitive
viscerality. In some ways his guitar playing is an extension of his manner of
singing, something that is strange, but full of feeling; it is replete with energy
and emotion and compensates for his lack of technical ability. From one of the
most important careers in history here are our ten favourite moments of Neil
Young on the six strings.
For What It's Worth
Stephen Stills composed this marvel about the early protests against the Vietnam war and showed it to the rest of his band, and Neil Young added the great harmonics and a couple of excellent solos (on which he is already using the whammy bar that he would employ so frequently in the future) to put the finishing touches to one of the best songs of the 60s. However, the guitar he uses is not the Gretsch White Falcon associated with his Buffalo Springfield period, but an orange Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins. To listen to the legendary White Falcon in action we recommend the fantastic Mr. Soul to you.
In 1969 Young exchanged one of his Chet Atkins guitars for a 53 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, painted black and widely modified, from his ex- Buffalo Springfield colleague, Jim Messina. He never regretted the deal and the 'Old Black', the name he gave it, became the most important guitar of his career, as it is the guitar that he uses on the majority of his electric recordings. Its debut lived up to his legend and was on Young’s second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the best example continues to be Cinnamon Girl, on which not only does he play one of the greatest riffs in history, but also delivers an incredible solo of one note in which Young manages to make each note sound different with the whammy bar or, as he better explains it, “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.”
Down by the river
Down By The River is simply one of the best 'jams' of Neil Young’s career. The Canadian composed this song, similiarly to Cinnamon Girl and Cowgirl In The Sand, on the same day while he burnt with 102.2 degrees of pure creative fever. On the long solos he put his Old Black to good use with notes that cut like knives; while Crazy Horse accompany him perfectly.
It could be that Southern Man is best remembered for serving, along with Alabama, as the spur that led Lynyrd Skynyrd to dedicate Sweet Home Alabama to him, but this song is one of the most important of his career (besides appearing on his best album, After The Gold Rush). Its importance is based precisely on its solo, a noisy hurricane of notes in which Young finds his definitive style with his 'Old Black' through a 50’s Fender Deluxe Tweed. It eschews conventionalisms and ‘perfect techniques’, but it is full of passion and feeling, taking full advantage of distortion to provoke an emotional response in the listener.
On The Beach
After the enormous success of After The Gold Rush and, above all, Harvest, Neil Young became one of the biggest superstars in music. But the Canadian could not be less interested in fame, and on a personal level he was having a very hard time, so he decided to ‘find himself’, a process he described in the notes of the Decade collection: "Heart Of Gold had turned me into something middle of the road… so I went to the ditch.” What became known as the ‘Ditch Trilogy', made up of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight's The Night, are a collection of brilliant albums, but they are also dark and unsettling as Young is on a huge downer because of the death of his friends (like Danny Whitten) and his separation from the mother of his first son. It is a key period in his career that defines to perfection the rawness and passion that he puts into his music. On The Beach is one of the best examples of this period, a kind of depressive blues, in which Young’s guitar complains with the same feeling as his wounded voice. The atmosphere of solitude and isolation that he achieves with his guitar is incredible.
Cortez The Killer
Zuma represented the definitive return of the ‘Old Black’ and produced, as a result, one of the albums of his career that best highlights his guitar work. The best known example is Cortez The Killer, an accusation against the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, which contains one of his most influential guitar solos. The song is submerged in an ocean of distortion from the start with Young employing one of his preferred tunings, the double drop D tuning or DADGBD. Sonic Youth and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., for example, would draw on this work in the following decade. For some, the scratching and screeching of Young’s guitar can seem to be the work of a beginner, but the more you listen, the more you realize that this is what distinguishes Neil - his total control of distorsion and noise. It is not for nothing that, after listening to Danger Bird on this album, another master of distorsion, Lou Reed, commented: "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!”
Like A Hurricane
One of the best known songs of his career, another ode to distorsion, that seems to start from nothing and then turns into the best love song of his career, with an incredible chorus. It is clear that this song, of over eight minutes, is protagonized again by the Old Black, mixing fury and beauty in equal parts. Once someone described it as “the song that opens with the second best solo in history, then Neil sings a little, and then plays the best solo of all time.”
Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)
When Nirvana appeared, what they called ‘grunge’ had in fact been gradually invented over a period of more than a decade. We are referring to the dirty and distorted sound that Neil Young had created at the end of the 70s and had its best example in Hey, Hey, my, my, a song on which he drags out the most obscure sounds from his Old Black, from the riff to those solos that seem to be explosions of anger and frustration. Young felt the sting of punk and, on the contrary that many of his generation mates, it reinjected the lost energy in him. Willing not to become a dinosaur, Young embarked on a tour on which he opened his concerts with an acoustic part and closed it with this discharge of electric energy, together with Crazy Horse. It is not surprising that Kurt Cobain ended up by citing this song in his suicide note.
Despite the ‘Sweet Home Alabama incident’, Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s singer, were good friends and had a lot of respect for each other. So it is not surprising that Young offered this song to the southern group to record. In its first version it was an acoustic take that had been recorded in 1975 on an unreleased album, Hitchhiker (although it has now been released this year). In the end he sent the tape to Van Zant who liked it, but after his death in a plane accident in 1977 ‘the Skynyrd’ never recorded it. So in 1979 Young recovered it for his Live Rust tour and made it into a new ‘electric ride’ together with Crazy Horse. On his solo part his most lyrical and melodic style can be appreciated. Something that contrasts with his lyrics which, like Sunset Boulevard, are told from the point of view of a dead man.
Rockin In The Free World
There are artists who become more domesticated with age, but Neil Young is not one of those. In 1989, more than 20 years after the start of his career, he released this time bomb against the first Bush administration, that the ironies of fate turned into an anthem about the fall of communism for the American right. Musically it is one of the most direct and aggressive songs with the 'Old Black' screeching and twisting, as if Young was wringing out the sounds from it. It is unsurprising that Young plays it as if he was a 'cowboy' domesticating a crazy horse.