Reed died four years ago, on 27 October 2013, but we
can never forget one of the most important careers in the history of rock. As a
small tribute, Guitars Exchange would like to revive some of the best guitar
moments from his vast work. To that end, we have self-imposed a small rule, which
is that we can only choose one solo per guitarist. As has to be, we start our
list with the man himself when he was leader of the Velvet Underground; but we shan’t overlook other guitarists who
have been key in his career like Mick Ronson and Steve Hunter.
Lou Reed - I heard her call my name (1968)
If on his first album with Velvet Underground Lou Reed delivered one of the absolute summits of rock - and one of the two or three most influential albums of all time – on his second album he decided to test the limits of the genre. One of the best examples is I heard her call my name where Reed proves that he is one of the most undervalued guitarists in history with a couple of solos that exceed both the limits of noise and anger. Inspired by the ‘free jazz’ of Ornette Coleman, Reed lets rip with two solo atonals where he goes past the limits of distorsion, mainly on the second, where it seems like he is playing at the same time as he is making holes in his guitar and amplifier with an electric drill. The equipment that he used to perpetrate this sonic attack is probably his Gretsch Country Gent through a Vox AC100 Solid State Super Beatle Amp… although it might as well have been with a machine gun shooting up a box of grenades.
Sterling Morrison – Pale blue eyes (1969)
Sterling Morrison is often forgotten in the original line-up of the Velvets, possibly due to his own focus, which was always ‘one step behind’, adding only the necessary touches to a song, like his idol Steve Cropper did. Possibly he most shines on the Velvet’s third album, in which he appropriates one of Reed’s best songs, the beautiful Pale Blue Eyes, with his lovely accompaniment throughout the song, and that simple solo that is so delicate that it seems as if it could fall apart at any moment. Less is much more.
Doug Yule - Oh sweet nuthin’ (1970)
On the band’s fourth album, Velvet Underground was practically finished, with John Cale out since a couple of years, Moe Tucker pregnant and not participating, and Sterling Morrison angry because of the growing influence of Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule. Reed himself was also on his way out of the band, and after delivering an album worthy of its name, Loaded - which is packed with hits - he finally left the group. However here can be found some of the best tracks of his career: Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll, New Age and Oh sweet nuthin’ on which Yule not only sings but also supplies a great solo in a much more conventional style, but equally effective, as any of his colleagues in the band. The guitar he used to play on at that time was a Gibson ES-335TD.
Steve Howe - Ride into the sun (1972)
Lou Reed’s first album was not exactly a commercial or artistic success. Based on rejects from his time with the Velvets, this homonymous album is not well-loved by his fans. But beyond the fact that it is not a perfect album, it is full of good songs on which Steve Howe of Yes can be heard, moulding himself to the much more schematic style of Reed. One of the best examples of this is Ride into the sun, which is one of John Frusciante’s favourite songs.
Mick Ronson – Vicious (1972)
Reed’s greatest moment of recognition, certinly in commercial terms, came when he joined forces with one of his biggest fans - one David Bowie - who was in the midst of the Ziggy Stardust and 'glam' explosion. But the real icing on the cake came with the contributions of Mick Ronson, the Spiders from Mars guitarist who produced the album with Bowie and was responsible for some of the most memorable arrangements. He also used his ’68 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty” to add a couple of key solos over the chords of Reed’s Epiphone Riviera. Perhaps his most remembered contribution will be on the aggressive Vicious, where he sounds as dirty as the protagonist of the lyrics.
Steve Hunter / Dick Wagner - Sweet Jane (1974)
When Reed sought to present Berlin live, the only thing he had clear was that he wanted to be a rock star – a rock animal - and he allowed Bob Ezrin to put the perfect band together to achieve that. This is how Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner came to play together for the first time (both had played on Berlin but not together, with Hunter shining on How do you think it feels and Sad song). The man who had invented ‘the noise’ moved on to being an epic 'rock'n'roll star', along with the garb that looked great on him, thanks in large part to his outstanding new guitarists. Hunter composed the Intro to Sweet Jane, which is how the band started their concerts. His way of relating to Wagner is incredible, with Steve playing the melody and Dick doing the harmonies. Then the song enters, and we find Wagner shining with various solos. Few times have two guitarists understood each other in a better way than these two on their Les Paul TV Specials; Hunter through a HiWatt 100 watt amplifier and Wagner with a Marshall ‘half-stack’ of 100 watts. This provides not only the best solo on this list, but also one of the greatest of all time.
Danny Weiss – Kill your sons (1974)
Sally can't dance was a small slip up after the sublime trilogy of Transformer, Berlin and Rock and roll animal, but it nonetheless contained interesting songs like Kill your sons, in which Reed addresses the traumatic time when his parents decided to give him electroshock treatment. This is one of his top songs, on which guitar soloist Danny Weiss, founder member of Iron Butterfly and Rhinoceros, delivers one of his best contributions on the six strings.
Bob Kulick – Coney Island Baby (1976)
Following the terrorist sonic attack that is Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed returned with one of his classic albums, Coney Island Baby, dedicated to his partner at that time, the transexual Rachel. On this album he worked with Bob Kulick who was shortly to join Kiss (and made a number of contributions in the studio), and who would end up forming a part of W.A.S.P. It is his phenomenal ‘slide guitar’ work on Crazy feeling, the song that opens the album, and the marvellous accompaniment to the genius song that gave the title to the album, where his guitar goes together with a story that begins with the protagonist recalling how in college all he wanted to do was to play American football, and finishes by being a marvellous love letter to Lou Reed’s two loves at that time, Rachel and New York.
Robert Quine – Waves of fear (1982)
Blue mask is one of the best albums of Reed’s career, and that is in part thanks to Robert Quine who was one of the guitarists most in tune with him. Before becoming one of the pioneers of the New York punk scene, together with Richard Hell on Blank Generation, Quine was a big fan of the Velvets and managed to accumulate hundreds of hours of concert recordings. It is not so surprising therefore that they (musically) understood each other so perfectly. Perhaps the best example of this is on Waves of fear in which Quine’s solo matches the mood of the protagonist; someone who is suffering a nervous breakdown. It is clear that Quine listens closely to the words of the song before playing, thereby transmitting from his guitar the sensation of psychosis that Reed recreates in his lyrics. When Reed sings “I must be in hell”, Quine, with his Stratocaster, allows us to confirm it.
Mike Rathke – Dirty Boulevard (1989)
New York is, after Transformer, the best album in Reed’s career, and his first three songs are among the best in terms of production. His interaction with Mike Rathke is simply telepathic, with both playing Pensa-Suhr guitars. It is unsurprising that Rathke became one of Reed’s most loyal colleagues, and ended up collaborating on many of his albums. It is sufficient to listen to the start of Dirty Boulevard; where Reed starts with a simple three chord progression and Rathke adds a simple accompaniment that complements it to perfection; something he continues to do throughout the track, in which Reed again delves into the underbelly of the Big Apple. To top it off the great Dion DiMucci adds some great vocal accompaniment that completes another excellent song. Austere and direct rock and roll that confirms something Reed himself loved to say: “You can’t do better than guitars, bass and drums”.