An 'impossible' solo

By Mario Benito

At a time when guitar solos seem like something from a glorious past, with more patience for long songs, years in which one tasted with passion the virtuoso instrumental —things were always better in the good old days, as they say — it turns out that a tall, mature, serious dude, with short hair, not your your typical rocker, gives us, what for me is the most creative and spectacular guitar solo the 21st century has ever seen. We’re talking about Nels Cline, the lead guitarist for one of the most solid rock bands at the moment, the American band Wilco, or if not them, tell me who.  

Founded in Chicago 1994, their fans and critics both agree that the turning point in the history of this group was the recording of their 4th album in 2001, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Its powerful rock with folk and country roots evolves in this masterpiece to the point of becoming a musical experiment of a complex score, subtle and elegant, true to some great compositions. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jesus, Etc., Ashes of American Flags, I’m the Man Who Loves’s the whole album really. But apart from the music, the founding leader, Jeff Tweedy, switched to drummer Glenn Kotche from Ken Coomer before recording started and more importantly,  once the recording ended, he got rid of Jay Bennett , another creative member of the band  -he died prematurely in 2009-  who began competing with him creating differences between the two of them about the making of the record which  led to a point of no return. The story took another blow with the record company they signed up with, which turned out to be a soap opera which summarises the state of decay of what was once called the record industry. In the end and in broad terms, company executives rejected the work, fired them, gave them the record...that Wilco sold to another label. Affiliated to the same company!   


Why then do we emphasise Sky Blue Sky (2007)? Well, for the simple reason that the 3rd song on this 6th album is Impossible Germany, the number on which Nels Cline plays that wicked solo we mentioned earlier in the article. Although in reality it’s more than a song, despite what they’ve written, are they right?, that this album is more experimental than the earlier ones; being simpler and more direct. Impossible Germany’s lyrics are hard to fathom - it was written by all band members adding a line without seeing the rest - and it’s like a little symphony, with parts well different from each other, with a structure which is a prodigy of musical intelligence and creativity.  

The famous solo, this impossible solo by Nels Cline, takes place in a part of the song distinct from the rest of the composition, with two other guitars - those of the leader, composer and singer Jeff Tweedy, and the multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone - each playing a different scale, a repetitive melody that builds to come together with Cline’s solo in an absolutely shattering trio of guitars.

Nels Cline was born in 1956 in Los Angeles. He began to play guitar when he was 12, together with his brother on drums. He has played a lot since then, to the point of appearing in the credits of more than 200 albums from various bands, along with taking part in many gigs with diverse players, including jazzmen — you could consider him a jazz-rock musician —. He joined Wilco in 2004 and has taken part in  the records Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (The Album), The Whole Love, and Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, the latter recorded live. Besides, he has obviously played in all the band’s shows to the delight of those who enjoy the electric guitar to the max, live, like those of us who had the pleasure to see him this summer in Madrid.

He takes a battery of guitars to gigs, a pedal board that looks like the controls in  a spaceship and an amp head from Schroeder DB-7, made by Tim Schroeder himself, especially for Nels. But his guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster 1959, which he plays on Impossible Germany, the one we’ve been talking about and I can’t get out of my head while writing. He himself admits that the sound fascinates him, “the entire shape of the guitar, because I like to press the chords from behind the bridge — which you can do with a Fender Jazzmaster or a Jaguar, among others — and because it’s practically indestructible”.

We can also see him play another guitar made by hand by Bill Henss with palo santo wood and a Jazzmaster design, of course, and tuned differently for other Wilco songs and which he calls his ‘Rosewood Monster’. Also with a Gibson Les Paul, double cutaway and ‘open’ tuning for certain songs, or with an interesting German Hop Telstar Standard from the 60s he uses for songs like Capital City.

In addition, rounding off his collection is a 12-string Jerry Jones Neptune  - handmade guitar maker out of Nashville retired in 2011 - styled like a Danelecto that throws a fa-bu-lous sound that you can hear on great songs such as I Am Trying to Break Your Heart; he owns  another Jerry Jones, with two necks, with odd marks on the frets, and instead of your usual points, has  metal planets, clouds, and the hands of God from the 16th chapel encrusted...complete madness.


And the story doesn’t end there. A Fender Jaguar from 1969 also goes on his trips and performances. He baptised it with the adoring moniker ‘silver bastard’. It’s his Rock ‘n Roll guitar. It has a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck— an idea lifted from a Jeff Tweedy Telecaster — and a super hot Seymour Duncan in the bridge. And finally A Bill Nash guitar (Nashguitars) with a Telecaster style he uses when everyone suggests he use a real Telecaster, something he has resisted for quite some time.

Guitars and a guitar solo impossible to play by anyone other than Nels Cline. Impossible not just for his virtuosity and the sound he has achieved after years of ‘electronic’ looking. Impossible not only for its brutal finish, its wild, crazy notes, which for some mysterious random or capricious designs of the music Gods are kept within the tonality of the piece, but also impossible  mainly for those first solitary slow notes, vibrant and eternal. Like a human wail in each. Pure sound that joins Wilco to Nels Cline and his inseparable Fender Jazzmaster.

(Images: ©CordonPress)