The last twelve months has seen two of this generation’s greatest guitar icons quit their day jobs and strike out on their own. Following the break-up of Oasis, Noel Gallagher breezed past his younger brother as his debut album topped the charts and the elder star embarked on a series of sold out arena dates. Similarly, Jack White is making life after The White Stripes look effortless. With a no.1 album already in the bag, he’s finding critical and commercial acclaim just as easy to come by without Meg at his side.
Still, as great as their success has been, it’s been an age since an iconic guitarist last ditched his band mates and went on to find superstardom under his own name. Slash has done well for himself, without threatening to surpass his Guns and Roses heyday.
Today Jack and Noel feel like the exception rather than the rule, which begs the question? Who are these brave souls that risked the ignominy of failure by putting their own name on the marquee: the top five reveals all.
In many ways Eric Clapton is a controversial choice. After all, is it possible to make a more lasting impact than Cream? Could any solo career really be more mythical than being a member of the legendary Yardbirds, and how on earth do you write an album better than The Plastic Ono Band, let alone make a contribution more valuable than that solo in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"? Well to be honest, you don’t, but it’s Eric friggin’ Clapton.
His greatest work might have come as a cog in a wider machine or as a session musician, but as a solo artist Clapton more than established himself. In fact, he proved his worth immediately with his eponymous debut and 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard. Divisive to this day, the latter album showed Clapton’s ability to restrain his ferocious technique and produce soulful, and remarkably easy pop music. Some demanded longer solos, others dark blues, but few could deny hits as smooth as "Motherless Child" and "I Shot The Sheriff".
By the mid-70s Clapton had established a smooth considered persona that was typified by Slow Hand. "Cocaine" sauntered just shy of a strut, while "Lay Down Sally" was an understated pop gem. Indulgent, lazy and devoid of energy? The criticism came thick and fast, and it was often justified, but Clapton was standing on his own two feet. His legacy now rests as much on his solo work as those incredible early years as a hired hand. Truth be told, Clapton’s name has come to resonate longer and stronger in the public’s imagination than either Cream or The Yardbirds.
Having gotten his break touring with Frank Zappa in the early 1980s it’s easy to forget that Steve Vai, easily dismissed as a shred-head or session musician, was an innovative force in his own right. What made Vai so astounding in those formative years was not his penchant for challenging audience members to bring him fiendish compositions to sight-read on live stage, but the sheer insanity of his albums.
As an opening statement 1984’s genre bending "Little Green Men" is a riot; a goofy blend of proto-hip hop nonsense, strange noises, polyrhythms, and squirrelly displays of technique. Flex-able remains one of the most approachable guitar oddities. Accessible in the extreme, Steve Vai’s unexpected angles of attack, flair for sloganeering, and quirky sense of humour endeared the star to a generation of rock fans.
His career would be understandably dogged by comparison to Joe Satriani, but Steve was more than a 80s shredder, and his debut proved this. His second more serious, but no less delightful, album Passion And Warfare cemented his legacy. Using the guitar as a tool to explore the seemingly unending plane of spirituality, Vai’s greatest LP had a gloriously expansive flavour. It reached out in every direction, spanning the eons. Signature tune "For The Love Of God" was more than a showcase of frightful technique; it was a journey, with an unshakeable sense of both purpose and direction. There was no looking back; from that moment on Vai was his own man - a legend in his own right.
It might be a little cheeky to include Eric Johnson on this list. To be honest, besting The Electromagnets wasn’t exactly difficult. They failed to get a major label deal and soon disappeared, but the same was nearly true of Johnson himself. His landmark debut, Seven Worlds, was delayed until 1978, and wouldn’t find an audience until the mid 90s. As Johnson floundered commercially, guitar magazines took up his cause praising his incredible tone, and promoting his second true album Tones.
Sadly, the album proved equally unsuccessful, but it did serve to cement Johnson’s status as a virtuoso within the guitar rock community. The stunning compositions "Zap" and "Emerald Eyes" finally got the airing they deserved as anticipation mounted for Johnson’s next release. 1990’s Ah Via Musicom, now mythical in stature, proved to be the long awaited breakthrough. "Cliffs Of Dover" was a bone fide hit, and far from disappearing into a black hole of mindless shredding, the album was a gorgeous and exploratory listen. Johnson hopped between pop and rock, jazz and blues, but he held it together with the sheer consistency of his tone. His style was so adaptable that he could pull together incredibly divergent elements without sounding remotely forced or unnatural.
Johnson proved that his failure as a band member would not poison his career as an individual. More importantly, it showed guitarists the world over the importance of style, tone and cohesion, over brutal force and relentless assault. By creating a distinct sonic signature, he mastered and made all genres subservient to his sound.
Ry Cooder’s aesthetic is so warm, humble, and welcoming that it’s become all too easy to forget just how daring his sound was. His first big breakthrough, Into The Purple Valley, saw Ry resuscitating roots music with an authentic country twang. Using a questioning sense of humour and a flair for storytelling he became a playful and modern answer to Woody Guthrie. The guitar work was slick and engaging, perfectly complimenting Ry’s vocal tone and the mood of the material.
A natural multi-instrumentalist with a theatrical flair Ry effortlessly modernised a selection of Dust-Bowl classics by Leadbelly, Sis Cunningham and Woody Guthrie himself. Ry’s vocal carries a deep-rooted sense of optimism and charm, allowing the guitarist to foster a sense of strength and chin up spirit even as he sings the most soul-crushing numbers ("Teardrops Will Fall"). By 1974 on the brilliant Paradise and Lunch Ry was happy to let tracks by Blind Willie McTell and Bobby Womack sit side by side, content in the knowledge that his sauntering roots-reboot sound could bring a sense of cohesion and place to even the most diverse of tales.
Despite living through tumultuous times, Ry waited decades for his moment to arrive. Accustomed to resurrecting traumas of the distant past, his tales of dustbowl depravity always drew timely modern parallels, but it wasn’t until 2011 that Ry found a contemporary tragedy worthy of his rootsy wrath. "No Banker Left Behind" set the tone, as Cooder detailed a divided society run by selfish criminals and self-styled bandits. Ry’s ability to match dark themes to joyous rhythms was perfect, it captured a sense of farce and bewilderment in the face of financial crisis. Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down laughs and asks the question "people don’t really behave like this do they?" while grimacing and muttering, "unfortunately they do".
This wasn’t a difficult choice. Each artist on this list has made significant contributions as solo artists; producing great albums, classic tracks, and incredible solos, but no-one can hope to equal what Neil Young achieved when he decided to take front and centre stage. The idea of covering Neil Young’s career highlights in a quick blurb is absurd, so instead we’ll focus on those pivotal early releases that established him as a lone star.
From the moment his promising self-titled debut was released, Young never looked back. After 1969, Young abandoned mediocrity altogether. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was astounding. Young had stumbled across a piercing sound that carried the weight of history. Like a biting wind and a darkly overcast sky, Young felt like a torrential force of nature sending shivers down spines and setting the world to rights. His withering nasal cry and rumbling guitar cut deep, as if Young’s work was passing judgment upon, and speaking directly to, his listener’s soul.
"Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" seemed like unsurpassable anthems, but within a year Young had released the drug addled regrets of After The Gold Rush. Instantly mastering, and ultimately redefining, accusatory folk with his tearful laments and wilting lover’s regrets, Young’s second classic LP was filled to the brim with timeless anthems. It seems foolish to single out any one track, but few protest songs will ever be as chilling as "Southern Man", a scornful guitar led assault on the hypocrisy and savagery of America’s racist South.
From that point on there was no looking back, Harvest gave Young his two biggest anthems ("Heart Of Gold", "The Needle And The Damage Done") and On The Beach secured his legacy. Tackling hate, both internal and external, Young shot back at his critics (including Lynyrd Skynryd) while tackling his demons on a sparsely arranged LP. Young pulled no punches, and by stripping his sound down, the bleak nature of his message and the harrowing extremes of his confessional style proved unavoidable. Young was only six years into his career and he’d already released more five star albums than most artists manage in a thirty-year career. More classics would follow, including 1975’s brilliant Tonight’s The Night, and Young was yet to earn his well deserved moniker "The Godfather Of Grunge", but he had established himself as the greatest guitarist gone solo in music history.
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