Steely Dan has had more than its share of memorable guitar solos, and that’s no accident: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have a deep appreciation for how a well-placed, well-constructed lead from a guitar can send a song into orbit and provoke endless replays. They’ve famously foraged through many guitarists and dozens of tries over many hours just to get that one perfect take, and decades later these miniature works of art still stand strong, justifying all the time invested in getting it right.
There’s little argument among rock fans that Elliott Randall’s methodically slashing lead on “Reelin’ In The Years,” Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s succulent turn on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” or Jay Graydon’s funky ride on “Peg” are solos for the ages. We here at Something Else! love those moments, too, but have also found plenty other leads elsewhere that we love even more. Steely Dan fanatics John Lawler, Preston Frazier and S. Victor Aaron select the five Steely Dan guitar solos that get them reacting like Fagen did upon first hearing one of these selections (read on to find out which one got him so excited).
5. Home at Last (Walter Becker): As the boppin’ master musicians (Rainey, Purdie, Carlton, Feldman) open up some space, Fagen wails on the blues, synth harp and then Becker delivers a siren cry of a guitar solo. It’s smooth retsina in the pocket over the intro chords, as Walter ties the tune in a silver bow.
4. Third World Man (Larry Carlton): So nice they recorded it twice…well, over a brilliant Larry Carlton solo from the Aja sessions, now with new lyrics. The drawn out notes somehow tether better the new story of an incendiary misfit in mischief. Tasty outtro licks punctate the dirge march to the end of Steely Dan I.
3. West of Hollywood (Walter Becker): It started out good, then it got much better. The centerpiece of West of Hollywood is Potter’s remarkable sax solo, but Walter expertly propels this number with possibly his finest guitar solo, in no small part because he’s listening intently to the complex soundscape enveloping this sad tale… and sings back sweet solace.
2. Kid Charlemagne (Larry Carlton): Yes, there’s gas in the car! It’s white hot as Larry Carlton shreds the first song on Royal Scam with high octane licks. Even more ear candy spikes the glycemic index meter as Mr. 335 sweetens the outtro with a freakin’ brilliant call and response against Don Grolnick’s Fender Rhodes.
1. Your Gold Teeth II (Denny Dias): “Holy fuck, that’s great!” exclaims a beside-himself Donald Fagen in a renowned outtake as Denny Dias completes his post-bop solo on this jazzy number, and indeed it is. The series of genius fret-hugging runs tell a complete tale. No strings were bent in the making of this masterpiece!
5. Pearl Of The Quarter (Jeff Baxter): Don’t forget Jeff Baxter’s pedal steel playing. He plays the steel like a master and when Steely Dan called it a day in terms of touring in 1974 he worked his magic on the steel and the six-string with the Doobie Brothers. This is one of his best.
4. The Great Pagoda of Funn (Wayne Krantz): Guitarist Wayne Krantz toured with Steely Dan in 1996 and Fagen’s solo band. Here he gets to stretch his wings in a lazy solo which build in complexity and intensity. Funn!
3. Haitian Divorce (Dean Parks/Walter Becker): Parks is a technician and his can bend notes with the best of them. On The Royal Scam he does, with talk box help from Becker. I wonder if there are copies of the song without that talk box effect.
2. Green Flower Street (Larry Carlton): Carlton did all the solo work in the album in just a few short days. This one is a gem and it compliments the frenzied guitar interplay of Dean Parks and Rick Derringer.
1. Aja (Denny Dias): When people speak of the song “Aja” they often refer to the Steve Gadd drum solo or the mezmerizing Wayne Shorter sax solo. Guitarist Denny Dias in his final appearance with Steely Dan provides a perfect BeBop solo in contrast to Walter Becker’s angular fretwork. The result are epic guitar solos for an epic Steely Dan classic.
S. VICTOR AARON
5. What A Shame About Me (Walter Bekcer): A perfect example of Walter Becker’s knack for injecting a nuanced feel into a song. As Fagen sings of a life wasted with a nonchalant shrug, his songwriting partner portrays the stinging pain of regret churning just underneath the surface.
4. Bodhisattva (Denny Dias/Jeff Baxter): Dias bebops on this jump blues and then Skunk’s souped-up rockbilly brings the song to its climatic ending. Never had Steely Dan guitar leads sounded so loose and fun in the studio.
3. Green Earrings (Denny Dias/Elliott Randall): Dias participates in another dual-solo showcase, this time with Elliott Randall. His liquid lines are sharply contrasted by Randall’s urgent, acidic articulations.
2. Do It Again (Denny Dias): One of the few electric sitar solo that doesn’t explicitly sound East Indian, Dias instead turns this exotic instrument into a perveyor soul and substance.
1. Night By Night (Jeff Baxter): Hard to believe that Skunk could top his memorable lead on “Rikki” but he managed to do just that one song later on Pretzel Logic. Within the short time allotted, his jazzy, blues-soaked masterpiece shows a complete command of phrasing, harmony and rhythm.
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