Staff Top 10
Top Ten Righteous Air (Non-Guitar) Solos

i've had enough of air guitar being the imaginary instrument of choice (readers please note: this could have a lot to do with my air guitar skills being similar to my IRL axe-handling, i.e, nonexistent). Oh, sure, so the guitar invented rock'n'roll and all that (although, try telling that to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis...), but the axe gets all the credit when it comes to 'air' solos. It's true, you can't really beat “Eruption” or “Smoke On The Water” if you're in the mood for a bit of tennis-racquet-slinging wanker action, with the drum solo or fill coming in a close second—there's nothing like beating your imaginary skins along with “Coming In The Air Tonight” or “Hot For Teacher” to really frighten the other people on the train—but there's no denying that it's the six-string (or 12, if you're feeling adventurous) that hogs the spotlight as far as worship of flashy soloing goes. To make this Top Ten as 'fair' as possible, the other usual suspects and building blocks of rock'n'roll (bass, drums, piano) have been left off the list. But what about all those killer harmonica bursts and Hammond organ arpeggios that have dotted rock's annals? What about a well-timed explosion of bagpipes or a soaring violin-accompanied middle-eight? This Top Ten is representin' for the ignored instruments of rock's less obvious solos, the instrumental bursts that have you whistling along like a lunatic or attempting to play air keys without looking like Bela Lugosi having an epileptic fit. Who says a saxophone solo can't be as righteous and thrilling as any two-handed tapping wankfest? Not me! So, grab your phantom instruments of aural pleasure and leap around the living room as we rock out to the... Top Ten Righteous Air (Non-Guitar) Solos!

Millie - “My Boy Lollipop” (harmonica)
What at first seems to be another perfectly enjoyable dancehall romp is ripped apart at the seams come the 1.00-minute mark by a deceptively simple harmonica solo. It's made all the more satisfying because of the hints of which hum in the background of the song's earlier verses like a circling shark, before BAM! Air harmonica!

B*Witched - “C'est La Vie” (tin whistle)
One of the finest moments in the late-'90s Irish pop explosion (if an “explosion” can entail all of, oh, four artists), the air solo in “C'est La Vie” is all the more arresting because of the almost entirely synthesised arrangements of the rest of the song, from the bouncy keys to the “guitar” and the God awful 'DJ' effects (Lord knows who decided that some street scratching would be totally non-incongruous in the midst of a girly pop song sung by four Oirish hotties...). Thus, when a traditional Irish tin whistle solo explodes out of the middle eight at 2.05 (Riverdance-esque interpretive jig optional), it's like someone's opened a window and let in a gale. “Get a loife!”

Huey Lewis & The News - “Hip To Be Square” (saxophone)
This song generally sends people into conniptions of embarrassment (which was probably the intended reaction), which makes the blazing saxophone solo that responds to the call put out by the obnoxious synth/brass breakdown even more sweet: out of the midst of The News' uber-considered and utterly overproduced '80s arrangement springs a moment of pure saxophonal madness.

The Mamas & The Papas - “California Dreamin'” (flute)
This wintry woodwind breakdown is the “Classical Gas” of the non-guitar solo; it starts out simple and a little bit laboured, but before long the flautist is ripping along like a rainy wind whipping through San Fransisco back-streets. Of course it's a flute solo, too—and not just because flutes were the instrument de rigeur when it came to breakdowns that could be accompanied by “wild” projections and swirling lights – what other instrument suggests the mournfulness of grey skies made gloomier by regrets and heartache?

Hanson - “If Only” (harmonica)
Another of three harmonica inclusions in this list, so perhaps the mouth harp is the guitar of the musicians' musician—or maybe it's just because, as it does here, the simple blues blower so easily whips up a frenzy of enthusiastic extremes. But the great thing about Taylor Hanson's work in “If Only” is the way the harp swings from the upbeat opening riff to that absolutely sublime Toots Thielemans-ish post-middle eight solo, packed with yearning and throbbing emotion. If you get a chance to see Hanson live, go see them—their live rendition of “If Only” is worth the price of admission (that being profound hearing loss thanks to the screaming fans).

Toots & The Maytalls - “Louie, Louie” (saxophone/organ)
Reggae legend “Toots” Hibbert gets in two sneaky solos in this brillo take on the garage standard; the first is a perfectly wonderful saxophone solo (it almost 'predicts' Jazzboe Abubaka's later woozy work with Ras Michael) presented in a more or less traditional reggae/ska manner, but the second comes at the outro, a completely crazy garbled Hammond organ riff that sounds like someone gargling into a flanger. I long ago wore this particular 25-or-so seconds of This Is Reggae Music smooth by listening and relistening to this moment of nutty goodness.

John Farnham - “You're The Voice” (bagpipes)
Who knows why, but the bagpipes have been a regular star of Australian rock and pop throughout the years, most notably in AC/DC's “Long Way To The Top”, but it was John “The Voice” Farnham's massive '80s anthem (which is regularly used by various political parties to whip the nation's voters into a frenzy of, er, voting) that fully realised the emotional power of the Scottish national instrument—because there it is, at 2.46, that fucking awesome bagpipes breakdown. Even the most hardened cynic has a hard time not being stirred up by The Voice's Scotch courage.

Bob Dylan - “Hurricane” (violin)
For obvious reasons it's Bob Dylan who gets the credit for “Hurricane”s power, but there's no denying that it's Scarlett Rivera's frankly electric work on the fiddle that provides the song's emotional might. It swirls about the song like Ruben Carter's adopted namesake, whirring with barely reserved intent during the verse and then bursting out all over, then retreating back into the shadows.

Yes - “Roundabout” (organ)
Rightly given props by Jack Black in the wonderful School Of Rock, Rick Wakeman's organ solo that bursts forth out of the relative quiet around the 5.30 minute mark (if you are, that is, listening to the 'proper' version of the song) is gobsmackingly brilliant. His nimble-fingered Hammond work ushers in guitar, bass and drum solos as well, though rightfully installing the organ as the star of the song by continually popping up again, just in case we needed a reminder. And I swear it's “mullets come out of the sky”, not “mountains”. Listen to it again!

The Romantics - “What I Like About You” (harmonica)
I've gone so far in the past as to actually list this compact tornado of harmonica magic alongside six-stringed counterparts in 'best ever air guitar' round-ups just to prove a point: it is the undisputed champion of the air non-guitar solo. When I sang in a wedding band many moons ago, none of us could play harmonica, so the lead guitarist fashioned a note-perfect version of this rave-up, played on his Gibson SG. He was a fine guitarist, but even his best work couldn't hold a candle to this marvellously unhinged moment of gum-shredding air action. We're not worthy!

By: Clem Bastow
Published on: 2005-06-17
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