Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #1: Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain" (Eddie Hazel)

In an effort to both consolidate my writing and add more content to this blog, I'm going to occasionally copy blog posts from a different project I was working on that involved talking about guitar solos I liked a lot. I think it's legal, since I wrote it in the first place. Over the next couple of weeks I'll unload what I have so far, and hopefully in the future I will keep this as a recurring feature (unless it is of interest to no one).

My first post was on "Maggot Brain." You'll excuse the length--the writing here was culled from a longer piece written my freshman year of college when I had this idea to write a full-length biography of Eddie Hazel. Didn't get past the prognosticating stage but I did end up writing a lot of stuff, some of which is below.

By the way, Eddie's mother Grace Cook died a few months ago. One can't help but play "Maggot Brain" in a different light now.
Available on: Maggot Brain (1971)
Solo Bits: 1:15-10:19
Making "Maggot Brain" my inaugural choice, my candidate for solo par excellence, was not as hard a decision as I thought it might be. In actuality, it was the only logical place I could start, for several reasons. First and primary among them is that I know this song (as well as the rest of the album) inside and out as a result of a failed attempt at writing a biography of Eddie Hazel a few years back. Also, it is a very long and intense solo that's well-regarded by guitarists of all stripes, particularly by Hendrix acolytes, 80's indie rockers (it was once covered by J. Mascis & The Fog with Mike Watt), and alternative jam bands (Ween wrote a tribute to Hazel entitled "A Tear For Eddie," that did a decent job of imitating the hypnotic qualities of Hazel's playing). It's also probably singlehandedly responsible for Hazel's reputation, which is unfair considering his playing was always excellent, but at least it's the kind of thing that gets Funkadelic noticed in outlets like Rolling Stone. And what's more, the song is nothing more than extended guitar solo, bookended by brief monologues from George Clinton.

It's kind of a famous story in P-funk lore, and, for once, the evidence shows that the incident in question probably happened: after working out the basic idea for the track, George Clinton told Eddie Hazel to "play like your mama just died," and he did exactly that. For the ten minutes and eighteen seconds that constitute this track, Eddie Hazel attacks, commands, and distorts one's emotions in a way only few artists can claim to do. Throughout the rest of his recording career, going through his solo album Games, Dames, & Guitar Things (which I recommend if you can get a copy from Rhino), he would contribute uniformly excellent guitar leads, alternately dazzling in their technical ability and emotionally taxing, yet in the end it all comes down to "Maggot Brain." Few artists have been so defined by one book, or one painting, or one movie, let alone one ten-minute electric guitar solo. It is his ultimate triumph and, considering his later output, his tragedy.

The only instruments heard on this song, other than guitar, are a muted keyboard and an occasional, reverb-heavy snare hit. As far as I know, it is as austere a recording as had been yet attempted by George Clinton, a far cry from the sort of work he would do later, with 40+ members on stage at any given time, including the guy that works the flashlight. When Eddie's guitar comes in at 1:14, it sounds tired, dismissive. He plays small clusters of notes, leaving gaps where one recognizes how empty the recording sounds without his guitar front and center. He starts playing faster, slowly piling on the effects. Within the next five minutes he goes through all the stages of grieving for his lost mother: anger, denial, helplessness, acceptance. His guitar sounds, at different times, like it's crying, screaming, talking, laughing. At points he starts playing incredibly fast clusters of notes, as if losing control of his mind or his ability to live, but then pulls back, anchoring what few notes he plays in a wash of reverb. Like Hendrix, Hazel's playing runs counter to the notion of masturbatory satisfaction that came to typify guitarists of succeeding decades (even the good ones). It sounds like a genuine attempt at exorcism.

The little echoes you hear (or at least think you hear), make you feel things long after they have actually been played, but then at a certain point the other instruments drop out completely. Eddie keeps playing, employing more of what would stereotypically be called "funk" playing (palm-muting, rigorous rhythyms), which is funny given that he has no rhythm section to work off of. The result is an emotional lull. He's not hitting the high notes he normally hits, which means maybe he's in the middle of pondering something, or maybe he's in denial. In any case, in a jarring move, the back instruments come back, and Eddie is back where he started.

During the early reign of Funkadelic, this would be Eddie's solo showcase onstage, where he would emerge from a manufactured purple fog dressed in some garish pimp's outfit with a Les Paul guitar, letting all the manufactured pain bubble for the crowd to drink up. He would look intently at his guitar and move his head, cringing and bobbing along with what he was playing. Who knows what was going through his head when he played it? I was never able to see him play the song live, so I will never know firsthand what sort of reactions he could wring out of people by playing certain notes, but I know he could make people cry, and there's a short list of guitarists who could do that.

Critics of popular music tend to throw around the word "virtuoso" pretty liberally when referring to musical artists of a particular expressive power. Certainly Eddie Hazel is often tagged with this admittedly well-intentioned compliment, but doing so does a disservice to the amount of craft and imagination he was able to put into his playing. Eddie Hazel was no "virtuoso," at least not by the terms that virtuosity is often defined (like most rhythm & blues guitarists of the time, he was not one to notate his music, nor was he likely to play lightning fast scalar solos or indulge in fret-tapping)--he was simply a blues guitarist, and the more one looks at the Steve Vais and Joe Satrianis of the world, the more it becomes abundantly clear that blues playing has nothing to do with virtuosity. I don't think I'm generalizing when I say that electric blues playing has never been about playing fast or effortlessly--on the contrary, it's about striving, sweating, desperately searching for some sort of truth or happiness in the form of a well-placed note, upon which the blues player realizes that this note is far from perfect, and the journey must continue. The tone of melancholy that pervade 99% of guitar blues is, at its basest level, the guitarist struggling to achieve transcendence, possibly as a way of communicating with his or her audience, possibly as a way of keeping the hell hound temporarily off the trail.

I run the risk of not being sufficiently specific. On a purely technical level, and Hazel is as perfect an example as one can think of, blues guitarists often use fairly simple patterns and often involve the same notes played over and over again. What gives the guitar a special edge over many blues instruments is that, as a string instrument, it allows the player to bend the string and therefore slightly change the pitch, which simultaneously provides the player with two advantages: first, it can give the note a more interesting "crying" tone, moving the pitch back and forth as if it was a weeping baby, and second, it allows the guitarist to cover up for any mistake by bending the note to a more pleasing pitch. From the earliest delta blues records to Led Zeppelin, even untrained ears can pick up moments on studio albums where the guitarist flubs a note and quickly covers it up by bending it or moving it back to the original note.

Professional musicians wouldn't like to admit it, but it's pretty easy for even a novice guitarist to play a convincingly "bluesy" solo if he sticks to the same three or four notes in a particular pattern (I submit Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" as the absolute nadir of bendy three-note solos). But in the end, it's not about that. Great blues guitarists have personality and vocabulary that they make their own--they might play the same three notes over and over, but it's three notes that no one else would play in that particular way at that particular time. There's a reason one can tell that it's clearly Hazel and not fellow Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton playing the solo on, say, "Red Hot Mama," and it comes down to the fact that listeners learn to notice the particular choices that great, unique guitarists can make, even on the dime.

Eddie Hazel was a master and should continue to be respected as such. His later drug addiction didn't really do him any favors, and I think he could have exceeded "Maggot Brain" had he not become so dependent, but who knows? "Maggot Brain" is as austere, thoughtful, and emotionally riveting as any extended solo I have ever heard.


  1. Brenda Hazel is Eddie's wife. His mother died recently, she is Grace Cook.

    I've never been convinced about the "play like your....". Eddie had a falling out with his mother at the time this was recorded. He was trying to get more of his pay, and GClinton was sending more to Eddie's mom. Also, GClinton was having an affair with Eddie's mom. Eddie wasn't positive about it, but he suspected strongly. I think he was in denial. He wasn't told until 1978 that the affair, in fact had happened. The rhythm guitar heard at the beginning of Maggot Brain is Tawl (Tal) Ross and the light drums are Tiki Fulwood.

    Eddie's widow can be reached at

    she has lots of info about him that she freely shares.

    how do I know about maggot brain? I lived with Eddie during this time.

  2. I absolutely loved reading this. You're an excellent writer and your description of maggot brain and Eddie's playing is perfect. Good work :)

  3. I agree ^^^^. You should write up on David Gilmours' solo in "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd. That shits beautiful! send me the link when its done! :D

  4. Nice story! Do you know on what guitar Eddie played while doing Maggot Brain?

  5. suck my ass everyone

  6. Hendrix and Hazel were virtuosos and anyone who says otherwise can take a long walk off a short pier.Their playing reeked of soul and talent and just because they used pentatonic and blues riffs and scales that the author of this probably knows nothing about does not mean they were not virtuosos.Satriani and Vai are cliche as hell and fret tapping is way easier than a blues solo.I know cause I play.Do you play mr blogger???
    Oh and try operating a wah wah pedal at the same time and see how easy it is and blog Deez nuts.

  7. Nick did you actually read this blog post? It agrees with everything that you say here.

  8. I have read your post. The information in this blog is extremely useful for the people.

  9. Thanks man!!

    I really dig this album and the whole P-Funk discography, but particularly the first three releases.
    You really know how to put words out.
    I play guitar too and everything that comes out of it (even when I don't want to) is Blues.
    Your statement about Hazel's bluesy style made me like even more what I play and what I listen (that includes several hours of Hazel's playing and his crazy band mates.

    Thanks for the info and keep up with the blog. A very good place to good references.

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  11. ... And I guess Mr. Nick Calabrese understood it the way he wanted to understand, not the way you needed him to understand... =]

  12. Hi Nathan,
    A longtime ago from this your first post and I can see that you still keep working on this. I love Funkadelic and hope that you will share more about them on your blog.