No instrument is more closely identified with rock and roll music than the electric guitar, and no form of performance is more closely associated with the electric guitar than the solo. You can hardly discuss any of those three without discussing the others. Hence the broad sweep of Axe to Grind, the new seven-part video series from Youtube music channel Polyphonic on the electric guitar solo, a cultural phenomenon that can’t be explained without telling the story of a vast swath of popular music through practically the entire twentieth century and continuing on into the twenty-first.
Like any proper full-scope rock history, this one begins with the blues, tracing the stylistic developments that emerged among guitarists on the Mississippi Delta with the advent of new technologies like electricity.
Axe to Grind’s first episode covers such early electric guitar players as Charlie Christian (previously featured here on Open Culture), Fay “Smitty” Smith, Muddy Waters, and Junior Bernard, who was “one of the first to realize that if you cranked vacuum-tube amplifiers up to maximum volume and played as loud as you could through them, the vacuum tubes would compress the signal so they didn’t explode. The result was a new sort of gritty tone that came to be known as overdrive.”
The second episode covers the nineteen-fifties and the rise of rock and roll itself, a broad musical church that came to encompass musicians from Chuck Berry, Junior Walker, and B. B. King to Johnny Watson, Link Wray (who recorded the only instrumental song ever banned from the radio), and Buddy Holly. Then comes the nineteen-sixties, the power of whose transatlantic pop-cultural explosion still comes through loud and clear in the electric guitar solos on the records by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and many other acts besides. The fourth episode, still to come on Youtube, is already available on the subscription streaming platform Nebula. However you watch Axe to Grind, rest assured that it will leave you not just with a deeper understanding of the electric guitar solo’s evolution, but a much deeper appreciation of the “Johnny B. Goode” scene from Back to the Future.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.