Lou Reed is one of the finest songwriters of the rock ’n’ roll era – the Dylan of the backstreets and the demimonde. But his catalog of classic songs like the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Sister Ray,” “Candy Says” and “Sweet Jane,” and his solo gems like “Walk on the Wild Side,” “The Blue Mask,” “Sally Can’t Dance” and “Dirty Blvd.” often overshadow his grinding, nasty way of pulling some of the most distinctive sounds ever put to tape out of his guitar.
Reed’s years in the Underground found him sparring with guitarists Sterling Morrison, John Cale, Doug Yule and Mick Ronson on stage or in the studio. And his arsenal of guitars included a Gibson ES-335 TD as well as a Gibson ES-335-12 12-string. Since quitting the Velvets in 1970 his guitars have included an Epiphone Riviera with a Bigsby vibrato arm, a Gibson SG Standard with two humbuckers, a Gibson Les Paul Junior with a single P-90 pick-up, a ’60s Epiphone Professional, at least one vintage Gibson acoustic (perhaps dating back to the 1930s) plus an array of Steinbergers and other instruments.
To get an earful of Reed’s best solo-career guitar conceptions, check out the albums on this list – not a top 10, but a superfine nine:
Rock ’n’ Roll Animal (1974): Reed sat out the six-stringing on his fourth solo album for the tag team of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, whose epic prologue to the Velvet’s “Sweet Jane” made the performance an FM radio staple for nearly a decade after this live album’s release. Wagner played a cherry red Gibson Melody Maker with two mini-humbuckers and Hunter rocked on a ’59 Les Paul Junior TV model with a single P-90.
Sally Can’t Dance (1974): Reed picked up his guitar again, and while this album was largely a pop endeavor that reached the top 10, it gave birth to “Kill Your Sons,” a guitar duel inspired by Reed’s miserable experience in a psychiatric hospital as a teen that quickly grew into a monster on stage and remains a highlight of his live performances.
The Blue Mask (1982): Teamed with the late punk-skronk genius Robert Quine, this disc’s terse arrangements feature their sparring throughout, with Reed and Quine mixed separately in the left and right channels of the stereo spectrum. The disc’s a winning blend of musical ferocity and lyric intelligence.
New Sensations (1984): Known as Reed’s “happy” album, he stepped into the limelight as solo six-stringer here, weaving smartly conceived and effected textures on “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” punking out in “Turn To Me” and spinning crazy lead licks into “My Red Joystick.”
New York (1989): This collection of urban tales may be Reed’s true solo masterpiece, wisely written and musically diverse. He’s joined by Mike Rathke on guitar and they chime and grind through numbers like “Dirty Blvd.,” the melodic, exploratory “Last Great American Whale” and the smoky-bar blues “Beginning of a Great Adventure.”
Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes (2001): Okay, this is cheating a bit because it’s by the Velvet Undergound, but it’s brilliant. Reed was 30 years into his solo career when these live recordings, made by über fan Robert Quine at Velvets shows in November and December 1969, were released. Quine’s audience and soundboard tapes capture the band at a live creative zenith, with Reed and Morrison smashing through powerful renditions of “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” “Heroin,” “Venus in Furs” and even a 38-minute firestorm rendition of “Sister Ray.”
Magic and Loss (1992): Reed and Rathke teamed again for this elegy for two of Reed’s friends and influences, the songwriter Doc Pomus and the amphetamine eating Warhol Factory denizen Rotten Rita. The music has an ornate guitar architecture that’s the obvious result of careful composition.
The Raven (2003): Edgar Alan Poe has never sounded this raucous – and neither had Rathe and Reed before this.
Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio (2008): In 1975 Reed released the two-LP Metal Machine Music, largely considered a joke, Reed’s way of exiting an unfavorable record contract or an early experiment in guitar-based industrial clangor. He put together this band to prove definitively that there was, indeed, method to his sonic madness.