Ever since the buckskin-wearing Canadian started trading fiery electric licks with Buffalo Springfield cohort Stephen Stills on the Sunset Strip circa 1966, Neil Young has polarized guitar opinion.
Stills had the musical brain, education and technique that Young could never compete with. And for guitar pundits over the years, Young has constantly been denigrated for his lack of real guitar prowess. They called him the “one string King” and the master of the one-note solo. He was sloppy, he improvised when he should have been sticking to the plan, and he made mistakes – a mortal sin in the eyes of some guitar aficionados. Even his acoustic playing was always rudimentary, they yelled, helped out by a copious use of capos and 12-strings to try and capture the acoustic flavor of real folkies he so admired, like the sadly departed Bert Jansch.
Even Neil got in on the act when he talked to Guitar World proclaiming of his lead playing: “It sucks! It’s just a f---ing racket. I get totally lost when I’m playing guitar. I’ll just play a melody over and over again and change the tone, bend a string, do all that. I’m totally engrossed in what I’m doing. At one with it. But I suck. I’ve heard myself.”
But then in the same interview, and in true Neil Young fashion, he smacked the nail right on the head. He explained that his guitar playing was not just about him. “I have melodies, and I have a sense of rhythm and drive. But it’s not about me, anyway – it’s about the whole band. It’s about everybody being there at once. When I play I’m listening for everything, trying to drive it all with my guitar. My guitar is the whole f---ing band.”
In Young land, you can’t isolate the guitar and discuss his technique note for note, chord for chord. Well, you can, but you’d be missing the point. Young’s a songwriter and when he’s part of a band, he a team player.
And that, in a nutshell is it. Young IS a guitar god because he understands the role of the guitar in rock and roll. It’s an accompaniment to those beautifully wandering vocals on his acoustic material and it’s a terrifying bludgeon when he’s plugged in and thrashing out solos on melodic beasts like “Southern Man” and “Cinnamon Girl.” For Young, the guitar is part of the song. It’s an extension of his vocals and a tool to interpret the emotion of his material. Never has Young’s Les Paul been used to supply an interlude of musical wonder. It’s a tool. A means to an end. And for nigh on 50 years that end has seen some of the most remarkable, significant and explosive rock and roll in music history.
So, slob or god? Now you can chime in on one side or the other. Does technique outweigh emotion? Is emotion overrated? Should Neil Young be revered alongside Page and Hendrix, or should he be praised more for his songwriting than his playing? The floor is yours.