My Favorite Rock ’n’ Roll Solo (It’s Not on Guitar)

I’ve long been obsessed with Sam “The Man” Taylor’s epic sax solo on the Chords seminal 1954 rock ’n’ roll hit, “Sh-Boom.” But I never got around to learning, transcribing, and analyzing it till now. I heard it about 100 times while making and editing this video, and it still thrills me on every listen.

If you’re like me, you know it’s wise to study performances by non-guitarists, but seldom get around to doing it systematically. For once I followed through, and — at risk of sounding like a pedantic dork — I’ve analyzed what I heard and suggested ways to incorporate the concepts in styles far removed from the original doo-wop context.

You can download my transcription (in standard notation and guitar tab) here.

The final part of the video is a rant about how segregation shaped the course of early rock and roll, in which I piss all over the Crew Cuts’ tepid cover version of “Sh-Boom.” (Spoiler alert: It blows.) This was partially inspired by recent despicable comments from musical felon Pat Boone. I’ve linked to the following videos before, but I’m posting them again because the cost of quality music is eternal vigilance against sonic shit-shovelers.

Holy crap! It’s the coolest man in the universe! This foreshadows Hendrix, Prince, and the Beatles. Even lip-synched, it’s everything badass in one minute and 50 seconds. (And it speaks volumes about segregation in midcentury America.)

And then there’s this:

Unholy crap! It’s the least cool man in the universe. And this foreshadows nothing except the worst music of the last 60 years (though it too speaks volumes about race in 20th-century America).

Why beat this dead horse? Why pick on ol’ Pat 60 years after the fact? Maybe he regrets his musical misdeeds. Maybe he’s even developed a more nuanced view of race and racism.

Naw. When self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers on June 17th, 2015, Boone leapt into action, penning an angry editorial that condemned … politicians who dared to refer to the atrocity as “racist.”

FUPB. There’s no statute of limitations on your crimes.

34 comments to My Favorite Rock ’n’ Roll Solo (It’s Not on Guitar)

  • NotSoFast

    Well its still about anal sex. Kind of subversive getting Mr. Boone to sing it to white debutantes.

    • D to the W

      I did not know that. And now my world is a little richer.

    • joe

      It’s true.

      In the linked article, Little Richard also unpacks the racial politics:

      The question of his sexuality aside, explicit racism and segregationist bigotry were not Richard’s only problems as a black man in the music industry. Shortly after “Tutti Frutti” came out, both Elvis and Pat Boone covered it. Covers were standard practice in those days (almost all of Elvis’s big hits were covers), but the dynamics of whose version of a song became popular were complex. Pat Boone’s version made it up to #12 on the pop charts, surpassing Richard’s version. “They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way,” Richard said about the covers. “I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out… They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”5 As a parent, it was bad enough if your kids liked rock and roll, but if the face and voice were that of a white singer, it was much more socially acceptable.

      Racism had an effect on sales, and it also had an effect on the record deals black musicians received. Many young black musicians got bad record deals, which Richard attests was a rule, rather than an exception. Record labels, he says, knew that they could take advantage of aspiring black musicians because they often came out of poverty with few other options than to take any deal they could get, and with little information on how to negotiate.

      “It didn’t matter how many records you sold if you were black,” Richard said in The Life and Times of Little Richard. “The publishing rights were sold to the record label before the record was released. ‘Tutti Frutti’ was sold to Specialty for fifty dollars,” he went on. “So the people who got recorded were the ones who didn’t know or care too much about the money angle of it. And when one came along who showed signs of knowledge of the business, he was called a smart n***er who knew too much for his own good.”

      In 2003, Richard recalled that time period with bitterness. “Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn’t go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car,” he wrote in a profile of himself for Rolling Stone. “You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car.”

    • Shizmab Abaye

      I’ve always liked Zappa’s cover of RWP’s “Directly from my Heart to You” with Sugarcane Harris on violin and vocals.

  • NotSoFast

    And _man_ that sax solo is awesome. Thanks Joe!

  • Benjamin

    This brings to mind the scene from “Lemmy, the Movie” where Lemmy and Dave Grohl sit around in a studio talking about how they’d be nothing if it weren’t for Little Richard. Worth a watch.

    Joe, it seems like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder about racism and LGBT+ issues that you’ve been letting out a bit more lately.

    Please don’t stop.

    • joe

      That’s what so great about Little Richard: He provides an opportunity to fulminate against both issues at once! 😉

      Seriously, though, I know I’m influenced by the astonishing degree to which racist ideology has been mainstreamed in recent years. The shit you hear and read people say! We know those sentiments were always here, and that they won’t go away for a long time. But it seems to me folks were better at self-censoring in the past.

  • Joe this is a great look into this perfect solo, I appreciate that you are using your blog to expose us to great musical moments. A few things I noticed that may help the conversation. I'm pretty sure the progression is I vi ii V rather than having a IV in there ( an age old discussion right? ) I also hear the chromatic opening statement having a note a minor third below preceding each upper note ( the ones you played) kind of ghosted giving it a certain push and excitement. Either way, your presentation was cool and well done.

    • joe

      Yeah, you’re right, Tim. I tend of use those numerals interchangeably, ’cause in practice, they are … interchangeable. But yeah, I’m playing I-vi-ii-V in my loop.

    • joe

      Just don’t bust for for the notes and rhythms I got wrong in the guitar version. I probably should have been reading instead of playing from (not quite accurate) memory. 🙂

    • joe

      Hi again, Tim! I’ve been thinking about what you said the opening, with — I guess — minor-third grace notes preceding each note in the initial chromatic climb. I played around with it a bit, and I have to ask: How would you execute that on guitar? Obviously, is super-easy to voice it on two strings, but you lose (or at least, I lose) the intensity, drive, and linear sense. Playing it all on a single string seems better, but for me it feels weak — it may approximate the pitches more accurately, but it loses the Mack truck drive. (Maybe someone with bigger, stronger fingers than I could do it more convincingly.) So for me, the sloppy glisses are the most musically satisfying way to represent the gesture on guitar. But how would YOU execute it?

      • Max

        Isn’t that just an A note following the first couple of notes of the chromatic climb rather than minor thirds for each note? At least that’s what I’m hearing, could be easily played by tuning the G string up to A or using a capo on the 2nd fret. Like this: –/3-0–/4-0–/5-0– etc.
        If you were talking about something completely different just forget what I said, I just know the bare minimum when it comes to theory.

  • Epic footage! I love how you spin it in new directions around the six-minute mark, and your facial reactions at the end are hysterical. Wail on, paddle bro — A+ for this one.

  • smgear

    nicely done! cross-instrument licks are always great for shaking up technique.

    I completely share your offence about the racism that pervaded the early pop music industry and the recent amplification of needless racial conflict and frustration. However, in the music debate, I do also try to give credit to the many bandleaders, musicians, producers, executives, etc. who fought hard to integrate the bands and the radio – and ensure equal treatment of all band members. The music industry provides very vivid examples of both injustice and the ability to overcome, not to mention the power of music itself to bridge boundaries.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life living and traveling internationally and one of my main fields is cross-cultural interaction. Music has been a huge part of that personally and in my research/teaching. Being able to borrow a fiddle and play Dark Eyes in a gypsy camp, jamming with a look tung band in Isaan Thailand, playing Miles Davis for a delighted food stall vendor in Myanmar, being able to keep up with an African American gospel band, etc have granted me acceptance and opportunities to interact with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. When I’m teaching international MBA students, I often start the courses by taking out a guitar, playing some varied ethnic styles, and then inviting students to come up and play or sing some of there local/national tunes. It builds an immediate rapport and trust between members and the music itself illustrates a lot about various cultures due to the types of rhythmic and chordal structures and of course the lyrical content.

    So while I agree that it’s important to remind ourselves of the injustices of the past and present, I think it’s also valuable to continually look for opportunities to use our abilities and interests to bridge some of the barriers and conflict that exist today. Opportunities abound for us musicians. And besides, spending too much time reflecting on the injustices just breaks my heart, depresses the hell out of me, and accomplishes little, whereas building new relationships and seeing the world though someone else’s eyes is highly rewarding. 🙂

    • joe

      Very beautifully said! It’s easy to look at the past or present and see only the anger-inducing things — especially if you tend toward depression, as I certainly do. I loved the account of your experiences — you sound like a great teacher and, for lack of a better term, a fine global citizen. And you’re right — the flip side of mourning injustice is celebrating bravery in the face of it. That applies equally to African-American artists and entrepreneurs who bucked the system of economic exploitation — Berry Gordy, for example — and to their white counterparts who said, “Fuck this shit!”

      In the latter category, I often think of Benny Goodman. By most accounts, he was a mean old bastard. But he had the vision and courage to play with the best jazz musicians he could find, which meant appearing onstage with African-American musicians at a time when that was not only controversial, but illegal in many states. By 1936 he was performing alongside the great Teddy Wilson, and later with Lionel Hampton and, of course, the incomparable Charlie Christian. This was many years before those other crucial desegregation landmarks: Jackie Robinson’s admission to baseball’s major leagues, and the U.S. armed forces integrating their ranks.

  • Paul Willemsen


  • Mike Gentry

    Damn, that was great! I love how you get all this together and blend it into your own trip with such an awesome tongue-in-cheek fun-as-hell-like-the-guitar-is-supposed-to-be way. That was exciting and got me hopped up like a pot of coffee on an empty stomach. Fantastic take. Bravo!

  • Hi again, Tim! I've been thinking about what you said the opening, with — I guess — minor-third grace notes preceding each note in the initial chromatic climb. I played around with it a bit, and I have to ask: How would you execute that on guitar? Obviously, is super-easy to voice it on two strings, but you lose (or at least, I lose) the intensity, drive, and linear sense. Playing it all on a single string seems better, but for me it feels weak — it may approximate the pitches more accurately, but it loses the Mack truck drive. (Maybe someone with bigger, stronger fingers than I could do it more convincingly.) So for me, the sloppy glisses are the most musically satisfying way to represent the gesture on guitar. But how would YOU execute it?

  • Hernan

    Amazing article on a fantastic tune! Recently popularized by the “Cars” movie, of course. Matter of fact, it’s a tune I listen to quite frequently — I have it in my MP3 player, in the “workout” playlist (a.k.a. elliptical metal machine music). Love those early rock’n’roll / boogie-woogie transitional styles. My favorite type of jazz-rock.

    Paraphrasing Huey Lewis, these days I don’t know if you could say the heart of rock’n’roll is still beating. But thanks anyway for posting these awesome rocking post-mortems.

  • Joe Gore Hi Joe, I tried it playing the ghosted note on the D string and it works pretty well. you are right especially your opening slide is full of energy and your way conveys a wildness that i enjoy. but there is something cool about the little kick that the ghosted note add that is compelling as well. Ill play around with it a bit more and see if I can get the ghosted notes to flow nicely and Ill send you a short vid.

  • Tim Lerch Oh, please do! It's always a treat to hear your stellar playing —even on a two-bar phrase! 🙂

  • Joe Gore I'll give it a shot, i've been messing around with it this morning and Ill have to go back to the original with a microscope to see whats really going on with that lower ghost note. fun challenge! Thank you Joe.

  • mwseniff

    I’ve been giving that favorite rock solo a lot of thought and frankly I have many solos I am moved by but no favorite. I guess I associate solos with breast pounding a bit too much. I tend to like the little short solos that act as seasoning for the melody more than an outright 8 to 16 bars of screaming guitar. I mostly play those little embellishing solos in support of the melody most of the time with bands.
    But there is one live solo that will always stick with me. I saw John Hiatt at Mabels in Champaign, IL supporting the “Perfectly Good Guitar” cd. Mabels is one of those places where the local guitar slingers stand in front of the stage with arms crossed sort of daring the performer to be better than they think they are in their own minds. When the solo came up for “perfectly Good Guitar” John Hiatt nodded at Michael his 2nd guitarist and proceeded to rip an epic solo on his acoustic guitar. Well all those guitar slingers just stared slack jawed, it was a sight to behold. I’ll never forget that solo, I can hear it in my head to this day.
    As for non-guitar solos I give my award to synthesist Jan Hammer. I’ve seen him many times with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, and his own band. He consistently plays the best solos for my money. To me each one is helping tell the story of the song and the construction is always interesting musically. He just seems to be able to always push the song with his solo to extra musical heights. I can think of over a dozen his solos I would put at the top. I strive to capture a bit of him when I play.
    As for racism in music it is unfortunately still around especially in the Country and Western scene it really seems to have reared it’s ugly head after being infected by the teabaggers. But music has also brought down many racial barriers. My parents loved the big band stuff especially the blues stuff they were big Louis Armstrong fans I remember them going to Springfield, IL every couple of years when he played a club there. They were pretty much oblivious to race as were all their friends and I believe it was the music that made them that way. I’ve always felt lucky not to have grown up around racist crap. I didn’t even know what racism was until the Civil Rights movement made the evening news when I was a kid and it made no sense to me it was such an alien concept.

    • Shizmab Abaye

      One of my favorite guitar solo recollections was at a club in Atlanta during a NAMM expedition in the late 1980’s. I’d heard of this band “They Might be Giants” and they happened to be playing that weekend with Steve Morse and Albert Lee as openers. So the opening band featured plenty of awesome guitar solos. Lots and lots of them.

      TMBG gets on stage, two geeky looking guys with a tape recorder for backing. In the first song, when the break comes up, guitarist John Flansburgh grabs the mic, falls on his back on the stage, and screams “awesome guitar solo!” for 8 or 16 bars before getting back up and finishing the song. Apparently it was a standard part of their act but it was exceedingly appropriate!

  • Tim

    I agree with you ,I think the creativity of some of those early rock’n’roll records was informed by the technique and musicality of some of the jazz musicians who played on them…( and nothing like the rather self conscious “fusion” cliches of later years). Another fantastic solo is (coincidentally) the baritone saxiphone solo at the end of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the wild side”, played by veteran British jazzer, Ronnie Ross. It’s fascinating how the melody he plays against the really simple chord sequence seems to wander into a modal landscape with a few outside notes and yet seems completely at one with the song’s spirit, never showy yet beautifully constructed and played.

  • Greatly played and good idea to transcribe such an soulful thing! Sam The Man is one of my favorite too. Those r’n’b guys… As for me, my favorite sax solo is not r’n’b, but it’s possibly Mulligan’s from Fine and Mellow 1957 video. He’s such an deep musician in each note. I don’t see no way to make guitar transcription… possibly someone, who is better than me will do it someday. I am really obsessed with this solo. Rhytm guitar work is great here too, great chords from 0:24 – they’re flying high here.

  • Ian

    Thanks for sharing this. That missive from Pat Boone was truly vile.

  • Roman

    Cropper on “Let’s Go Stoned”…

    Harvey – cool…

    Sumlin at 1:12

    Harvey the same near 1:00

    – but possibly guys are doing a lot of tech troubles..

    Great topic Up!

    Peace from Russia – Roman, Konservnaya Banka Man!

  • Roman

    Thank you too! Recently I am doing encyclopedia about 666 greatest musicians ever here in Russia – you’re one of my favorite. Always listening to your music – Night On Earth, then Working For The Man with PJ, “Mr.Reno” by Mental 99 is a true masterpiece! and many more…

  • One of the greatest blog post / video lessons I’ve seen. Much appreciated!

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