Survival of the Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990's

by Greg Prato

Maybe, just maybe, you recognize my name from one of the many books I have penned over the years (in addition to writing for Songfacts, of course). And in July 2015, my 16th book overall was released, Survival of the Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990's.

Since its inception in the late 1960's, heavy metal has experienced quite a few ups and downs in popularity. But there was one specific decade that sticks out as the most troubling - the 1990's. In what seemed like one fell swoop, a style of metal that had been popular for much of the 1980's was rendered obsolete, and in its place, was a much more real, raw, and unique approach - detected in several new metal-based "sub-genres." Add to it several changes in the music industry and media, and it appeared as if traditional metal may have met its expiration date... before several bands (and a certain traveling festival tour) helped put headbanging rock back on track.

Set in an oral history format, Survival features over 80 interviews I conducted exclusively for this book, including current or past members of Pantera, Sepultura, Fear Factory, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, Exodus, Testament, Dream Theater, King's X, Extreme, Winger, Cinderella, Living Colour, Faith No More, Primus, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, White Zombie, Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Danzig, Clutch, Life of Agony, Biohazard, Type O Negative, Within Temptation, Cradle of Filth, Death, Coal Chamber, and System of a Down (among many others), as well as Eddie Trunk, Riki Rachtman, and Lonn Friend. Also featured is a foreword penned by Pantera bassist Rex Brown.

Here is an excerpt from the book, which focuses on the surprising decline of guitar solos in heavy metal/hard rock tunes during the era.

Chapter 13:
No Solos Allowed

For many rock guitarists, the '80s seemed to be all about how fast you could "shred" on your over-priced, outrageously painted, and/or pointy instrument. But in the '90s, traditional guitar solos nearly became extinct.

GEORGE LYNCH [Dokken/Lynch Mob guitarist]: I got to the point in the '90s where myself and my contemporaries of guitar music from my era were ashamed to admit that we did what we did, and downplay our playing - as we can all tell from the '90s and you listen to any record and there's no guitar solos, or one-note guitar solos. We were intentionally playing simpler to just fit in. We didn't know what we were doing.

DAVID ELLEFSON [Megadeth bassist]: I remember there was a moment when we were standing in the rehearsal room, working on a song, and Dave [Mustaine] and Marty [Friedman], we got to the certain part of the song where it was the intro, the verse, the chorus, and then it was like, "OK... obligatory guitar solo." And I remember saying to them, "Why do we have to have a solo?"

JIM MATHEOS [Fates Warning guitarist]: It got to a point where we were writing music; it seemed like, "OK, this is where the solo has to go." And we started questioning that, "Well, why does the solo have to go here if it doesn't really add something to the song? We're just filling in a formula." We didn't want to do that, so we started stepping away from it, and maybe that's what everybody did. It became a trend in and of itself, so then that became the formula - "Well we have to do this, and we can't put a solo here." It got taken from one extreme to the other.

TOM KEIFER [Cinderella singer/guitarist]: I like guitar solos, but at the end of the day, I'm about the song. So if it's a great rock song and there's not a guitar solo in it, honestly, I don't really care. I do like guitar solos, but I don't think they're a necessity. There are a lot of great rock songs that don't have them. So, honestly, that was never a big deal to me.

MICHAEL SWEET [Stryper singer/guitarist]: Oh man, I didn't like it. And we were guilty of it, too. We did an album called Reborn, and I remember as we were in the studio, I'm producing it and going, "No, we shouldn't do this solo, we should just do a rhythmic guitar part instead of a solo." And I kick myself for that, because I think that album would have been so much better if it had solos, because that's a big part of who we are. Stryper, that's such an integral part of what we do and who we are - the harmony guitar solos. People expect to hear that, and we took it away. It was a bad move.

SEAN YSEULT [White Zombie bassist]: It all boils down to Nirvana - that really changed everything. And when we started playing shows with Pantera and Slayer and all these metal bands, I think they definitely felt the pressure to have to shred a little bit, but even kind of combine a little bit of where we were coming from - being more of a noise band with the shredding. It still existed, but it definitely started changing. And also, some of the metal bands started going a little industrial - bands like Nine Inch Nails were influencing them. I think that took away from solos.

CHAD CHANNING [Nirvana drummer]: When the kind of music we were doing started getting big, there was a certain sort of simplicity in a way about it... or maybe an attitude, like, "Let's do away with the hammer-ons and all this stuff and solos. Let's just play what we feel like playing. And if a song doesn't need a solo in it, it doesn't need a solo in it." In other words, it wasn't such a main sort of thing I think that was thought about.

MARK ARM [Mudhoney singer/guitarist]: I think that was a good thing, where the solos became a little more melodic and thought-through, than just how many notes you can cram into a bar. But Slash's guitar playing isn't like that - he's not like a hammer-on/play-as-many-notes-as-you-can [type player]. He has great solos. And that's obviously the Aerosmith legacy. That's more of like a "Joe Perry" sort of thing instead of a "Joe Satriani" kind of thing. I just had to pick another guy named Joe. [Laughs] My personal taste of guitar solos is I like them to sound more like a Jackson Pollock painting than some classicist-really-restrained-and-refined-and-technical thing.

CHRIS GOSS [Masters of Reality singer/guitarist, Kyuss producer]: Songwriting... Nirvana probably helped a lot in that area. And pop songs became mean little fuckers again - for a moment. I think that's where the benefit was of it. But when I think back to an audience having the patience to listen to 20 minutes of "Dazed and Confused," that patience is gone. A gain and loss, actually. There are soloists that I think are lost now - Joe Perry from Aerosmith, for example. Probably the most underrated guitar player. When you see lists of guitarists and lead players, he seems to be like the "forgotten guy." Great player. And those guys I think, and that style of "Roadhouse Blues" guitar playing - it's almost lost now. Y'know, ZZ Top/Billy Gibbons - three-piece band, where the rhythm section is smoking, and the guitar player's wailing. Can you name one now? I can't. So, we've gotten tighter, little, mean songs because of Nirvana. At the same time, there's a genre that's almost disappeared off the face of the earth now.

CRAIG GOLDY [Dio guitarist]: There was a lot of musicians with "Look at what I can do!" kind of thing, guitar-wise. Especially live. People would go see people live and they would just sit there and solo for 20 minutes. Some people can get away with it, like the Blackmores. But not everybody can get away with it. But people were still trying to think they could. So, guitar solos were kind of like... when people are sitting around in their living room and they're watching - back then - a live VHS tape or listening to it on the radio, that's when they start leaning over to each other and going, "So, are you going to go over to Janet's party tomorrow?" They started getting bored. And nobody was really saying anything, because a guitar solo was supposed to be like a paragraph - an opening statement, supporting facts, and a closing statement. A beginning and hello, an ending and goodbye. And if you're not doing that, if you're not communicating, then people have no reason to listen to you.

DINO CAZARES [Fear Factory guitarist]: There was a point that the guitar solo got kind of overexposed too much. People started getting tired of it. And I started getting into industrial bands, and Godflesh and Ministry, they don't have solos. It was more about the "art," and it was about the sound, and it was about making something a little different and interesting, and not the commercial, watered-down stuff. So when we started Fear Factory, that was kind of our motto - "OK, no solos. We're writing music to where a solo wouldn't go."

TREY SPRUANCE [Mr. Bungle/Faith No More/Secret Chiefs 3 guitarist]: I may be a product of that era, because in the '80s, when Mr. Bungle was playing death metal, I was like, total shred - shredding the hell out of all this atonal, kind of Schoenberg-ian, serialistic kind of stuff. And I just stopped. But for me, the focus became music theory, so I don't know if it really relates to the giving up on guitar solos in metal in the '90s, but I definitely gave up on guitar solos. Or just stopped caring about the guitar in general, and started writing more for other instruments. Trying to concentrate on the broader scope of the musical ideas, rather than writing from the instrument. And I actually stopped writing for the guitar as an instrument - pretty much completely - by '94 or something.

CHARLIE BENANTE [Anthrax/SOD drummer]: The first Pearl Jam record has guitar solos. Nevermind has guitar solos on it. Not every song has a guitar solo, but if you look at the first Van Halen record, not every song on that record has a guitar solo. So I just think it was a culmination of it started to catch on, and then people just started to leave them out, because the guitar players that were in the bands weren't very good.

MICHAEL ANGELO BATIO [Nitro guitarist]: I don't know if it was a byproduct of the grunge bands, because they did have solos. If you listen to Pearl Jam, they have that one song that sounds like a Hendrix... I mean he completely modeled the intro after that clean Strat sound [the song "Yellow Ledbetter"]. But what I can tell you is this - what I know in music, when I study Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and all the masters - is that the pendulum swung back then, too.

For example, the Baroque era, the whole premise of Baroque music was "unity of affection." And what that meant is when you hear a Bach piece, the affection was the feeling, that it was a unity of feeling from beginning to end of the music. Whereas the classic era that came after that, was change. So then you hear like, sonata form, it had an intro theme. It was in a lot slower span, it took a hundred years, but when I saw what happened in grunge, the idea of solos I think might have been like that from grunge, but I think it came from something else too - I think it was the exact opposite of what we were doing in the '80s and early '90s. That's all I think. Was it grunge? Yeah, part of it. Was it hair metal? Yeah. I think everybody tries to be different.

JEFF WATERS [Annihilator guitarist]: As a guitar player and a metalhead, the '90s became "dye your hair a weird color, jump up and down like Flea does on stage, and you didn't have to sit down and learn Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen solos." You didn't have to learn scales, you didn't have to learn any of the real hard work stuff that most of us did back then, and some of us are doing now - to actually become a really good player.

NUNO BETTENCOURT [Extreme guitarist]: I didn't think much of it. I just thought they couldn't do it! [Laughs] I didn't look at it as, "Whoa. They're purposely not doing solos." I really believe that guys that did try solos in those bands, when you did hear a solo for 30 seconds, you'd be like, "Ah!" If you can't solo, don't solo. If you've got nothing to say, don't solo. It was definitely a trendy thing, but I didn't look at it that way. I just really looked at like, more of the talent side.

LIPS [Anvil singer/guitarist]: It was actually very sad. Because in a sense, lead guitar playing and guitar playing in general is what drove hard rock music - for the past 50 years. And when someone pulls the plug on what the basic athletic aspect of it is, it's kind of sad - to me as a guitar player. You're going into music stores and you can't find light gauge strings anymore because no one's playing lead guitar. You're going, "I don't get it." Beyond really my scope of comprehension and why, I really don't know why. Maybe part of the reason was it went to the furthest it could go with things like the Guitar Institute of Technology and all these cookie-cut guitar players all coming out, playing a billion notes per second, I think it became very redundant. And then there was a backlash, which is what alternative is. So once it got to as far as it could go on a technical basis, there was nothing left for it to do, but to revert to not using it.

DAVE "SNAKE" SABO [Skid Row guitarist]: It's all a matter of personal taste. But the idea of the guitar solo getting lost, I thought that could have made the song that much better had it been done right. I don't think it should be done gratuitously. We certainly had songs that didn't necessitate it. But it's one of those things where I love hearing. What would "Stairway to Heaven" be like without the guitar solo? They can play a very vital and valuable role within the structure of a song. That is just the kind of shit I like to hear, too. It's one of the reasons why I love a guy like Ace Frehley from Kiss so much, is because his solos are so memorable. What would a Pink Floyd song be like without a guitar solo? I mean that guy, David Gilmour, writes the most melodic and perfect guitar solos. I listen to him play guitar sometimes and I just go, "He couldn't have done anything better than what he just did. It was perfect for the song."

REX BROWN [Pantera bassist]: With Dime, he could play anything. And that was the cool part of what Pantera had - we could still play the melodic things that we needed to play, but at the same time, we could play whatever it was we had instilled in us. Us being from Texas and raised with the old stomp boogie of ZZ Top, with the influence of old Van Halen, and then throw thrash metal into the pot and the hardcore movement... and there you have it.

STEVE BLAZE [Lillian Axe guitarist]: It didn't faze me at all. I just kept playing guitar solos. That's kind of silly - that's like taking an orchestra and saying, "Well, we're going to pull the violins out. We don't need violins."

MICHAEL ANGELO BATIO: When I studied music, I realized that all throughout history, when you look at Mozart, or you look at Paganini, or even Beethoven had really great hair - there was a persona. See, Bach wasn't a big musician in his day. He was considered "passé." His son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was much more popular than his father, because CPE Bach was kind of the transition between Bach and Mozart. It was really weird. So Bach was kind of this fuddy-duddy, and he wasn't very popular in his lifetime. But people like Paganini were hugely popular, Beethoven. Even Mozart during his short life. And all three of them had the same thing in common - they were considered in their time almost "rock stars." They had other things besides the music that made them popular. So translated to modern day, well, look back - Elvis Presley with his image, Jimi Hendrix smashing a burning guitar, and Jimmy Page with the bow.

What I found is I'm left-handed. I've played piano since I was five years old, and I had seen this concert as a kid, from this jazz saxophonist - he just didn't play sax, he played woodwind instruments, as well. He was blind, and his name was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And he ended his shows by playing two saxophones at the same time. I watched this as a little kid. I'm going, "Holy shit. I'm going to do this on guitar, man." And so, I had the idea of the double since I was a boy. But I didn't have a way to bring it to fruition until I became older, and I was getting close to being signed, so Dean guitars was in Chicago, and my first version of it was literally taking a right-handed Dean guitar, facing it left-handed, taping it to a snare drum stand, and taping that stand to a dolly, and wheeling it out like the Trojan horse. So it had the illusion of a lefty and righty guitar - even though it wasn't, it was two separate. The audience loved it.

And then a few years later, I got an endorsement from Dean Guitars, and they built my very first double. It was really a way for me... it was my version of Jimi Hendrix burning a guitar. It was my version of using a violin bow, it was my version of...look at Kurt Cobain - he didn't have to smash a guitar on [the video for] "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But he did. So I always felt like my music didn't rely on the double guitar, but if I had the double guitar, I had something live that nobody else had. And now, one got put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in February of 2012. It's on permanent display in their museum.

It's a gimmick. But it's a gimmick that I really do, and it's almost like my calling card. It was good enough for Steve Vai to emulate [in the video for David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise"], it was good enough for Jack Black in the movie The Pick of Destiny, it was good for the game Brütal Legend to do a version of that - they actually did my quad-guitar. So although it was wild, it's something that other major performers did. There was a vodka commercial - this beautiful woman is standing around and all of a sudden, she starts playing a double guitar. So I don't regret it. But when you put yourself out like that, I knew I was going to get like Kiss - I'm not saying I equate myself like Kiss, but when you put on make-up, when you "cut your head off" like Alice Cooper at every show, you're going to get people that don't like it. Because you're doing something extreme and I was doing something really extreme for the time. It's still my calling card - I can't do a show without every promoter going, "Are you bringing your double?" So I don't regret it at all, and I love playing it.

ZAKK WYLDE [Ozzy Osbourne guitarist, Pride & Glory singer/guitarist, and Black Label Society singer/guitarist]: What I always try to tell kids, when they always say, "Hey Zakk, do you have any advice for my son or daughter?" I say, "Whatever music it is they love, that's what they should be playing." And put it this way - as easy as you think that is, it ain't. Because you always have somebody in your ear telling you, "You should be doing this, you should be doing that."

FRANK HANNON [Tesla guitarist]: It's funny - during that era, ironically, guitar solos found its way into video games. So during the era of when there were no guitar solos, people still wanted to hear guitar solos, and it turned out being in a video game called Guitar Hero. Isn't that ironic?

July 12, 2015.
To purchase the paperback version of Survival of the Fittest, click here.
To purchase the Kindle version, click here.
To purchase the Nook version, click here.

More Song Writing


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Christmas SongsFact or Fiction

Rudolf, Bob Dylan and the Singing Dogs all show up in this Fact or Fiction for seasonal favorites.

Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)Songwriter Interviews

Mike Rutherford talks about the "Silent Running" storyline and "Land Of Confusion" in the age of Trump.

Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear: Teddy Bears and Teddy Boys in SongsSong Writing

Elvis, Little Richard and Cheryl Cole have all sung about Teddy Bears, but there is also a terrifying Teddy song from 1932 and a touching trucker Teddy tune from 1976.

Have Mercy! It's Wolfman JackSong Writing

The story of the legendary lupine DJ through the songs he inspired.

Incongruent Opening ActsSong Writing

Here's what happens when an opening act is really out of place with the headliner, like when Beastie Boys opened for Madonna.

Real or Spinal TapMusic Quiz

They sang about pink torpedoes and rocking you tonight tonight, but some real lyrics are just as ridiculous. See if you can tell which lyrics are real and which are Spinal Tap in this lyrics quiz.