Greatest ever guitar solo? Well it has to be up there for sure, and it did make #3 on Guitar World’s ‘100 Greatest Guitar Solos.’
It is easy to forget that Lynyrd Skynrd’s Free Bird is a ballad, though evidently a power ballad, once the frenetic solo(s) gets under way.
Free Bird (also known as Freebird), which was released as a single in November 1974 and which featured on the band’s 1973 debut album, didn’t actually do too well in the charts, peaking only at #19 in the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand it has been described as the most requested song in the history of rock music. And there can’t be a decent jukebox anywhere that doesn’t feature it.
To this day it is used as a finale by Lynyrd Skynyrd at live shows and remains their longest song, stretching to 15 minutes. It is considered their signature song too, although purists might well argue in favour of Sweet Home Alabama. Of course the current band bears little resemblance to the original one, three members having been killed in a 1977 air crash, right at the peak of their success. Lynyrd Skynyrd was reformed in 1987 with Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of lead singer and founder Ronnie Van Zant as vocalist. Other members include co-founding member Gary Rossington, guitarist Rickey Medlocke, and drummer Michael Cartellone.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the main proponents of Southern Rock, a genre of Americana that mixed rock and roll, country music and blues and focused mainly on electric guitar and vocals. Others included the Allman Brothers Band, which also employed long guitar based jams (Another advocate of Southern Rock was Tom Petty who, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, hailed from Florida. See CSFTD # 15). There is a feeling in some quarters that Southern Rock’s contribution to the US music scene has been minimalised in recent years.
As often there are some interesting stories behind the writing and recording of the song. The guitar solos were added originally just to give Ronnie Van Zant a chance to rest, as the band was playing several sets per night at clubs at the time. Soon afterward, the band learned piano-playing roadie Billie Powell had written an intro to the song; upon hearing it, they included it as the finishing touch and had him formally join as their keyboardist.
Founding member Allen Collins’ girlfriend, Kathy, whom he later married, asked him “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Collins mentally noted the question and it eventually became the opening line of Free Bird.
Following the plane crash all the songs played by surviving members were performed as instrumentals. When Free Bird came up, a solitary microphone with a single spotlight would be positioned at centre stage while the band played the instrumental version. This tradition lasted until 1989, when an audience coerced Rossington to urge Van Zant to sing the song for the first time—something he had vowed never to do on stage. The current version has a shortened solo similar to the original studio version.
In recent tours, since the song returned to the set list, it has become common for the band to close concerts with it, with photos and film of the former band members being shown on a screen behind them, while Van Zant points his microphone to the sky as a tribute.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, 2006.
© D J Bentley, 2016
Live version from Knebworth, 1976. How rock music was before the synthesiser took over. Possible example of spliffin’ the riff early doors?