Parts in rock music that can be legitimately said to be only playable by a "handful"?

The thrust of the question is this: are there guitar, bass, keyboard, drum, etc. parts in rock music about which one can earnestly say “only a handful of musicians can play that”?

I’ll give some examples of the kinds of statements I’m talking about (not meant to be “real” examples):

– “Only Eddie Van Halen … and I guess Yngwie and Steve Vai, can really play ‘Eruption’ .”

– “Tony Thompson is the only other drummer I can think of that wouldn’t have sounded ridiculous playing ‘When the Levee Breaks’ .”

So … what are the nasty, difficult pieces out there that musicians acknowledge as taking especially rare skill? I know that some pieces sound difficult, but really aren’t so tough … perhaps the converse is also true?

Tourniquet has some drum solos only Ted Kirkpatrick and a few others can do.

I can think of some vocal works that fit that frame. It’s rare to find anyone covering Harry Nillsson’s songs because nobody has the range to do it.

When Lowell George died, Bonnie Raitt said the musicians at his wake wanted to do “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” but nobody could sing it.

I think that there are countless examples of this. The issue is whether the piece in question is technically difficult, “feel” difficult or a combination of both.

An example: Kashmir by Zep. Not a tough piece, but in all but the absolute best of hands, it is a plodding bit of sludge. I have talked to a number of drummers who don’t understand how Bonham kept it feeling propulsive and urgent while sticking with the fundamental beat.

Another example is: Rock Steady by Aretha Franklin. Bernard Purdy plays an off drumbeat where he syncopates the high-hat strike in an extremely unconventional way. Max Weinberg of the E Street Band and Conan O’Brien pulled together a CD of great rock drumming and held this beat out as one of the truly great and difficult ones.

I don’t mean to just focus on drummers, but they serve my point that sometimes is isn’t about technical ability, it is about feel.

In terms of guitarists - which is an area I know more about - I would say no one can play like Jeff Beck - again, he often does simple, single-note stuff, but his solo on the song Let Me Love You off the album Truth, or 'Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers on Blow by Blow both stand as can’t-be-copied examples of emotional playing.

Technically, there are tons of examples of intricate stuff - Steve Howe’s playing comes to mind - but that is less important to me than feel…

For the sake of conversation:

Could a noted “emotional” player like Eric Clapton (circa 1970) have played these songs faithfully to Beck’s originals? Or would they perhaps have become too “Claptonesque”?

Dave Matthews Band’s drummer does things that I have never heard someone pull off quite right. Carter Beauford is his name.

Like the post above, I have never heard someone pull off Steve Howe’s “Clap” or “Mood For a Day.”

Though I mostly listen to punk/post-punk/indie rock/pop, none of which puts a premium on technical ability, there are a couple people I can think of (do singers count?):

Freddie Mercury - I’ve never heard anybody do a credible version of any of his vocals on cover versions (not to mention the Paul Rodgers-fronted “new” version of the band). I’m sure there are probably rock singers who could hit the notes, but it’s actually quite impressive when you hear how unique Freddie was - I guess it has to do with charisma and style as much as vocal ability. Speaking of Queen, Brian May seems to have a pretty distinct guitar sound, though I don’t know enough about it to say nobody else could do it.

Aretha Franklin - again, every time I’ve heard anybody cover one of her songs, even if they get the notes just right (which is rare enough), there’s something indefinable missing from the performance.

I’ll try to think of more instrumentalists after I do some work.

Listening to Eruption right now… Joe Satriani could do a fine job of it.

Stevie Ray Vaughan has held up as a difficult to successfully emulate player.

I don’t know. I mean, Eddie Van Halen is a great guitar player, but I know that I know at least a few guys who, if they put some time in, could do very credible duplications of Eruption, etc etc. The big difference between greats and everyone else isn’t, I don’t think, that their playing skills are so phenomenally beyond any but the smallest handful of geniuses, but is that they wrote that stuff that other people just cover note for note.

Like I said, I’m sure I know some folks who could play Eruption. I don’t think I know anyone who would have come up with that on their own, though.

You can usually find some 18 year old prodigy in Guitar Center banging out Eruption…at least you could in the late '90s. I think Wordman had it right, where it is in fact the feel that is sometimes impossible to recreate. For example, I’ve never heard a passable cover of a Clash song. Seriously. I’ve heard acoustic versions of a few songs which were interesting, but they were totally different. No one can recreate what that band felt like, how the music moved & flowed. You look at the tablature & it seems easy, but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off. And I’ve seen way to many attempts.

In stark contrast, say, to a band like AC/DC. I’ve seen a few great AC/DC coverbands & they capture the feel exactly. I love that band, don’t get me wrong, but, there’s some difference (a big one) in what they did versus a band like the Clash did.

I used to play bars and therefore played with a bunch of bands. I’ve known, personally, 7 or 8 guys who could nail Eruption everytime.

For drummers, I understand that ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Pieces of 8’ by Peart are really hard to get down. IIRC, Tom Sawyer is supposedly hard because Peart got a little lost while recording it and went nuts on a fill. The fill is apparently hard to play because of that. Not being a drummer, I don’t know if that is true or not.

For guitarists I’d probably have to point to some of the more technical players. Steve Morse has some stuff that very few people can play. Tumeni Notes, which I have seen Steve play live, is an insanely fast piece with every note picked. It is arpegios and it is hard. Al Di Meola has a couple pieces that are extremely hard to play. Mediteranian Sundance, for example though that is a duo with Paco De Lucia. Brad Gillis is hard to cover at times because of his outstanding tremelo work.


Any drum solo by either Neil Peart (Rush) or Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) is gonna be a bit of a handful for 99% of all drummers. :slight_smile:

Both bands have loads of songs that contain at least near impossible drum and bass work. The guitar parts seem to me less impossible. Then again, Lifeson was never really interested in playing fast for the sake of playing fast, and only really did that superfast intro to La Villa Strangiato to shut the critics up. Yes, I can do it. Move on.

I think we could throw in some Primus as well, if bass work is considered. Les Claypool is a tough act to follow. As is John Myung of, again, Dream Theater.

FWIW, I don’t think the Eruption intro is all that hard to master for a skilful guitarist.

One guy that comes to mind is saxophone player Lenny Picket. He is currently the band leader of the Saturday Night Live band, but did alot of good playing back in the 1970’s in funk and R&B bands… especially Tower of Power. While not the greatest saxophone player out there his “handful”-type skill is how high and in control he can play. There are very few guys (from the jazz legends like Coltrane, Bird, and Rollins to the reigning kings like Brecker) that can play like that… a couple of octaves above the horn’s manufactured limit and in complete tonal control for an extended period. Now, altissimo playing is often considered more of a stunt for getting a crowd amped up than traditional skill, but I suppose it’s not much different musically than Eruption which is pretty much the same thing.

Another guy is drummer Elvin Jones who played with Coltrane during his hay day. He was one of those drummers that basically invented that poly-rythmic drum style that spanned the bop era to the more free-jazz/avant-garde style of play. When I listen to some of those albums from the 60’s I can not figure out at all what he is doing. It sounds like 4 limbs all going off independently on the drum kit… but all working into a harmonious whole. And there are tons of players since that try to sound like him, but my opinion is only a very few can match him. Guys that can like Manu Katche for example.

A cool little Neal Peart hijack…

Your own Digital Peart.

Some people have too much time…

Yeah, you still can. I saw someone do this not two weeks ago. It’s amusing that it’s still the techincal showpiece de riguer at the guitar shop. Hell, I’m just glad that there’s still younger players out there who still want to play lead parts instead of just post-punk rhythm parts.

I’m going to vote for “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. The solo in Cemetary Gates, the really fast part, I’d be amazed if HE was ever able to nail that sucker note for note again after that take.

A few points:

  • I think slee nails some technically fast players - for the most part, it can be argued that it would be very very tough to replicate their stuff. To my mind, however, I am inclined to say “wow” and leave it at that - it impresses the hell out of me technically, but doesn’t move me.

Improvisor’s comment on Elvin Jones - obviously, jazz is on a whole 'nother plane. Max Roach did that polyrhythmic thing, Charlie Parker invented bop, Thelonious Monk worked with inimitably-voiced chords - he made “off” sound on. So yeah, I agree.

Woodstockbirdybird - great mention of Aretha - I mentioned a drummer of hers, but not her. Hearing her sing puts super-voices like Mariah, Whitney and Celine Dion in perspective - they have technically unparalleled voices, but they don’t even approach the feel of Aretha.

bordelond - interesting that you would mention Clapton for two obvious reasons: the fact that Beck and Clapton are contemporaries and Beck succeeded Clapton in the Yardbirds; and the fact that Clapton is a technical expert and Beck is a feel expert. If you listen to Clapton, he is technically able to copy his favorite players - Robert Johnson, Freddy King, Albert King, etc. - but other than the stuff he did with Cream and Derek and the Dominoes, his stuff is pretty rote covers of his favorite players. He is a brilliant mimic. Beck doesn’t sound like anybody. Do any reading of what players say about Beck, and Clapton will be the first to tell you that Beck is far better than he is (Clapton also typically cites Buddy Guy, SRV and a handful of others in this category). Beck, when he plays the blues, does stuff with single notes that no one else can do. It is uncanny. He, along with Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield and a small handful of others, changed it all. Clapton made it more popular, but the other guys are far better…

Slight hijack.

This comment brings to mind one of my pet peeves. That particular pet peeve is the idea that some people seem to have (though I am not impying that WordMan has this idea) that technical ability destroys feel. I’ve heard a bunch of people say things like “Well, X is technically capable but he has no feeling”. What annoys me about that particular attitude is that a) very few players play without any feeling (I am hard pressed to think of any) and b) just because you may not recognize and appreciate the feeling does not mean it isn’t there.

If you don’t like the player, great. If you don’t get it, if it doesn’t move you, great. There are many things in life I don’t get. But to totally dismiss someones playing because they are technically profiecent, well, it drives me nuts.

Even Yngwie, who I liked for a while until I got bored listening to his stuff, has feeling. Yngwie can rip on SVR. The first time I saw him do it I was totally shocked. The man does have feeling when he plays. For me it’s just that his stuff became too alike, it all kind of blurred together into one really long fast song. That and the fact that Yngwie is a total ass.

end of hijack.

For a full CD of stuff that only a select few can play you might want to pick up the Liquid Tension Experiment CD. It has Tony Levin, John Petrucci,
Mike Portnoy, and Jordan Rudess. They put it together in an insanely short amount of time (like a week) and they just go off. It is amazing.


I think sleestak and WordMan have BOTH got it right. I think it was Miles who said something along the lines of “The music lives between the notes.” To me, that’s where the “feel” comes from. Technical proficiency is not enough. But someone who understands that (the quote) AND spends the time AND has the talent (and in the case of Peart, Portnoy, etal has access to the equipment) can replicate anything instrumental that’s been recorded.

Vocals are a different animal. I have no doubt there are some vocal tracks that can’t be reproduced unless you have the original person’s voice. I mean, you can emulate Santana’s guitar’s voice, but how you gonna copy Billie Holliday’s voice? You might get close with studio-type effects, but I don’t think you can get an exact match. (Pick a different example if you don’t think Lady Day is a good one.)

(That’s not really germane to the OP though, is it?) Okay, sure there are vocalists who can sing in the same range, hit the same notes in the same order, even with the same feel. I withdraw my vocalist exception. I think it’s true, just doesn’t apply to the OP.

All of that aside, the most difficult thing and the thing most deserving of respect is the writing; the creation of something that has never existed before. And when someone like Clapton or Carlos takes a song they’ve played a thousand times before and takes it into a new realm right there on the stage in front of me oooooh baby!!! That’s why I payed my $86.50.

There is a lot of rock music that’s very difficult to play. The harder it is, the fewer people there are who are capable of playing it. But, there are a lot of musicians in the world. Personally, I think a lot, maybe most of them are sitting in a basement somewhere working just enough to get by and spending the rest of their time playing music for the sheer joy of it. I’ve met a few through the years. Some of them can play anything they get it in their head to play. So the question becomes, “How many is a '‘handful’”?

Slee - we’re good and thanks for framing the issue the way you did. I think your comment of Yngwie’s stuff sounding ‘too alike’ captures the essence of the point I was trying to make - sometimes technical facility is used in place of feel. To approach DBreign’s observation a little differently: Mariah, Whitney and Celine are brilliant technically - the problem is that they show it too much. The technique of going up and down a scale as you sing a vocal phrase to give it a bit of emphasis is called melisma - well, listen to one of their songs and the number of times they do it is tons. Listen to an Aretha song and she will do it once - maybe twice - over the course of the whole song. THAT’s what I am talking about.

If someone like Yngwie just riffs and riffs and riffs - he may be technically superior to anyone, but I get “riff fatigue” just like I might get “melisma fatigue.”

Art Tatum - the jazz pianist is a great example - way over the top in terms of rococo-filigreed extrapolations off the melody. On a bad day he sounded like Mariah - an overblown, overly detailed excursion in the tech masturbation. On good days - and blessed be, most of what I have heard must’ve been good days - he found the right spots to riff and he maintained feel. THAT’s the real deal…

I can’t make judgments on players like Yngwie and Petrucci - I don’t know enough about their bodies of work - but riff-fatigue in general is not a good thing…

I agree, and add that personal style is probably the hardest thing to copy. Back in his Doors days, Robbie Krieger wasn’t a lightning player by any means, but he certainly had style. If you had Eddie Van Halen playing guitar in Light My Fire, even he couldn’t duplicate Krieger’s performance, thought technically he could play circles around him. It would just be EVH doing Light My Fire.