Apologies already, as this Top 10 might not include your favorite Neil Young song. But what to do? Over six decades, Neil Young has recorded so much music, he cannot be distilled into a small cup. Great songwriter, activist, conceptualist, rocker, balladeer, maverick guitarist, awful/inspired singer? You take your pick. Young, who turned 66 last week, is certainly one thing. He is unique.
His guitar playing is not “technical,” and he certainly won’t throw in a tricky mixolydian lick when blazing passion fits the bill. Neil Young plays guitar from the heart. These 10 tracks might not be his “best” songs, but their guitars either sob with sadness or roar with aggression.
If you want to hear Neil Young play guitar, we humbly suggest you start here.
10. “Down By the River”
Originally from the Neil Young and Crazy Horse album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It’s ramshackle, but a great grooving melody. Watch in the live clip how Young uses his Gibson Les Paul’s 3-way pickup selector switch and fingers/pick to vary sonics. Even on the studio original, Young’s solos stab like daggers. If you had a jam band, you’d probably want it to sound like this.
9. “F***in Up”
In the early ’90s, Young was acclaimed as the so-called “godfather of grunge.” His influence was clear, though Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden et al were never as loose as Young. “F***in Up” was on Young’s ’91 album Ragged Glory, an aptly named album that reintroduced his raging guitar to a new generation. “F***in Up” is simple but its riff is all. Young was feted by the younger generation but here he matched them in shambolic, vitriolic style.
8. “Heart of Gold”
Young’s 1972 album Harvest was born of adversity – a back injury meant Young temporarily couldn’t play standing with a weighty Les Paul over his shoulder, so he crafted an acoustic album that he could perform while sitting. “Heart of Gold” was a shining light of Harvest – there’s nothing complicated about the guitar at all, but it’s a testament to Neil Young’s songwriting skills. Simple, direct, romantic, indelible. It is Young’s only #1 single in the U.S.
7. “Cinnamon Girl”
Infamous for its “one note solo,” “Cinnamon Girl” remains one of Young’s most popular tunes – it’s been covered by The Who, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Phish, Bob Mould, Matthew Sweet & Susannah Hoffs, even Motorhead and Killdozer. It was recorded on Young’s “Old Black” Les Paul in a double-drop D (DADGBD tuning). The original vocal is a duet between Young and sidekick guitarist, the late Danny Whitten. And it flips convention: the solo is easy but to nail the rhythm chords takes skill. An archetypal Neil Young classic, “Cinnamon Girl” is a song that simply never gets old.
6. “The Needle and the Damage Done”
Another acoustic track from Harvest, “The Needle and the Damage Done” is one of Young’s most affecting ballads and features some beautiful yet simple playing. A musing on drug addiction – inspired by the chemical traumas of fellow Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten – it’s classic in its construct: a descending chord progression, a resolve of sus4 chords. The similarly-themed-and-named “Needle of Death” by Scottish folk star Bert Jansch, a favorite of Young’s, was also an influence. Young had his own turmoil in mind, too. He survived his drug dalliances. Whitten did not. The version on Harvest was recorded live at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
5. “Southern Man”
The longest track on his 1970 album After the Gold Rush, “Southern Man” is one of Young’s most controversial songs. Its vivid lyrics attack racism towards blacks in the American South, with Young singing, “I saw cotton and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks / southern man, when will you pay them back?” Young’s non-specific attack on a whole populus didn’t go down well with everyone, especially as Young is Canadian. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to “Southern Man” and “Alabama” from Young’s subsequent 1972 album Harvest. “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” said Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant at the time.
Any “feud” between Skynyrd and Young was not vicious, though, and Young later said he was a fan of both “Sweet Home Alabama” and Van Zant: “They play like they mean it,” Young said in 1976. “I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.”
Lyrical barbs aside, “Southern Man” is a Young guitar classic, full of fuzz and fury. Those scabrous solos ain’t supposed to be pretty.
“Powderfinger” has a weird backstory. Young wrote the first line (“Look out Mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river”) years before the rest of the song. He recorded a solo acoustic version of “Powderfinger” in 1975 but sent the tape to Ronnie Van Zant (see “Southern Man”) to use on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s next album. But with Van Zant and Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines tragically dying in a plane crash in 1977, the “southern men” of Skynyrd never got to record it. Hence Young played an electric version with Crazy Horse on the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps. “Powderfinger” is relatively low-key in terms of guitar fireworks, but is simply a superbly-crafted song. The “lost” album for which Young had originally intended “Powderfinger,” Chrome Dreams, never came out. But “Powderfinger” remains a live staple, much loved by Young aficionados.
3. “Cortez the Killer”
Just as Young would never claim to be world’s best singer, he would neither argue to be the world’s most subtle guitarist. But “Cortez the Killer,” from 1975’s album Zuma, is an axe epic. This mantric guitar centerpiece (it has reached 14 minutes live) could only have been played by Neil Young. Three chords (again in DADGBD), droning melodies, stinging solos, harmonics, much Bigsby wobbling… in a druggy big nutshell, this is a 101 in how to play guitar like Neil Young. “Cortez the Killer” takes on extra weight when played live: the version on 1991’s live album Weld is super-heavy. “Cortez the Killer” manages to be mournful yet angry, beautiful yet bitter.
2. “Like a Hurricane”
As with “Cortez the Killer,” “Like s Hurricane” (from 1977) is Young-ian guitar in excelsis. Sloppy? Lazy? Some think it’s even out of tune. But what a sound, with Young’s guitars bubbling like lava around a woozy Crazy Horse groove. Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen et al could play this without thinking… but none of them would ever sound like this. The live versions on Live Rust (1978) and Weld (1991) are titanic.
1. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)”
Another song originally from Rust Never Sleeps, “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” sees the late-1970s Young grapple with his own sense of rock ’n’ roll impotency. Aware of punk having shifted the fault lines of the old rock order, the Canadian sought out new inspiration. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” – and its acoustic counterpart “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” – were, perhaps oddly, initially inspired by the work of Young’s new wave friends Devo.
The two songs lyrics became controversial. John Lennon was on record as hating the sentiment “it’s better to burn out / than to fade away”; Kurt Cobain, a Lennon fan, quoted that same lyric in his suicide note. Is it the merits of dead Elvis Presley (“The King is gone but he’s not forgotten”) vs. a dead persona “Johnny Rotten”? Is it Young railing against his own self-perceived dying of the light? Or is it just a huge guitar-fest?
It is all of the above, possibly. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” asks more questions than it answers. But this is primal Neil Young guitar at its hardest. Young’s live 1991 version in the clip below sounds like it’s about to explode.
If some innocent ever asks you: “what does Neil Young do?”… Play them “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” and they’ll get the answer.
More Neil Young:
North Stars: Canada’s Top 10 Guitarists
Gibson’s Classic Tone Tip: Neil Young
Neil Young Writing Autobiography