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A playlist starring Nils Lofgren, with support from Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen

When Rolling Stone released the latest version of its 100 Greatest Guitar Players in 2015, Nils Lofgren was listed among the “panel of top guitarists and other experts” who voted for and ranked their favorites. In a more just world, he would have been one of the 100.

Lofgren, whom The Guardian has called an “unsung guitar hero” despite his being a “perfect power-pop genius,” has never gotten the attention he’s deserved. He’s best known as a sideman for giants like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young rather than for his own music. And that may be  a personality thing – he has never demanded the spotlight. As Bono once put it, “Nils Lofgren is both front man and side man. The side man is a particular psychology … which requires real generosity of spirit toward the front man …” And saxophonist Branford Marsalis has said: “His musicianship will always overtake any desire to use the bandstand to call attention to himself …”

Lofgren recently spoke to NewsHour Weekend ahead of his sound check at the legendary Stony Pony music venue in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He said, “I don’t need to solo. Honestly, if you said, ‘Hey, [do you wanna] go to a bar and jam all night and play every lead in a blues band, or do you wanna just go play country piano and rhythm guitar with Willie Nelson,’ I’d say, ‘Give me the piano and the rhythm guitar.’” It’s an attitude that has served him well, and kept his career alive at times when his solo work, no matter how strong, wasn’t selling.

Modesty notwithstanding, Lofgren is a player of rare subtlety and taste. Here’s a playlist to demonstrate.

A Nils Lofgren Guitar Primer (listen to the full playlist on Spotify)

  1. Speakin’ Out – On Tonight’s The Night, Lofgren became the first person other than Neil Young to play a guitar solo on a Neil Young solo album. And what a solo he plays. Starting at 3:04, and cued by Young’s “All right Nils, all right,” he first unleashes a snarling flurry notes, then turns suddenly to some ethereal harmonic tones before ending with a series of descending octaves that turn this stoner piano blues into something altogether otherworldly. Lofgren was just 22 at the time. 
  2. Youngstown – This is one of the live E Street numbers on which Lofgren is offered the opportunity to shine, and he doesn’t disappoint. Starting at about 4:08 he carries this booming version of the song to its conclusion by blasting out a solo that underscores the pathos of the lyrics without falling into the usual cliché or bombast of arena rock.
  3. Keith Don’t Go – A virtuoso live acoustic performance of a Lofgren original, this performance features a series of what he calls “bouncing” harmonics (beginning at about 3:22). It’s a technique taught to him by Telecaster magician Roy Buchanan, but one that Lofgren has made all his own over the years.
  4. Take You To The Movies / Back It Up – This medley from the authorized bootleg Back It Up Live!! starts out innocuously enough, but stick around for the last three and a half minutes and you’ll hear why it’s odd that total guitar-hero status eluded Lofgren in the ‘70s.
  5. Rusty Gun – A live version of an older number from Lofgren’s days with his band Grin, this one has an unusual structure: it starts with lyrics telling the brief, mournful tale of a sheriff and his murdered son, then suddenly shifts into instrumental mode with a surprising, ascending riff on acoustic guitar that defies every convention of this sort of acoustic story song. When the solo is doubled on trumpet by accompanist Greg Varlotta, the vibe just gets cooler.
  6. Cry Tough – A tour de force combining three different guitar approaches, this studio track features Lofgren playing some killer Dobro mid-song (he once took some lessons from one of the instrument’s acknowledged masters, Mike Auldridge), but by the end of the tune, he’s seamlessly snaking a bluesy lead guitar line in and out of some growling electric slide.
  7. Girl In Motion – At his live shows, Lofgren employs a looper on this one to create a backing track for himself, then solos gloriously over it. On this studio version, from his 1991 album Silver Lining, there are a multitude of joys, from the subtle, muted-string rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place on Springsteens Tunnel Of Love album,  to the slinky mid-song solo, to the fluttery acoustic fill from the sneaky staccato fill at 3:06 to the more than two minutes of gentle riffing that effortlessy incorporates a bit of volume pedal before upping the stakes with some spirited rock and roll licks even as the song fades out.

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