The Steely Dan song that’s impossible to play on guitar

To even consider entering Steely Dan’s studio, an artist had to be at the very top of their game. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had a reputation for pushing their instrumentalists to the limit whenever they took the piano stool to perform, and this was evident in all of their recorded works. A pleasant rivalry to get the greatest take could have occurred, but one of the band’s original tunes proved nearly hard to play with just one guitar.

However, the band was well-known for writing songs that were far more daring than anything heard on the radio, even before they were extremely popular. Their sound was always distinct from other bands on the radio because of their breakout single “Do It Again,” which included a scorching electric sitar solo by Denny Dias.

The band sought to push the limits of recording technology even as they would continue to create jazz-influenced rock & roll throughout the 1970s. Collaborating with industry elites, the group crafted distinct auditory environments for each song they produced, ranging from the contentious mix found on Katy Lied to including some of the most acerbic tracks from their repertoire on The Royal Scam.

It’s not that the session musicians didn’t have the opportunity to explore, even if they were renowned for playing what was in front of them. When writing a song like “Don’t Take Me Alive,” for example, the band wasn’t sure how to begin, so one of them proposed that the song should be led in with one large chord, which is when Larry Carlton’s screaming jazz interval opens the song.

But by 1977, the group had found the ideal balance of production values and songwriting for Aja. The album’s standout tune, “Title Track,” showcases masterworks from every instrument, from Fagen’s cynical delivery to Steve Gadd’s incredible drum solo. It included the seminal songs “Peg” and “Deacon Blues.”

Dias said that, from a guitarist’s point of view, the entire thing was nearly unfathomable while discussing how to put the final guitar track together, telling Classic Albums, “Its very existence is a contradiction. I mean, when have you ever heard a song on a rock’n’roll record that absolutely cannot be played on a guitar?”.

Though a lack of confidence like that would often land someone out of a Steely Dan session, Dias’s advice is quite useful. Because of how swiftly the notes are played in the solo, the final takes that were stitched together would not be accessible with a single pair of hands.

Many of the solo sections feature cascading barrages of notes on two separate ends of the fretboard, so rather than not being able to play the song at the appropriate tempo, the guitarist would either need to have superhuman fingers or have someone else play the second half of the solo. It seems fitting that Steely Dan could push their music beyond the bounds of human possibility, given how far they were prepared to go as composers.


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