5 Key Songs Guitarists Need To Hear By… Pearl Jam
Disclaimer; this is not our pick of the “best” five pearl jam songs, it would be even more difficult to create. Instead, we shine a light on the different facets of guitar approaches that make up one of the greatest rock bands to emerge in the last 30 years. One who has the benefit of all its members as a songwriter and three guitarists on stage with Eddie Vedder, stone gossard and Mike McCready.
This dynamic of different creative perspectives has created a rich variety across 11 studio albums as the band leans into their punk rock influences and expands into experimental territory. Here is a good starting point…
1. Alive (Ten, 1991)
It makes sense to start at the band’s genesis and what is for many Pearl Jam’s defining song, even 30 years later. The music was originally written for Mother Love Bone by Stone Gossard and appeared on the demo tape as Dollar Short which guitarist and bassist Jeff Ament circulated in hopes of finding a vocalist for a potential new band. after the tragic death of MLB. singer Andy Wood.
This version fades to a solo from the guitarist who had joined the duo’s new adventure; a Mr. Mike McCready (opens in a new tab). But it hadn’t yet become the highlight of the show that would emerge in a later demo session with the late Rick Parashar. And that’s the version that ended up being used on the first Ten album.
For the band’s first two albums, Gossard would play the lead songwriting role, and his slip into the intro and verse riff here ushered in the sense of open groove that characterized his early writing with Ament. But his final two minutes are all McCready as he builds his E minor pentatonic scale and E blues chops into an incredible crescendo. With a little help from a KISS (opens in a new tab) icon…
“I basically copied Ace Frehley’s solo from She,” McCready admitted. “Which, of course, was copied from Robby Krieger’s solo in The Doors’ Five to One.” Either way, Alive is one of the best rock solos of all time.
2. Breathe (Backspacer, 2009)
As early as Ten’s Porch and Vs’s Rearviewmirror, Vedder would contribute to the band’s guitar compositions, but this song exhibits a distinct approach that has emerged more recently and has been reflected in the solo tours he has performed.
Vedder’s soundtrack for 2007’s Into The Wild showcased the work he had put into his acoustic fingerstyle technique, and this cut originated from the first chord of the instrumental track Toulumne. Unapologetically romantic (“as close to a love song as we’ve ever been”, as he put it himself) but weighted with lyricism about mortality, Just Breathe uses minimal accompaniment to allow to Vedder’s fingerpicking based on C and G chords to shine.
This reflected the relative simplicity the band explored on Backspacer in 2009, which saw them return with hands-on producer Brendan O’Brien. And it’s also a great workout for anyone looking to develop their dexterity fast.
3. Present (No Code, 1996)
Pearl Jam’s conscious removal from the spotlight after their rapid rise to platinum-selling status took them to unexpected experimental places and No Code threw a lot of fans when it was released. Time has shown this to be a milestone in the evolution of the group.
Musically, the record is a compelling selection of textures and approaches, some that evolved from jams, but elsewhere Vedder has fully taken his place in the creative driver’s seat with five songs credited solely to him. But it’s that deeper cut and live favorite that is all of McCready’s music and that characterizes the band’s ability to balance the experimental with the anthemic.
Present Tense also breaks all the lockers of McCready as the band’s guitar hero and reveals a deeper side to his songwriting. And it’s the kind of masterful atmospheric approach he would later exploit for songs like Given To Fly and Inside Job. Additionally, Present Tense particularly demonstrates the power of less is more when it’s in the right dynamic context.
It’s in dropped D chord for the drone note in the minimalistic and soothing intro/verse section. Then the fully open strings come into play for the first chorus chord to kick into high gear. Things get really interesting immediately after the second chorus where a Bb signals a change of rhythm, turning into an edgy chord-based section before bringing the song back to a dreamy place with cascading high arpeggios repeating over the part. of verse that returns. It’s quite a trip.
4. Animal (Vs, 1993)
Pearl Jam cemented its versatility early on, but was never so intense and folky like on the second album VS. The first element was certainly aided by the wonderfully punchy grooves of drummer Dave Abruzzese (who also wrote the riff for their heaviest song and the album opener Go).
Indeed, Go and Animal are one of the great signature combos on any rock album, with the latter bringing significant swagger from Gossard’s riff and funk wah to the chorus before McCready’s most gloriously intense solo to date. It’s the funkier sibling to Ten’s Why Go, but it actually predates that song with a demo of the riff dating back to 1990.
And both were riffs hard enough to apparently influence Metallica on Death Magnetic’s The End Of The Line
5. Yellow Ledbetter (B-side, 1992)
Are we already at number five? But we haven’t even mentioned State Of Love And Trust, Immortality, Yellow Ledbetter, Even Flow, Deep, Life Wasted, Of The Girl… you get the picture.
Before streaming destroyed the physical single, a band could once be judged on the standard of their B-sides, and Pearl Jam’s 2003 compilation Lost Dogs proved the quality of singles that didn’t even go that far. But this shameless tribute to McCready’s hero Hendrix luckily landed on Jeremy’s backhand in 1992.
It’s a bit of an anomaly in the massive PJ catalog – there really isn’t anything else quite like it, and maybe that’s why it’s loved enough by fans to become a closer PJ set during years. That and that’s the mark of an absolutely stunning blues song.
McCready’s classic Strat tone and Jimi-worthy earworm-like lick take center stage alongside a wistful Vedder, his lyrics opaque and poetic. The solo is second only Alive in McCready’s roll call, back in that E minor range and a perfectly tonal succinct expression where others would milk it for a few more bars and lose the moment.