Plenty of electric guitar virtuosos have taken their cues from a wide variety of musical styles. Arguably none of them though, had an approach as eclectic, and wholly unique, as Shawn Lane.
Though he never found commercial success in his lifetime – which was cut tragically short in 2003 at the age of 40 – Shawn Lane's legend has grown over the decades. Lane's recorded work, particularly with Swedish bass guitar player Jonas Hellborg, is a fascinating blend of rock, jazz and Indian classical sounds, punctuated by his mind-blowing guitar virtuosity.
That's why it's so fascinating to learn that Lane first came into the public eye with, of all the bands in the world, Black Oak Arkansas.
An obvious prodigy from an early age, Lane was hired to be one of the boogie-rock band's twin lead guitarists in 1978. He was but 15 years old.
In the live video above, you can see just how ahead of the game the Memphis native was even at that ripe young age. Even through the video's shoddy quality, Lane's talent – especially apparent when he takes a hurricane-speed solo at around the 2-minute mark – shines through.
"There is a lot of fretboard pornography – a focus on how fast Shawn could play," Hellborg told Guitar World in a 2015 interview. "Of course he did and it was fantastic but what made it fantastic is what he played.”
Obviously, Hellborg is right, but still, when you watch the below video of a young Lane taking a lengthier solo onstage with Black Oak Arkansas, that speed is impossible to ignore. While moving around the strings and fretboard faster than a fly you just can't swat out of the air, Lane looks like he's as relaxed as he would be on the beach.
North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, both a friend and student of Lane's, said that – far from aimless noodling – there was always an airtight method to the guitarist's madness, even when he was playing at light speed.
“When explaining his ‘sheets-of-sound’ speed style Shawn broke it down to the concept of one thought triggering three notes, leading to one thought triggering six or nine notes, 36 notes, 64 notes, etc," Dickinson told Guitar World in 2015.
"Shawn would have one impulse and play an endless number of notes with bebop-esque syncopations and accents popping through. One-string diminished and augmented arpeggios [three notes per string] sounded amazing when he would move them around the fretboard. He would play a pattern up and down the neck.
"He broke it all down to large groups that triggered each other," Dickinson continued. "He would think in combinations, not notes, and fly around with these patterns, using both a short and long delay creating sheets of sound. Shawn would be hammering on and pulling off while using hybrid picking, plucking out accents among the flurry with his middle finger.”
What really boggles the mind is, by all accounts, Lane only got better as he got older. Even while he struggled with psoriatic arthritis, Lane continued to expand the boundaries of his playing, incorporating Indian percussionist V. Selvaganesh into his group with Hellborg in the late '90s, and further exploring the sounds of Indian and Pakistani classical music.
“There was no one alive who sounded like him and he just kept going up,” fellow guitar titan Jimmy Herring told Guitar World in 2015. “Some people say you can’t play really deeply until you’ve suffered. I don’t put much stock in that but Shawn was getting better and I know he was suffering, too. I think he had tapped into the rare ability to be a pure conduit from emotions to sounds."
"You’re just talking about somebody who’s touched by the hand of God," Herring said in the same interview. "You can’t even fathom it, or ask why or how and I gave up trying. You just have to admire the brilliance. It’s like watching Michael Jordan play basketball – someone who had a natural gift and then dedicated their life to nurturing it.”