An entire blog post about one guitar lick – Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire”

Caleb Followill singing in the Kings of Leon

I realize I’m immensely late to the Kings of Leon party. Like so late to the party that nobody’s funny-drunk anymore, but are now thinks-they’re-funny-but-in-fact-are-just-drooling drunk. But I’d been hearing their new single, “Waste a Moment,” on the radio lately and it reminded me how much I liked songs like “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” I wondered why I hadn’t bought any of their albums before. So off I went to iTunes and I was shocked to see the album those songs are on, Only by the Night, came out in 2008. How is it possible those songs are almost nine years old?

Nevertheless. The album had me at the snare: that first snap of the snare in “Closer.” It’s so hard and sharp and intense and on a friggin’ off beat. The first drum sound you hear on the album is on an off beat! I love it.

But I digress again. Pretty sure I titled this something about a guitar lick, not a drum pattern or how old I am because 2008 seems like yesterday.

Among many beautiful musical gifts, buying this album gave me the realization of just how amazing the guitar lick over the chorus of “Sex on Fire” is. It’s one of very few guitar parts ever that make every muscle in my body tense up for a sustained period, and then ecstatically release. (The others, off the top of my head, are the endlessly sustained note in Radiohead’s “Just,” and the end of the guitar solos in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life Without You” and Juliana Hatfield’s “Simplicity is Beautiful.”)

In terms of pitch – how high or low the musical notes are – it’s a mostly ascending line followed by a mostly descending line. It’s so intense that it actually has two moments of that tension and release – one in each part.

Both parts are great, but it’s the first part that really sets my soul on fire. Probably because I tend to be a fan of underdogs and lesser-knowns. Why is the first part an underdog? Because it’s mostly hidden behind the vocal hook of the song: “Yoooooouuuuu! Your sex is on fire!” While he’s singing that, there’s this unbelievable thing happening in the background as this somewhat The Edge-like two-note mini-chord shreds away in speedy eighth notes. The tension is raised as the notes rise once in pitch, then twice to a pitch so much higher than the first that my muscles tense up, before we get a release as it falls back down.

The second part is really the star of the show, guitar-wise. There’s no vocal to distract you from it, it’s all on its own, as we again have a two-note mini-chord, but this time bending up to raise the tension in slower, descending quarter notes. The first mini-chord raises the tension, while the lower notes of the second release it.

I know I got a little technical there, but it’s only to describe exactly how that tension and release is achieved. It’s just pure musical beauty.

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