Lindsey Buckingham breaks down 10 of his best guitar riffs
The Write Stuff is EW's occasional series on songwriting
Lindsey Buckingham has had a tumultuous few years, from his firing from Fleetwood Mac to undergoing emergency open heart surgery to his wife's recent filing for divorce. But the veteran rocker's new solo album, out Friday, probes quieter moments, engaging with the relationship questions that have always made his work soar. And it sings with Buckingham's distinctive California pop-rock, fingerpicking style.
In honor of the album's release, Buckingham, widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, goes back again to give us the stories behind his most memorable songs and epic guitar riffs.
"I'm So Afraid," Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Buckingham originally wrote this hard-rock song, atypical of Fleetwood Mac's style at the time, for his album with then-girlfriend and creative partner, Stevie Nicks. "We'd been in LA only for like a year and a half," he explains. "Things happened pretty fast. The album came out, and it didn't really connect and we were working material for a second album."
All of Buckingham and Nicks' songs that ended up on their first collaboration with Fleetwood Mac were demoed before they ever joined the band. "It made the process of cutting that first album much easier than it would've otherwise been, working with people we'd never worked with before," he notes.
Buckingham based "Afraid" off musical themes he'd heard in church music, singing in a boys' choir at the age of 10 or 11. "It was an exploration into two things. One, into the use of a guitar as a very orchestral thing with a triad of melody going on. And then, the unleashing of the solo at the end, which grew into epic proportions over the years on stage.... It also addressed the yin-yang of having confidence and having faith that you have something to offer in a somewhat tenuous environment that is the entertainment industry, And yet, there's always a fear underneath that."
"Never Going Back Again," Rumours (1977)
"I was getting back in touch with the finger-picking style I had used on the Buckingham-Nicks album," Buckingham says of this acoustic classic. "Once the first wave of rock & roll started to ebb, folk music became a really big part of my style. It was another reason I never really got into using a pick. [This song] was a manifestation of that style where I wanted to bring the orchestral fullness and completeness of a single guitar to a song and have it carry the track in total."
"Lyrically, it was a bit naive, because it was obviously about Stevie," he continues. "By the time I wrote that, we'd had a few ups and downs, and she'd moved away from me more than once and come back. It was about Stevie, and it was also about meeting somebody else. It seemed to reaffirm that there was life after that, and yet, you create this illusion of 'I was down once or twice, but I'm never going back to that again.' Which is not really the way it works."
"The Chain," Rumours (1977)
Written by the entirety of Fleetwood Mac, this track has become a signature opener for the band. Buckingham used what's called a "dropped D," tuning the low E-string down a key. "It gives you a more bluesy landscape to draw from in terms of what you're doing with the left hand," he explains.
Buckingham's climactic guitar solo spilled out as an expression of the relationship turmoil that defined Rumours. "It just all came out in the studio when we were recording. A lot of the emotion of those moments like that solo are very connected to what we were living."
"The thing about 'The Chain' is, yes, it's a signature piece of ours," he adds. "But it's also the spirit of the song and the content lyrically is very much in keeping with the legacy we built over a long period of time of always being able to rise above the difficulties in order to fulfill a greater destiny, so there was always a chain."
"Tusk," Tusk (1979)
The distinctive, pounding melody line of "Tusk" was actually Buckingham's rehearsal riff, which Mick Fleetwood encouraged him to turn into a song.
"I expounded on that once we were in the studio," he says. "The [USC Trojan] marching band was the completion of the song by a long shot. It made the whole thing come together as a unique piece."
Buckingham's baby, the Tusk album was a reflection of his desire to pursue a more experimental sound for the band, and he feels the title track is certainly emblematic of that. For instance, Mick Fleetwood's distinctive drumming on the track is an 8-second loop he played. "In those days you didn't have ProTools, so you basically had two-inch tape," Buckingham explains of the recording process. "Someone was holding a spool at one end of the room, and it was going around through the heads and around and around for 10 minutes or whatever we did. That was the basis of how we built the song.
"I was very interested in confounding external expectations, not bowing to those expectations and starting to paint ourselves into a corner creatively by continuing to try to make Rumours 2 or 3," he notes. "For that reason, not just the song 'Tusk,' but the album Tusk is probably my favorite album. Not necessarily for the music, but for why we did it — and it set me off on this alternative path that was a tightrope to walk between the big machine of Fleetwood Mac and the small machine of solo work that followed."
"Trouble," Law and Order (1981)
"Trouble" marked the first single off Buckingham's debut solo effort. The album was a direct result of Fleetwood Mac's decision to pivot away from the more experimental sound he loved. "I realized the only way for me to keep exploring the more esoteric side of where the art lived more for me was to start making solo albums," he explains. "In Fleetwood Mac, [I was] called upon to do more the rock side of things, but not necessarily the mid-tempo pretty stuff. I had that in me, and 'Trouble' was a good representation of that. I was covering a broader landscape musically."
"Holiday Road," National Lampoon's Vacation OST (1983)
Buckingham wrote this single for 1983 film National Lampoon's Vacation, and it went on to become one of his best-known tracks. "I'd never written a song for a movie and I didn't really have a set of reference points for it and wasn't sure if I even had the skillset for it," he says. "I was just trying to do something catchy and something that would be emblematic of what the film felt like — both musically and making a comment on. I'd seen a rough cut, so I basically knew what it was. I was trying to make it slightly cartoonish, in a good way."
"Big Love," Tango in the Night (1987)
Originally an ensemble piece with everyone in Fleetwood Mac playing, Buckingham evolved this 1987 cut through live performance over the years, turning it into a guitar feature.
"'Big Love' started off as a completely different song," he says. "The track was still based around that finger-picking part, but it wasn't focused in such a clear-cut and singular way…By the time we got back together in '97 to do The Dance album, I had [emphasized] my finger style, which is very orchestral and has the potential to be a complete statement on its own without any other instruments. I've made my fingers bleed on numerous occasions."
Discussing "Big Love," Buckingham also revealed he'd requested an extra two weeks of rehearsal for his upcoming solo tour to be able to build up to that level of playing once more. "It's been three-plus years since I've done this with that level of rigor and my calluses are only halfway back," he says. "It feels like everything is just going to come apart."
"Underground," Gift of Screws (2008)
Buckingham dropped solo albums in 2006 and 2008 while taking some time off from Fleetwood Mac. This track, off the latter, came from a mounting frustration with his record label.
"They never really knew what to do with my solo stuff," he says. "Fleetwood Mac was the priority...By the time I got to doing Gift of Screws, it felt like their interest in me as a solo artist was on the wane, and that's really what that song is about. The idea was I guess I'll just keep going underground."
"Love is Here to Stay," Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie (2017)
This album, a collaboration between Buckingham and Christine McVie, was a bit of creative happenstance.
"Christine sent me maybe three songs that she had very rough, and I worked on them in my studio," Buckingham recalls. "I got a chance to craft them in a way she hadn't foreseen. Then I said, 'Look, I've got tracks that I have worked on, rough melodies without lyrics. Why don't I give those to you and see what you can make out of those?' And she took some of those and made them her own."
"Love is Here to Stay" was something Buckingham had been kicking around for awhile in his home studio, a reflection of his shifting perspective since he started doing more consistent solo work in 2006. "What had changed was I had got married and had kids and had a whole new set of things to write about," he says. "[This song] gets back to a single guitar doing the work of a whole track."
"On the Wrong Side," Lindsey Buckingham (2021)
The second single off Lindsey Buckingham, this track signals the album's alignment with his duet project with McVie and a heavier pop influence, which is more indicative of his work with Fleetwood Mac.
"I realized that I was, subconsciously at first, wanting to make it more of a pop album than what I had done before," he says of his new record. "You can make connections between 'On the Wrong Side' and 'Go Your Own Way' in terms of tone, vocals, and guitar solos. But working with the band is a more conscious, verbalized process. When I'm in the studio by myself, it's like painting. All of those touches in [this song] revealed themselves as time went by — the sense of what you can discover is more nuanced. You don't have to have as clear a notion of what the song is. You have to know your melody and structure before you present it to another group of people, but if you go in with a general idea, things will reveal themselves incrementally to you."
A version of this story appears in the October issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Sept. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW