I’m a child of the ’80s.
Although I became a fan of all sorts of music in the ’70s, I became a guitar player in earnest in the early-’80s.
Today’s Unsung Guitar Hero was one of my favorite players as an up-and-coming guitarist, and I spent many hours learning the parts to the hit songs on which he played.
He’s responsible for the signature guitar tracks on TWO of the iconic songs of the 80s – songs that became signatures for TWO different artists – yet he is almost completely unknown to the average music fan.
He is, according to AllMusic, “one of the finest yet underrated guitarists of the early-’80s, arena rock/MTV genre.” However, I’d venture a guess that most guitarists only know him by association – as the husband of one of rock’s greatest female vocalists, Pat Benatar.
He’s Neil Giraldo, one of the dominant forces of ’80s pop-rock, and our Unsung Guitar Hero!
Two Iconic Hits
Now remember, I’m not saying that Giraldo is unknown or unheralded – quite the contrary, he is highly respected in the music industry as a songwriter, guitarist, arranger and producer. But to the average guitar player, I think he remains relatively nameless and faceless, even though he was the driving force behind a multitude of songs that made his wife a household name from Tennessee to Timbuktu.
The first iconic song of the ’80s driven by Neil’s guitar: “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. To this day, some 30 years later, that songs is still all sorts of famous. The second iconic song of the ’80s?
“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield.
It doesn’t get a whole lot more ’80s or iconic than that, folks.
Heartbreaker, Dream Maker
Neil “Spyder” Giraldo beat out 300+ other players for a spot in Rick Derringer’s band in the ’70s. (“Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo” is Rick’s signature tune, if you’re unaware.) From there, he was recruited by producer Mike Chapman to play guitar and arrange parts for the debut album of one Miss Pat Benatar.
Pat and Neil hit it off and, from that point on, they were inseparable in the studio and out. In the studio, Neil worked his magic on all subsequent Benatar albums. Although he was first given formal credit as a producer on Benatar’s third album, Precious Time, he was, by most accounts, acting as the producer/arranger during the making of Crimes of Passion, Benatar’s second album and the one that made her a star.
Interesting Factoid: “You Better Run” was the second song ever seen on MTV, after The Buggle’s “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Since The Buggles didn’t have a guitarist, Neil Giraldo has the distinction of being the first guitarist ever seen on MTV!
The Point Is Probably Moot
On the side, Neil was in demand for his studio work and was selected to work on Rick Springfield’s debut, Working Class Dog. He played rhythm and lead on the two big singles from the album, “Jessie’s Girl” and “I’ve Done Everything For You”. iTunes calls this album “some of the finest guitar-driven, mainstream pop/rock of the early-’80s”, and much of it can be attributed to Giraldo.
[Note: If you haven’t listened to Rick Springfield in a while, go and check out Working Class Dog or the Greatest Hits. There is a LOT of terrific pop-rock there. And Rick was a pretty darn good singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right. Recommended: “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, “Affair of the Heart”, and “Love Somebody”, in addition to the aforementioned two singles.]
Neil also contributed some rockin’ guitar to the Kenny Loggins/Steve Perry hit, “Don’t Fight It”, as well as production work for John Waite, the Del-Lords, Steve Forbert, and more. He’s even co-written tracks for The Coors and Real McCoy, in addition to the hits he’s written for Benatar.
In recent years, Giraldo has done soundtrack work for films such as Nailed, Smile and Last Request.
We Belong Together
Although Giraldo did some great work with other artists, the real motherlode is obviously his catalog of hits with wife, Pat Benatar, which resulted in six consecutive RIAA-certified Platinum albums (1,000,000 units sold).
Neil’s specialty is guitar-driven pop-rock, and he delivers in spades here, as his collaborations with Benatar are full of expertly crafted, edgy guitar tracks and powerful vocals. But although he delivers some top-shelf guitar, Giraldo’s skills as a producer/arranger are equally stellar; he consistently pieces together groovy, complementary parts into polished songs that feel spontaneous and exude “attitude”.
So, you wanna learn how to write and arrange great guitar parts? Wanna learn how to craft world-class guitar solos? Study the following Pat Benatar hits that showcase Neil’s guitar wizardry and production chops (songwriting is separately credited):
“We Live For Love” (writer)
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”
“Hell Is for Children”(co-writer)
“Treat Me Right”
“You Better Run”
“Fire and Ice”
“Promises in the Dark”(co-writer)
“Shadows of the Night”
“Little Too Late”
“Looking for a Stranger”
“Love Is a Battlefield”
“All Fired Up”
Personal Note: I sat and listened to each of these songs with headphones as I was preparing this article. The thing that I took away from the “Giraldo listening session” was how utterly badass the guitar tracks are. Meaty, funky, aggressive and quirky, all delivered with a sense of humor and reckless abandon that you can feel through the speakers – there is a ton of great playing here to inspire any guitarist!
Apparently the makers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band agree, since no less than eight Benatar/Giraldo tracks are currently featured on various editions of the popular video games!
It’s tough to pick favorites, but a few that stuck with me are: The relentless, blistering solos in “Heartbreaker” and “Hell Is for Children”; absolutely EVERYTHING in “You Better Run”; the unexpected driving acoustic strums in “We Belong”; the entire rhythm section in “Invincible”, which sounds like Duran Duran at their funky best; the off-the-hook solo on “Promises in the Dark” as well as the “one, two, three, four” count-off for the outro.
All Fired Up
This VH1 Behind the Music Remastered documentary on Pat Benatar recounts her history as a female pioneer of rock music, and emphasizes the impact that Neil had on her personally and professionally. One thing I found particularly interesting is Pat revealing that it was Neil’s aggressive nature as a guitarist that brought her fully out of her shell vocally and gave her license to let it rip. Check it out:
Personal Note #2: I did a second listening session in my truck as I drove across town the other day. Again, I was utterly blown away, not only by the energy, the creativity and the sheer chops in Giraldo’s guitar playing, but by the quality and depth of the songs in general. I think revisiting these songs years later gives me greater perspective on just how awesome Pat Benatar’s catalog really is. (And when it comes to female rock vocals, there’s Pat Benatar and Heart’s Ann Wilson…and then there’s everybody else.)
Finally, my litmus test for ninja-level guitar is involuntary physical reaction; when the music makes me shift in my seat or blurt out an expletive, I know I’m hearing something on a whole ‘nother level. (In this way, Neil reminds me of one of my other fave pop-rockers, Steve Lukather, who was the subject of my first Unsung Hero piece.)
Whether it’s a dynamic rhythm track, a quirky fill, or a killer solo, Neil Giraldo’s playing always makes me blurt out expletives. He’s the real deal and an excellent Unsung Guitar Hero.
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