Creating one of the most sonically defiant tones of the 1980’s by plugging a 1978 Les Paul Custom straight into a Marshall JCM 800 head, John Sykes’ style is instantly recognizable. With a cool-hand power and vibrato that’s as skyward as his hard-luck rock ‘n roll romanticized songwriting; Sykes would come to define a decade of David Coverdale’s Whitesnake.
Recruited by Coverdale upon the heels of Sykes’ touring to support his then-current band, Thin Lizzy’s ‘Thunder and Lightning’ album, the guitarist brought a decidedly heavier, edgier slant to the bluesy snark that was Whitesnake’s music.
When Sykes began his Whitesnake tenure in 1983, the band’s ‘Slide It In’ album had already been released in Europe with guitarists Mel Galley and Mickey Moody. Sykes was quickly rushed in to “thicken” up the album’s rhythm parts and record solos for the album’s U.S. release – a move that would end up finally breaking Whitesnake in the States and exposing Sykes to a legion of would-be guitarists that would pick up on his tastefully melodic augment to Coverdale’s lovelorn Plant-like holler.
While John Sykes’ Whitesnake contributions may have lacked in quantity, there was certainly no short-changing the quality. His Whitesnake discography consisting of just the re-worked ‘Slide It In,’ and his mammoth writing and playing on the mega-million seller ‘Whitesnake’ in 1987, Sykes would become synonymous with the Whitesnake name; perhaps somewhat to the chagrin of Coverdale himself, who would part ways with the guitarist after the self-titled album’s recording.
The following is a choice offering of Sykes’ Whitesnake best – a selection of tunes oozing with soulful sleaze and back-alley sneer, walking a step above shredder purgatory of the day with a touch of decidedly British steel.
10) “Slide It In”
This is perhaps the epitome of John Sykes’ work in cosmetically altering the already-recorded guitar tracks of Moody and Galley for the U.S. release of the ‘Slide It In’ album. The song opens with a Keith Richards-like, Add 9 pattern that Sykes made noticeably larger than life for the re-recording; there’s no mistaking his Les Paul’s brass-balled attack. It’s a perfect song to be placed near the album’s open, and a great example of Sykes’ more straight-up rock chops.
9) “Love Ain’t No Stranger”
Chosen for the tasteful, yet perhaps a bit restrained for Sykes’ own taste, melodicism in the solo, this particular lead can be seen as a foundation of sorts to what he’d really let loose on the following album. Beginning with a simple, yet tonally colored string bend, this solo shows the synergy that Sykes’ playing shared intuitively with Coverdale’s vision.
8) “Children of the Night”
The song’s main riff channels Sykes’ New Wave Of British Heavy Metal roots in a big way. A track that wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on Sykes’ former band, Tygers of Pan Tang’s 1981 ‘Spellbound’ album, or alongside his work with Thin Lizzy, the song takes a sixteenth-sounding pattern and overdrives it into the stratosphere – plus, listen closely to the detailed picking fills in the pre-chorus. It’s not hard to imagine this stuff rubbing off on a young Zakk Wylde.
7) “Bad Boys”
This one treads similar territory as “Children of the Night,” but takes the idea to another level of excitement. An over-the-top sixteenth note riff, coupled with absolute screaming solo with everything from great use of chromatics to harmony runs, this one is simply blistering and stamps Sykes’ shred card as approved. There’s not a moment of empty note space.
6) “Here I Go Again”
Maybe not an obvious choice, especially since the iconic solo was actually played by Adrian Vandenberg, but this one was chosen because it shows the power that can be achieved in what was basically a pop single. It sure was great in the Fall of ’87 to hear Sykes put that slight shake on the end of the “And I’ve made up my mind” section coming out of the chorus with a veritable wall of Marshall guts behind it. The Dann Huff-edited radio cut was a keyboard-diced disaster, so whenever the album cut of this track was played, rockers breathed a sigh of relief.
5) “Walking in the Shadow of the Blues”
No, John Sykes never played a note on the studio cut, released on 1979’s ‘Lovehunter,’ but there is a nearly definitive take on which he does play. Check out the “Live In ’84 – Back To The Bone” album with Sykes for the heaviest Mississippi Delta-metal stomp you’ve never heard, with an incendiary solo that’s easily one of the fastest things Sykes has ever run up a fretboard. Mind-blowing intensity.
4) “Looking For Love”
A bright example of the how Coverdale’s romanticism and Sykes’ classy sense of heavy intermingle. What begins as a wafting synth ballad, by song’s end swells into a riotous catharsis of pounding drums and seething guitar. Another track that proves Sykes’ clean, chorused-pluck passages are just as delicious as his high-voltage neck-squeeze. This song directly leads into the next choice.
3) “Is This Love”
Easily one of the best uses of the chorus effect (ultra sparsely) on any 80’s rock ballad, this track exudes heat and desire at every turn. From the gentle throb of the verse, to the sweaty urgency of the unsettled solo, this one couldn’t have been pieced together any more meticulously by a Swiss watchmaker. It’s a slow, brittle attack that leaves the listener aurally exhausted due to the heart-grabbing suggestiveness.
2) “Crying in the Rain”
Originally released on 1982’s ‘Saints and Sinners,’ the new version of the track is another one of Coverdale’s Zeppelin-infused, metallic blues interpretations. The song is essentially a pulsating boogie with lead boots; a lumbering giant in this form on the “Whitesnake” 1987 release. The solo is some of Sykes’ most inspired and emotional playing, with string bends that elude to Buddy Guy on an Edward Van Halen acid trip; indescribable abandon. A perfect primer to Sykes in general, this track is the height of the Whitesnake heavy blues canon.
1) “Still of the Night”
While the song’s main riff may be one of Sykes’ arguably more “hair band” concoctions, it’s possibly the heaviest thing on the “Whitesnake” record. That mammoth slide he uses to begin the song kicks off that album with a real sense of awakening; this was not “Slide It In” Part 2. Sykes reveals himself here with a kick to the head, but there’s so much more than a single riff happening in the song. From the mid-track breakdown, which is the audio equivalent of gasping for breath after a purgation of desire, to the faux orchestral-stringed, bowed guitar solo that leads into the rapturous main solo, this is possibly Sykes’ crowning achievement of his Whitesnake years. The song swings as much as a hard rock opus possibly can, and had Zeppelin come of age a decade or so later, this is what they might sound like.