The basis of the combined cross-polarization--magic-angle spinning (c.p.-m.a.s.) experiment, which yields high-resolution n.m.r. spectra of solid materials, is described and the general applicability of the technique, including its quantitative reliability, discussed. Solid-state n.m.r. is in many ways complementary to X-ray diffraction, as shown by its application to amorphous systems in which diffraction methods cannot be used (for example resins, coals, glasses and surface-immobilized catalysts) and also by its application to crystalline materials where X-ray structural data are available but where, for various reasons, a fuller description of the structure may be obtained by n.m.r. Examples include zeolites and chemically exchanging solid systems. The technique also provides a bridge between the solid-state structures of conformationally mobile and charged species as determined by diffraction techniques and the structures of these species in solution. Quantitative reliability of the c.p.-m.a.s. technique has been evaluated for phenolic resins and coals.