10) Tony Iommi - Paranoid
From: Black Sabbath – Paranoid, 1970
We can’t not choose it. It’s too big, too classic and too… well, good to ignore. Tony Iommi’s distorted, head-swirling yet fiercely hooky technique – combining mystique and heavy-hitting power – has influenced scores of guitarists across metal, stoner, hard rock and other genres and sub-genres. Indeed it feels relatively rare for a present-day rock or metal band to not mention Black Sabbath as an inspiration, largely thanks to Iommi’s involvement. And when it comes to his solos, the one in Paranoid is the most iconic, the most singular in its drive.
If this were a feature on the greatest riffs, it would be virtually impossible to pick one Iommi winner, such is his all-round prowess and pioneering playing style. But more so than any of his other solos, the one in Paranoid sticks out for everyone, not just rock fans – with its fearsome blend of blues scaling, exotic-sounding touches and tasty notes played on bends (probably using Iommi’s then-favoured Gibson SG and Laney amp pairing). It’s clever and colourful without sounding overworked, delivered with grit and energy that somehow makes him sound louche and furious at the same time.
A predictable choice for this list? Maybe, but it couldn’t be more justified. A stone-cold classic.
9) Prince - Purple Rain
From: Prince And The Revolution – Purple Rain, 1984
There aren’t many pop icons who play guitar the way Prince Rogers Nelson could. Michael Jackson? Don’t think so – he had Jennifer Batten, Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen in his corner. How about Justin Bieber? Yeah, good one. Not only was Prince’s recent death untimely, it also deprived the world of one of the greatest and most versatile musicians ever to have risen to such a level of fame. He could sing, he could protest, he could reinvent himself on a whim, and boy could he play guitar.
While the gleeful shred-out at the conclusion to Let’s Go Crazy, from the Purple Rain album, proves that Prince can go fret-to-fret with absolutely anyone, it’s his beautifully constructed solo in the title track of that album that he will surely always be remembered for.
The song builds slowly from a restrained intro played by guitarist Wendy Melvoin – one of the Revolution’s many unsung heroes – before rising through gospel-style harmonies and sprinkles of orchestration. Some feedback and a slather of rhythm guitar heralds what’s to come, and by the time the music stops for a beat to give Prince the space for the perfect string bend, the release of tension is almost unbearable. With perfect control he then launches into a guitar-driven climax that causes you to offer a clenched fist and a hearty “Hell yeah!’ to the heavens.
Sadly, precipitation may never be so colourful again.
8) Slash - Sweet Child O Mine
From: Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction, 1987
It’s the perfect gear change (and key change) in the song that took Guns N’ Roses from cult status to superstardom back in ’87: the guitar solo in Sweet Child O Mine. Every rock fan knows it. Every non-rock fan knows it. So yes, it’s an incredibly obvious choice. But with excellent reason: it’s the best.
“Writing and rehearsing Sweet Child O Mine to make it a complete song was like pulling teeth,” Slash said. “For me, at the time, it was a very sappy ballad.”
Bassist Duff McKagan concurred: “It was kinda like a joke, because we thought: ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothing.’”
For Slash, armed with his Les Paul replica (made by Californian luthier Kris Derrig), the solo section – in which he shifts from the song’s dominant major key into E-flat minor – was his chance to play something a little more pensive, and less sugary.
“The dramatic solo section… I always complained about it [the song] because it was so up-tempo and ‘ballady’,” Slash observed at a Guitar Center masterclass. “It really rubbed me up the wrong way. Even though I wrote the riff, I didn’t know it was gonna turn into… And so I came in with the chord changes for the actual solo part, which for me was the only redeeming part of the song.”
Almost 30 years and countless guitar accolades later, it’s that rarest of classics: a track beloved by rock purists and the mainstream. Even Slash has come round to liking it. “I hated it for years,” he says. “But it would cause such a reaction – just playing the first stupid notes used to evoke this hysteria – so I started to appreciate it.”
7) Brian May - Killer Queen
From: Queen – Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Easy Listening isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the guitar solo in Queen’s Killer Queen. But Brian May said: “It was a conscious attempt to create a certain type of bell-like effect I heard in Mantovani’s music.” That Anglo-Italian bandleader, who traded in lush make-out music for 50s-era mums and dads, created a signature sound called “cascading strings”. May loved that “shimmering” waterfall of notes, and said: “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to create the same effect using guitars?”
As a soundtrack to the demeanour of the song’s high-class call girl, May opts for a suggestive opening, almost like a trombone glissing and swelling behind a boa-flinging cabaret stripper. A quick hand-off to a guitar orchestra changes scenes to an elegant boudoir, then in comes May-ntovani, bells-a-ringin’. The cascading effect was actually placing his multiple overdubs spatially in the mix, each with a distinct tone.
If you divide lead guitarists into gunslingers and architects, May would be in the second category. His beautifully thought-out solos are always integral to the structure of the songs, and for dazzling design, this one is up there with Bohemian Rhapsody. Not a note is wasted. Or as Freddie put it: “Fastidious and precise.”
6) Eddie Van Halen - Eruption
From: Van Halen – Van Halen, 1978
JERRY CANTRELL (Alice In Chains): “I could give you a ton of rock’n’roll guitar solos that I really like. But Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption is the most groundbreaking, to this day. I remember the first time I ever heard it. I was in seventh grade, and my dad had allowed me to join that scam, y’know, where you get however many records for a penny, and then they got you on the hook for so many you gotta buy down the road.
“So I had ordered Van Halen I and II, and I remember putting on the headphones while my dad was watching Hee Haw or something on the TV. And when Eruption came on, it sounded otherworldly. It didn’t sound like a human. It sounded like a fucking alien. It’s so fucking raw. It’s on the verge of coming off the tracks the whole time – but it doesn’t. I was just blown away.
“Have you ever heard anything that sounds like Eruption? Nobody had. Nobody had ever heard anything like that before. I’ve never fucking figured out how to play it. I know parts of it. Any egghead can sit down and learn to play something note-for-note. But it still ain’t gonna sound like that guy doing it, you know what I mean, because there’s a uniqueness to the individual that translates from the flesh to the wood and the metal and through a speaker – and that can’t be replicated. Nobody sounds like Eddie Van Halen. Nobody ever will. Because he is unique.
“How has Eruption aged? Well, it still sounds the same to me. Try to top that. Nobody has. I guess that’s the other part of the equation. You hadn’t heard anything like that before and nobody has even come close to replicating it. It’s never been done, before or since. Although it’s been talked about for many years, you just can’t overstate how important Eddie is to rock guitar.
“Have I ever told Eddie what Eruption means to me? Yeah, sure, we’ve talked about it. I think I remember him saying to me that there was one part of that solo that bugged him. And I was like, ‘What fucking part? It’s perfect!’ That goes to show: there might be something that maybe the person playing it might want to play a little better. But I really don’t know how he could have played that Eruption solo any better.”
ALEX SKOLNICK (Testament): “It changed my life. That’s possibly why I’m talking to you now. Before that, I was more interested in learning songs, singing, y’know, I was going pretty slow. But hearing Eruption, it rapidly accelerated my learning process. It not only made me realise I wanted to be a lead guitarist, but suddenly, I said, ‘Okay, I need to really focus on musicianship’. When I heard that solo, that’s when I realised what being a great musician was. I’ve often thought there’s too much focus on the three-fingered tapping section at the end. It’s wonderful, but you could take that away, and you’d still have an amazing solo. Eddie just shot for the moon, in terms of tone, technique. It’s an air guitarist’s wet dream. Just pure attitude…”
5) Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower
From: The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland, 1968
Someone should compile a list of vocal exclamations that introduce classic solos. Everything from Ringo saying: “Rock on, George!” in Honey Don’t to David Lee Roth’s “Hooooo!” in Jamie’s Crying. Near the top of the list would be Jimi’s gravelly “Heeeeyyy!” at 1:45 on Watchtower, echoing down the decades, unleashing a one-minute fireworks display. For years I thought this astounding break was improvised, but early takes show that it was very thought out. “One thing that people don’t realize is that Jimi always did his homework,” engineer Eddie Kramer said. “He knew exactly what he wanted to play. He used a different tone setting for each part.”
Jimi’s opening is pure and clean, just his impossibly long fingers hammering and bending notes to places only he could take them. There are very few guitarists who you can recognise from their vibrato alone. Hendrix is one. Then, using a metal pocket lighter for a slide, he swoops and dives through an Echoplex, creating that spooky, gravity-free atmosphere. Part three is wah-wah magic. Has anyone ever matched Jimi for his ability to give this pedal a larynx and a vocabulary? Jimi rides out the three-chord progression with a syncopated hammer-on inversions. And if that section isn’t enough, he soon picks up the ‘wind began to howl’ lyric with yet another mind-blowing solo, proving he was equal to the elements.
Fifty years on, still untouchable.
4) Allen Collins - Free Bird
From: Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounced ‘Leh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd, 1973
JOEL O-KEEFFE (AIRBOURNE): “I’ve gotta the say, the best solo of all time, that a lot of guys have been influenced by, is the fuckin’ epic solo in Free Bird. The end of Free Bird is fuckin’ out of control, guitar fuckin’ gasms everywhere. That’s three guitars at one point, and they’re so in sync when they do it. I’ve seem them live, and YouTubed it about fifty hundred times. Either on the album or live is the most fuckin’ epic solo there is. Two guitars or three guitars working together.”
CHARLIE STARR (BLACKBERRY SMOKE): “Obviously the solo in Free Bird has to make this list. That one almost goes without saying, to be honest. Allen Collins is fantastic there. I really don’t know if that solo has ever been bettered in the whole of rock’n’roll music, with the crescendo and all of the excitement that just builds. It leaves you thinking what might happen next. I think I probably first heard the Free Bird solo in-utero on the radio. I feel like that solo has always been there.”
RICKEY MEDLOCKE (LYNYRD SKYNYRD): “I love getting to play that closing solo every night with the band now, because I can just close my eyes and let myself go. And people still go nuts to hear it, man. I mean, I look at people down the front and I can see them mouthing, ‘Oh my God.’”
3) Don Felder & Joe Walsh - Hotel California
From: Eagles – Hotel California, 1976
NUNO BETTENCOURT (EXTREME): “I can’t believe how long and how memorable the Hotel California outro solo is. I could probably sing that whole solo. I think that is one of the most tasty, incredible, melodic solos, and it also has fantastic tone. It’s an emotional one as well.
“I don’t think I knew what I was listening to when I first heard that solo. Maybe I thought it was the norm. It isn’t until you become a guitar player yourself and you are creating and playing solos that you realise what other people did and how difficult it was. Hotel California isn’t the hardest solo to play, but the genius about it is the conversation that’s happening. It made me realise there was a story to the song; it’s a song within the song. If you can create something memorable in that solo space and it complements the song, then you have something special. Hotel California is the epitome of that.”
2) David Gilmour - Comfortably Numb
From: Pink Floyd – The Wall, 1979
Comfortably Numb contains not one but two guitar solos. But the first is just an aperitif; the second is the vintage red brought out from the cellar for special occasions only.
Guitarist David Gilmour recorded his greatest moment during sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Wall in summer ’79. The band worked at studios in the South of France before finishing at The Producer’s Workshop in LA. The musical theme for Comfortably Numb was Gilmour’s, written around the time of his 1978 solo album.
Comfortably Numb’s drama escalates with each passing verse and requires a similarly dramatic solo. “I just went out into the studio and banged out five or six solos,” he recalled. After that he listened to each, compiled a chart and constructed the final solo, brick by brick, from the best bits of each performance.
He played that second solo on a Fender Strat through a Big Muff delay pedal and a Yamaha RA-200 rotating speaker, a WEM speaker cabinet and a Hiwatt DR103 head.
Gilmour has never been one to showboat on stage or in the studio. But if there was ever a solo that deserved to go on for ever it’s this one. And it’s somehow fitting that the solo on Comfortably Numb is the last he ever played on stage with Pink Floyd.
MYLES KENNEDY (Alter Bridge): “The greatest guitar solo ever? I would have to say Comfortably Numb. On a human level, it’s so emotive, so melodic and beautiful. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I met [Floyd producer] Bob Ezrin once, and I asked him what it was like being behind the console as that was being recorded. He said: ‘You would think that David Gilmour was just oozing emotion with his facial expression, but he was so composed – you would never know that would be coming out of him.’”
1) Jimmy Page - Stairway To Heaven
From: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV, 1971
CHARLIE STARR (BLACKBERRY SMOKE): “I’ve thought a lot about this and you could definitely say the Stairway To Heaven solo is the greatest ever. That solo is put together almost like a piece of classical music. It has all of these twists and turns with it, much like the Free Bird solo does as well. Stairway is a very singable solo, which is very important to a songwriter. You shouldn’t just play mindlessly in a solo, you should also think about the melody. If you can look out and see people singing your solos then that is very powerful. I became familiar with this solo when I first started to learn to play the electric guitar. It was a piece of music that was so impressive on first listen. It was inspiring and I wanted to play it correctly. Me and all of my friends couldn’t play Eruption so we had to figure out how to play the Stairway To Heaven solo instead.”