The 100 greatest guitar solos in rock

80) Uli Jon Roth - The Sails Of Charon

From: Scorpions – Taken By Force, 1977

On the Scorpions track Sails Of Charon, Uli Jon Roth shows that there was indeed an Yngwie Malmsteen before there was an Yngwie Malmsteen. Confused? Let us explain. Malmsteen seems to get all the credit for popularising the ‘classical with Jimi-isms’ style. And that’s understandable; there’s no denying that his 1984 album Rising Force and 1985’s Marching Out are classic six-string smorgasbords. But Roth had been trailblazing a similar territory since the early 70s. And unlike most rock tracks where the guitar solo fits snuggly in the middle somewhere, Roth’s solo kicks off Charon before the bloody vocals even begin! While there is a definite speed element to it, Roth solos in a fluid manner, as if the notes are oozing from his fingertips. And besides the solo, the riff is friggin’ fantastic – the guitarist’s all-time best.

Although Scorpions were just starting to hit their stride artistically and commercially (inroads into America and elsewhere were just beginning), Roth opted to jump ship a year after the release of Taken By Force, and launched his own solo project, Electric Sun. When the neoclassical metal movement arrived in the late 80s, it could all be traced back to a single solo and song – The Sails Of Charon.

79) Billy Duffy - She Sells Sanctuary

From: The Cult – Love, 1985

BILLY DUFFY: “My mentality going into the studio at that time was that we were a one-guitar band. So even though I multi-tracked everything I always went in with the mind-set of a single guitar player wondering how I could make it exciting without a rhythm guitar. It was kind of a dance rock era so we were very cognizant of the back beat and the swing of the song. My thing that I learned from the guitar players of the seventies was to play a bit of the melody or a counter-melody of the song in a solo; you don’t just show off. That’s the difference between a guitarist and a bedroom heavy-metal hack. A real guitar player plays the music and contributes to the melody and the strength of the song.

“On Sanctuary, that song had a drop like dance music does. We had a drop, we didn’t realise it was a drop in 1985, but we had one. There was a drop and a build-up and then the solo, such as it is, is only three notes. The idea was to lean on stuff I had heard from Bowie, Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople where the lick was an integral part of the solo, it wasn’t just the guitar player showing off. Well, that was my goal at least.”

78) Carlos Santana - Black Magic Woman

From: Santana – Abraxas, 1970

As far as familiarity goes, Fleetwood Mac’s original version of Black Magic Woman (written by Mac’s Peter Green in 1968) is likely to reside for eternity in the shadow of Santana’s rendition. Fleetwood Mac were an unapologetically pure blues band at that point in their career, and Green’s own solo on the track followed traditional lines. Mexican guitarist Santana, however, added his own flavour, as well as the obligatory Latin seasoning, to produce something genuinely new.

The secret to how players in the days before modern multi-switching amp systems obtained differing tones is betrayed almost from the outset. Listen as Santana hits the very first note and, as he increases his guitar’s volume, the sound fattens significantly to the point of feedback. These days Carlos is a user of PRS guitars and Mesa/Boogie amps, but Abraxas as a whole was recorded with a couple of Gibson SGs and a souped-up Fender Twin amp.

His warm-as-toast tone, blended with a unique approach to phrasing and, needless to say, a cantina full of foot-warming rhythms, make for a heady mix, as the 30 million sales of 1999’s Supernatural album ultimately demonstrates.

He may not be everyone’s cup of tea – his intonation isn’t always as accurate as it could be – but the fact is that there’s no one who plays and sounds quite like him. Nor, we suspect, will there be any time soon.

77) Guthrie Govan - Drive Home

From: Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories, 2013

Don’t let the stoner demeanour and straggly, Aqualung-era Ian Anderson aesthetic deceive you, Guthrie Govan could eat most shredders for breakfast. Just listen to anything by his crack fusion unit The Aristocrats, who have recently played with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on their G3 tour, or his work with prog’s blue-eyed boy Steven Wilson. Moments like his solo on Drive Home demonstrate both his chops and his amazing musicianship.

The song is centred on a fatal car crash and a subsequent haunting; Govan’s stunning improvisation over its Floyd-like chord changes truly enhances an otherworldly meditation on trauma and mortality. His ethereal, sustained lines linger like ghosts for bar after bar. Seven minutes in, at a white-finger-fast crescendo, he tears the high E string right out of its bridge saddle with an intense bend. Wilson has recalled that the guitar, a LaRose Classic Jazz with a Sustainiac pickup, had been delivered to the studio, and Govan “picked the thing up and, literally, the first thing he played was the solo that made the album. First time, first take.” He did others he thought were better, but Wilson and band wouldn’t hear of it. This spontaneous, transcendent moment shows how a seriously good solo can enhance an entire song. Which, after all, is the whole point.

76) James Honeyman-Scott - Tattooed Love Boys

From: The Pretenders – Pretenders, 1980

New wave bands didn’t seem to have very many true guitar heroes. And then along came James Honeyman-Scott. While there was never any confusion between him and your typical heavy metal shredder, his tasteful/melodic style of soloing added an awesome element to the band, on tracks such as Kid and Private Life. But undoubtedly his best guitar solo can be found in Tattooed Love Boys, which perfectly suits Chrissie Hynde’s sexually charged lyrics.

Akin to David Gilmour’s approach on Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), Honeyman-Scott plays short, easily digestible phrases; ones that you’ll be able to hum along to after just a few listens. But while Gilmour’s solo is about laying it way back, Honeyman-Scott sounds like he’s slashing at the strings and attempting to choke the life out of his guitar. And the solo is not a traditional one – 10 lead breaks are included as a sort of ‘call and response’ between the lead and rhythm guitars, and what better way to end it all with a bit of the ol’ toggle-switch flick (something that Kiss’s Ace Frehley helped popularise in the 70s on his Les Paul).

Sadly the career of one of the genre’s most promising/talented/versatile guitarists was cut far too short when Honeyman-Scott died of a drug-related heart attack just two years after Tattooed Love Boys was recorded.

The Pretenders in 1979

The Pretenders in 1979 (Image credit: Getty Images)

From: Robert Gordon – Fresh Fish Special, 1978

Definitely the only solo on this list played by a one-lunged Shawnee Native American, If This Is Wrong exposes the country roots of the original punk rocker.

A huge influence on Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend, Link Wray became a rock icon when his ’58 instrumental hit Rumble was banned in New York City and Boston for potentially inciting teenage violence. Wray followed Rumble with a slew of similar and sinister-sounding wordless classics including Jack The Ripper and Ace Of Spades.

In 1977 he joined forces with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon for a two-album run, the second of which, Fresh Fish Special, comes loaded with his self-written ballad If This Is Wrong. Rumoured to have been written for Elvis Presley, the song sounds like it was sprung from The King’s late-50s RCA period.

In the late 50s, Wray poked holes in his amp’s speaker to create a prehistoric fuzz, but If This Is Wrong is drenched in a more refined overdrive. Likely played on either his modified Gibson SG, with its repositioned whammy bar, or his vintage 1966 Yamaha SG-2 ‘Screaming Red’, the solo is a master class in country jazz chord work and tasteful vibrato.

74) Frank Zappa - Watermelon In Easter Hay

From: Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage, 1979

Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil claimed Frank’s solo on Watermelon In Easter Hay to be the best solo he ever played. And this nine-minute-nine-second exploration of plaintive restraint and sustain in 94 has since come to be viewed as the polymath’s signature solo. Which, in typical Zappa-style contrariness, is ironic, as it sounds unlike any other he ever recorded. It’s also atypical in as much each of his other solos on Joe’s Garage was created using his idiosyncratic ‘xenochronous’ (strange synchronisations) technique: dropping in live solos from other songs to achieve curious rhythms and phrasing.

Emotionally direct, magisterial and melancholic, the reverb-soaked five-note motif that introduces the piece has much in common with David Gilmour, Zappa’s bell-like tone crisp and luminescent. Switching at the four-minute mark to a fatter, overdriven sound (probably his custom Strat for the high, clean notes, and a Les Paul for the mid-section), this busier digression works expertly as both a counterweight to the soaring simplicity that bookends the piece and as a more complex melodic exploration in itself.

The song title is an abbreviation of Zappa’s quip “playing a guitar solo with this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay”, Easter hay being the fake plastic straw that nests chocolate eggs. Used over the closing credits of the 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien , it remains his most moving and elegiac work.

73) Nuno Bettencourt - Get The Funk Out

From: Extreme – Extreme II: Pornograffitti, 1990

NUNO BETTENCOURT: “For me, the Get The Funk Out solo has this blend of energy yet it is also fast, but then at the same time it still feels melodic. That one has always been fun for me to play. I never dread that one when we play live, I always look forward to playing it. It feels fun and you can let go but somewhat still be in control.

“That solo falls in really nicely with that song. We weren’t a metal band, we weren’t a funk band, but we had all of these elements, and all of that came to fruition with that song. That solo and the song Get The Funk Out as a whole is a great calling card for Extreme. It showed the real nucleus of what we were.”

72) Tom Verlaine - Marquee Moon

From: Television – Marquee Moon, 1977

Television were something of an anomaly among the regulars at New York City club CBGB. Unlike the Ramones, The Heartbreakers or the Dead Boys, Television weren’t really punks at all. Their music was a more exploratory strain of art-rock that drew its strange power from the band’s love of jazz chords, 60s psychedelia and the intuitive interplay between the band’s guitarists Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine. The latter’s technique, in fact, was once described by Patti Smith as the sound of “a thousand bluebirds screaming”. And nowhere is that realised more grippingly than on the title track of their debut album, Marquee Moon.

Supposedly recorded in just one take, the song unfurls across 10 glorious minutes, the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca creating a pulsing backdrop over which Lloyd and Verlaine roam free. Lloyd’s Stratocaster takes the first solo just after the second chorus. It’s as brief as it is intense, informed by his love of Hendrix and classic rock. But it is completely overshadowed by Verlaine’s open-ended riposte that dominates the second half of the song. Luminous and free-spirited, it’s a solo almost entirely devoid of bluster, Verlaine navigating his Fender Jazzmaster up the scale in a series of thrillingly expressive leaps. “I always thought Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles,” he told Select magazine years later. “And then I realised, Christ, [the title track] is ten minutes long –with two guitar solos!”

71) John Perry - Another Girl Another Planet

From: The Only Ones – The Only Ones, 1978

Yes, this is the obvious Only Ones choice, but with good reason. Where other killer solos tend to be deployed for a post-bridge breather or gear change, John Perry’s brilliant lead on Another Girl Another Planet is what opens this new wave classic. He has a more traditionally placed (and more technical) moment of showmanship later on in the track, which is deliciously suave yet sweet, but it’s the opening salvo that leaves a really euphoric mark; a perennially heartwarming, quietly spiky display from punk’s real guitar hero.

Recorded on a 16-track analogue Studer tape machine at Escape Studios in Kent, the track is as ingenious for its pop sensibilities as for its grittier ones – and the perfect compliment to singer Peter Perrett’s louche storytelling. No wonder it was snapped up for various film soundtracks, and covered by The Replacements, Lightning Seeds and others. Odd that at the time of its release it didn’t even chart in the UK.

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