The 100 greatest guitar solos in rock

70) Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser - (Don’t Fear) The Reaper

From: Blue Öyster Cult – Agents Of Fortune, 1976

(Don’t Fear) The Reaper is a ghostly hymn to doomed lovers. And the juice on which it runs is guitarist Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser’s riff and solo – once heard, never forgotten.

Shelley Yakus, VP of New York’s Record Plant studio and the engineer on John Lennon’s Imagine, knew a hit when he heard one. And from the first take of Blue Öyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, Yakus was convinced that the under-achieving hard rockers had made a career record. It had this vibe, Yakus said, “that just takes you over”.

Roeser laid down the demo for the song on a dirt-cheap multi-track recorder in summer 1975. Like Yakus, BÖC’s producer/manager Sandy Pearlman was convinced it was a hit.

Once at the Record Plant, co-producer Murray Krugman loaned Roeser a Gibson ES165 on which he played its distinctive opening lines; a jangling intro which sounded like something lifted from a Byrds record, imbued with a strange Middle Eastern flavour.

But it’s Roeser’s solo that tips the song over the edge. At 2:30 minutes, the song’s otherwise radio-friendly groove is replaced by a slow-building guitar solo (played on Roeser’s own 1969 Gibson SG) which explodes into a flurry of pull-offs and hammer-ons. It sounds like the music from an Arab sword dance dumped in the middle of a pop song – and it works to perfection. BÖC had their hit, and Buck Dharma the guitar solo for which he will forever be remembered.

69) Andy Powell - Blowin’ Free

From: Wishbone Ash – Argus, 1972

ANDY POWELL: “Wishbone Ash had become known for a very English kind of music, but by 1972 we began to break into America and our horizons changed. With Argus we knew the type of album we wanted to make, and also that we needed a song to break us onto FM radio. Blowin’ Free was to be that song.

“We’d always had a boogie section in the set, because Ted [Turner, guitarist] and I were influenced by Freddie King, Albert King and later on Fleetwood Mac. I was friends with Mick Groome from Duck’s Deluxe who showed me those fantastic shuffle chords, which we used on the song’s opening riff. I sped up one of the progressions he’d shown me and added some parts of my own.

“I’ve played other solos that were more technical, but what I did in Blowin’ Free helped to nail my style, which I guess you could call ‘ebullient’. A critic once said that the song sums up ‘the very spirit of the seventies’, and I considered that a great compliment.

“Because it’s been a part of every show I’ve played since 1972 you might come to the conclusion that I’m bored of Blowin’ Free by now, but that’s not true. I did go through a phase of almost religiously refusing to play certain notes in the solo, messing around with it to please myself, and then I realised that people want to hear it the way they know. So I play clusters of those notes; I reference the original but I don’t follow it slavishly.

“All the same, playing Blowin’ Free has become just as much a part of my day as getting out of bed, cleaning my teeth and making a pot of coffee. I liked to play it on stage in a joyful way back then, and that’s still the case today.”

68) Yngwie Malmsteen - Black Star

From: Yngwie Malmsteen – Rising Force, 1984

He’s got a gob on him, he’s acutely aware that he’s an incredible player, and he embodies the whole ‘shred’ guitar phenomenon beloved by many and loathed by many others. Yngwie Malmsteen can get people’s backs up like few other musicians on this list. And yet when a guitarist picks at amazing speed, or eschews rock’s standard pentatonic scales to employ the harmonic minor or the phrygian dominant, his influence is undeniably present.

After leaving the Graham Bonnett-fronted Alcatrazz, the Swede recorded his solo debut, Rising Force, a landmark instrumental metal album that was pipped to the 1986 Best Rock Performance Grammy by Jeff Beck.

Opener Black Star evolved from the long improvisations he played as a kid in Stockholm. Its simple, low-tempo gallop gives him room to display his wares: acoustic classical guitar intro, then squealing, multi-tracked melodic lines on his signature Strat. The solo section showcases the preternatural, Paganini-inspired techniques that have been his stock in trade ever since – swept arpeggios, lightning diminished runs, flurries of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em notes and, in his wide vibrato, a great deal of feel. Love him or hate him, Malmsteen kick-started a genre here and began a guitar arms race that continues to this day.

67) Bill Nelson - Crying To The Sky

From: Be-Bop Deluxe – Sunburst Finish, 1976

BILL NELSON: “The Be-Bop Deluxe guitar solo that seems to have caught many fans’ imaginations is the one in Crying To The Sky. There are actually two solos in the song. The track was recorded in Abbey Road, in the same room that The Beatles and The Shadows recorded. It’s a big space, and I placed my Carlsbro 100-watt amplifier right at the back of the room while I stood at the opposite end with my Gibson 345 guitar. A very long cable connected me to the amp, whose volume was turned up to the max. Microphones were put close to the speaker cabinet and also at various points around the room to capture the space’s ambience. I used an old Watkins Copycat echo unit to act as a pre-amp and also a Univibe pedal to add modulation.

“The whole thing was very loud, teetering on the edge of barely controlled, chaotic feedback. The solo wasn’t worked out at all, it was totally improvised, as most of my solos are. I think we did a couple of takes, if I remember correctly, but arrived at the ones on the recording relatively quickly. I just jumped in and let the sound and the feeling of the song carry it where it needed to go. My approach to solos is to try and be ‘in the moment’ and not think in technical terms about it. If you’re thinking about every note, you’re not really playing. Thinking too much brings unnecessary anxiety and drives out the spirit. You have to fly by the seat of your pants and not be afraid to take risks, just dive in and open yourself up to whatever might happen; the big splash. You’re chasing magic, not technical perfection. In this instance, those two solos managed to capture and reinforce the passion of the song.”

66) Ronnie Montrose - Rock Candy

From: Montrose – Montrose, 1973

The mid-to-late 80s had an unbearably high quotient of – as the late/great Gary Moore once put it – Led Clones. In other words, bands that were merely aping Bonham-Jones-Page-Plant and offering nothing new. But in the 70s there were several bands that obviously were inspired by Zep yet still managed to deliver potent, killer rock. Montrose are a case in point. And nowhere is that demonstrated better than on their self-titled debut from 1973.

Besides the album introducing the world to the vocal talents of ‘Red Rocker’ Sammy Hagar, it’s loaded with exceptional playing from the guitarist that the band was named after – Ronnie Montrose. And it’s on the album’s title track that Montrose really shines on his six-string. Besides featuring an absolute behemoth of a riff, the solo that begins just about midway through it that absolutely rocks. Served up first is some tasty Page-y soloing which comprises the first half, and that leads directly into some ascending, Townshend-y chord bursts for the second part, and ultimately its conclusion.

While some figured that this line-up of Montrose would soon be on their way to headlining stadiums, Hagar stuck around only for one more album (1974’s not-quite-as-stellar Paper Money) before heading off on a solo road that eventually led to Van Halen. Meanwhile, a revolving door of musicians would stand by Ronnie’s side over the years, until his death in 2012.

Ronnie Montrose of Montrose

Ronnie Montrose of Montrose (Image credit: Getty Images)

65) Tom Morello - Killing In The Name

From: Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine, 1991

In 1992, guitar solos could hardly have been any less fashionable. Grunge ruled the airwaves, and the many influences that scene had taken from hard rock and metal were invariably funnelled through a vaguely puritanical, po-faced ‘punk rock’ philosophy that regarded any show of instrumental prowess as vulgar self-indulgence that should be wrestled to the ground, wrapped up in gaffer tape and packed off back to the early 70s in a time capsule.

So among several startling elements of Killing In The Name, Rage Against The Machine’s incendiary debut hit, was guitarist Tom Morello’s startlingly odd instrumental section. Almost four minutes into this ever-intensifying assault of a song, and before the climactic swearathon has even started, there’s another ‘WTF?’ moment as Morello unleashes a break that sounds like a robot cat’s yowls of distress at being tied to a hip-hop DJ’s turntable. His technique was, essentially, an attempt to blend rap-style scratching sounds with the abrasive squall of techno and the urgent hysteria of fret-shredding metal pyrotechnics. He succeeded in jaw-dropping fashion.

At the time, it sounded a little like someone had single-handedly taken the guitar solo and thrust it into the 21st century eight years before the 21st century had arrived. You could argue that Morello has played better solos elsewhere, but this one, like the track it came from, had by far the biggest impact. So, erm, fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us.

64) Pete Shelley - Boredom

From: The Buzzcocks – Spiral Scratch EP, 1977

BILLY DUFFY (The Cult): “That’s a Pete Shelley solo and it’s two notes and it’s brilliant. I’m not being sarcastic there. And I know that there are loads of great guitar solos. But that was a great moment when I heard that solo at the Buzzcocks’ first-ever gig. That was when they were supporting the Sex Pistols in Manchester in 1976, the one that everyone goes on about. And yes I really was there. To see that gig and hear him play that solo in Boredom, that solo says it all. If you can’t say it all in two notes, then you might be in the wrong business.”

63) Steve Jones - Anarchy In The UK

From: The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols, 1977

The guitar solo of punk rock’s first truly iconic record was always going to be short, sharp and to the point. And so Steve Jones’s solo in the Sex PistolsAnarchy In The UK was. Its simplicity is, inevitably, its chief strength. For the first break, Jones plays just two distorted sliding minor-chord arpeggios, repeated high up the neck (sounds more complicated than it is), then a couple more notes to carry us back into the verse, and job’s a good ’un. “Pretty good for someone who couldn’t play back then, I thought!” Jones once commented.

On the second instrumental break he doesn’t even bother soloing in the conventional sense, instead chopping out brutal higher-register power chords that sound somewhere between a conventional solo and someone simply thumping their guitar like a malfunctioning television. Feedback rings from the speakers in its wake, but that’s nothing compared to the sonic boom that that record would come to represent.

Since you ask, Jones played the solo on an off-white Gibson Les Paul Custom through an MXR Phase 45 pedal into an overdriven Fender Twin Reverb combo. But aren’t such geeky details missing the point somewhat? After all, you can’t help but suspect that if he’d played it on a toy acoustic the track would still have sounded pretty ferocious, thanks to Johnny Rotten’s inimitable vocal and the bludgeoning, speed-addled attack of the rhythm section as well as Jonesy’s urgent assault.

62) Paul Gilbert & Bruce Bouillet - Scarified

From: Racer X – Second Heat, 1987

While studying at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute Of Technology in the 80s, six-string monster Paul Gilbert formed Racer X with bassist John Alderete. The band’s heavy-hitting brand of neo-classical tech-metal got them signed to Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records, the ‘shed of shred’ that was also home to Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Vinnie Moore et al. And what a load of onanistic cobblers so much of that stuff was.

But among the dross were some gems. Guitarist Bruce Bouillet joined Racer X for second album Second Heat. And while its widdly quasi-anthemic metal is dated now, Scarified remains both their signature tune and a highlight of the whole neoclassical sub-genre. In tightest harmony, Gilbert and Bouillet set about a heavy, melodic, baroque-style piece that sounds like Bach and Scarlatti drag-racing down Sunset Strip. On fire. Each man’s squealing cadenza is an object lesson not just in complex left- and right-hand techniques, but also in how to get real attitude and fire into and out of your strings.

Bouillet rocks solo now, and it’s a delicious, telling irony that Mr. Big’s greatest hit To Be With You features the simplest lead line Gilbert ever played. But right in their back pocket is this snapshot of guitar-nerd history, this testament to their killer chops. They’re still a very tough act to follow.

61) Rory Gallagher - Walk On Hot Coals

From: Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour ’74…, 1974

PAUL MAHON (The Answer): “The solo from Walk On Hot Coals is a showcase for everything that’s good about Rory Gallagher. Especially the live version from Irish Tour ’74. Y’know, he really stretches it out – it’s about eleven minutes long. It’s a track we’d always listen to before going on stage in the early days. It would get us really fired up. It’s a real ‘on-edge’ solo.

“Obviously, growing up in Ireland, Rory was an icon, and I started playing around the time Rory passed in 1995. So learning that solo was kind of something I was driven to do. It was challenging for a young guitarist. It set the standard for me, technically. It’s mostly pentatonic stuff, and that classic triplet hammer-on that he does features a lot. But it’s just played with real intent. I think with the blues, technically it’s not super-challenging, but the emotion and the dynamics, that’s the genius.

“That solo is definitely still impressive. Rory is one of the guys where it still sounds fresh. You can put that on for a kid and he’ll be captivated by it, but older people get it too. It interests a guitar player and it interests a listener. So it crosses the ultimate divide.”

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