The 100 greatest guitar solos in rock

20) Mark Knopfler - Sultans Of Swing

From: Dire Straits – Alchemy: Dire Straits Live (1984)

Mark Knopfler only has to click a string between thumb and forefinger for you to know it’s him playing. Knopfler’s trademark fingerstyle technique stemmed from his love of folk and country blues, and with the success of Dire Straits he brought it to bear on the rock world.

Sultans Of Swing, which first appeared on their self-titled 1978 debut, would become Straits’ calling card, with its catchy refrain, evocative lyrics and Knopfler’s gutsy guitar playing talent at full pelt. By 1983 the band were selling out venues the size of Hammersmith Odeon, and the song had morphed into a stadium anthem in waiting. Both Knopfler’s instrumentals on Alchemy’s live version draw from the record, but they’re extrapolated to fit their larger surroundings. Knopfler makes his guitar cry and makes it sing. His neck-shaking vibrato, country bends and effortless lines both gentle and cocky conclude with that lightning-fast closing arpeggio passage, which never fails to rouse the fans.

19) Jeff Beck - Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers

From: Jeff Beck – Blow By Blow, 1975

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on the genius of Jeff Beck…

Was the solo in Jeff Beck’s Let Me Love You Baby really the first one you learned, when you were fifteen?

Yes. It really spoke to me in terms of tone and phrasing, and also it was a really simple, really effective solo that I was able to figure out; I’d only been playing guitar for maybe a month or so. Let Me Love You, that opening riff just kind of encapsulated everything in terms of attitude, craving, pining and just really digging in deep. He said that in so few notes, and it had such a huge, huge affect on me. I gained so much information from just that one song alone. When I listen to it now I think, you know, it’s a simple blues solo, but back then it was a huge accomplishment for me to be able to learn that guitar solo and play it by myself.

Things happen to musicians over the course of their life. Some kind of rest on their laurels, or you have other musicians that just can’t escape from legacies. Then you have these other types of musicians that just stand alone and other people don’t really touch them. Jeff Beck is in that category. He keeps on getting better.

Are there any specific solos from Beck’s catalogue that particularly do it for you?

It’s impossible for me to single out a track, because his catalogue is so fucking great overall.

Are there any particular solos of his that you enjoy playing?

Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers is just an epic, epic track in that it’s just so lyrical in its playing, the melodies are so beautiful, the chord progression is so great, and Jeff just does an amazing job in nailing the solemn feel that those chords suggest. The tone on the tune – I believe he’s playing a Telecaster – is just so, so remarkable.

18) Dave Davies - You Really Got Me

From: The Kinks – Kinks, 1964

If You Really Got Me’s power-chord riff gave birth to heavy rock, then the famously manic solo represented its mutant twin, punk, kicking away furiously in the womb.

As Ray Davies ends the second verse of his passionate vignette about being romantically out of control, he yelps “Oh nooooo!” It sounds like he’s been picked up and put on a fairground waltzer spinning at high speed, and his younger brother Dave’s famous guitar solo on the track reinforces that impression.

Technically the solo is a dog’s breakfast. Repetitive, apparently aimless and imprecise, it sounds like the guitarist’s equivalent of an angry toddler’s scribble over a picture they’ve got bored with. But its sheer raging vim and vigour wins through, oozing hysterical angst from every note. It’s an ugly, snarling delinquent beast of a thing.

A young session player by the name of Jimmy Page was hired for some Kinks sessions to provide rhythm guitar, giving rise to the myth that it was the future Led Zep legend who provided both the barking riff and the squawking solo. But no, it was Dave Davies, who further personalised the sound from his Harmony Meteor guitar by slicing the speaker cone of his Elpico Amp (which he nicknamed his ‘fart box’) and sticking knitting needles through it. Which was a suitably DIY, punk-rock technique to create a record that was hugely influential on both punk and metal’s visceral approach to rock’n’roll guitar playing.

17) Paul Kossoff - All Right Now

From: Free – Fire And Water, 1970

On Free’s classic All Right Now you get two guitar solos for the price of one, both of them southern-fried and laced with beautiful restraint.

Kossoff’s first statement channels Duane Allman, with some expressive licks that almost sound like a human voice crying out over Simon Kirke’s martial drum beat. Then after a two-measure hand-off to bassist Andy Fraser, Kossoff eases back in with a new approach, grabbing half-notes and whole notes, shaking the strings with his sumptuous vibrato. A few slow, syrupy bends that echo a country pedal steel, then he’s into his main theme: the hammer-on riff that defines this song almost as much as the chorus does. That riff would become a lead guitar cliché during the 1970s, a favourite of southern rockers (who always over-milked it), but Kossoff did it first. Or at least did it in a hit first. And placed it so perfectly. To further his point he takes the riff up an octave, book-ending it with singing held notes. And those notes are a lesson in how to bend to the sweet spot. If you want to hear the glory of a ’59 Les Paul Standard through a Marshall stack, there’s no better moment. Solo wrapped on an unexpectedly blue note, Kossoff gets back to the business of playing the coolest I-to-IV chord riff in rock.

16) Duane Allman - Layla

From: Derek & The Dominos – Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970

DEVON ALLMAN: “For me, the reason why this solo is brilliant is that Duane sounds like a soaring bird. It’s so transcendental. Duane played the solo on his ’57 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, and it’s so impressive that nothing sounds quite like this.

“I have never tried to emulate what Duane did here, because I don’t play slide guitar, but it’s influenced me in more ways than I can count. You also have to give producer Tom Dowd so much credit for the manner in which he mixed this solo into the overall structure of the song. There’s a majesty and symphonic feel to the way the guitars and piano blend, but Duane’s solo lifts everything to an immortal level. You cannot help but feel inspired as a guitarist when you listen to what happens in this solo. In fact you can hear the creativity running through those fingers. Duane made this one of rock’s truly great songs.”

15) Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode

From: Chuck Berry – Chess single, 1958

Here’s the basic formula for advances in popular music: influence + wild hormonal energy + volume = innovation. In Chuck Berry’s case, he was open about imitating Carl Hogan, guitarist for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, calling him “a cog in the wheel” of rock‘n’roll. The double stops, the bends, the slippery slides – Berry’s trademarks are all evident in Hogan’s jump ‘n’ jive playing. And Chuck lifted and amplified Hogan’s intro riff of Ain’t That Just Like A Woman for Johnny B. Goode. Repeated and expanded upon during the solo, with drum hits framing the action, Berry takes a cue from his ‘just like ringin’ a bell’ lyric, chiming out gritty fourths over and over on the top strings of his Gibson ES-350. It’s the sound of a juvenile delinquent spree – doors being kicked open and windows busted out.

It’s fun and free. It’s mean and lean, and a little bit dangerous. And it’s probably the most important lead guitar break of the past sixty years, the very essence of rock‘n’roll. Which is why the Voyager Golden Record that NASA launched in 1977 featured it in its audio portrait of life on earth. And somewhere, another gooey alien with twenty fingers is copping the solo as he does his three-legged duckwalk across some intergalactic bandstand.

14) Keith Richards - Sympathy For The Devil

From: The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet, 1968

The opening blast from the Stones’ seventh album began as a Mick Jagger tune in the tradition of Bob Dylan. It was only through Keith Richards’ intervention that it took on percussion and a samba rhythm, driving the singer’s first-person narrative of the devil’s litany of destruction. “Lyrically, [Sympathy For The Devil] was all his,” Richards recalled in According To The Rolling Stones. “I was just trying to figure out whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song.” Perversely, given that it houses two of his most memorable solos, Richards is mostly a discreet presence during its six-plus minutes. This only makes his contributions more telling, particularly his first entry just before the halfway mark. 

The potency of the solo lies in its pure simplicity, Richards punctuating the backing groove (as essayed by pianist Nicky Hopkins, Rocky Dijon on congas and Bill Wyman shaking a maraca or two) with rapid bursts of staccato guitar, the spaces between charged with the same sense of parlous electricity. A minute-and-a-half later, the guitarist is back, rupturing things again with a series of bluesy squawks and muted stops that complement Jagger’s wordless falsetto. In Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s all-star live bash The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, filmed in December ’68, Richards’ reprises the solos with an air of nonchalance that suggests this kind of brilliance was just another day in the office.

13) Eric Clapton - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

From: The Beatles – The Beatles, 1968

This wonderful George Harrison song contains just about every musical hallmark that makes The Beatles great. The faultless vocal harmonies, with George himself handling all parts, the mournful melodies contained within a perfect song structure, McCartney’s restrained bass, the piano and harmonium embellishments and uplifting chorus all stand the test of time. With John Lennon uncharacteristically taking a back seat, Harrison knew the song needed a certain something else, so he roped in his guitar-playing friend Eric Clapton to contribute lead lines.

Slowhand was, at first, reluctant, suggesting that nobody other than the Mop Tops themselves should ever play on a Beatles record. “So what?” Harrison apparently responded. “It’s my song.”

What’s certain is that for all their musical genius, neither Lennon nor Harrison could play guitar anything like Clapton. He recorded his parts at Abbey Road in early September 1968. And despite his intention to use a more Beatley guitar tone, the multi-fret string bends during the solo’s somewhat avant-garde intro and subsequent laser-guided notes quickly give him away. In short, it’s pure Clapton.

At its conclusion the solo resolves beautifully from a minor key to a major, an established musical trick occasionally employed by the band. And as has always been the case, Clapton says more with a handful of notes than others do in an entire career. That must have been some session to witness.

12) Ritchie Blackmore - Highway Star

From: Deep Purple – Machine Head, 1972

Three words sum up guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s solo on Highway Star: Johann Sebastian Bach. The 17th-century German composer’s fingerprints are all over classical music buff Blackmore’s finest moment.

Highway Star, the benchmark for all heavy metal songs about cars, serves one purpose. “I wanted it to be one of those songs you would listen to while speeding,” explained Blackmore.

Highway Star and the rest of the Machine Head album were recorded in the out-of-season Grand Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. Blackmore needed a solo to compliment the speed and urgency of the song and, crucially, wouldn’t be outdone by his bandmate Jon Lord’s organ solo.

Blackmore came up with “rigid arpeggios based on Bach”, and annotated his solo note for note in the days leading up to the recording. “I wanted a very definite Bach sound, which is why I played that very familiar Bach progression,” he said.

Recorded in the bleak Swiss winter of 1971 and played on a Stratocaster in a hotel corridor filled with mattresses to baffle the sound, Blackmore’s solo is a study in speed and virtuosity but also economy.

On stage, however, it gained even more speed and virtuosity (see the version on the live Made In Japan). But the original remains Blackmore’s greatest one minute and twenty seconds. Highway Star is the solo that helped invent Iron Maiden, Metallica and a generation of 100mph speed metal bands.

11) Angus Young - Let There Be Rock

From: AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, 1977

While recording the solo for 1977’s Let There Be Rock in Sydney, Angus Young’s amp supposedly caught fire (“I’ve got an arsonist that’s following me around,” he reflected). Forty years later, that white-hot lead break still has the ability to make your speakers smoke.

For Let There Be Rock the Youngs had plotted a “tougher” album with “big guitars” and “no ballads”. And the title track’s fuel-injected blues shuffle lived up to the billing, with Bon Scott’s goggle-eyed sermon book-ending the most savage fretwork that Angus has ever conjured. At 1:14, he skedaddles into solo number one, before settling down to vamp on two perfectly chosen notes. His second break is more groove-based, at 3:12 morphing into an almost quaint 12-bar lick that recalls rock’s 50s pioneers (appropriate, given the song’s lyric). Then the outro is a masterclass of bends, pull-offs and blues-box genius, topped by a tremolo-picked run so fast that you can almost feel the lactic acid flood his knuckles. Finally he hits that climactic top note and climbs back to earth – and presumably calls the fire brigade. Stunning on vinyl, the revelation is that on stage Angus pushes Let There Be Rock even further, extending and extemporising at will. It’s nothing short of epic. HY

JOEL O’KEEFFE: “Every time AC/DC do Let There Be Rock live, that solo is the greatest. It’s an extension of what they do on the record, and it’s different every night. There’s a lot of similarities each night, but it’s a fresh solo, and each night he blows himself away again. It’s pure rock’n’roll. And he’s done it his entire career since 1977. So for me the greatest Angus Young solo happens every night when he plays Let There Be Rock – and he’s got over thirty years of Let There Be Rock solos.”

Angus Young, 1980

Angus Young, 1980 (Image credit: Getty Images)
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