As long as rock’n’roll has been around, there have been guitar solos. That moment when verses and choruses are forgotten, the lead guitarist steps to front and centre and just delivers a melodic (or otherwise, on occasion) break that just defines the song. In some instances the solos themselves are the song, more famous and revered than the vessel in which it lives. Our concept this month? To discover the guitar solos that rock fans and the players themselves love the most. Not necessarily just the solos that you’d expect to find on a rundown such as this (although, let’s face it, there are some that are just too iconic not to be included), but those that are just too good not to be.
100) Reach Down
From: Temple Of The Dog – Temple Of The Dog, 1991
Mike McCready: “The best solo I’ve ever played I would have to say is Reach Down, because that was a pivotal point in terms of Chris [Cornell] saying to me: ‘Hey, just go for it.’ Because prior to that I was very nervous about overplaying. I really wanted to let go but I didn’t know what my boundaries were, because I wanted to make sure the solo was respectful of this record, because it was about [late Mother Love Bone vocalist] Andy Wood. This was kind of my big moment. Chris was like: ‘Lighten up. Just do what you want to do.’ So I just went for it. And what you hear there is my first take.
“I remember my headphones falling off and I was still playing, and I was so into it I got to release something in me that had been bottled up for a long time. I was way into Stevie Ray Vaughan at the time and I was way into Hendrix. My favourite solo of all time is Machine Gun, the live version from [Hendrix’s] Band Of Gypsies, so I’m sure there were elements of me wanting to get to some level of Machine Gun. But there was no way I ever could. I was trying to pull out the licks that I had heard from Hendrix and Stevie, but I was also just trying to feel it, that was number one. When I could feel it and play it just off the top of my head, that’s when I played my best. And that’s still true today.”
99) You Love Us
JAMES DEAD BRADFIELD
From: Manic Street Preachers – Generation Terrorists, 1992
No track sums up the early days of the Manic Street Preachers quite like You Love Us, with its mixture of preening, aggressive, goading glam-punk arrogance, intelligent vocabulary and shamelessly ambitious stadium rock. Frontman James Dean Bradfield’s gleaming guitar solo is key to its success and helped make it the highest-charting single from their debut album Generation Terrorists (it peaked at No.16, one place higher than Motorcycle Emptiness).
Showcasing the Manics’ Guns N’ Roses influence to full effect, the closing solo has Bradfield’s fingers flying over his Gibson Les Paul as he takes the reins on this beast and rides it hard to the finish line with an amazing display of dexterity, the frantic yet polished playing immediately positioning him as one of the great British guitar heroes of the past 25 years. As statements of intent go – they honestly wanted, and expected, to be the biggest band in the world – this glorious minute-and-a-quarter of guitar-wrangling fireworks takes some beating.
On the original, single version of You Love Us, released on Heavenly Records in 1991, this vital piece of the jigsaw didn’t exist, and instead it ended on a drum sample from Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life. Its addition on the album version was a master stroke that backed up the song’s message: we’re the best new band in the world, we can prove it, now listen to this. We’re still listening.
From: Pantera – Vulgar Display Of Power, 1992
With the popularity of the guitar solo in rock music dwindling during the mid to late 90s, Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell almost single-handedly kept six-string shred alive. And what set the late, great guitarist apart from many other earlier shredders was that in addition to being raised on the usual suspects (EVH, Randy Rhoads et al), Dime’s admiration of blues players was also immense. As a result, many of the guitar solos in Pantera did contain a certain quota of speed, but also some surprisingly tasty playing.
A case in point is Walk. While it’s difficult to choose just one top Dimebag solo (Cowboys from Hell, Cemetery Gates etc), perhaps what also adds to the allure of the Walk solo is that its video is what gave the band their breakthrough in the US via MTV (via the Headbangers Ball program); the camera work in the video clip showed up-close and clearly just what the heck Dimebag was playing on the fretboard when it came to the solo.
Starting with some fleet-fingered noodling, the solo takes a surprise turn from the midway point to the end, where Dime slows things down and delivers some finger-lickin’-good licks, including one bit where he’s using two hands on the fretboard (not à la EVH, but rather to create a slipping/sliding sound). And lastly we mustn’t forget that Walk showcases one of Dimebag’s all-time great riffs to boot.
97) Black Betty
From: Ram Jam – Black Betty, 1977
On Black Betty, Ram Jam included just about everything that makes American rock from the late 70s so great – there’s even a drum solo halfway through.
An undeniable flavour of the Eagles permeates Black Betty, too, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the influence that the band had on just about everybody in the late 70s, but Ram Jam guitarist Bill Bartlett is talented enough to ensure his licks are all his own. Just about every line is embellished with snappy guitar work, and when he really lets loose during the jaw-dropping solo you realise just how good he was. Duane Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd, it’s all there, and he gave Black Betty that infusion of magic that ensured it’d insinuate itself into the psyche of everyone who heard it.
Although the term ‘one-hit wonder’ is somewhat disparaging, unfortunately that’s what Ram Jam were to become.
96) Love Song
From: The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette, 1979
Music moved pretty fast in the 1970s. The Damned had fallen apart within a year of their debut album being released in February 1977, then re-formed by early 1979. And during that time, far from mellowing in their approach they seemed to speed up and sound even more bonkers. Their fans still lapped it up, though, and Love Song, from their third album, earned them their first Top 20 hit single.
That was quite a feat considering it sounds like it was recorded in a washing machine. Nonetheless, it sees erstwhile bassist Captain Sensible switching to lead guitar and demonstrating hitherto unheard of feats of axemanship. He’s almost playing on his own private record, launching into frantic squiddling licks from the intro to the verse to the bridge and back, keeping up with the furious, proto-hardcore pace of the song and then stepping to stage front towards the end with some very metal string-mangling mania.
It was a shock at the time for muso-phobic punks to hear such feats of musicianship, however anarchically delivered. And Sensible has since made the shocking admission: “I’m probably doing us down on the old punk credibility scale – we could actually play our instruments. We simply wanted to play as fast and as loud and as chaotically as possible.” He – and they – rarely succeeded more gloriously than here.
95) I Could Have Lied
From: Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991
On the first Chili peppers album that John Frusciante played on, 1989’s Mother’s Milk, the young gunslinger (who was only 19 years old at the time of its release) did a more than admirable job of supplying funk rock stylings similar to those by the guitarist he had replaced in the band (the late Hillel Slovak). But unlike Slovak, the newcomer leaned more towards the metal/shredder style on certain tracks. By the time of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, however, Frusciante had experienced a complete stylistic makeover when it came to his guitar playing.
For starters, right around the time of the album being recorded he had seemingly discovered the guitar-playing style of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, which was the polar opposite of the highly technical shredders who were regularly gracing the covers of guitar magazines at the time. As a result, Frusciante went for feel over technique on the tracks that comprise this now-classic album, as evidenced by his the solo on I Could Have Lied.
Although it’s a bit of a ballad, which begins with acoustic guitar, the solo is a perfect example of this new approach. It certainly isn’t the most flawless/perfectly executed solo Frusciante has played on record, but the ‘heavy on feel approach’ works perfectly in the context of the tune, as the solo conveys the feel of Anthony Kiedis’s heartbroken lyrics.
94) Animal Nitrate
From: Suede – Suede, 1993
What happens when you combine the fuzzed-up riffola of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit with the softly undulating theme tune to vintage BBC cop series Dixon Of Dock Green? Such was the unlikely cocktail of influences on Animal Nitrate, a vaulting glam-grunge paean to sexual and chemical excess from Suede’s blazing self-titled debut album. Breaking with normal band protocol, guitarist Bernard Butler wrote the backing track as a finished piece of music before presenting it to Brett Anderson, which may explain why the singer was initially cool about the song and reluctant to release it as a single. But wiser voices prevailed and Suede scored their first Top 10 smash.
The melodic spine of the song Animal Nitrate is a descending chord sequence – B minor, A, G, E – which Butler cracks open into a compact but vivid solo across the bridge, with shimmering rivulets that cascade downwards before spiralling back up and bursting like a fireworks display over the returning chorus refrain. Playing his Gibson Les Paul Heritage 80 through old-school equipment like a Vox AC30 valve amp and Boss Turbo distortion pedal, Butler also added bespoke DIY physical effects, bending the guitar neck to produce that signature pitch-warping glam-rock swagger. More than 20 years after he quit the band, this blazing solo remains an indispensable highlight of Suede live shows.
93) Three Days
From: Jane’s Addiction – Ritual De Lo Habitual, 1990
“Can you imagine if Rush were, like, into goth and did a lot of drugs?” mused Dave Navarro on Jane’s Addiction’s cultural touchstones. And it’s a summation not entirely without merit. The cornerstone of their second and best studio album, it’s appropriate that a three-section song about a three-day threesome has a three-part solo, whether consciously intended or not.
Recorded in one take – the first – in a studio control room full of Warner Brothers A&R types, and the only track on Ritual where all band members were in the room at the same time, these factors seemingly conspired to up Navarro’s game towards levels only previously hinted at. Limbering up (on his custom Ibanez) with a few open chords, Navarro ekes out a relatively simple top-end melody complementing the rolling rhythm section with admirable restraint (his powder obviously being kept dry), before dropping down through the scale with just a soupcon of flair and harmonics. He backs way off almost to inaudible for the mid-piece, single-note volume-fade violining, then the final third finds Navarro throttling a more complex variation on the original melody, with his whammy bar doing the heavy lifting, approaching Hendrix levels of abandon. The real gold, however, is the way every tonal shift and lift perfectly mirrors what is going on underneath, both antagonising and augmenting the mood, melody and feel. People talk about being ‘in the zone’. This is what it sounds like.
92) Rock Minuet
From: Lou Reed – Ecstacy, 2000
STEVE HUNTER (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper): “When I first heard Rock Minuet I thought it was brilliant. It was a bold, almost vulgar glimpse of the underbelly of human relationships and experiences seen through the eyes of Lou. It definitely showcases Lou’s poetic genius.
“He told me that when he was getting ready to do the solo, he looked for one particular note that would fit and underline the intensity and angst of the song. And when he found it, the solo happened. That one note was perhaps the single most dissonant note possible but it works perfectly to underscore the vibe of the song. Lou had an unorthodox approach to soloing which you either liked or didn’t. I happened to like it because it was uniquely Lou’s and always fit his music.”
From: Bad Brains – I Against I, 1986
By the mid-80s there were very few standout black rock guitarists around. Which was unfortunate and puzzling, as many of rock’s all-time great players from the 50s, 60s and 70s are black (Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Hazel etc). But Bad Brains’ Dr. Know provided a much-needed presence throughout the decade – and beyond.
A clear stylistic influence on subsequent players such as Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Dr. Know (real name Gary Miller) started out in Washington DC as a fusion-based player, before he and his Bad Brains mates discovered punk rock, helped trailblaze hardcore, and by 1986’s stellar BB albumI Against I had grown increasingly and surprisingly metallic in their approach. This new direction was never more evident than on Re-Ignition, one of many standout tracks on their third studio album. While its lyrics/vocals (by HR, aka Paul D Hudson) and groove are absolutely killer (the band’s instrumentalists – Doc, bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson – could lock in together like few others at the time), it’s the guitar solo that adds another dimension. Although brief, it’s so blistering that it could (to borrow a phrase from legendary US comedian George Carlin) “strip the varnish off a footlocker”.
Interestingly, one big-time Bad Brains fan was Kurt Cobain, and when you listen to his solo on Nirvana’s In Bloom there’s more than a passing resemblance to I Against I in its approach and vibe.
90) No Good Place For The Lonely
From: Joe Bonamassa – Blues Of Desperation, 2016
JOE BONAMASSA: “When I first listened back to my solo on No Good Place For The Lonely [on Blues Of Desperation, 2016] I thought: What drugs was I taking and how could I get some more?! I was so proud of it. It was completely improvised from start to finish, and I could never do that again. It always helps when you cut live; there’s that energy in the room, the band give you that extra kick in the ass. The fans mention Stop, and Save Me from Black Country Communion 2, and of all my solos, those are the only three I can listen back to.”
89) Carry On Wayward Son
From: Kansas – Leftoverture, 1976
Carry On Wayward Son was written by guitarist Kerry Livgren at the last moment for Leftoverture. But as soon as the band heard it they knew it would be a hit. And indeed it became Kansas’ first major single, reaching No.11 in the US.
Much of the track’s impact is down to Livgren’s beautifully balanced guitar style. While the vocal harmonies and piano part are certainly important, it’s what Livgren plays that transforms what would have otherwise been a good song into a great one. A lot of solos come across as stand-alone pieces, but Livgren’s is symbiotic with the melody. He raises the whole texture to a rarified height, bringing out new depth and vulnerability in the track. It’s a virtuoso glide of classical and folk inspirations channelled through Livgren’s trusted Gibson SG guitar, but mixed in such a way that it’s not overly to the fore.
Livgren appreciates what enhances the moment – and what could detract – and delivers exactly the right guitar part. More than enough to consider this solo to be outstanding.
88) Southern Man
From: Neil Young – After The Goldrush, 1970
Neil Young’s anti-racist diatribe was well-intentioned, but its generalisation of the American south – ‘Southern change gonna come at last/Now your crosses are burning fast’ – was clumsy. Indeed Lynyrd Skynyrd felt compelled to put their side of the issue on Sweet Home Alabama. Lyrical controversy aside, though, Southern Man is classic Neil in its musical structure, a cranky country boogie that chugs on guitar and piano.
The main guitar solo – an extended cry that brings the song to a furious finish – is extraordinary. No longer softened by the piano, Young’s untamed solo is a trebly rush of stinging urgency. It sounds like he’s improvising (and he probably is), the unpretty nature of his playing an echo of Southern Man’s ugly subject matter. The climax is an insistent squeal that wrings a single note for all its worth, a corollary to his one-note solo on Cinnamon Girl, from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
A fine example of Young’s ability to fashion emotional complexity from the thinnest of materials.
87) To Cry You A Song
From: Jethro Tull – Benefit, 1970
MARTIN BARRE: “Oddly, the Martin Barre Band are currently featuring To Cry You A Song in our live set. We’re touring the USA, and the track is a great success live as it was never really done as a Tull live song, as Ian hated playing it because there was so little flute in it. For me it was the signature track from Benefit. And it was definitely influenced by Blind Faith – that groove, the way the riff built. Blind Faith was one of Tull’s favourite albums at that time.
“To Cry You A Song was very much recorded live in the studio, with all the solos played on the backing track. Ian added some guitar on Leslie effects towards the end as an overdub. There are some doubled solo parts from a previous take, to layer up the guitar. I played the riff, with Ian playing a harmony on guitar – one of mine, a Gibson LP Standard. I used a Gibson Les Paul Custom with two humbuckers, and a Hiwatt amp and cabinet with no effects.
“It was a fun track to record, as was all of the Benefit album. We were made more confident by the success and acceptance of our previous album, Stand Up.”
86) Feel Like Making Love
From: Bad Company – Straight Shooter, 1975
MICK RALPHS: “They just turned me loose and said: ‘Play something over the end.’ What you hear is what I did off the top of my head on the day all those years ago. It was just ad-libbing, basically. First or second take, as I recall. I never think about what I’m going to play – that’s the trouble! I played it on an original Gibson Flying V that I owned at the time. They only made a few of those, and I managed to get one for six hundred pounds, which I thought was a fortune back then. I think I was using a Marshall hundred-watt amp with a four-by-twelve cabinet. Marshalls today are so complicated. Back then there was the JTM100 or the JTM45 valve amp which was very simple: no overdrive, no gain – no dirt. You just had the controls on the amp to create the sound: bass, middle, presence, treble, volume and that’s it. And no pedals. I’ve never been big on pedals.
“When we play Feel Like Makin’ Love live I try to emulate the record. But a thing like that, you’re just improvising over the changes, really, so I never know exactly what I’m going to play until it happens. I don’t consider myself a lead guitarist. I’m a guitarist. Most of my stuff is based on rhythm and chords. My idols are people like Chuck Berry. A good song is based around the chords, not the lead guitar break.”
85) I’ll Be Alright Without You
From: Journey – Raised On Radio, 1986
RICHIE KOTZEN: “Neal Schon’s solo on Journey’s I’ll Be Alright Without You is a great one. He’s one of the greatest rock guitar players for me, he plays just the sort of thing I want to hear. Here it’s the feel, where he’s sitting in the time, the way he bends the strings and weaves the solo around the melody. He’s got such great taste and that’s what moves me, not technicality.”
84) The Spider & The Fly
From: Rolling Stones – Out Of Our Heads, 1965
While Satisfaction would take blues rock to strutting new heights, its B-side – recorded at Chicago’s famous Chess Studios during the band’s first US tour – is an example of just what skilled instrumentalists the Stones were becoming, with a feel for the musical lineage they were mining allied to a sense of adventure and creative mischief.
A beautifully languid, prowling alley cat tempo introduces the tale of our hero sat backstage, weighing up the pros and cons of hooking up with a lady who was ‘common, flirty, she looked about thirty’, when he remembered his girl back home telling him to ‘keep fidelity in yo’ head’. It’s lit up by a sublime and unusual guitar solo from Brian Jones, which weaves in country, folk and blues influences within a few seconds’ laid-back caressing of the frets.
Its opening strains have a peculiar elastic quality as he bends the tone up and down as if in imitation of a pedal steel or slide player, before lazily evoking the bluesmen who inspired Jones.
“It’s a Jimmy Reed blues with British pop-group words,” Jagger once explained. “Which is an interesting combination.”
He just doesn’t know quite how good they are, does he?
MARK TREMONTI& MYLES KENNEDY
From: Alter Bridge – Blackbird, 2007
MARK TREMONTI: “I knew that solo [on Blackbird] was the last one I had organised for the record. I put a ton of pressure on myself for that one, because as a band we felt that was the strongest song on the album. I saved it until the end and made sure it was right. I put everything that I could into that solo. I think I wrote it on my Charcoal Burst PRS.
“When me and Myles [Kennedy] went back-to-back having our different styles I think it just worked; it adds depth. One guy soloing can use different vibes and feels, but it is more apparent when you have two different players with different styles and influences playing together.
“Did I know it was a special solo at the time? I liked what I heard but it didn’t sink in how special that whole song would become until we started performing it live. That is Alter Bridge’s theme song now.”
MYLES KENNEDY: “We were in Nashville, and Mark and I were sharing a condo. A lot of times I just improvise – I never know what I’m doing until I’m in the studio. But this time I really felt like I wanted to go into it with a gameplan. “I remember sitting in my bedroom and essentially trying to play what I was singing in my head, piecing it together. And so I came up with this melodic approach to the first guitar solo, before Mark comes in and really starts blazing at the end.
“I played a PRS Modern Eagle. Getting real nerdy here, the entire neck was rosewood, so it had a completely different sound to it – very cutting.
“If I re-recorded it, would I change anything? There’s an effect on there, called a Unvibe, which is very Hendrix-y. It’s maybe a little heavy, I’d maybe pull that down a little bit. But then I think people are pretty used to it by this point.”
82) Quadrant 4
From: Billy Cobham – Spectrum, 1973
With the arrival in 1978 of the Van Halen album, to some Eddie Van Halen and his kamikaze playing style appeared full-blown out of nowhere. But there were two lesser-known recordings that contained similar high-octane playing by other guitarists, both albums being released five years earlier – Ronnie Montrose on Montrose’s self-titled debut, and Tommy Bolin on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. And on the latter, the album’s kick-off track, Quadrant 4, is a genuine stand-out.
The all-instrumental tune begins with a rapid-fire solo that many have been fooled into believing is guitar, but is actually Jan Hammer letting rip on his synthesiser, with Cobham himself thundering away on his kit and keeping pace impressively.
After the tune’s main bionic boogie melodic theme is introduced, it’s Bolin’s turn to steal the spotlight, for a full two minutes. And it’s breathtaking stuff. Utilising an Echoplex unit (which would go on to become his trademark) at various points to create laser-gun sound effects, Bolin’s soloing is so in-your-face that it holds your attention firmly for the entire duration and never lessens its grip. That is until the recurring theme returns to close out the proceedings.
While the Spectrum album went on to become a landmark recording of the jazz-fusion genre (and a clear blueprint for Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow and Wired), sadly it is the only recording to feature the killer core group of Bolin-Hammer-Cobham in full flight. The guitarist died from a drugs overdose, aged just 25, three years after its release.
81) The Fly
From: U2 – Achtung Baby, 1991
As U2 frontman Bono colorfully put it, the band’s The Fly was “written like a phone call from hell, but the guy liked it there”. He also described it as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”. With that in mind, it makes sense that for the recording of it guitarist The Edge would be replaced by an evil twin – call him The Edgy. Instead of constructing the customary elaborate cathedrals of sonic grandeur, on this track he’s teetering on the steeple, a dark presence daring himself to cartwheel through the air.
In the two minutes leading up to his solo on The Fly, Edge/Edgy plays it stark and dissonant. Jagged metallic riffs. Harnessed feedback. Chords that sound like boxes of broken glass being shaken. Claang, schplaang, zzzppfftt… And then, three minutes in, he goes for it.
The first note in a solo is always crucial. You’ve got to grab the listener’s heart (and related body parts). And the opening notes here are fantastic, sounding like screams in a canyon, spiraling upwards, expanding the song’s boundaries. But unhinged as this new Edge is, he can’t hide his always exquisite sense of composition, and his minute-and-a-half spotlight ends up being the melodic heart of the song, the verb to the noun of the title and the balance to Bono’s menacing whispers.
80) The Sails Of Charon
ULI JON ROTH
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) 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) 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) 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) 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.
75) If This Is Wrong
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) 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 9⁄4 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) 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) 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) 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.
70) (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
DONALD ‘BUCK DHARMA’ ROESER
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) 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) 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) 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) 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.
65) 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.
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) 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 Pistols’ Anarchy 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.
PAUL GILBERT & BRUCE BOUILLET
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) 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.”
60) Rock Bottom
From: UFO – Phenomenon, 1974
MICHAEL SCHENKER: “With the Scorpions, I had recorded Lonesome Crow [the title track of the band’s 1972 debut], but Rock Bottom was the continuation of that; I needed to have a song in which I could improvise and go on an adventure.
“The version that we recorded for Phenomenon had begun in rehearsals as a riff, and we kept on adding more riffs to it, and then Phil [Mogg, singer] leapt up and said: ‘This is how we’ll make it into a song.’ The live version [on Strangers In The Night] is almost twice as long, and I still think of Rock Bottom as a work in progress. When I play it live now I use the most memorable parts of the solo, and keep a space to represent my latest frame of mind.
“Mogg later claimed that I left UFO over a disagreement about which version of Rock Bottom appeared on Strangers, but don’t believe everything you read.”
59) Too Rolling Stoned
From: Robin Trower – Bridge Of Sighs, 1974
ROBIN TROWER: “I think it was completely improvised. I basically used to busk solos in those days. These days I tend to think about ideas, although I don’t like to think about it too much. Obviously blues and R&B are most of what makes up my vocabulary, as it were, and that solo was where I was at as a player at the time. It was the sum of my influences. From the early days of rock’n’roll guitar players to being very influenced by BB King and Jimi Hendrix, they were the main influences going into my style at that time.
“That album [Bridge Of Sighs] was a lot of fun to do because some of the songs we’d already played live, so we basically just had to go in and perform them. With Too Rolling Stoned, however, I think we only rehearsed and got it together in the studio.
“I think the idea of breaking into that shuffle on the track was very influenced by James Brown’s Live At The Apollo. That album was a huge influence on me. In my first band, The Paramounts, we used to do a lot of James Brown stuff, and I think that informs an awful lot of what I do. As for the guitar on the track, since the end of Procol Harum it’s always been a Strat.”
58) Maggot Brain
From: Funkadelic – Maggot Brain, 1971
Despite their name, George Clinton’s Funkadelic project began life with one foot in the rock firmament and another in the nascent realm of funk as defined by James Brown. And such diverse influences would help Eddie Hazel to create the group’s most famous instrumental passage.
During the creation of the title track of their third album, Maggot Brain, legend has it that an acid-addled Clinton instructed Hazel to “play like your momma just died” but as if he had then learned that it was not true. Hazel responded by laying down, in one take, a 10-minute, Hendrix-never-happened trip into the melancholy corners of his imagination.
A simple, delicate arpeggio plays drowsily in the background as Hazel emotes over it hypnotically with the help of a only fuzz box and a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal.
The minor-chord melancholia that bleeds from his every lick draws you in like a despondent pied piper, before distorted growls and writhing wah-wah grunts add a sense of disoriented anger to the whole scene. Later, it mellows out, as delicate, delay-flecked notes flicker, before fading out softly to the same distant gunfire that inexplicably opened the track.
Hazel left Funkadelic after the Maggot Brain album. When he died, at the age of just 46, this track was played at his funeral. Its strange, surreal strains remain a supreme example of rock guitar played with sublime, smouldering soul.
From: Iron Maiden – Powerslave, 1984
Long before Bruce Dickinson’s vocals defined Maiden’s platinum-plated sound, the band built their sonic temple upon not only the clanking bass of Steve Harris and growl of Paul Di’Anno, but also the bluesy stylings of guitarist Dave Murray. What set him apart then – and still does – was the setting he uses on his guitar’s neck pickup, which gives a warm and creamy sound unusual among out-and-out metal bands.
There are numerous instances on Iron Maiden records of him using this sound to great dynamic effect, but the best in both melodic and emotive terms is in the title track of what is probably Maiden’s best album, Powerslave. Murray could always shred, but he can reel it in too.
The lyrics and Eastern-favoured riffs and chorus effortlessly transport us to ancient Egypt before, all of a sudden, the brakes are slammed on and Murray steps to the fore, embellishing languorous lines with his trademark phrasing and lilting legato runs. It’s even more effective when the song is played on stage and he can let the notes really sustain.
It’s a fair assumption that on Powerslave Murray will have used his go-to black Strat, as he had for most of Maiden’s early albums and tours. And as the band continues to grow, he’s still there, stage-right, trademark grin in place as he peels off one great solo after another.
56) 21st Century Schizoid Man
From: King Crimson – In The Court Of The Crimson King, 1969
JAKKO JAKSZYK (King Crimson): “Even at the tender age of twelve, when I first heard this I knew it came from some other place. This solo rang out from an alien location. The bespectacled, serious and seated guitar player from the strange and majestic King Crimson bent notes for tension and effect, not as part of some pentatonic blues tradition. The searing sustain and buzz-like tone coaxed from Robert’s ‘Black Beauty’ Gibson Les Paul Custom through a Hi-Watt stack was unlike any other guitar solo we had ever heard. It was scary and modern, like a surreal dystopian landscape. It was cool and bordering on the atonal. A befitting explosion amid the nihilistic nature of the song’s lyrics, and placed in between the tight sax/guitar passages and terrifying unison runs that followed the sax solo.
“Here was a rock guitarist with a classical technique and jazz leanings using unusual scales and odd rhythmic metres. A man who had little concern for ‘crowd pleasing’ or merely showing off his superior technique. No one played guitar like that. No one coaxed that icy tone that went from angular and dissonant to heart-breakingly plaintive in a moment. Few can play like it now. If they do, however, we know exactly where it comes from: the fingers and mind of Robert Fripp.
“It still touches and amazes me now, nearly fifty years after it first appeared on vinyl. Especially since I get the unique privilege of watching him play it close up every night.”
55) Man In The Box
From: Alice In Chains – Facelift, 1990
JERRY CANTRELL: “Man In The Box was the song that garnered interest from the record company, but funnily enough, when we recorded it, they didn’t like it as much. They thought it was too slow and kinda drudgy, not heavy enough. And I’m like, ‘That song’s a fucking hit and it’s going on the fucking record’. It’s still a song that people react to, and one of the solos that people try to sing back at you. I remember the first time that happened to me, it was like, ‘Wow, I’m just gonna stop playing, you guys sing it, man’. It’s still one of the solos people react to the most.
“We recorded that first record at London Bridge Studios [in Seattle], then finished it off at the Capitol Building in LA – so I think I did the solo there. I remember our producer, Dave Jerden, wanting to really capture me with the best tone possible. For that solo, we ended up using an amp that I hadn’t used before, which was a Marshall modified by Reinhold Bogner. The first half is done on my G&L Rampage guitar, which I always play, and the second half was on the neck-position pickup of a Strat I built in high school wood shop – with a neck that was going to Eddie Van Halen, that I got for 25 bucks. I used a Crybaby and a Talkbox, doubled, in the intro sections and the solo has some of that as well.
“The solo is not that fast, and it’s basically all in the E blues box. Would I change anything if I recorded it again? No, absolutely not. That was where we were at the time, and I don’t think I could have put a better solo on that song. It’s special because of its perfections and its imperfections.”
From: David Lee Roth – Eat ’Em And Smile, 1986
By the mid-80s, if you were a rock or metal guitarist it was almost impossible to compete with Eddie Van Halen. It seemed like every single player was incorporating the two-handed tapping technique that EVH helped popularise, but not many were trying to put their own spin on it. So when it was announced that Van Halen singer David Lee Roth had split in 1985 (coming off the mega-successful 1984 album), an obvious question among rock fans was: “Who the hell will fill Eddie’s stadium-sized shoes alongside Roth?” The answer was: Steve Vai. Although he had previously played with Frank Zappa, PiL, and Alcatrazz, it was not until signing on with Roth’s stellar solo group (which also included bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette) and the release of 1986’s Eat ’Em And Smile that guitarists worldwide marvelled at the shred-tastic talents of Vai.
And at no other point on the album are his abilities more glaringly on display as on the gonzoid Shyboy, which has speed-demon playing and whammy-bar abuse in the middle of the track. Additionally, at various points, Sheehan (who wrote the ditty, which was originally recorded by his previous band Talas, but DLR’s is the definitive version) appears to be battling Vai for centre stage – especially towards the end, where they play a tricky bit in unison. Single-handedly, this solo served as confirmation that Roth had done a dandy job locating the perfect replacement for his old sidekick.
53) So Many Roads
From: John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers – Looking Back, 1969
Succeeding a popular member of a band is never easy, but taking over the vacant hot seat when Eric Clapton (aka Jesus’s dad) left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers after the game-changing Beano album must have felt like walking a tightrope over a shark-filled pool. Very, very few guitarists would have been up to the task. So when Mayall found Peter Green it was like he’d received a second gift from God.
There’s plenty of evidence on Mayall’s A Hard Road album to show that Green was a rare and stellar talent indeed, but nowhere does his star shine more brightly or more intensely than on the track So Many Roads. His solo is beautifully constructed, fluid, unusually (for Green) note-packed, and aggressive in its biting attack. It employs the same kind of huge echo as on his Mayall showpiece The Supernatural, with a Les Paul/Marshall dirty sound to die for; you can almost feel the heat from the on-the-limit valves and smell the amp’s hot vinyl casing. Fifty-nine seconds of truly breathtaking, planets-aligned voodoo, this solo sends shivers down the spine like very few others even come close to doing.
In the early 70s, Green sold that now iconic Les Paul to Gary Moore for around $300. Its current owner is Metallica’s Kirk Hammett (a Green fan), who reportedly paid around $2 million for what is one of the most coveted guitars on the planet.
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52) I Don’t Know
From: Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard Of Ozz, 1980
Randy Rhoads was blessed with prodigiously accomplished chops, a deep seam of theoretical comprehension and acres of flash, flair and feel. And the intakes of breath that accompanied hearing Rhoads’s guitar playing on his debut album for Ozzy are only just being exhaled today. There’s an argument that Crazy Train’s is the better solo by a whisker, but in terms of novelty and wow factor the one on I Don’t Know just pips it.
If the Blizzard Of Ozz opener that kick-started Osbourne’s solo career was a nihilistic shrug at the world, that sentiment was somewhat countered by the life-affirming energy of Rhoads’s riff. Out of the traps like a greyhound, the guitarist casually offloads some extremely brash fills – all pentatonic pull-offs and double-speed double-taps – before dropping way back in the pocket for one of the most unusually gorgeous middle-eights in heavy metal. Egged on by Ozzy (“Go, go, go!”), the solo compacts every Rhoads trope and trick into 30 seconds of master class. Incredibly fast hammer-ons, hammer-pulls and other combinations interweave with neck-bend detunes, damped staccato runs and piercing leads. According to engineer Max Norman, Rhoads was very nervous in the studio, and a stickler for precision – many solos were triple-tracked with barely a nano second difference between takes. One of his many lasting legacies, this solo is testament that Rhoads’s never sacrificed melody on the altar of cold, shred-fixated ego.
51) Tooth And Nail
From: Dokken – Tooth And Nail, 1984
SATCHEL (Steel Panther): “One of my first concerts was Dokken. They were opening for Judas Priest. They came on, George Lynch’s hair was fucking perfect, they opened with Tooth And Nail and it knocked my dick up around my head.
“George’s solo is so good, an amazing combination of melody and flash. When kids are learning to rip on the guitar, it’s easy for them to forget about melody. While anyone can learn to be fast on guitar – it’s like training a monkey – it’s not easy to be melodic. George had killer feel, especially back then. I loved his vibrato. He plays it with such conviction, and that’s what made him stand out.
“It’s a long solo, and in the last sixteen bars there’s a melody that really gets me off, then in the last four bars there’s a fast piece of guitar by itself which is just great. I put him right up there among the great guitar heroes. Everybody wanted to be George Lynch in 1985.”
50) Rock Around The Clock
From: Bill Haley And His Comets – Rock Around The Clock, 1955
In the mid-50s, rock’n’roll was so new that a fat middle-aged country singer with a kiss curl was enough to drive the kids into a frenzy. Yeah, Bill Haley was an unlikely teen idol, and it wouldn’t be too long until he was swept aside by the mania surrounding a kid called Elvis Presley. In the meantime, what Haley did have going for him was a great band and a bloody good record called Rock Around The Clock. That song hit No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and not least because of its blistering guitar solo played by session ace Danny Cedrone.
These days we associate the word ‘shred’ with stick-thin 80s hair farmers with pointy guitars and a root vegetable shoved down the front of their spandex. Well, Danny Cedrone’s incredible solo – played on a 1946 Gibson ES-300 with a single P-90 pickup, through an 18-watt Gibson BR-1 amplifier, was shredding 50s-style.
The solo is a jazz-flavoured affair played at increasingly breakneck speed, with a final rundown that still slackens jaws today. The track was recorded on April 12, 1954, and Cedrone actually lifted the solo from a 1952 recording session he’d played with Haley for a song called Rock The Joint. His virtuosity changed the world, Sadly, less than a month after cutting Rock Around The Clock Cedrone died after falling down some stairs.
49) Turn Up The Radio
From: Autograph – Sign In Please, 1984
The mind boggles as to how Pasadena glam-rockers Autograph didn’t expect a lot from Turn Up The Radio (arguably the only really good song they ever wrote). Their record label RCA didn’t even want it on the band’s debut album. Had anyone at RCA actually heard the song? And had they heard Steve Lynch’s solo? An exhilarating feat of loveable melody and technical what-the-fuckery – teamed with beefy drive and a sporting helping of synths – it was the cherry on a gloriously feelgood cake. Guitar Player magazine named it their solo of the year, and it’s not hard to see why.
Steve Lynch was a founding instructor at LA’s revered Guitar Institute of Technology and known as ‘the two-handed guitarist’. The solo in Turn Up The Radio is the perfect demonstration of this. Following a dextrous opening progression, it crescendoes with a line of multi-fingered tapping which Lynch makes sound thrillingly easy (anyone who’s tried it will know it isn’t). The solo climbs down with a smooth series of bends before finishing off with a last flurry of hammering. When Autograph supported Van Halen, allegedly Eddie told Steve he couldn’t use his two-handed technique as it was ‘his thing’.
In the fullness of time Lynch has been somewhat overlooked (he retained his notoriety largely as a teacher) – probably because Autograph just never had enough good tunes – but his effortless-sounding lead flair here is irresistible.
48) My Sharona
From: The Knack – Meet The Knack, 1979
When I played this song with my band at a high-school talent show, I substituted the name Alyssa for Sharona. My elusive object of desire inspired the same kind of revving and reaching that Doug Fieger sang about. Since I couldn’t sing, I did what guitarist Berton Averre did: I steered the song into his dream sequence, a minute-and-a-half movie full of winking, fast-motion Benny Hill-style lust.
Averre starts his foreplay melodically, stating a simple, hooky theme. As things heat up he begins peeling off speedy licks, rising up the neck of his sunburst Les Paul, pushing the intensity into the red. At 3:38, when he locks on to the high C, shaking the vibrato over six seconds, you think he’s reached the climax. But there’s more; this is too good to stop. There are more bends that sound like ‘oooh’s and ‘aaah’s behind closed doors, then it finally winds down into an afterglow that says: “Whoa, best fantasy ever.”
Because My Sharona has a ‘one-hit wonder’ tag, Averre’s break is often overlooked in the annals of rock solos. It really shouldn’t be.
Back in high school, I played his solo without any major flubs. Afterwards I saw my Alyssa leaving with a brawny dude from the varsity football team. An important lesson for guitarists: smokin’ leads don’t always get the girl.
From: Joe Satriani – The Extremist, 1992
JOE SATRIANI: “At the time, you think the ones you’re labouring over are your best work, but years go by and you realise that those one-take solos stand out. Like Cryin’.
“I was in control room, the Bissonette Brothers (Gregg and Matt) were in the live room recording the drums and bass, and [engineer] Andy Johns suggested I play the melody as a guide for them. So I plugged into a Zoom, this palm-size headphone amp. And after the take, Andy looks at me with tears in his eyes and says: ‘That’s it! You just played the take!’ It’s an emotional song, and I just got into a zone.
“You don’t crank these things out with regularity, they just happen, and if you’re lucky the tape is rolling. I’m always surprised when people pick their favourite of mine. Recently it was the solo for If I Could Fly [Is There Love In Space, 2004]. I just wanted it to be the most uplifting, fun sound possible. I never thought it would resonate with people the way it has.”
46) Search And Destroy
From: Iggy And The Stooges – Raw Power, 1973
JAMES WILLIAMSON: ”Okay, so the song Search And Destroy was written – or should I say ‘fleshed out’ – from a basic machine-gun-type sound that I had made while goofing around in rehearsals while in London. The other guys in the band liked it, so I took it back to my room and worked through all the changes around it on my B25 natural acoustic.
“As we added it to rehearsals of stuff we’d like to record, I began using the riff that you refer to as the ‘explosive intro’ and ‘fearsome middle section’ – these two are basically the same pattern, and I believe I just came up with them while writing the song. The ‘incendiary outro’ was something that I worked up in the studio as we were recording it for Raw Power. This was all done at the new CBS recording studios in London at the time, and on most of those songs I would lay down the tracks and then overdub improved guitar leads as I felt them and as they occurred to me. I wouldn’t labour them too much. I would just try stuff out until the other guys liked it and then move on.
“For Raw Power I generally used a British 60s JMI Vox AC30 top boost combo amp turned all the way up with treble full out. In a few exceptions I used a Marshall for the leads, but on Search And Destroy it was the AC30. The guitar I played was my 1969 Les Paul Custom (nicknamed The Leopard Lady). Frankly, it was complete serendipity that I chose that combination. Of course, I was using the Les Paul, but I was searching for the right sound and the engineer suggested I try the AC30, so we had one brought in. The British version ran at 220 volts and so had a little different sound anyway, but it was the combination of the AC30 and the Les Paul Humbucker pickups that really rocked and got that sound. Well, that and the way I play. The way I finger the strings – the pressure and pick attack – also has a great deal to do with the overall sound.
“Anyway, of course I love that song as much today as I did back then. It really says a lot in a very short amount of time and it stays with you once you’ve heard it. That’s the definition of a good song.”
45) Crosscut Saw
From: Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign, 1967
You’ve got to love the solo that Eric Clapton plays on Cream’s Strange Brew: the robust vibrato; those exaggerated string bends. Yeah, the man folk were calling ‘God’ back in the day played an absolute blinder. In this case however, Eric wasn’t the messiah, he was a very naughty boy, having lifted the solo wholesale from Albert King’s Crosscut Saw.
To be fair to Clapton, his smash-and-grab job on King’s licks was a tribute to a man he was in complete awe of; something he had in common with fellow King’s men Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore, Paul Kossoff and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
This reworking of Tommy McClennan’s 1941 tune Cross Cut Saw Blues was recorded at Stax in Memphis during one of a group of sessions with house band Booker T. & The MG’s that would eventually be compiled as King’s Born Under A Bad Sign album. Released in 1967, the record was subsequently plundered for tracks by Free [The Hunter] and Gary Moore [Oh Pretty Woman], but it’s King’s unique guitar style that was most influential. Played on his right-handed Gibson Flying V ‘Lucy’, upside down, in an open tuning, his Crosscut Saw solo deserves its place on this list because it changed Clapton’s life – and that means everyone else who played guitar in the 60s was hit by the aftershock.
44) I Believe In A Thing Called Love
From: The Darkness – Permission To Land, 2003
Trust Justin Hawkins. In an era when the ostentatious instrumental guitar break was on the ropes, The Darkness’s frontman ensured that his band’s breakthrough tune I Believe In A Thing Called Love included not one, not two but three blurred-fingers guitar solos. “Far be it from us to join in with that nonsense,” Hawkins told Classic Rock of the rock scene’s refusal to widdle circa 2003. “That song has two choruses and three guitar solos. It’s a weird combination, in my experience.”
Respect to the brief harmonised break at the one-minute mark, and to Dan Hawkins’s sturdy lead at the mid-point (“Gui-tar!”). But the solo that sends I Believe In A Thing Called Love crashing through the roof arrives in the outro: an eye-poppingly flashy piece of showboatery played by Justin Hawkins. Opening with a bend straight out of Brian May’s playbook, it gathers pace with a snaky descent through the frets, then launches into a giddy run of warp-speed pull-offs that chase all the way up the guitar neck like Morse code. Finally, as the song collapses around him like a detonated high-rise block, Justin concludes with a dog-whistle pinch harmonic – and out. It’s a suitably frenetic conclusion to the most daft-as-a-brush rock song of recent times.
“That song is arranged as you would hope a party would be arranged,” Hawkins, says, “with a climactic finale.”
From: White Lion – Pride, 1987
As power ballads go, White Lion’s 1987 single Wait is as satisfyingly cheesy as a mouse’s breakfast. If you were going to write an epic ballad, the late 80s was the time to do it. Everyone was at it, from Mötley Crüe with Home Sweet Home, Skid Row’s I Remember You, and of course Every Rose Has It’s Thorn by Poison. What White Lion had over their pouting competition was a genuine virtuoso guitarist called Vito Bratta.
Poor Vito was always being compared to Eddie Van Halen. For one thing, he finger-tapped like Eddie – a lot of players did at the time – and the two men even looked a bit similar. But, with respect to Eddie, he never pulled off anything quite as melodically breathtaking as the solo Bratta played on Wait. Bratta’s finger-tapped style is surgically accurate and clean. What makes the solo particularly beautiful is his technique of hammering down a note and then seamlessly sliding it up the guitar’s fingerboard.
Guitar-wise, the solo might have been played on the twin-humbucker ESP ‘Super Strat’ Bratta throws around in the Wait promo video, or more likely the Steinberger GM headless model he also owned.
Post White Lion, Bratta withdrew from the music industry, and the man who Zakk Wylde described as one of the greatest guitarists ever has rarely surfaced since.
42) Firth Of Fifth
From: Genesis – Selling England By The Pound, 1973
STEVE HACKETT: “By Genesis’s standards, Selling England By The Pound is an album on which the guitar presence is very strong – it’s a little more player-based, as opposed to pop-song-based, as some of the albums were. So certain things fell into my lap as we worked at Island Studios in London.
“When Tony [Banks] played the melody for Firth Of Fifth to me on the piano it reminded me of [French avant-garde composer] Éric Satie. I’d just got a Coloursound fuzz box, a Schaller volume pedal, an Echoplex and a guitar that nine times out of 10 would feed back on a high F-sharp – at that time it was state-of-the-art technology. That was the set-up I used.
“The solo comes along quite late [almost five minutes in], but I hope it’s worth the wait [laughs]. It’s also a very long solo for Genesis. As I played I was trying to paint the mental picture of a high-flying bird, an idea that had been suggested much, much earlier when I was in a band called Quiet World. The elongated note in Firth Of Fifth was intended to convey sustained flight. There’s a point at which three guitars are playing the melody – that was a happy accident. We played it back and it sounded so good that we kept it.
“Having avoided Firth Of Fifth for years in solo shows, I’ve begun including it again because I know it’s a big moment for people. It requires a lot of concentration to play live, but it’s a song that almost wrote itself, and as I play it it somehow plays me. I probably play it with more force than I used to. I like to turn up the treble for the last part of the solo, and I know that the band turns up the intensity when its main theme returns.
“Without Tony’s input and the song’s original melody I couldn’t have done what I did. I played around with that idea of his, so a lot of the credit must go to Tony.”
From: Rush – Moving Pictures, 1981
ALEX LIFESON: “I’m always very spontaneous when it comes to soloing. I have a tendency to overdo things, but I’m much better off when I’m not thinking too much about it. I just close my eyes and I’m an observer, and I just let my hands go and try to stay out of the way. Sometimes that’s really hard.
“I think Limelight is one of my most unique solos. I remember that we did it late at night, and the control room was very dark and vibe-y. I loved the platform of that track, it allowed me to be really free and open with it. And I love the way that solo steps in, right on the edge of the beat. There’s no ‘coming up to speed’, it just cries right from the start. It’s screaming from the heart. It’s a very elastic solo. And it’s very emotive. There’s a real sadness and loneliness to it, and that’s a lot of what the song is about. I love that it kinda falls off, and picks up, and stumbles, and the ending comes to a rising crescendo. It’s not that difficult to play. It’s not particularly speedy or intricate, but it’s the mix of those falling notes, and the vibrato I used, both in my left hand and on the whammy bar.
“Limelight was an impulsive solo, for sure. I’d say most of my solos are done in the first five takes. From my recollection, we did three takes on that particular solo. Like all guitarists, I always think the next one will be better. But then Ged [Lee, bassist] said to me: ‘Okay, you’re done.’ And that was my cue to step out of the room. Then he and Terry [Brown, producer] put a couple of different comps together. Then I came back in and Ged and Neil [Peart, drummer] both congratulated me. I think they were a bit surprised by its composition and uniqueness.
“The first half starts off on the forward pickup, then it switches to the humbucker in the back about halfway through. And you can hear that. I’m pretty sure I used my Marshall combos, and I’m almost positive that we set up the amps outside so we got a natural echo delay. I believe it was a Loft pedal that I used for that flanging effect.
“I used my Hentor Sportscaster guitar. At the time, I didn’t have a guitar that had a dependable vibrato arm on it, so I created one. I used one of my Strats originally, and rebuilt it – that was back in 1978 . So this white Hentor was just a more souped-up version. It had Bill Lawrence L500 pickups in it, and a Floyd Rose [tremolo unit] so I could bend it and do whatever I wanted without it going crazy out of tune.
“Would I change anything if I recorded it again? No, not a thing. But it does change subtly live. At the end of a tour, when I go back to the original, I’m quite surprised by how it’s subtly moved. Y’know, we’re not robots, thank goodness, so there’s a little bit of a natural change, depending on how you’re feeling and your mood.”
40) Machine Gun
From: Jimi Hendrix – Band Of Gypsys, 1970
JOE SATRIANI: “Jimi Hendrix’s solo on Machine Gun is one scary, earth-shattering performance. The improvisation, technique and control of his equipment is perfect and shocking. And to think that night was just a gig at the Fillmore East, three guys onstage with their relatively primitive equipment.
“When you try to play it yourself, you realise he didn’t have an arrangemental device where it was, say, a lydian scale here, a symmetrical scale there, it was really just E! – E-kinda minor. It really is Wild West rock guitar. He’s using the vibrato bar, feedback, and telling so many stories with so few notes.
“Here was a black man on stage playing with African-American musicians in front of a largely white audience in New York, with Vietnam still going on. Machine Gun’s a protest song, as old-school as you can get. It brings me to tears every time. One evening in New York City that young man reached deep into his soul and really did something. It stands as a true testament to an amazing talent, and a great human being.”
39) All Your Love
From: John Mayall – Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, 1966
JOE BONAMASSA: “This is the one everybody learned how to play the blues from. This and Double Crossing Time on the same album. They’re both unbelievably good, and between them they set me on the path towards my love affair with British blues players.
“What makes Clapton’s playing so influential and special is that it sounds like a human voice – the tone, the phrasing. It’s right up at the edge of being frantic but it’s always under control, especially in those early days.”
38) Light My Fire
From: The Doors – The Doors (1967)
Robby Krieger took the bare bones of this song to rehearsal for The Doors to work on. He and Ray Manzarek were both big jazz fans, which is clear from the song’s mechanics: their long solo section draws on the two chords John Coltrane extemporised over on My Favourite Things. They flesh these out, amping up their inherent suspension – first Manzarek’s organ, then Krieger, who plays this languid cracker on his trademark Gibson SG through a Fender Twin Reverb, and all using just his fingertips.
“His timeless opening lines switch between the rarely used dorian mode and its more familiar bluesy relative scale, all spiced up with some nippy chromatics; surfy, Dick Dale-style slides; and, up at the dusty end of neck, an exotic Arabic scale from Krieger’s flamenco days. Those final bending lines are yet another hook in a No.1 single full of them, and that resolution back into the main organ riff is nothing short of exultant. Krieger only had two stabs at recording this and thought he could’ve done it better, but his off-the-cuff brilliance here produced an inspired, iconic moment on one of the era’s landmark recordings.
37) Shock Me
From: Kiss – Love Gun, 1977
By 1977 it was clearly established that within Kiss Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons sang lead on the majority of tunes, with Peter Criss performing one (or two, max) on their studio recordings. And despite Ace Frehley contributing some gems in the songwriting department (Cold Gin, Parasite), he had yet to sing a single song. That is until Shock Me. While the song title was supposedly inspired by a near-fatal experience the Space Ace experienced on stage in 1976 (when he was accidentally electrocuted), the lyrics were 100 per cent Kiss – in other words, sex. But when it came to the guitar solo, it’s vintage Ace.
Frehley is one of the few rock guitarists who regularly played solos that were mini-songs within the songs and that you could hum the melodies of (Brian May and David Gilmour are two more), Shock Me is one of his finest – and one of his longest ever on a Kiss studio album, split into two sections. Perhaps inspired by the fact that he was working with producer Eddie Kramer, who collaborated with his hero Jimi Hendrix, Ace doesn’t disappoint here. And when the song was performed live – as heard on Alive II – it featured an extended, unaccompanied solo complete with his trademark smokin’ guitar.
36) Stray Cat Strut
From: Stray Cats – Stray Cats, 1981
The only man who can wear a lime-green leopard print Teddy-boy suit and not look like a complete tit, Brian Setzer put rockabilly and big orange Gretsch guitars back in business. Written off as revivalists when they arrived on the scene in the early 80s, Setzer and Stray Cats bandmates Slim Jim Phantom (drums) and Lee Rocker (bass) saved rock from bloated glam-rock refugees and light-entertainment fodder such as Showaddywaddy.
Setzer actually plays two solos on Stray Cat Strut. The first is a deceptively simple-sounding series of comp’d chords and jazz runs topped with a tricky-to-master string-hopping technique. The second is pure hillbilly blues with intense string bends.
The guitar sound on Stray Cat Strut – and just about everything else Setzer has recorded – is fuelled by the hollow-body Gretsch G6120, as endorsed by Chet Atkins and cherished by Eddie Cochran in the 1950s. Setzer favours the FilterTron humbuckers, first seen on the 1959 model. “I bought my main 6120 when I was about sixteen, for a hundred dollars,” he once recalled. “In those days you couldn’t give Gretschs away. Everybody wanted a Les Paul or a Strat.”
35) Wanted Dead Or Alive
From: Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet, 1986
Richie Sambora: “For me, the whole riff and idea behind Wanted Dead Or Alive was to get acoustic guitar back on the radio. It was 1986, and you didn’t hear big, double-neck acoustic guitars on the radio any more. So my biggest influence there was obviously Jimmy Page.
“But I only owned, like, three guitars at that point in my life. The ones I used predominantly on Slippery When Wet and New Jersey were Charvel. Stick it through a couple of Marshalls and that’s the whole sound right there.
“The lick for Wanted came to me sitting there one day. But I wanted to do something different with the solo. When you listen to that solo there are chords in it – actually barre chords in the solo.
“I never ever get tired of playing it. Why would I? People have got to understand: Guess what? I wrote that. That’s a lot of my song.”
34) Sharp Dressed Man
From: ZZ Top – Eliminator, 1983
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons has always been an exponent of the ‘less is more’ approach to guitar playing: why widdle a thousand notes when three can get the point across just as effectively? ZZ’s 1983 album Eliminator became a monster hit, but Gibbons’s guitar style remained unchanged. The use of peso coins as picks and strings so light-guage that an angel would deem them wimpy help him attain a treacle-thick tone. Blended with his minimalistic technique, the results are captivating.
Sharp Dressed Man is in essence a blues song and it’s addressed as such. Few similarly successful tunes feature such a down-’n’-dirty slide guitar solo. He then jettisons the bottleneck and continues with perfectly phrased notes marinated in spicy Texan sauce.
The single’s sleeve shows Gibbons with a red Dean Z guitar made by luthier Dean Zelinksy, the same model that was later swaddled in sheepskin for the Legs video. Ditch the cars, the girls and the spinning guitars and ZZ Top still rule. And that’s mainly down to Billy Gibbons.
33) Hound Dog
From: Elvis Presley – Hound Dog (single), 1956
ROBIN TROWER: “Scotty Moore was the guy for me. He made me want to play guitar. I was obviously a big Elvis fan too, but Scotty’s impact, musically, on the world is really underrated. I have my doubts that without Scotty Moore Elvis would’ve broken through quite so easily.
“He created a really unique sound. The riffs he was coming up with on things like Mystery Train… I mean, I’d never heard anything like that before. I don’t know if anybody else had, but I certainly hadn’t. I think he played with fingers and a thumb pick, and he had a beautiful sound, very musical. And unique ideas on every track. When all that’s combined you’ve got something very special.
“I think after working with Elvis he just retreated into being a session player in Nashville and Memphis. What he did with Elvis was enough to make him a legend.
“I don’t think Scotty influenced me in any stylistic sense, because he was so individual and he invented what he played for a different kind of material. He changed my life simply because when I heard him on records like Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel I wanted to play guitar. That is the major influence.”
32) Looking At You
From: MC5 – Back In The USA, 1970
WAYNE KRAMER: “I put some thought into the structure of each of Looking At You’s three solos. The playing was improvised and different with each take. The first section, I wanted to use the entire range of the guitar, so I started as low as I could (open low E string) and ascended in a minor scale up to the high B note on the high E string (I think). The second chorus, my idea was to emulate John Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’, and the third I just rocked it out à la Chuck Berry on steroids.
“I used my custom stars-and-stripes Fender Stratocaster; I’d just had a humbucker pickup installed because I needed just a little extra oomph to get my solos out and above Fred’s [‘Sonic’ Smith, guitarist] playing. I played through a Fender Concert amp. No pedals, just raw tube amp on full volume.
“It’s still one of my favourites. It was pretty good playing for a fellow in his early twenties. The original single version of Looking At You on A-Square Records that was produced by John Sinclair is a lot more rockus, but I like them both.”
31) Dancing In The Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In Its Spotlight)
From: Thin Lizzy – Bad Reputation, 1977
SCOTT GORHAM: “Initially, I was going to go in and improvise over the top and just walk away from it, but as the song developed I decided to work out something specific – à la what Jimmy Page had done with Stairway To Heaven. That one was quite obviously a worked-out, pre-planned solo.
“At the time I was listening a lot to an American jazz guitarist from the 1950s and 60s named Wes Montgomery. His lead guitar style was derived from octaves, and I’d never heard anyone in rock music do that. So after discussing the idea with Tony Visconti [producer of the album Bad Reputation], who said that he really loved it, that’s what I tried to do; incorporate that technique of Wes’ into my playing. Nowadays, it’s one of the first things that’s taught when somebody begins learning the guitar but back then it made a few people sit up in surprise.
“Everybody seems to remember my solo to that song, so I’m pretty happy about that. Another solo of mine that I’m especially proud of is Bad Reputation, from the same album, and a lot of people tell me that they like Downtown Sundown – and that one’s also from Bad Reputation, so I guess I must have done pretty good on that album.”
30) The Unforgiven
From: Metallica – Metallica, 1991
KIRK HAMMETT: “I enjoy playing the solo on The Unforgiven because it’s such a dynamic solo. And a lot of times, live I’ll change around my guitar solo, because, you know, I end up not liking what I recorded or I get bored with what was recorded, or I just want to just play something completely different. But with The Unforgiven, over the years as a guitar solo it has changed very little. It’s probably one of the only guitar solos that I play just like the album.”
29) Ace Of Spades
‘FAST’ EDDIE CLARKE
From: Motörhead – Ace Of Spades, 1980
‘FAST’ EDDIE CLARKE: “We recorded the Ace Of Spades album at Jackson’s Studios in Rickmansworth, owned by producer Vic Maile. The title track of the album, like the rest, had been demoed beforehand, but we changed it around with Vic. I love the solo because it’s one that builds; the idea was to start low and bring it to the boil.
“As everyone knows, Motörhead liked to have a jolly good time [laughs], so as soon as you knew you had something down, that was it, you move on. I knew right away that it was a good solo, but it was hard to get right.
“Back then I never had confidence in anything. You’ve got to remember self-belief was pretty low on the ground at that time, having been declined by so many labels and told we were rubbish and couldn’t play. Once we were in the saddle, though, everything was okay.
“The key to it all was Vic. He was a fragile little man with diabetes, so you couldn’t get arsey with him because he was so delicate. But he was a really shrewd guy. His ideas – like using the spring thing in Ace Of Spades that sounds like a rattlesnake tail, or having us all hitting blocks of wood – were always really good.
“I’d have played the solo on Ace Of Spades on my Fender Strat, though I did use a Les Paul a lot on that album. It’s our most popular track, and it is a great tune – Motörhead never did anything like it again – but Ace Of Spades isn’t the favourite of my own solos. That would be Stone Dead Forever [on Bomber]. That’s one hell of a solo; Lem and I are really cooking on that song. Lawman [also on Bomber] is probably my most underrated solo.
“After I left Motörhead [in 1982] I was never completely happy with the way the band played my solo in Ace Of Spades. Phil Campbell’s playing was a bit on the lazy side. No disrespect to him, he can play guitar a bit, but I like to be on the edge of my seat, whereas he always seemed to stroll around in his slippers. In fairness to him, those weren’t his songs, and he was in a band with Lemmy… Maybe those things contributed to that.
“It wasn’t till the 1990s that I really appreciated being in Motörhead. Now when I listen to songs like Ace Of Spades I think: ‘Fuck me, we were good.’”
28) Reelin’ In The Years
From: Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1973
One spur-of-the-moment phone call was it all took have American session ace Elliott Randall play what became Jimmy Page’s favourite guitar solo ever on one of Steely Dan greatest songs.
Steely Dan were initially sold as a band, but were always really a vehicle for songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They recorded their debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, at Santa Monica’s Village Recorders in summer ’72. They had two fine guitarists already (Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter), but neither could nail the solo on the grooving jazz pop song Reelin’ In The Years. So they called Randall.
Baxter played harmony and let Randall play lead and tackle the solo. “My entire lead – intro/answers/solo/end solo – was one continuous take,” Randall explained. No tricks, no gimmicks; just his trusty Stratocaster plugged into a big old Ampeg SVT amp (designed for bass players, not guitarists), apparently the best Village Recorders had to offer that day.
Randall claimed he played the solo the way a jazz saxophonist would have: mirroring Donald Fagen’s vocal and copying the song’s melody. It worked. Not a note is wasted; not a drop spilled, in and out in 27 seconds. Incredibly, Randall maintains that his first run-through was even better than the one on the record, “but the assistant engineer forgot to press the button”. But, really, how can you improve on perfection?
27) Since You Been Gone
From: Rainbow – Down To Earth, 1979
During the opening measures of Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone, you might have concluded that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was coasting. The track is a solid-gold cover of its writer Russ Ballard’s original, but former Deep Purple man Blackmore was a low-key presence, strumming open chords, spiralling through pretty-but-untaxing arpeggios and clanking the kind of power-chord chorus that any number of hamfisted pub hacks could handle.
At the two-minute mark, though, everything changes, when the bridge also heralds a neck-tingler of a guitar break, Blackmore echoing Graham Bonnet’s ascending vocal melody. Gorgeous stuff. But it’s the second solo that delivers the real drop-to-your-knees moment. The song stops, apparently spent, with Bonnet’s refrain (‘Ever since… you been gone’) left hanging in the air. And then, out of nowhere, Blackmore re-enters the picture with a fistful of perfectly weighted bends, followed by a supple, gloriously phrased kiss-off that continues to swoon and stretch under the outro vocals. It’s the work of a true master. No wonder Brian May recently picked it as a favourite: “Technically incredible, unpredictable in every possible way.”
26) Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
From: The Who – single, 1965
When The Who’s record company first heard Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, they sent the tape back with a note suggesting they’d been sent a faulty copy. The reason was Pete Townshend’s deranged guitar solo; or as it’s now more commonly known, its ‘noise break’.
The ‘noise break’, which was meant to capture a flavour of the band’s incendiary live performances, would come to define Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, The Who’s second single. Townshend came up with the solo under the influence of Charlie Parker, and desperately wanted it to have some of the freestyling jazz saxophonist’s wild abandon.
Recorded in April 1965 at London’s IBC Studios Anyway followed the same tough pop template as The Who’s first single, I Can’t Explain. Around 65 seconds in, though, Townshend turned everything upside down. Beginning with a clanging power chord, he launches into something approximating a solo: creating the Morse code signal for S.O.S. by repeatedly flicking the selector switch on his Rickenbacker guitar, then dragging his plectrum along the fretboard to create further distortion.
With Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere The Who caught the essence of their live show and Pete Townshend redefined the concept of the guitar solo.
25) Walk This Way
From: Aerosmith – Toys In The Attic, 1975
Joe Perry may have come up with Walk This Way’s addictive riff as a funkier, loose-limbed take on Aerosmith’s Stonesy, sleazy glam-rock sound but, like many great rock’n’roll moments, its solo was partly fuelled by a row. Or maybe we should be diplomatic and call it ‘healthy creative rivalry’. Tyler and Perry would often argue about whose parts should be recorded first in the studio, as they both liked to improvise based on the other’s melodies. Perry won the day on this occasion and you can hear it on the three guitar solo breaks (two short, one long) on the version ofWalk This Way on Toys In The Attic.
The second solo break in particular echoes Tyler’s rat-a-tat, proto-rap vocal delivery, with a fret-hopping excursion that sounds like Lynyrd Skynyrd getting on the good foot. Then Perry really lets rip to play out the song as it wails and howls impatiently before taking flight, dive-bombing, looping and soaring either side of more funky, percussive twiddles of delight.
The track’s heavy groove (initially inspired by the New Orleans grooves of The Meters) and Tyler’s percussive way with a mic lent it perfectly to the hip-hop makeover Run DMC gave it a decade later. And when they brought Aerosmith in to collaborate on the cover, Perry added a couple more equally incendiary guitar solos. No doubt they argued about who should lay down their part first on that occasion too.
24) Moonage Daydream
From: David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, 1972
Bowie laid out his conceptual vision for Ziggy Stardust most explicitly on Moonage Daydream, its opening lines – ‘I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you/I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock’n’rolling bitch for you’ – accompanied by Mick Ronson’s rasping power chords. The song’s contours take on unusual forms, including sax and penny whistle breaks. But it’s Ronson’s erudite solo on his Gibson Les Paul, a master stroke of controlled sustain, that snatches your breath away. He ratchets up the tension at the high end of the scale, finally releasing all that channelled energy in one pealing shriek before climaxing with a bank of phased effects perfectly suited to Ziggy’s spacey pretensions. As the solo begins to fade into the sky, Ronson’s string arrangement brings an added sense of otherworldliness.
In the sleeve notes for 2002’s reissue of his Ziggy album, Bowie explained that he would “literally draw out on paper, with a crayon or felt-tip pen, the shape of a solo. The one in Moonage Daydream started as a flat line that became a fat megaphone-type shape, and ended as sprays of disassociated and broken lines. I’d read somewhere that Frank Zappa used a series of drawn symbols to explain to his musicians how he wanted the shape of a composition to sound. Mick could take something like that and actually bloody play it, bring it to life.”
From: The Beatles – Abbey Road, 1969
For all his achievements as the ‘quiet Beatle’, George Harrison produced some of his very best work for them very near the end. By the time The Beatles recorded their final album, the 1969-released Abbey Road, he had come into his own as a songwriter, contributing two of the band’s most enduring, often-covered songs: Here Comes The Sun and the surefire contender for the finest ballad ever committed to tape, Something.
Harrison would later deny that he wrote Something for his then-wife, Pattie Boyd, but whatever his muse, he was visited by genius here. His warm, romantic, instinctual instrumental passage sings like another vocal over the elegant verse chords, letting their inherent descending notes breathe, outlining their harmonic nuances in parts, playfully adorning them with chromatic lines in others, then smoothly transitioning back into the song’s five-note signature refrain at the end. His friend Eric Clapton’s influence is here in the bluesier bends, but the lyricism is all Harrison.
He once recalled that he’d ‘smoked something’ during the sessions, and how, returning to the tapes fresh from a holiday, he was pleasantly surprised. “I did hit some right notes, and it did have a certain spontaneity to it.” For their sheer expressivity, musical logic and graceful simplicity, these notes are as right as any in the Fab Four canon.
22) Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
From: Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers, 1971
Brian Jones had the Byronic romance, Ronnie Wood got the lucrative stadium years, but of all of Keith Richards’s sidekicks in the Stones it was Mick Taylor who had the guitar goods. Taylor’s former bandleader John Mayall tipped off Jagger about him after Jones’s death, and during Taylor’s time with the Stones they released their holy trinity of albums: 1969’s Let It Bleed, 1972’s Exile On Main St and, sandwiched between them, 1971’s Sticky Fingers.
Powered by a quintessential Richards riff, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking is an unusual song for them: it’s long – seven-plus minutes – with two thirds of it an instrumental jam. Rocky Dijon’s congas set its Latin feel, Bobby Keys’s sax takes the reins, and then it’s Taylor’s turn.
His warm, thick, reverb-drenched playing on his Gibson ES-345 starts tentatively, then he builds up a sustained sequence of expressive blues, be-bop and chromatic lines, wringing new life from rock’s hoariest musical scale. Eventually the single notes evolve into clangourous, whole-handed triple-stop chords that would have shaken the walls of Olympic Studios, with the band rising behind him for the final straight – a juicy riff that Santana would have forged a whole song from. The sound of inspiration itself, Taylor’s on-the-hoof take is a master class in tone, in using space, in creating all from nothing.
21) Pride And Joy
STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN
From: Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble – Texas Flood, 1983
To many of us squished up against the stage-front barriers at 1983’s Reading Festival, Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble were something of an anathema; his performance had, after all, been preceded by sets from, among others, Suzi Quatro, Heavy Pettin’ and Anvil. However, such was the power of the spell he cast that we were totally enamoured, bewitched by his music and his dazzling solos – especially the one in Pride And Joy.
For those still unfamiliar with SRV (who died on August 27, 1990), the studio version on his seminal Texas Flood album is the ideal starting point. The ringing, strident guitar tone and shuffle beat are irresistible, and his take on traditional blues phrasing borders on genius.
It’s probable that for this recording he used his ‘Number One’ Fender Stratocaster, a guitar put together from a combination of parts, set with heavy strings and a high action – and, like Eddie Van Halen, tuned down a half-step – to help him obtain his unmistakeable sound.
His influence on subsequent generations of bluesily-minded guitarists has been enormous. “I’ve said that playing the blues is like having to be black twice,” the great BB King once said. “Stevie missed on both counts, but I never noticed.”
20) 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) 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) 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) 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.
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) 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) 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) 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) 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) 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.”
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) 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) 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) 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.”
EDDIE VAN HALEN
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) 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) 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) Hotel California
DON FELDER & JOE WALSH
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) 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) 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.”