There are plenty of ways to play a great guitar solo: You can make jaws drop by shredding for minutes on end, or you can do a simple but unforgettable bit that makes a great song even greater. We’ve included both, and everything in between, on this list of 100 indelible, earth-shaking guitar solos – some that you could master with a little practice, some that you may not recreate in your wildest dreams.
While many of the best guitar solos are found in rock music – from classic to alternative and rockabilly to prog – we couldn’t leave out many of the blues, jazz, and country players who taught the rockers their licks.
One rule at the outset: No more than one solo from any one player, so a couple of members of well-known bands are represented by their greatest guest appearances. When in doubt, we opted for the most memorable solo, whether it’s part of a classic song or great overall performance.
Explore to the best guitar gods of every era on vinyl here.
100: UFO: ‘Rock Bottom’
(Solo: Michael Schenker)
Thanks to its title alone, this 1974 single by UK hard rockers UFO would make the list, but thanks to rampaging Schenker solo, the song turns into a powerful shredfest.
99: The Bonzo Dog Band: ‘Canyons of Your Mind’
(Solo: Neil Innes)
Most of the guitar solos here will make your jaw drop; only this one will make you laugh out loud. On this lounge-ballad sendup, Innes – later the songwriter of the immortal “Camelot Song” and other great Monty Python moments – plays a solo of (purposely) exquisite awfulness. It’s the sort of terrible solo that only a really good player could have dreamed up.
98: Supertramp: ‘Goodbye Stranger’
(Solo: Roger Hodgson)
Even though Supertramp wasn’t a guitar band, Roger Hodgson grabbed himself some standout moments. The most surprising one came on the finale of bandmate Rick Davies’ smooth pop song, where he cranked up the wah-wah and turned the song into a potent rocker.
97: The Police: ‘So Lonely’
(Solo: Andy Summers)
Andy Summers was generally a model of taste with The Police, usually avoiding flashy solos when some textural chords would do the job better. When he did play flashy, he made it count, calling on his blues roots. You wouldn’t think so much confident swagger could fit into a song called “So Lonely.”
96: Art Neville: ‘Cha-Dooky Doo’
(Solo: Justin Adams)
Fuzz guitar in 1958? Sure enough. On this early single by the future Meter and Neville Brother, the studio guitarist plays some wild stuff that would have made Jeff Beck proud a decade later. The story goes that the guitarist was having amplifier trouble and started distorting at key points, so the producer decided the only solution was to turn it up and let it fully distort.
95: The Velvet Underground: ‘Sister Ray’
(Solo: Lou Reed)
Less a traditional guitar solo than a sonic orgy, which is of course appropriate to the lyric. The Velvet Underground was never a band for guitar heroics, but Lou Reed rises to the occasion about seven minutes in, with a solo that crosses an Eastern raga feel with punkish anarchy.
94: Link Wray: ‘Rumble’
(Solo: Link Wray)
No flash here, just some of the most threatening chord strums you’ll ever hear. “Rumble” was famously the first instrumental to be banned on AM radio, since parents feared that Link Wray’s switchblade guitar sound would inspire some real street fights. They may well have been right.
93: The Buckaroos: Chicken Pickin’
(Solo: Don Rich)
Buck Owens’ axeman was one of the tastiest players country music ever had, and the Buckaroos had a sideline in instrumental hits. Here he has great fun with that chicken effect beloved by country pickers, even building a catchy tune around it.
92: The James Gang: ‘The Bomber’
(Solo: Joe Walsh)
This begins as a heavy rock song, but during the solo Joe Walsh gets good and spacey with a solo full of slide and echo effects, flowing into a wah-wah take on Ravel’s “Bolero.” His later work with The Eagles was solid, but this is the real deal.
91: The Smithereens: ‘A Girl Like You’
(Solo: Jim Babjak)
One of the hottest solos ever to appear in a power-pop song, this is simply a blast with its opening hit of power chords and the string-bending at the peak. You can even hear singer Pat DiNizio yelling “Go!” to kick it off.
90: XTC: ‘Life Begins At The Hop
(Solo: Andy Partridge)
At its best, English New Wave was a treasure trove of short, memorable solos. The one here (played by Partridge rather than regular lead player Dave Gregory) is as catchy as the song itself, with Partridge muting the strings to give it a Hank Marvin sound and a 60s sock-hop feel that matches the lyrics. It’s especially effective when he un-mutes for the final lick, setting you up for the next chorus.
89: Black Sabbath: ‘Paranoid’
(Solo: Tony Iommi)
Tony Iommi got plenty of chances to solo at length on the Black Sabbath classics, but this concise solo in a three-minute song says it all; once Iommi starts riffing, it’s nothing but frustration and release. No wonder so many punk rockers love these guys.
88: Albert Collins: ‘Iceman’
(Solo: Albert Collins)
Known as the master of the Telecaster, the Texas guitarist made his name with a string of 60s singles that featured stinging solos and “icy” song titles. He revisited those days with a 90s comeback album; the title tune finds his powers intact and gives him more time to solo than the early singles did.,
87: Cheap Trick: ‘Need Your Love’
(Solo: Rick Nielsen)
The most guitar-slinging tune in the Cheap Trick catalog, “Need Your Love” features a concise killer of a power-chord solo about three minutes in. Later in the song, Rick Nielsen leads the band into a few minutes of jamming and riff-slinging for the pure fun of it.
86: Ten Years After: ‘I’m Goin’ Home’
(Solo: Alvin Lee)
Speaking of flash, Alvin Lee had more of it than just about any late-60s guitarist; his speed could be unbelievable. But his knowledge of rock history was just as impressive, and 10 Years After’s showpiece was essentially an amphetamined version of classic Elvis and Little Richard bits. Lee’s opening solo alone is a grabber.
85: ZZ Top: ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’
(Solo: Billy Gibbons)
Legend has it that Billy Gibbons uses a peso for a guitar pick, maybe that explains the stinging tone of his solo in this scorching slow blues number. For good measure, there’s also a hot solo, using slide this time, in “Waitin’ for the Bus,” the other half of this medley.
84: Chicago: ‘Poem 58’
(Solo: Terry Kath)
Plenty of musicians admired Chicago’s axeman Terry Kath, who really delivers here. This is a two-part song, and the first half is a long instrumental that finds Chicago in uncharacteristic power-trio mode – no horns, not even piano. Kath begins with a strummed lick that’s almost banjo-like, and the solo just keeps building with one hot riff after another.
83: John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat: ‘Messin’ With The Hook’
(Solo: John Lee Hooker)
John Lee Hooker never needed a band to lay down some of the grittiest blues guitar on record, and his groove is especially lowdown on this track – a personalized reworking of the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells classic “Messin’ With The Kid,” done during his sessions with Canned Heat. The Heat don’t appear on this track, but you know they were taking notes.
82: Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’
(Solo: John Goodsall or Steve Stevens)
We can’t be definitive here, since Goodsall – the Brand X guitarist who did plenty of sessions at the time – swears this is him, and regular Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens denies it. But Goodsall has a story that sounds right. He’d done one pass at the solo and thought it was perfect, then Idol’s producer moved the mikes around and told him to play the same thing again. This made Goodsall so ticked off that he just started slamming his fist on the fretboard. Of course, Idol loved the result.
81: John Martyn: ‘Small Hours’
(Solo: John Martyn)
When John Martyn played folk music, he was one of the most elegant players around – but then things really got interesting. The finale of 1977’s One World is an unearthly mood piece, where Martyn’s swirling solo is all hypnotic echoes. Music like this simply wasn’t being made in 1977.
80: The Replacements: ‘I Will Dare’
(Solo: Peter Buck)
Number one fan and Replacements supporter Peter Buck takes the lead from the song’s country-tinged riff and melody and applies those R.E.M. trademarks of jangly tone and lilting arpeggios for a lovely guitar solo.
79: St. Vincent: ‘Surgeon’
(Solo: Annie Clark)
This track puts Annie Clark’s imagination as a guitarist on full display. The song’s central riff is tricky and sets you up for a shredding guitar solo, but when the solo finally comes, she fires up the guitar synth and heads to headier territory. Instead of choosing between spacey textures and flashy fretwork, she gives you both at once.
78: Paul McCartney & Wings: ‘My Love’
(Solo: Henry McCullough)
The ex-Grease Band guitarist didn’t last long in Wings thanks to his musical instincts; he was never a pop guy. But while he was there, he cut this gem of a solo, which gave a sweet ballad more grit than Paul McCartney probably intended – but he was smart enough to keep it. It’s clear that McCullough would have rather been playing the blues – but for these few minutes, he was.
77: 10cc: ‘Feel the Benefit’
(Solo: Eric Stewart)
Spare a thought for Eric Stewart, a great guitarist in a band that wasn’t really known for guitar rock. Their greatest hit, “I’m Not in Love” had no lead at all. Maybe that’s why he gave himself a long solo break on the finale of 10cc’s debut, Deceptive Bends. He plays some beautiful phrases as the song builds to its final peak, also giving himself a grand backing riff to play off of.
76: Joanna Connor: ‘Walkin’ Blues’
(Solo: Joanna Connor)
This was a viral sensation a few years ago, a clip with a woman in a purple dress playing an absolute scorcher of a slide-guitar solo. The clip went around the world a few times before the artist’s name got attached, but Chicago-area fans have long known Connor as a regional favorite with several albums out. She plays solos like this on a regular basis, but the Robert Johnson tune will forever be her calling card.
75: Creedence Clearwater Revival: ‘Ramble Tamble’
(Solo: John Fogerty)
John Fogerty was a master at concise solos, like the 20-second marvels in “Travelin’ Band.” But when he stretched out, he didn’t disappoint. On the opener from CCR’s Cosmo’s Factory, he poured on the tension and the distortion, delivering a monster sound from the deep swamps.
74: Dinosaur Jr: ‘Sludgefeast’
(Solo: J Mascis)
Beginning with a wail of feedback, this tune had no problem living up to its title. At a time when alternative rock was getting cynical about everything, J Mascis reminded us how much fun full-tilt guitar heroics could be.
73: Mountain: ‘To My Friend’
(Solo: Leslie West)
Think of Leslie West and you think of a big guy with a whomping guitar sound to match. But he’s all nuance and sensitivity on this acoustic guitar solo, which has some Greek and Eastern flavors and builds steadily to its big climax (twice). Every 70s hard rock band needed a solo acoustic guitar track, but this was one of the finest.
72: George Benson: ‘Take Five’
(Solo: George Benson)
Before the Breezin’ album made him a star, George Benson had a rep as one of the more imaginative guitarists around. Two years before the hit, he did this audacious funk reworking of Dave Brubeck’s signature tune.
71: Fleetwood Mac: ‘Rattlesnake Shake’
(Solo: Peter Green)
Thanks to Peter Green (and sometimes Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer), Then Play On ranks as one of blues-rock’s great guitar albums. Green gets a handful of big moments but we’re especially fond of his sputtering, chord-based solo at the end of this track. The frustration it speaks is much appropriate for the song’s subject matter.
70: Hüsker Dü: ‘Reoccurring Dreams’
(Solo: Bob Mould)
Hüsker Dü generally made their point and moved on fast, so this 14-minute instrumental was a real anomaly. It’s also one of the most intense guitar instrumentals we’ve ever heard, with Mould layering heavy, searing sounds that rampage through the subconscious. It ends the only way it possibly could, with a minute of piercing feedback.
69: The Butterfield Blues Band: ‘East-West’
(Solo: Mike Bloomfield)
Mike Bloomfied managed more visionary guitar on this 13-minute track than many players manage in their whole careers, getting two extended solo breaks. The first was among the first meetings of the Eastern raga style with West Coast psychedelia; the second is more tranquil and even has some surf influence between the lines.
68: Bonnie Raitt: ‘Thing Called Love’
(Solo: Bonnie Raitt)
By the time she moved toward pop success, Bonnie Raitt had developed one of the more distinctive slide guitar sounds in rock. And she’d learned how to make blues licks work in the context of an upbeat pop song. She’s gritty and concise here, and her solo cuts the one that Ry Cooder – no slouch himself – played on John Hiatt’s original.
67: Adrian Belew: ‘Big Electric Cat’
(Solo: Adrian Belew)
At his best, Adrian Belew is wildly inventive and big fun at the same time. That’s the case on this solo track, which introduces his menagerie of sounds. If you wondered exactly what a big electric cat sounds like, now you know. But the two solo breaks also make creative use of the fuzzbox, not something he usually favored.
66: Jefferson Airplane: ‘Somebody to Love’
(Solo: Jorma Kaukonen)
Jorma Kaukonen basically solos all through this song, playing in and around Grace Slick’s vocalizing. The closing guitar solo is 30 seconds of pure psychedelia, opening with those three sustained wailing notes and closing with those sign-off chords that leave the song forever unresolved.
65: Sonic Youth: ‘The Diamond Sea’
(Solo: Thurston Moore)
This mysterious, extended piece is a textbook in building from tranquility to chaos. It begins as one of Sonic Youth’s prettiest tunes, and Moore’s first solo begins haunting and melodic. Over five minutes the melodies fall away, and the anger grows, until his guitar and Kim Gordon’s bass are in apocalyptic mode. One more verse and it all starts again, this time building from near silence to the most extreme of feedback.
64: David Bowie: ‘The Width of a Circle’
(Solo: Mick Ronson)
This eight-minute track shows the full scope of Mick Ronson’s brilliance, from the psychedelic Eastern flavor of the first solo break to the anthemic English sound of the middle one, and the Yardbirds blues-wailing at the end. David Bowie’s reinvention as a rock god begins here.
63: Bo Diddley: ‘Who Do You Love’
(Solo: Bo Diddley)
Bo Diddley’s trademark beat gets so much attention that his killer skills as a lead player sometimes get overlooked. “Who Do You Love” is enough to remedy that: the guitar solo is all raw nerve, one of those moments that made blues-rock possible.
62: The Brian Setzer Orchestra: ‘Jump, Jive An’ Wail’
(Solo: Brian Setzer)
Brian Setzer has played some longer solos, but this quickie says it all – working wild rockabilly licks into an otherwise faithful version of the Louis Prima swing classic and employing some of the same string-bends that were his specialty in the Stray Cats. It proved that Setzer is a serious muso first, a cool cat second.
61: The Sex Pistols: ‘EMI’
(Solo: Steve Jones)
The secret weapon in the Sex Pistols was the fact that Steve Jones was a seriously great lead guitarist, even though showing off was the last thing he wanted to do. His best moments were chordal solos that amplified the aggression in the song – the second guitar solo in “Anarchy in the UK” was a prime example, and he pulls the same trick to even greater effect on “EMI.”
60: Jethro Tull: ‘Aqualung’
(Solo: Martin Barre)
Martin Barre always got his big moments in a way that enhanced the structure of Jethro Tull’s pieces. For this one, he and Ian Anderson came up with a structural device – playing the verse chords in half-time, then speeding them back up – that worked. The famous story is that Jimmy Page was looking on while Barre recorded this; Barre’s confirmed that he wanted to wrap the solo so he could wave hello.
59: The Smiths: ‘How Soon is Now’
(Solo: Johnny Marr)
The guitar part here is all about that one, despairing chord. It becomes part of a textural solo, where the mood is enhanced with the layered tremolo guitars and some backward pre-echo. Like most of Johnny Marr’s solos, it’s there to magnify the emotions of Morrissey.
58: Santana: ‘Europa’
(Solo: Carlos Santana)
“Europa” is one of the few Santana tunes in which Carlos holds the spotlight from beginning to end. This is a spiritually-themed instrumental that begins slow and graceful and has him playing through a Leslie speaker for a chorus or two. Before it’s over, you get all the Santana trademarks – the long sustain, the wailing wah-wah – but the spiritual feel is never lost.
57: The Allman Brothers Band: ‘One Way Out’
(Solo: Duane Allman/Dickey Betts) )
You could say that the Allman Brothers didn’t have two guitarists; they had one guitarist in two bodies. The exchange at the start of this guitar solo shows their synchrony as they answer each other’s phrases, but it’s Duane’s slide that keeps the spotlight. There are plenty of longer Brothers’ solos, but this one says it all in a couple minutes.
56: Booker T & the MG’s: Melting Pot
(Solo: Steve Cropper)
Steve Cropper was a master of the concise solo on countless Stax classics. Even on this extended track, he kept the guitar solo right to the point. Every one of his phrases is spare and tasty, and when he’s done soloing, he gets back to syncopated chords that light a fire under Booker T. Jones’ longer workouts.
55: Queens of the Stone Age: ‘Little Sister’
(Solo: Josh Homme)
Josh Homme has always been an unlikely mix of stoner-metal deity and power-pop nerd. His pop side wins out in this track, which was simply one of the catchiest tunes of the late 2000s. The song’s recurring triplet riff is part of the appeal, and he builds on that with a sitar-like solo that’s just weird enough to fit.
54: Jeff Beck: ‘Rice Pudding’
(Solo: Jeff Beck)
A contender for the most brutal hard-rock track of its time, this Jeff Beck showpiece revolves around a monster riff that appears at the beginning, middle, and end. Everything Beck plays in-between is about building tension: nothing pretty or melodic, lots of slide wails, and feedback outbursts. At the end, he builds the tension to a peak, heading for the huge climax, and then…the tape cuts dead.
53: Rush: ‘Red Barchetta’
(Solo: Alex Lifeson)
Rush may be the only power trio where the lead guitarist often got overshadowed by the other two players. But this track is one of many reasons why Lifeson was an MVP himself: It’s his riffs that drive the song along, increasing the sense of freedom and danger at every turn. And when he gets the chance to play some flashy lead at midpoint, he doesn’t let you down.
52: Dire Straits: ‘Sultans Of Swing’
(Solo: Mark Knopfler)
Guitar heroics seemed to be the last thing anyone wanted to hear in 1978, especially in the UK when punk still reigned. Mark Knopfler still managed to sneak his way in, with a guitar sound that seemed to come from deep in the swamps – the swamps of London, of course. Everything about this track is tasty and spare, even the flash that Knopfler finally applies in his closing guitar solo.
51: Meat Loaf: ‘Bat Out of Hell’
(Solo: Todd Rundgren)
What do you do when your song needs a motorcycle revving up, but you can’t afford to race one through the studio? You get your producer and guitar wizard to simulate the effect, which he then uses as the jumping-off point for a speed-demon guitar solo – exactly what a track about the power of teenage hormones calls for.
50: Sleater-Kinney: ‘Let’s Call It Love’
(Solo: Carrie Brownstein)
After developing one of the more original sounds in indie-rock, it was rather thrilling to hear Sleater-Kinney embrace classic rock on The Woods. Brownstein goes full-throttle Zeppelin in her extended solo here, that also takes in psychedelia, avant-jazz, and good old punk aggression.
49: Procol Harum: ‘Whiskey Train’
(Solo: Robin Trower)
Procol Harum’s axeman gets pegged way too often as a Jimi Hendrix disciple. But there’s absolutely no Jimi in his solo here, just a blues-rock power that’s all Trower’s own. The whole band’s on fire through this track and what a riff this song has.
48: The Beatles: ‘Taxman’
(Solo: Paul McCartney)
Here’s solid evidence of how democratic The Beatles were. On one of George Harrison’s greatest songs, he gives the guitar solo to Paul – who nails it with a sputtering burst of distorted energy that perfectly suits the song’s mood. “Taxman” also became one of the most iconic Beatles solos.
47: Genesis: ‘Dancing With the Moonlit Knight’
(Solo: Steve Hackett)
The gentlemanly ex-Genesis guitarist has a fair claim to have invented tapping, and it was certainly a new thing at the time in 1973. This song covers the full range of dynamics – from Peter Gabriel’s a cappella intro, to the full-grandeur instrumental, and the quiet closing stretch – but Steve Hackett’s off-the-rails solo is the central peak.
46: Neil Young & Crazy Horse: ‘Down By the River’
(Solo: Neil Young)
Neil Young’s greatest guitar solos are less about the notes and more about how well he can layer sounds and sustain a groove with the band, especially if it’s Crazy Horse. You get plenty of that on this track, but you get some killer notes as well: It begins with almost nothing – the pure menace of one note played again and again – and builds to a pile of hulking riffs.
45: Rory Gallagher: ‘Shadow Play’
(Solo: Rory Gallagher)
The Irish firebrand tended to save some of his most impassioned guitar solos for the fastest tunes. On this track (best heard on the Stage Struck album), Rory Gallagher plays some elemental slide guitar while the rhythm section races away. It sounds like someone brought in a Delta bluesman to jam with a punk band.
44: Billy Cobham: Quadrant 4
(Solo: Tommy Bolin)
Tommy Bolin was an erratically brilliant guitarist whose habits sometimes got in the way, but not this time. Taking the first solo on Billy Cobham’s solo debut, Bolin comes in charging, using Jan Hammer’s keyboard riff as a jumping-off point. Bolin’s favorite effect was the Echoplex, which he uses during the solo’s climactic points, giving it that outer-space blastoff feel.
43: Deep Purple: ‘Smoke on the Water’
(Solo: Ritchie Blackmore)
Ritchie Blackmore’s best guitar solos were all speed and aggression, but this one harks back to his days as a session man. Since Deep Purple likely knew they had a hit on their hands, Blackmore stays disciplined and plays a melodic stum – at least until he hammers on that one note at solo’s end, which sounds like he’s flipping off the band for making him stop.
42: Glen Campbell: ‘MacArthur Park’
(Solo: Glen Campbell)
Despite his membership in the Wrecking Crew, Glen Campbell wasn’t a flashy player by nature. When he first cut this Jimmy Webb classic in the studio, he didn’t even include the instrumental break. He more than made up for it on the many live versions, where the break featured his most daredevil playing.
41: Brian Eno: ‘Baby’s on Fire’
(Solo: Robert Fripp)
There’s no shortage of brilliant guitar solos in Robert Fripp’s work with King Crimson and elsewhere, but he may never have topped this violent outburst with Brian Eno. For all the fury in his playing, the sudden silences are every bit as crucial to its impact. It turns Eno’s lyric, – which could have been a bit of surrealist whimsy – into something genuinely scary.
40: Cliff Richard & the Drifters: ‘Move It’
(Solo: Hank Marvin)
“Move It” made Cliff Richard the first UK Rock’n’roll star, but guitarist Hank Marvin and his Stratocaster really own the record. His cool rockabilly licks answer every one of Richard’s vocal lines, and his guitar solo is full of style. If one record was responsible for a generation of UK guitar heroes, this was it.
39: Steely Dan: ‘Reelin’ in the Years’
(Solo: Elliott Randall)
This was arguably one of the first songs to become a hit single specifically because of the guitar solo. New York hotshot Elliott Randall’s solo is arguably the catchiest thing in the song, and it really swings (note the variations he throws on the lick every time it comes around). Garage-band players who couldn’t master the solo could take solace in the fact that Steely Dan’s regular guitarists couldn’t either.
38: The White Stripes: ‘Ball and Biscuit’
(Solo: Jack White)
Jack White takes three solos on this seven-minute track, each one more furious than the last. So, the start of the third solo – after he’s already stomped on the fuzzbox, throttled the upper threats, and generally raised hell twice – features the most savage strong-bending of them all. Those wails toward the solo’s end must be the guitar screaming for mercy.
37: Roy Buchanan: ‘Roy’s Bluz’
(Solo: Roy Buchanan)
Blues-rock players don’t get more underrated than Roy Buchanan, who had fiery fingers and imagination to match. This blues showpiece (whose definitive version is on 1975’s Livestock) opens with some fast runs to show you who’s in charge, but then he starts twisting and teasing notes until he’s got it speaking in tongues.
36: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: ‘Life Without You’
(Solo: Stevie Ray Vaughan)
There are plenty of roof-raising solos in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s too-small catalog but this one is a particular beauty, a solo that takes its time but drips with passion. Listen closely to the studio version for a great high-note wail that happens just as it’s fading.
35: The Kinks: ‘You Really Got Me’
(Solo: Dave Davies)
Score one for sibling rivalry. As both brothers have told it, this guitar solo came about because Ray Davies drove his brother a little too hard in the studio; Dave responded with the most savage solo yet to appear on a British Invasion hit. Despite rumors, Jimmy Page didn’t play this solo; he was too much of a gentleman.
34: Muddy Waters: ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’
(Solo: Muddy Waters)
Once Muddy Waters went electric, he worked with a string of guitar players, but on this seminal early single, he did the honors himself. The main slide lick here was influential – Keith Richards would gladly admit he borrowed it more than once – and note how hard Muddy attacks the acoustic on his solo. Maybe he had to bring in other guitarists because he was breaking too many strings.
33: Frank Zappa: ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’
(Solo: Frank Zappa)
How often did Frank Zappa break character and play something gentle and elegant? More often than you’d think – but never quite as beautifully on this track, whose pretty tune, graceful improv, and shimmering tone all seemed to come out of nowhere in the context of Joe’s Garage. But since the hero escapes a totalitarian society by imagining guitar solos, it somehow makes sense.
32: The Grateful Dead: ‘Help On The Way/Slipknot!’
(Solo: Jerry Garcia)
It’s typical of the Grateful Dead to place one of the most exploratory guitar pieces in the middle of a suite that boasts two of their catchiest tunes. The transition out of ‘Help On the Way’ is classic on its own, as Garcia changes the mood with some unexpected key changes. It sets up a solo that’s free-flowing but also has some real muscle, one of the few times the Dead’s fabled improvisation was fully captured in the studio. From there it’s a short trip to ‘Franklin’s Tower.’
31: Howlin’ Wolf: ‘Wang Dang Doodle’
(Solo: Hubert Sumlin)
Hubert Sumlin was arguably the blues guitarist most revered by 70s blues-rockers, and this track was one of the reasons. This is gritty Chicago blues, and Sumlin plays the kind of solo you’d expect in a song about razor-totin’ outlaws. In the solo he plays call and response with his high and low strings, then responds each time Howlin’ Wolf shouts, “All night long!”
30: Albert Lee: ‘Country Boy’
(Solo: Albert Lee)
An influence on the likes of Knopfler and Eric Clapton (who had Lee in his band for a time), Albert Lee has used this song as a solo springboard for a good 50 years. There’s a dazzling version on his first album with Heads, Hands & Feet (where he plays the lead on acoustic), and more recent electric ones on various Crossroads Festival albums.
29: Dick Dale & the Del-Tones: ‘Miserlou’
(Solo: Dick Dale)
One of the great ironies in music history is that surf guitar was invented by a kid who grew up in Massachusetts (but moved to LA just in time) and that it was partly inspired by his Lebanese heritage. “Miserlou” was originally a folk tune but once Dick Dale thought to play it on a Fender – with maximum volume and reverb – the sound of catching waves was born.
28: The Isley Brothers: ‘That Lady’
(Solo: Ernie Isley)
The Isley Brothers knew about guitar; in ‘64 they even hired a young Jimi Hendrix for a time. By the 70s, younger brother Ernie Isley had taken the slot and was doing guitar heroics of his own. His nasty solo covers more than half of this six-minute track and features all the most spacey sounds of a guitar synthesizer – except those hadn’t been invented yet. How he came up with this is anybody’s guess.
27: Pink Floyd: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’
(Solo: David Gilmour)
How many classic albums open with five minutes of pure guitar solo? David Gilmour’s long intro here may just be the most beautiful moment in the entire Pink Floyd catalog, as Rick Wright frames it with just the right sustained synth chords. And of course, it ends on those four echoed notes that promise a memorable trip ahead.
26: Ricky Nelson: ‘Hello Mary Lou’
(Solo: James Burton)
This stinging, swampy tone would become James Burton’s trademark for decades to come. He later put it to good use with both Elvises (Presley and Costello) but few of his solos were iconic as this one. Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler are among the avowed fans.
25: The Rolling Stones: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
(Solo: Keith Richards)
One of the greatest rhythm players that ever was, Keith Richards often let the other Rolling Stones’ guitarists take the big guitar solos. He got his rocks off for this one, which is less a linear solo than a series of sharp, furious interjections. We always guessed that he and Mick had an especially good dust-up that day.
24: Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane: ‘Freight Trane’
(Solo: Kenny Burrell)
Kenny Burrell could play virtually anything. Few other musicians can claim to be on peak-era tracks by Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, and James Brown. But he was most natural in a bop setting. His free-flowing solo is a joy to hear, and his exchanges with John Coltrane afterward are just plain joyful.
23: The Byrds: ‘Eight Miles High’
(Solo: Roger McGuinn)
“Eight Miles High” sees The Byrds in full flight, forever changing the possibilities of electric 12-string and inventing the “raga rock” subgenre. Roger McGuinn’s opening solo begins with one grabbing lick then immediately turns free-associative, and it’s all upward from there. Part of the credit goes to David Crosby, who introduced McGuinn to Ravi Shankar’s music (and did the same for George Harrison) and hammers away at one note to set up McGuinn’s entrance.
22: Pat Metheny Group: ‘Are You Going With Me?’
(Solo: Pat Metheny)
Pat Metheny was one of the first major players to embrace guitar synth, more for its expressive capacities than for the neat sounds it could make. He turns it loose on the live Travels version of his most popular tune, originally a lilting samba. On the extended solo, he uses the Roland synth to plead and wail, upping the song’s emotional ante.
21: Chet Atkins: ‘Country Gentleman’
(Solo: Chet Atkins)
This early 50s track captures the essence of Chet Atkins, right down to its title. The technique is certainly impressive, with the bent strings giving it an almost Hawaiian feel; and the elegant tone comes from Atkins’ own modifications on his D’Angelico Excel guitar. Yet the whole thing feels casual and friendly; it’s a tune you could whistle. Note the backup and mandolin solo by the team of Homer & Jethro, better known for their comedy.
20: Metallica: ‘One’
(Solo: Kirk Hammett)
On the surface, Metallica’s “One” is a pretty brutal song, about a severely wounded soldier who is unable to hear, speak, or see. So how come the guitar solo is so much fun? Kirk Hammett begins by tapping all over the place, then he throws some power chords atop Lars Ulrich’s machine-gun drumming. Finally, he and James Hetfield lock into some old-school harmony guitar, a classic-rock moment out of nowhere.
19: Queen: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
(Solo: Brian May)
Sure, the first thing everyone remembers about “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the opera section – but one reason we remember it is because Brian May’s guitar solo sets it up so well. The start of the solo demonstrates the synchrony between May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s voice. When Mercury sings “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” May’s first phrase finishes that thought. He then builds tension with a couple quick runs before the three-note phrases at the end set the stage for the future operatics.
18: Richard Thompson: ‘Calvary Cross’
(Solo: Richard Thompson)
This extended track was the first of many recordings to show Richard Thompson’s gifts as a guitarist: elegant tone, graceful flow, endless passion, and imagination. Note how his louder outbursts threaten to disturb the spiritual feel of the song, but only heighten it at every turn.
17: Cream: ‘Sunshine of Your Love’
(Solo: Eric Clapton)
Even at his feistiest, Eric Clapton was never a shredder. His grounding in the blues meant that his best solos were melodic and a bit elegant. So it went with this beautifully paced solo, which Clapton uncharacteristically opens by quoting “Blue Moon,” then turns it sideways and builds tension with some minor key phrases, leading to the climactic flurry of notes at the end.
16: Elvis Presley: ‘Hound Dog’
(Solos: Scotty Moore)
If ever an Elvis track was basically an excuse for great guitar, this was it. Scotty Moore’s first solo is restrained and cool, full of rockabilly swagger. But Elvis still wound up in the next chorus so Moore gets good and nasty on his second solo, starting it off with that aggressive “Listen here!” type chord.
15: The Who: ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’
(Solo: Pete Townshend)
Pete Townshend sure didn’t hold back on this guitar solo, cramming all kinds of great noises – feedback, air-raid sirens, and good old guitar destruction – into the brief space he had. Since the song is all about Mod bravado, he gave it the ultimate guitar break to match.
14: Led Zeppelin: ‘Heartbreaker’
(Solo: Jimmy Page)
To feature his most incendiary playing, Page picked a song that already had one of the most grabbing riffs in the Zeppelin catalog. Once the song hits its first peak, he grabs control, the band drops away and Page takes off on a daredevil solo flight, then the band rejoins him for a further thrill ride.
13: Les Paul & Mary Ford: ‘The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise
(Solo: Les Paul)
Les Paul is rightly celebrated for his innovations in sound and recording, but his playing was dazzling enough on its own. From the opening lick, this track gives you all the flying fingers that could fit on a pop record in 1951. The guitar solo swoops all over the heavens, and Mary’s brief vocal adds the right angelic touch.
12: George Harrison/Jeff Lynne/Tom Petty/Prince: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
This Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance was one of the most glorious moments of Prince’s career, and the one everybody shared after his passing. The occasion was George Harrison’s induction, with Harrison’s son and a few of his closest friends onstage. Prince proceeded to steal the show with a brilliant solo that quoted Clapton’s original one but with three times the flash. And, of course, he looked great doing it.
11: Guns N’ Roses: ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’
Just when Guns N’ Roses were poised to be the kings of hard rock in the 90s, they showed their sense of rock history. Slash’s resounding guitar intro cribs a bit of an Eastern feel from George Harrison and Jeff Beck, he even comes close to quoting Beck’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” in the first half of the solo. But the solo’s second half – where he gets nasty on wah-wah – is all his.
10: Television: ‘Marquee Moon’
(Solo: Tom Verlaine)
It must have been tough pulling off long guitar workouts for the jaded folks at CBGB, but Tom Verlaine managed it on a regular basis. The song’s shimmering main riff is reason enough for its inclusion here, but the main guitar solo is even better: Note Verlaine’s stinging sitar-like tone and his refusal to play fast for its own sake, making every phrase count.
9: Benny Goodman & His Orchestra: ‘Solo Flight’
(Solo: Charlie Christian)
The electric guitar was still a new thing when Charlie Christian got hold of one in 1935 and he was known for absorbing the sounds of the groups he played with. Note the horn-like tones in this Goodman piece; Goodman then returns the favor with a clarinet solo, taking off from the sound of the guitar.
8: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: ‘Up Above My Head’
(Solo: Sister Rosetta Tharpe)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s been called the mother of electric guitar, and the best evidence is on a YouTube video of a 1963 performance. During this hymn, she absolutely proto-shreds while a full choir claps along. There’s a bit of Muddy, a bit of Chuck Berry, and a whole lot of jubilation before she calls out “Let’s do that again!”
7: The Beatles: ‘Something’
(Solo: George Harrison)
This moment of George glory is simply one of the most sensuous guitar solos there is. Its slinky slides and sashays add a carnal element to a song that was already one of his most romantic. It wouldn’t of course be the last time that Pattie Boyd would inspire this kind of display.
6: Michael Jackson: ‘Beat It’
(Solo: Eddie Van Halen)
You could make a case for “Eruption” as the definitive Van Halen track, but it still didn’t match the influence of this track, where he put all those harmonics and hammer-ons into the ultimate rock/R&B crossover record. Everything’s perfect down to the dying note he plays under Michael Jackson’s vocal re-entry, and the solo’s so tight that you immediately need to hear the record again.
5: Funkadelic: ‘Maggot Brain’
(Solo: Eddie Hazel)
If all the guitarists who picked up on Hendrix’s influence, few did it sooner or better than P-Funk lead guitarist Eddie Hazel, who employed the full arsenal of fuzz and wah-wah effects on this apocalyptic epic. It was however darker than anything in Hendrix’s catalog, steeped in Vietnam-era dread and the after-effects of LSD. A showcase both for Clinton’s free-associative verse and Hazel’s guitar, the song ran 10 minutes on record and regularly topped a half-hour onstage.
4: B.B. King: ‘The Thrill Is Gone’
(Solo: B.B. King)
The best part of B.B. King’s breakthrough hit single was the part they didn’t play on AM radio. For the last two minutes, his guitar Lucille steps up and wails. King’s sound is unmistakable, but this is above all an emotive solo, working off the sentiments of the lyrics, down to the pleading tones at the end.
3: Chuck Berry: ‘School Day’
(Solo: Chuck Berry)
Take your pick of the Chuck Berry classics, there’s great guitar on them all. But “School Day’ stands out for its indelible intro, and for the way Chuck’s guitar answers each one of his vocal phrases, building anticipation for that moment when the song’s hero finally gets to the juke joint. The guitar solo fittingly arrives at that point in the song, and it’s pure rocking elation.
2: Wes Montgomery: ‘No Blues’
(Solo: Wes Montgomery)
The first half of this 12-minute track (on the 1965 live album Smokin’ at the Blue Note) just may be the apex of jazz guitar. Wes Montgomery goes off on a different melodic tangent every few bars, from single-note riffs to block chords to his trademark octaves; yet somehow the band always knows what was coming. Once Wynton Kelly steps forward on piano, even Wes’ rhythm chords are perfect.
1: Jimi Hendrix: ‘Purple Haze’ (Woodstock version)
(Solo: Jimi Hendrix)
Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” has gone down as the iconic Woodstock moment, but he goes onto greater glory in the medley that follows. He drives the band hard through “Purple Haze,” and then it happens; the big cadenza that explodes out of the song. For three-plus minutes he shoots fireworks into the heavens, ramping it up every time you’re sure he can’t get any higher. Then he lands on a cloud, with the beatific piece we now know as “Villanova Junction.” It’s a historic performance that still brings gasps after all these years.
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