The history of rock’n’roll has been defined by the virtuosity of countless legendary guitarists, all of whom have pushed their musicianship to the brink of near-impossibility. With dextrous skill, the best guitar solos remind us why rock music remains a life-affirming art form that continues to astonish us with the force of a hurricane and the power of an earthquake. Here, then, is our run-down of the 40 finest examples of face-melting fretwork fireworks…
40: The Darkness: I Believe In A Thing Called Love (from ‘Permission To Land, 2003; guitarists: Justin Hawkins, Dan Hawkins)
On a mission to bring the Lycra-clad stage antics of 70s hard-rock back into the mainstream, The Darkness’ 2003 single I Believe In A Thing Called Love is more than just a novelty throwback. Though frontman Justin Hawkins tackles a couple of solos himself, it’s his brother, Dan, who takes on the biggest challenge by launching into a sensational contender among the best guitar solos.
Straddling the line between over-the-top flamboyance and pitch-perfect phrasing, Hawkins’ solo is completely worthy of his brother’s epic introduction (“GUITAR!” Justin yells, giving Dan the nod to uncage his inner rock god). “Right from the start, this song stuck out like a sore thumb,” Dan later said of I Believe In A Thing Called Love. “It’s at the Def Leppard/Queen end of what we did, whereas 90 per cent of our stuff was inspired by 70s AC/DC. And Aerosmith. And Thin Lizzy. Oh, I could go on!”
39: Steely Dan: Peg (from ‘Aja’, 1977; guitarist: Jay Graydon)
Underpinned by myriad unusual chords inspired by the jazz backgrounds of Steely Dan founders Walter Becker and Don Fagen, Peg was released as a single in November 1977, and stood out largely thanks to session wizard Jay Graydon’s virtuosic guitar solo. Sliding up and down the fretboard like a mysterious medicine man, Graydon never fails to cast his spell from the moment he double-bends listeners into awe-struck catatonia.
As notoriously hard taskmasters, Becker and Fagen hunted high and low to find the best guitarist to perfectly nail Peg, lucking out when Graydon entered the studio. “Every studio guitar player wanted to be on a Steely Dan record,” Graydon told Inside MusiCast. “I was just hoping my solo would make it on the record. All the time I hear: ‘Man, that’s one of the best guitar solos of all time!’ I’m not saying that – that’s what I hear.”
38: Toto: Rosanna (from ‘Toto IV’, 1982; guitarist: Steve Lukather)
Hitting the US Top 10 in 1982, Toto’s yacht-rock classic Rosanna sails along to a half-time shuffle before blindsiding listeners with guitarist Steve Lukather’s scorching guitar solo during the song’s jazzy denouement. “I tend not to be so flashy,” Lukather told Guitar Player. “It just doesn’t come across most of the time. On something like Rosanna, I played a solo at the end which was never rehearsed.”
In other words, what’s since been hailed as one of the best guitar solo of all time was totally improvised on the spot. Utilising some delectable tone bending to summon his most tasty licks, Lukather’s impromptu performance lifts Rosanna into metaphysical realms.
37: Neil Young: Cortez The Killer (from ‘Zuma’, 1975; guitarist: Neil Young)
Telling the story of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the fall of the Aztec Empire, Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer uses a discordant, fuzz-laden effect on his long-serving “Old Black” Les Paul to paint a grim sonic picture with his guitar solo. Savage and yet intricately melodic, it’s a masterful performance that sits among the best Neil Young songs, and it perfectly complements the real-life historic story Young vividly evokes in his lyrics.
Twenty years after the song was released, Lou Reed admitted to being one of Neil Young’s biggest admirers – particularly after hearing Young’s 1975 album Zuma – and positively gushed about the Canadian rocker’s spine-tingling guitar work. “The guy is a spectacular guitarist,” Reed said. “Those melodies are so marvellous, so calculated, constructed note to note… he must have killed to get those notes. It puts my hairs on end!”
36: Chicago: 25 Or 6 To 4 (from ‘Chicago’, 1970; guitarist: Terry Kath)
While it may be easy to take Terry Kath’s guitar solo on Chicago’s 25 Or 6 To 4 for granted nowadays, it’s important to remember just how groundbreaking it was at the time. Released in 1970, not only was it one of the longest guitar solos on a pop song up to that point, but Kath’s use of feedback and sustain was particularly innovative.
A dynamic example of how a guitar solo can elevate a song to new heights, 25 Or 6 To 4 remains a fitting testament to Terry Kath’s incredible skill as a player. Tragically, Kath died in 1978, at the age of 31, after accidentally shooting himself, but his legacy lives on thanks to the indelible influence he had on the many guitarists who followed him.
35: Dream Theater: Constant Motion (from ‘Systematic Chaos’, 2007; guitarist: John Petrucci)
Full of complex runs and licks, John Petrucci’s fast-paced solo on Constant Motion, from Dream Theater’s 2007 album, Systematic Chaos, is a wondrously ambitious prog-metal marvel. Clocking in at over eight minutes long, it’s clear Petrucci put a lot of time and effort into perfecting this solo, navigating the song’s many different time-signature changes and tempo shifts.
Despite the song’s difficulty, Petrucci makes it look easy with his flawless guitar playing: the perfect showcase for his jaw-dropping technical proficiency and sheer bloody-minded musicality, Petrucci’s solo is a challenge for even the most seasoned musicians to play. It’s astonishing how Dream Theater ever got the ball rolling on Constant Motion, but we should be thankful they did.
34: Mastodon: Oblivion (from ‘Crack The Skye’, 2009; guitarist: Brent Hinds)
Delivering a fine guitar solo that sends chills down the listener’s spine, Brent Hinds’ performance on Mastodon’s 2009 single Oblivion is the audio equivalent of watching a knight joust with a fire-breathing dragon. Bearing its fangs on the band’s fourth studio album, Crack The Skye, it’s a fiery blast of progressive metal that burns its way into the memory as one of the best guitar solos of all time.
Beginning with a slow build up, Hinds’ solo starts at around the song’s 3.32 mark and lasts around a minute, increasing in intensity as it goes on. It’s just one example of why Hinds is considered to be one of the best metal guitarists in the world.
33: Muse: Reapers (from ‘Drones’, 2015; guitarist: Matt Bellamy)
Tucked away on Muse’s seventh album, Drones, Matt Bellamy’s superlunary solo on Reapers is one of the guitarist’s greatest. Overseen by iconic AC/DC and Def Leppard producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, there’s a touch of glam metal to Reapers, whose savage takedown of drone warfare boasts an Eddie Van Halen-esque guitar performance that returned Bellamy to his rock roots.
Spidery and convoluted, Bellamy’s hyperactive fretwork tangles around treadle-controlled pitch-shifting aided by the magical squealing of his DigiTech Whammy pedal. As one of Muse’s finest rock moments, Reapers was released as the sixth single from Drones, and fans continue to fawn over Bellamy’s captivating solo, hailing it as one of his greatest performances.
32: The Smashing Pumpkins: Cherub Rock (from ‘Siamese Dream’, 1993; guitarist: James Iha)
By the time The Smashing Pumpkins released their second album, Siamese Dream, in 1993, their guitarist James Iha was already a force to be reckoned with. The album’s lead single, Cherub Rock, bore the unmistakable shriek of Iha’s guitar and contained a searing solo that is equal parts melody and noise.
Built around a simple three-note motif, Iha uses his solo to distil the band’s signature sound: alternately beautiful and abrasive, with an underlying sense of melancholy. His use of vibrato and note bends gives the solo a pleading quality, as if he’s begging the listener to understand. Don’t worry, James, we understand perfectly.
31: ZZ Top: La Grange (from ‘Tres Hombres’, 1973; guitarist: Billy Gibbons)
Coming straight out of the heart of Texas with their long-flowing beards, blues-rock powerhouse ZZ Top scored a No.41 hit on the US Hot 100 with La Grange, a propulsive two-chord rocker about a Southern brothel. With pure-power tube distortion and a fuzz-laden shuffle, guitarist Billy Gibbons feeds his deeply-felt love of the blues into a Marshall amp and delivers a barnstorming solo that kick-started ZZ Top’s lengthy career in the spotlight.
Inspired by a John Lee Hooker song called Boogie Chillen’, what makes Gibbons’ performance on La Grange one of the best guitar solos of all time is how vampishly it rides along to the song’s relentless backbeat. “We did three takes of the solo, and I just went off into the ozone,” Gibbons told Guitar Player magazine. It proved to be a star-making performance that remains a fan favourite among the best ZZ Top songs.
30: Fleetwood Mac: Albatross (standalone single, 1968; guitarist: Peter Green)
When it comes to iconic guitar solos, nothing quite compares to Peter Green’s performance on Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. The understated and elegant solo – a laidback instrumental of reverb-addled tones with a beguiling surf-rock twang – makes the most of the song’s sparse arrangement and allows Green to lull listeners into a daydream.
With vibrato and bending techniques that give Green’s performance a feeling of yearning and nostalgia, Albatross became a huge hit in the UK and peaked at No.1, even inspiring The Beatles to emulate it on the Abbey Road track Sun King. It’s no wonder that Albatross endures as one of the best Fleetwood Mac songs – it’s a true classic in every sense of the word.
29: Boston: More Than A Feeling (from ‘Boston’, 1976; guitarist: Tom Scholz)
Demonstrating his mastery of the Gibson Les Paul, Tom Scholz’s barnstorming guitar solo on Boston’s most famous single, More Than A Feeling, helped the track become one of the best rock songs in history when it peaked at No.5 on the US Hot 100 in September 1976.
“It’s a piece of music that really takes me to someplace else when I listen to it,” Scholz told Entertainment Weekly. Combining bluesy licks with complex melodic runs, the guitarist’s star-making turn is well and truly captivating, earning its place among the best guitar solos by sheer force of will.
28: Rush: Limelight (from ‘Moving Pictures’, 1981; guitarist: Alex Lifeson)
Though there are ample instances of Alex Lifeson’s fast and frenetic playing throughout Rush’s catalogue, the guitarist has cited his work on Limelight as his own personal favourite. “The sound itself is quite pure, and, with all of the dives and the falling repeats, it feels very, very fluid to me,” Lifeson told Guitar magazine in 1996.
As always, Lifeson’s playing is full of technical wizardry, showcasing his fondness for suspended chords and arpeggios, but it never sounds forced. Instead, Limelight’s solo flows naturally and enhances an already great song. It’s no wonder it occupies a special place in Lifeson’s heart.
27: Judas Priest: Painkiller (from ‘Painkiller’, 1990; guitarists: KK Downing, Glenn Tipton)
Released as a single in 1990, Judas Priest’s Painkiller sees guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton trade licks back and forth, creating a sense of urgency and excitement that is simply unbeatable. For one thing, the song pioneered a unique soloing technique called sweep picking. From goosebumps-inducing tapping and slick legato licks through to whammy-bar high jinks, Painkiller has it all.
Downing’s playing is particularly noteworthy, employing harmonics and vibrato to effectively convey the intensity of the song’s subject matter. However, Tipton’s melodic and catchy solo is no less impressive, acting as the yin to Downing’s yang. Truly ahead of its time, Painkiller more than earns its place among the best guitar solos of all time.
26: Ram Jam: Black Betty (from ‘Ram Jam’, 1977; guitarist: Bill Bartlett)
One of the most memorable songs of the 70s, it’s not difficult to appreciate why Ram Jam’s whip-cracking hit, Black Betty, became a classic-rock favourite. A fast-paced and energetic take on a blues standard, the song’s galloping solo sees guitarist Bill Bartlett deliver a thoroughbred performance.
Sliding his fingers up and down the strings, Bartlett uses vibrato and picks the strings as if coursing along a race track, flying towards the finish line like a prize-winning stallion. It all ensures Black Betty as a safe bet among the best guitar solos in rock.
25: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Dani California (from ‘Stadium Arcadium’, 2006; guitarist: John Frusciante)
Widely considered to be one of the best 90s musicians, guitarist John Frusciante, of Red Hot Chili Peppers, has created numerous solos worthy of legendary status. However, on Dani California, the lead single from the Chili Peppers’ 2006 album, Stadium Arcadium, he cut loose with arguably his most wild and primal solo yet.
Feverish and complex, Frusciante’s fretwork expertly conjures depth of feeling and palpable emotion. Varying his volume and tone like a master, it’s a bravura performance that proves why the guitarist is so respected by his peers.
24: Avenged Sevenfold: Bat Country (from ‘City Of Evil’, 2005; guitarists: Synyster Gates, Zacky Vengeance)
Inspired by the gonzo spirit of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas author, Hunter S Thompson, Bat Country is not only one of best Avenged Sevenfold songs, it also features an incredible guitar duel between Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance.
Both highly talented musicians, Gates and Vengeance’s instrumental stand-off brilliantly draws upon their incredible skills to capture the dark, brooding mood of the song’s lyrics. High-powered and fast-moving, Bat Country boasts the best guitar solo of the 2000s, and it remains a trippy and mind-altering listening experience.
23: Slipknot: Psychosocial (from ‘All Hope Is Gone’, 2008; guitarists: Mick Thomson, Jim Root)
Guitarists Mick Thomson and Jim Root both lay down some serious shredding on Slipknot’s 2008 single Psychosocial, one of the most memorable songs on the nu-metal group’s fourth album, All Hope Is Gone. Containing not one but two riotous guitar solos, the song finds the masked duo on blazingly good form throughout.
Thomson’s solo is up first, tearing through the riff with ease before unleashing a flurry of fast runs and tapping licks. Root’s solo follows, taking a more melodic approach, full of emotion and feeling, while still packing plenty of punch. It makes for a wild ride from start to finish.
22: Michael Jackson: Beat It (from ‘Thriller’, 1983; guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
After receiving a surprise invite from producer Quincy Jones, guitarist Eddie Van Halen visited Michael Jackson’s recording studio to lay down a soon-to-be iconic solo for the singer’s 1983 single Beat It. Amazingly, Eddie came up with the goods in around 20 minutes, dutifully wringing the neck of his guitar to make it screech and wail with howls of sublime distortion.
As one of the best guitar solos in pop history, Van Halen’s work on the track helped Beat It win Record Of The Year at the 1984 Grammy Awards, and the song quickly became an MTV-era classic. Amazingly, the guitarist recorded the solo entirely for free. “I did it as a favour,” he said. “I was not used. I knew what I was doing – I don’t do something unless I want to do it.”
21: The Rolling Stones: Sympathy For The Devil (from ‘Beggars Banquet’, 1968; guitarist: Keith Richards)
With lyrics sung from the perspective of the Prince Of Darkness, The Rolling Stones’ devilish slice of samba-flavoured rock proved the perfect showcase for guitarist Keith Richards’ exemplary soloing. With twangy fervour, Sympathy For The Devil sees Richards cast a voodoo-like spell over the listener with a master class of vicious vibrato and fiendish feel.
Richards has rarely topped the deliciously diabolical feats he achieves here. Easily one of the best guitar solos he ever delivered, it is the sonic embodiment of wickedness and the perfect foil to Jagger’s poetic posturing. Though the Stones’ studio version is, naturally, spectacular, the live version of Sympathy For The Devil on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is perhaps the finest demonstration of Keith Richards’ improvisatory talents, capturing him at the peak of his powers during a show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, in 1969.
20: Black Sabbath: Paranoid (from ‘Paranoid’, 1970; guitarist: Tony Iommi)
When it comes to the pioneers of heavy metal, there are few guitar players more influential than Tony Iommi. Forced to rely on bending, vibrato and power chords to compensate for losing his fingers in an industrial accident, Iommi delivered a solo on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid that moves at breakneck speed without sacrificing any of his bluesy feel.
Pummelling the listener with quick, roots-based licks over a dark and portentous drum groove, Iommi’s jackhammering solo quickly saw the song gain widespread recognition as a proto-metal anthem. Helping to define the sound of heavy metal in the 70s, it remains a master class in hard-rock alchemy.
19: Iron Maiden: The Trooper (from ‘Piece Of Mind’, 1983; guitarist: Adrian Smith)
A true legend beloved by metalheads, Adrian Smith’s work for Iron Maiden has inspired generations of guitarists. The band’s 1983 single The Trooper, taken from their fourth album, Piece Of Mind, places his fast and melodic guitar style centre stage, stealing the show with a memorable and catchy solo.
Using a variety of techniques, among them vibrato, palm muting, and tone bending, Smith’s solo walked the harmonic tightrope between tension and release, and quickly came to be regarded as one of the best guitar solos heavy metal had to offer. Cementing the sound of a burgeoning genre, it leaves little doubt over the impact the best Iron Maiden songs have had on the world.
18: AC/DC: Back In Black (from ‘Back In Black’, 1980; guitarist: Angus Young)
One of the most iconic and recognisable solos of all time, Angus Young’s performance on AC/DC’s Back In Black not only showcases some of the Australian axeman’s most legendary licks but also his all-round prowess. His use of space and silence, combined with his technical ability, easily makes it one of the best guitar solos in hard rock. Having already won listeners over with the song’s riffs, Young builds up to a series of fast runs that show off his incredible proficiency, leading to a spectacular solo that culminates in a huge bend that sustains for several seconds.
17: Deep Purple: Highway Star (from ‘Machine Head’, 1972; guitarist: Ritchie Blackmore)
Though Highway Star is far from being the first rock’n’roll song written about a fast car, this Deep Purple cut, which opens the group’s sixth album, Machine Head, deserves credit for pioneering what would later be called “speed metal”. Ritchie Blackmore’s solo is a diesel-powered marvel, unashamedly breaking speed limits with a whiplash-inducing fusion of driving hard-rock and – of all things – classical music.
“I played those very rigid arpeggios across that very familiar Bach progression,” Blackmore revealed to Guitar World magazine. Grooving along to Jon Lord’s organ, Blackmore bestowed us with one of the best guitar solos and established Deep Purple as a pioneering force in the development of heavy metal. Without it, the likes of Motörhead and Metallica may never have existed.
16: Pantera: Floods (from ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’, 1996; guitarist: Dimebag Darrell)
With typically biblical bombast, Pantera’s Floods sees guitarist Dimebag Darrell ride a sonic wave like Noah fighting the seas on his ark. With frontman Phil Anselmo’s lyrics mining the book of Genesis, the song was clearly the start of something new for the band. Building to ambitiously catchy arpeggios, Dimebag starts off slowly but, by the time his solo reaches its squealing conclusion, it’s clear he’s single-handedly made Floods one of the best Pantera songs.
Doubling up on his bars in a similar manner to Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads, Dimebag’s solo is a blistering highlight on the band’s eighth album, The Great Southern Trendkill, and it brought Pantera into metal’s upper echelons. In 2004, Dimebag Darrell, aged just 38, was fatally shot by a crazed fan at an Ohio nightclub. His legacy as one of metal’s greatest guitarists lives on.
15: Megadeth: Tornado Of Souls (from ‘Rust In Peace’, 1990; guitarist: Marty Friedman)
Auditions rarely get better than this. Guitarist Marty Friedman joined former Metallica member Dave Mustaine’s thrash metal group, Megadeth, for their fourth album, Rust In Peace, and immediately blew the group away with his high-speed solo for Tornado Of Souls. Fast and aggressive, the six-minute wonder is riff-heavy and laser-focused, erupting thanks to Friedman’s otherworldly intuition for grandiloquent soloing.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Friedman’s solo was entirely improvised in the studio. “I just remember thinking that it was a lot of space to fill with a guitar solo,” he said in a fan Q&A on his website. Upon hearing Friedman’s ear-splitting exploits for the first time, a speechless Mustaine shook the guitarist’s hand in silent admiration.
14: Metallica: Fade To Black (from ‘Ride The Lightning’, 1984; guitarist: Kirk Hammett)
Introducing music theory to Metallica’s game-changing thrash-metal sound, the band’s second album, Ride The Lightning, became what many consider to be the group’s mainstream breakthrough. New guitarist Kirk Hammett was clearly out to prove himself, if his career-defining performance on the six-minute epic Fade To Black is anything to go by. As if his sweeping introductory riffs weren’t enough, the improvised solo Hammett launches into towards the end of the song astounded listeners with its lightning-fast arpeggiated picking and breakneck legato licks.
Offering a window onto the Ennio Morricone-inspired landscape Metallica would roam on their self-titled 1991 album (aka “The Black Album”), Fade To Black stands out as an unfurling emotional journey from its melodic verses to its fast-moving metal breakdown. Not only does it contain one of Hammett’s best guitar solos, it’s quite possibly Metallica’s greatest musical achievement.
13: Ozzy Osbourne: Mr Crowley (from ‘Blizzard Of Ozz’, 1980; guitarist: Randy Rhoads)
After fronting one of the best rock bands in history, Ozzy Osbourne’s post-Black Sabbath renaissance owed a lot to the genius of guitarist Randy Rhoads. Rhoads’ performance on Mr Crowley, the second single taken from Ozzy’s debut solo album, Blizzard Of Ozz, boasts not one but two hot-fingered guitar solos, wowing listeners with his innate virtuosity. From chromatic wizardry to pentatonic pull-offs, his work on Mr Crowley emulates the tapping style Eddie Van Halen perfected, while also adding lashings of fluid legato licks with ultra-speedy gusto.
A defining element one of the greatest metal songs of all time, the guitarist’s magic was captured during an After Hours TV appearance in 1981. Right up until his tragic death, in a plane crash at age 25, Rhoads inspired millions of metalheads with his incredible prodigiousness and mind-boggling guitar chops. Metal would never be the same again.
12: Cream: Crossroads (from ‘Wheels Of Fire’, 1968; guitarist: Eric Clapton)
By recording a cover version of Robert Johnson’s Down To The Crossroads for their hybrid studio/live album, Wheels Of Fire, Eric Clapton was more than prepared to flaunt his mastery of the blues. Already a legend in his own time, Clapton’s performance on Crossroads is a freewheeling and ramshackle affair, his solo veering perilously close to losing tempo but ultimately emerging victorious and earning “Slowhand” his place among the world’s best guitarists.
With scalding bluesy phrasings and white-hot disjointedness, Crossroads is tempestuous and evocative, with Clapton’s solo throwing fuel on the fire of the rootsy original and forging a new path for high-energy blues-rock. The best guitar solos always push things forward to furtive territory, and this one is no exception. It ignited the cinder path that bands such as Led Zeppelin would later follow.
11: Prince: Purple Rain (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984; guitarist: Prince)
There’s no denying Prince’s multifarious talents, but on the Purple Rain album’s title track he proved that an MTV-era pop star could rank among the rock’n’roll elite. A power ballad boasting an epic guitar solo that etched magenta on a million hearts, Prince’s regal performance is by turns impassioned and bombastic.
Beyond all doubt, Purple Rain stands as one of the best Prince songs and shows its creator at the top of his game. Making guitarists green with envy at The Purple One’s sheer virtuosity, the live performance he unleashed at the close of his March 1985 concert at Syracuse, New York, was truly out of this world. Placing him at the heart of the cultural lexicon in a hooded sequined cloak fit for royalty, it was a moving and career-defining turn from a bona fide musical genius.
10: Dire Straits: Sultans Of Swing (from ‘Dire Straits’, 1978; guitarist: Mark Knopfler)
Nobody expected a pub-rocker to become a rock superstar, but Mark Knopfler dreamt big. Dire Straits’ debut single, Sultans Of Swing caught notice thanks to the scintillating sounds of Knopfler’s guitar solo, which stuck out from like a sore thumb in an era dominated by disco and punk. Smooth and easygoing, it ranks among the best guitar solos for the way in which Knopfler’s clean-as-a-whistle tone builds into a flurry of frantically played arpeggios.
As the song peaked at No.4 in the US and No.8 in the UK, it immediately thrust Dire Straits into the mainstream – a position they would hold well into the 80s. Just like that, Knopfler proved you could go from riffing in dreary pubs to selling out stadiums.
9: The Beatles: While My Guitar Gently Weeps (from ‘The Beatles’, 1968; guitarist: Eric Clapton)
It says something of Eric Clapton’s generosity that he gifted The Beatles with one of his best guitar solos of all time. Invited to Abbey Road Studios (then EMI Studios) by his friend George Harrison, Clapton’s guest performance on While My Guitar Gently Weeps remains one for the ages. Almost literally making a Gibson Les Paul cry, he wrings every ounce of emotion from Harrison’s sorrowful melody.
Bringing life to the sentiment behind Harrison’s song, Clapton’s performance remains a signature moment for any guitar lover. It’s also the only time The Beatles invited a different lead guitarist to play a solo on their record. No wonder they didn’t do so again – this one is impossible to beat.
8: Van Halen: Eruption (from ‘Van Halen’, 1978; guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
Known for pioneering a unique style of guitar tapping that was soon added to heavy metal’s growing box of tricks, Eddie Van Halen redefined the electric guitar for the 80s. Nowhere is this piloted more successfully than on 1978’s hard rock instrumental Eruption. Like a volcano bubbling with lava, the tune explodes with classical-inspired cadence, its tricksy triads demonstrating the guitarist’s unconventional approach to rock’n’roll.
Showy and excessive, Eruption was a highlight from Van Halen’s debut album and emboldened rock guitarists to try something completely new. Soon enough, tapping was all over the commercial radio stations, as Eddie’s performance set the blueprint for any aspiring metalhead to wrap their fingers around. From hyperactive fretwork to squalling distortion, Eruption was released as the B-side to Van Halen’s second single, Runnin’ With The Devil, but that didn’t stop radio stations playing it. It still sounds like nothing else.
7: Guns N’ Roses: Sweet Child O’ Mine (from ‘Appetite For Destruction’, 1987; guitarist: Slash)
Nobody could have predicted that Guns N’ Roses would find a home on MTV. Too rough to be glam but too musically accomplished to remain part of Los Angeles’ hard rock underground, the band’s breakout single, Sweet Child O’ Mine, was a breath of fresh air from a rock scene overrun with hair-metal bands. Undoubtedly, this was partly thanks to Slash’s coruscating guitar solo, which amounted to a Gibson-aided assault on the senses. Deafeningly loud and life-changing, it reignited the wider world’s then-dormant passion for rock’n’roll.
Plugging into a wah-wah pedal and dangling a cigarette from his mouth, Slash moodily winds his industrious fingers around Sweet Child O’ Mine’s magnificent solo with an attitude that verges on nonchalance. Making him a rock icon overnight, his solo also helped Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite For Destruction, sell over 30 million copies worldwide to date.
6: Eagles: Hotel California (from ‘Hotel California’, 1976; guitarists: Don Felder, Joe Walsh)
In a simple case of double or quits, the twin guitar solos on Eagles’ panoramic soft-rock ballad Hotel California showcases a duelling battle of one-upmanship between Don Felder and Joe Walsh. It’s Felder who primarily holds the fort, kicking against the song’s six-string groove like a bellhop demanding a pay rise from an incalcitrant boss.
Having said that, there’s clearly something elemental going on here. “Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great plops into your lap,” Don Felder later told Guitar World. As if making music out of stardust, Felder and Walsh end up taking turns at soloing with undeniable panache, blessing the Hotel California album’s title track with one of the best guitar solos ever. As one of the best Eagles songs, too, it’s not only an FM radio classic – it’s a modern standard.
5: Lynyrd Skynyrd: Free Bird (from ‘(Pronounced ’Lĕh-’nérd ’Skin-nérd)’, 1973; guitarist: Allen Collins)
Sometimes jokingly considered an albatross around the neck of rock’n’roll, the solo on Free Bird became short-hand for guitar overkill, no doubt thanks to guitarist Allen Collins’ blistering four-and-a-half-minute performance. Astonishingly, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live show often stretched the solo even longer, brilliantly displaying the Southern rock group’s extraordinary jamming prowess.
Collins’ fretwork is, however, nothing short of majestic, soaring well beyond the song’s flighty chord arrangement to go down in history as one of the best guitar solos. Tragically, in 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in Mississippi, killing some of the band’s members, but Collins miraculously survived. Refusing to have his seriously damaged arm amputated, he was later paralysed in a car accident and died of chronic pneumonia in 1990. Needless to say, his music still flies as high as ever.
4: Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody (from ‘A Night At The Opera’, 1975; guitarist: Brian May)
Though Queen’s six-minute rock opera Bohemian Rhapsody was originally written on piano by frontman Freddie Mercury, Brian May added a touch of guitar-laced grace to proceedings. With a whirling solo that makes this ode to a wayward son infinitely more dramatic, May extravagantly crams in lashings of leaping harmonics and high frequencies without compromising the song’s eccentric genius.
His incendiary soloing acts as a prelude to Bohemian Rhapsody’s operatic section, dazzling the listener with busy-fingered brilliance before bemusing us with the song’s unexpected U-turn. With endless replay value, May’s performance never gets old and fully deserves its place among the best guitar solos. The guitarist would go on to create increasingly ambitious solos in Queen’s later years, but this one captures a magic that would rarely be replicated again.
3: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: All Along The Watchtower (from ‘Electric Ladyland’, 1968; guitarist: Jimi Hendrix)
Jimi Hendrix’s breathtaking solo on his cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower is a true work of art. “It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan said of Hendrix’s work. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them.” Taken from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third album, Electric Ladyland, Hendrix’s soloing initially starts off with mellow tones before his innovative use of delay pedals eventually lifts the song to unassailable heights.
Masterful and mesmerising, it left little doubt in anyone’s mind about Jimi Hendrix’s superlative talents. Still regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Hendrix’s high-octane All Along The Watchtower performance proves his genius and stands tall among the best guitar solos for completely reinventing Bob Dylan’s original folky tune. It’s arguably the definitive cut.
2: Led Zeppelin: Stairway To Heaven (from ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, 1971; guitarist: Jimmy Page)
Unmoored from Led Zeppelin’s bluesy bedrock and more attuned to the free-floating melancholy of English folk, Stairway To Heaven found guitarist Jimmy Page flaunting his innate skill on his Gibson EDS-1275 like a stage-bound angel stretching his wings. Of all the moments that make up the best Led Zeppelin songs, Page’s solo has acquired almost mythic status.
“It was a milestone for us,” the guitarist told Rolling Stone in 1975, four years after the song had appeared on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album. “Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with Stairway.” Page was preaching to the converted. His solo on Stairway To Heaven takes a song about fate into the celestial realm, the guitarist hurling himself skyward with a divine performance that continues to inspire quasi-religious awe.
1: Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb (from ‘The Wall’, 1980; guitarist: David Gilmour)
Topping our list of the best guitar solos, David Gilmour’s fretwork on Comfortably Numb provides a high point on Pink Floyd’s 1980 album, The Wall. A rousing rock ballad, the song is elevated by Gilmour’s goosebumps-inducing solo – a hugely emotive and undeniably vital performance which ebbs and flows with woozy finesse.
Incontestably, Comfortably Numb is musically inventive and truly rapturous to behold. As Gilmour touches the clouds, his fingers moving like blissful tendrils stretching to the heavens, there can be no doubt that this, one of his best guitar solos, more than earns its place among Pink Floyd’s grandest accomplishments. Only the uncomfortably numb would argue with that.
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