Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address

By submitting my information, I agree to receive personalized updates and marketing messages about WMX based on my information, interests, activities, website visits and device data and in accordance with the Privacy Policy. I understand that I can opt-out at any time by emailing privacypolicy@wmg.com.

Best Guitar Solos: 20 Face-Melting Fretwork Performances
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Guitar Solos: 20 Face-Melting Fretwork Performances

From rip-roaring metal bends to soul-stirring vibrato, the best guitar solos push guitarists to the edge with earth-shattering consequences.

Back

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 20 finest examples of face-melting fretwork fireworks…

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our pick of the best guitar solos of all time, below.

20: 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.

19: 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.

18: 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 whorehouse. With its pure power tube distortion and 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. It proved to be a star-making performance.

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[https://www.thisisdig.com/feature/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.

You’ve heard the best guitar solos of all time, now find out our best guitar riffs: the licks that changed the course of rock music.

More Like This

You Just Can’t Believe Me: 10 New Order Facts You Probably Didn’t Know
List & Guides

You Just Can’t Believe Me: 10 New Order Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Think you already have the lowdown on this influential Manchester band? Here are ten New Order facts that may surprise you…

Best Songwriters: 20 Great Artists Who Have Soundtracked Our Lives
List & Guides

Best Songwriters: 20 Great Artists Who Have Soundtracked Our Lives

Penning timeless songs that have lasted the ages, the world’s best songwriters continue to inspire all who follow in their footsteps.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up