The ten best guitar solos of all time

Enough of the summer reading. What about the summer listening? There was a phase — I think from about 1990 until about 2000, when you weren’t supposed to talk about guitar solos, lead guitar playing, or anything of that ilk. The guitarist’s job was to strum in a jangly fashion (indy) or with arpeggio like strums (pop). Naturally, guitar bands continued to exist — and, in most cases, draw their social security cheques — but this was either because they had previously existed (Deep Purple are still touring — more of that in a moment), or because they were some kind of tribute, homage to, or in the spirit of a previous band. And that was for minority audiences.

I think it was Jack White who changed all that, though the White Stripes don’t actually feature on my list. Suddenly, kids were picking up guitars in shops and going dum—, dum, dum dum dum dum, duh (that’s the start to Seven Nation Army, if you didn’t quite get it). Guitar shop owners were initially most likely mighty relieved. There’s only a certain amount of the first four bars of Stairway to Heaven or Smoke on the Water that you can really have in your life before you begin, quietly, to explode. Now Seven Nation Army is probably on the black list with the best of them. But, the difference was, young teenagers were looking at electric guitars, and wanted to play them like they had six separate strings, instead of one huge strummy string that could only be played in one go. I have to say, I was mightily relieved when Led Zeppelin suddenly became cool again. If you’re one of the 2000+ crop of teenagers, then take this list as a master list of the very best to emulate. If you’re an old pro, then revel for a few moments in this — highly personal, as they all are — list of the greatest guitar solos of all time, according to me. 1

In the traditional fashion, from the bottom up

# 10 Thin Lizzy — the Boys are Back in Town. The highly distinctive double guitar solo is still being toured by the current line-up of the band, even though only a fraction of the original members are still alive. Highly distinctive in its day, this one can, sadly, now be done by one player and an effects unit.

# 9 Dave Gilmore — Wuthering Heights, on Kate Bush – The Kick Inside. Dave Gilmore is the only person on this list twice, largely because he crosses over two distinct genres. As a pop-ballad solo, this one really can’t be beat, and, in my opinion, never has been. The track is mastered fairly quietly which gives space for the dynamics to come out — something which today’s crop of poptastic girl-singers never really do. Gilmore mentored Kate Bush, and was instrumental in the rise of her screechy vocals, unconvincing dance, and world of bizarre lyrics. The vocals eventually came together, and she stopped dancing. The best take of this track is on The Whole Story, where it was remastered with new (less screechy) vocals.

# 8 Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd — Comin’ Home. Everyone talks about Freebird (well, they do down at Kerrang! Radio whenever I go down there), but the live solo, which is on the album Gold and Platinum, is more an extended romp than anything particularly artistic. If you have that album, though, go to the last track on the fourth side (or second CD, if you don’t have the LPs — whaddya mean “what’s an LP”?), and you’ll hear a two guitar solo which, if you’re paying attention, will course through your veins. Magnificent.

# 7 The Edge, U2 — With or without you. It’s a bit difficult to decide whether this really qualifies as a guitar solo, especially as the Edge never positioned himself as one of those soloing guitar-heroes. But the free-playing, aggressive sound which lights this song up should be in every guitarist’s vocabulary

# 6 Carlos Santana — She’s Not There. The funny thing about Carlos Santana is that while his playing goes from everything to the most electrifying rock guitar to the sleazy sound of Samba Pa Ti, better known as the Marks & Spencers commercial music, his vocals were much more suited to soft soul or funk. She’s Not There is a good example of this. But listen for the solo. If not convinced, listen to Samba Pa Ti instead.

# 5 Mark Knopfler — Tunnel of Love, from Making Movies. A lot of people have very mixed feelings about Dire Straits. Actually, a lot of people just don’t like them, or affect to dislike them, much as people these days affect to dislike Cliff Richard, and, not very many years ago, didn’t like Led Zeppelin. Simply put, Dire Straits is out of fashion. But. Listen to the guitar work on Tunnel of Love. Straits may have gone all sleazy and tedious with their final outing, On Every Street, but the raw sound of Tunnel of Love and, most especially, the whole new vocabulary that Knopfler brought to guitar solos, are worth learning and emulating, even if you never admit where you got them from.

# 4 Jimi Hendrix — The Star Spangled Banner, live at Woodstock. People talk endlessly about Hendrix. He brought something entirely new to the world of guitar playing, even if what he brought was electrically dangerous and largely LSD-inspired. The stand out performance, to me, was the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Listening to it is one thing, but watching it on the Woodstock film is something entirely different. The scene was imitated without parody in Back to the Future.

# 3 Pat Metheny — Pat’s Solo, from Joni Mitchell Shadows and Light. It’s well known that jazz players are better than rock players. Well, it’s well known to jazz players. Joni Mitchell’s Mingus tour moved her from alternative folk into a permanent place in the world of jazz, and, among the removal men who helped her to accomplish it, were Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Pat’s solo, coming after Amelia, is the most extraordinary tour de force in synth-assisted guitar playing. Metheny was one of the pioneers of synth-guitar, and, to this day, it’s hard to really play synth-guitar without starting to hear the voice of Metheny behind it all.

# 2 Dave Gilmore — Comfortably Numb. Comfortably Numb, on The Wall, is one of the most agonised bouts of rock music depression ever to wallop the unsuspecting world. When it finally made it onto screen with Bob Geldof (yes, the Bob Geldof) playing the part of Pink (no relation to P!NK, the R&B singer), it was also one of the most alarming, having morphed into a statement about post-Hitlerian British fascists. But, in either version, the solo which burns in at the end is riveting. Pity we don’t get to hear it all, as it’s a victim of the fade-out.

# 1 Jimmy Page — Stairway to Heaven, on Led Zeppelin IV. This solo exploded into my life round about 1979, just when the Zeppelin era ended. It still explodes every time I hear it. No guitar solo has captured my imagination in this way, and no guitar solo has continued to tease me with its technicality as this one does. Steve Morse, who now tours with Deep Purple and would be on this list if he would only record his take on the Smoke on the Water solo, attributed his development as a guitarist to trying to figure out how Page played some of this stuff.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’d be interested to know yours.

Show 1 footnote

  1. What is a guitar solo? To me, it has to be in a certain sense improvised, and it has to be an extended melody that lifts it above the other instruments. Therefore, the introduction to Layla, although absolutely classic and very hard to play, which is why it never gets banned from music shops, is not a guitar solo. Likewise, the interspersed licks here and there in the middle of Dire Straits songs of the Making Movies era don’t qualify. I think it also has to be technically difficult, even if not in your face about its virtuosity, and thus the original Smoke on the Water solo doesn’t quality, and it needs to speak to me musically, even if it is a technical masterpiece. For this reason, no Yngwe Malmsteen, Eddie van Halen or even (terribly sorry about this) Steve Howe.