50 Greatest Guitar Solos
40) "Reelin' in the Years" (Elliot Randall) - Steely Dan Can't Buy a Thrill, 1972
While recording Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew they had a great track for “Reelin’ in the Years”—if they could only come up with the appropriate guitar solo to jumpstart the tune. So they put in a call to Elliott Randall, with whom they had worked in the backing band for Jay and the Americans, and who’d had played on many of the duo’s early, pre-Steely Dan demos.
“They were having trouble finding the right ‘flavor’ solo for ‘Reelin,’ and asked me to give it a go,” recalls Randall. “Most of the song was already complete, so I had the good fortune of having a very clear picture of what the solo was laying on top of. They played it for me without much dialogue about what I should play. It just wasn’t necessary because we did it in one take and nothing was written. Jeff Baxter played the harmony parts, but my entire lead—intro/answers/solo/end solo—was one continuous take played through a very simple setup: my old Strat, the same one I’ve been using since 1965, plugged directly into an Ampeg SVT amp, and miked with a single AKG 414. The whole solo just came to me, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play it.”
39) "Cortez the Killer" (Neil Young) - Neil Young and Crazy Horse Zuma, 1975
“Cortez the Killer” hails from Zuma, one of Neil Young’s most overlooked albums, often lost in the shuffle of its predecessor, the much-praised Tonight’s the Night, which came out just five months prior. But there’s really a very simple explanation for the song’s high rating. Just take it from Young himself, who once proclaimed that, “ ‘Cortez’ is some of my best guitar playing ever!”
Remarkably, the song’s structure was largely shaped by an accident—a power failure which occurred in the midst of recording a perfect, transcendent take of the song. Rather than recut the tune, Young just plowed forward and later he and producer David Briggs went back and did some creative editing, which required the lopping off of several verses. “They missed a whole verse, a whole section!” Young says. “You can hear the splice on the recording where we stop and start again. It’s a messy edit…incredible! It was a total accident. But that’s how I see my best art, as one magical accident after another. That’s what is so incredible.”
“Cortez the Killer,” about the Spanish explorer who conquered Mexico with bloody success, is also a prime example of Young’s physical style of lead playing.
“I am a naturally very destructive person,” he says. “And that really comes out in my guitar playing. Man, if you think of guitar playing in terms of boxing…well let’s just say I’m not the kind of guitarist you’d want to play against. I’m just scarred by life. Nothing in particular. No more scarred than anyone else. Only other people often don’t let themselves know how damaged they are, like I do and deal with it."
38) "Whole Lotta Love" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 1967
“I used distant miking to get that rhythm guitar tone,” says Jimmy Page. “Miking used to be a science, and I’d heard that distance makes depth, which in turn gives you a fatter guitar sound. The amp was turned up very high. It was distorting, just controlled to the point where it had some balls to it. I also used a depressed wah-wah pedal on the solo, as I did on ‘Communication Breakdown.’ It gets you a really raucous sound. The descending riff that answers the line ‘whole lotta love’ was created using slide and backwards echo. Backwards echo has been used a lot now, but I think I was the first to use it.”
37) "Sweet Child O' Mine" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction, 1987
“When ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was written, it was a joke as far as I was concerned,” says Slash. “I was just fuckin’ around when I came up with that riff. To me it was a nightmare because, for some strange reason, everyone picked up on it and, the next thing you knew, it had turned into a song. I hated it forever! The guitar solo itself is a one-take, spontaneous kind of thing. Having played the song at rehearsals enough times, when it came to recording it I knew exactly where the melody was and it came real easy.”
36) "Black Star" (Yngwie Malmsteen) - Yngwie Malmsteen Rising Force, 1984
“I’ve been playing that song, or variations of it, since I was a teenager in Sweden,” Yngwie Malmsteen recently told his fan club. “I used to play really long, uninterrupted improvisations when I played local shows in Stockholm back then, and it developed from that. I didn’t sit down and actually write out the notes for it; when I’m feeling inspired, the music just flows out of me. It’s in my head and my ears and flows out of my fingers.”
“Black Star” flew through Malmsteen’s fingers on his solo debut album, recorded in 1984 at Rocshire Studios in Anaheim, California, with the guitarist producing as well as playing bass and, of course, all guitar parts. “We recorded all the basic tracks and then Yngwie had to go on the road with Alcatrazz,” recalls keyboardist Jens Johansson. “He flew in here and there to do overdubs. There are probably three guitar tracks on ‘Black Star,’ and I remember watching Yngwie doing them and being blown away at how he could effortlessly synchronize the vibrato if he was overdubbing a harmony. It all happened pretty fast and on ‘Black Star,’ especially, he knew what he wanted it to sound like it. And he got it.”
35) "Cemetery Gates" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera Cowboys from Hell, 1990
“I got home with a pretty good buzz on, picked up my axe, turned on the 4-track, cranked it loud as hell with the loose buzz theory that anything and everything goes, and just played it,” Dimebag recalls. “I played three solos back-to-back, didn’t bother listening to ’em and crashed out not so happy. The next morning I woke up thinking I had a lot of work to do…I almost started from scratch but then decided to slow down and listen. So I fired up my 4-track, put my ears on and bam! Lo and behold, there it was! The first lead I played the night before was it for sure. Hey man, the second and third weren’t bad, but the first had that first-take magic! I didn’t touch it.”
34) "Paranoid Android" (Johnny Greenwood) - Radiohead OK Computer, 1997
Radiohead consciously patterned their sprawling, epic song, “Paranoid Android,” after the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” “It really started out as three separate songs and we didn’t know what to do with them,” explains singer/rhythm guitarist Thom Yorke.
“Then we thought of ‘Happiness’—which was obviously three different bits that John Lennon put together—and said, ‘Why don’t we try that?’ “ Still, the song wasn’t really complete until lead player Jonny Greenwood added a fourth section as a fade out—a lengthy, intense solo, which alternates between being backwards and forwards. “It was something I had floating around for a while and the song needed a certain burn,” recalls Greenwood. “I don’t usually have stockpiles of riffs lying around, but this happened to be the right key and the right speed and it fit right in.”
33) "The Thrill is Gone" (B.B. King) - B.B. King Completely Well, 1969
“I carried this song around in my head for seven or eight years,” B.B. King recalls about “The Thrill Is Gone,” which had been an r&b hit for its author, pianist Roy Hawkins, in 1950. “It was a different kind of blues ballad. I’d been arranging it in my head and had even tried a couple of different versions that didn’t work. But when I walked in to record on this night at the Hit Factory in New York, all the ideas came together. I changed the tune around to fit my style, and [producer] Bill Szymczyk set up the sound nice and mellow. We got through around 3 a.m. I was thrilled, but Bill wasn’t, so I just went home. Two hours later, Bill called and woke me up and said, ‘I think “The Thrill Is Gone” is a smash hit, and it would be even more of a hit if I added on strings. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Strings in place, the song rose to Number 15 on the Billboard chart, becoming King’s first and only pop hit and earning him his first Grammy Award. “I felt especially proud because the song was true to me, and because Lucille is as much a part of it as me,” King says. “She starts off singing and stays with me all the way until she takes the final bow. People ask why I don’t sing and play at the same time, I’ve answered that I can’t, but the deeper answer is that Lucille is one voice and I’m another. I hear those voices as distinct. One voice is coming through my throat, while the other is coming through my fingers. When one is singing, the other wants to listen.”
32) "Machine Gun" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys, 1970
Contrary to popular belief, Hendrix was not in any kind of artistic decline during the last year of his life. In fact, it was quite the opposite. This apocalyptic performance of “Machine Gun,” featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, demonstrates that Jimi was still growing in leaps and bounds near the end. But while Band of Gypsys captures some of the guitarist’s greatest improvisations to date, he was still dissatisfied with its outcome.
“I distinctly remember that Jimi wasn’t particularly thrilled with Band of Gypsys,” says engineer Eddie Kramer who recorded the album and co-mixed and edited it with Hendrix. “He felt that Buddy Miles was trying to steal his thunder throughout the performance with his excessive scat singing. I can still see Jimi with his head buried in his arms, laying on the mixing console during playback saying, ‘Buddy, would you please just shut up!’ So, I would chop out huge passages of Buddy singing. And then I’d chop some more.”
31) "Stranglehold" (Ted Nugent) - Ted Nugent Ted Nugent, 1975
“ ‘Stranglehold’ is a masterpice of jammology,” proclaims Ted Nugent. “We were in the Sound Pit in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was showing my rhythm section of Cliff Davies [drums] and Rob DeLaGrange [bass] the right groove for the song. I was playing my all-stock 1964 blonde Byrdland through four Fender Twin Reverbs and four Dual Showman bottoms on my rhythm settings—we were going to leave a hole there so that I could overdub a solo later. Then I started playing lead work, just kind of filling in and though I had never played those licks before in my life, they all just came to me.
And because I got so inspired and because they followed me so perfectly, that demo is exactly what you hear on the record today. Take one, rhythm track is the song—it made such organic sense with the flow of music that I said, ‘I’m not gonna fuck with that! That’s it, baby.’ And that is the essence of why people love it—because it is so spontaneous and uninhibited. The only thing we went back and overdubbed was Derek St. Holmes’ vocals and my two tracks of harmonized feedback, which come in and out of the entire song. All the engineers and everyone kept saying, ‘You can’t do that, Ted.’ And I said, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ Because I had the vision; I saw what the song could be, and I realized it.”