50 Greatest Guitar Solos
20) "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Brian May) - Queen Night at the Opera, 1975
“Freddie [Mercury] had the whole piece pretty well mapped out, as I remember, but he didn’t have a guitar solo planned. So I guess I steamed in and said, ‘This is the point where you need your solo, and these are the chords I’d like to use.’ The chord progression for the solo is based on the verse, but with a slight foray into some different chords at the end, to make a transition into the next part of the song. I’d heard the track so many times while we were working on it that I knew in my head what I wanted to play for a solo. I wanted the guitar melody to be something extra, not just an echo of the vocal melody. I had a little tune in my head to play. It didn’t take very long to record.
“The next section of the song, the heavy bit, was really part of Freddie’s plan. I didn’t change what he had very much. Those guitar riffs that everybody bangs their heads to are really more Freddie’s than mine. And at the end of that section, I sort of took over. I wanted to do some guitar orchestrations—little violin lines—coming out of that. And it blended in very well with what Freddie was doing with the outro.
“We were stretching the limits of technology in those days. Since ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was entirely done on 16-track, we had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along; the tape got very thin. This ‘legendary’ story, which people think we made up, is true: we held the tape up to the light one day—we’d been wondering where all the top end was going—and what we discovered was virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with it.”
19) "Floods" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera The Great Southern Trendkill, 1996
“That particular solo was thought-out in a more orchestrated fashion than some of the others I play where I just start ripping right off the bat,” says Dimebag Darrell. “The thing that really makes the ‘Floods’ solo come across like it does is [bassist] Rex’s playing behind it. He’s using his fingers and he plays a whole bunch of cool licks and shit in there. He definitely adds to the vibe and feel of my lead because I’m playing off his part a lot—it was a great foundation for me to build on, man.”
To fatten up the sound of the catchy arpeggiated theme that fills the first eight bars of his lead, Darrell doubled the part. “I picked up the idea of doubling from Randy Rhoads. It seemed appropriate to start off in a slow, melodic fashion and then build and build and build to the climax with the big harmonic squeals at the end. For that last big note I think there’s four guitars going on. There’s a squeal at the 2nd fret of the G string, a squeal at the 5th fret of the G and then I used a Digitech Whammy pedal on two-string squeals at the harmonics at the 4th and 12th frets of the G and B strings, I believe. That was one of those deals where I didn’t plan it out. I just sat there and fucked with it until it sounded right.”
18) "Little Wing" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold as Love, 1968
Covered by artists like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Sting, “Little Wing” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s most beautiful and enduring compositions. It’s easy to see why. The original is seductively warm, poignant and light as a feather. Engineer Eddie Kramer explains how Jimi achieved the song’s ethereal glow in the studio.
“One of my favorite touches on that track is the glockenspiel part, which was played by Jimi,” says Kramer. “Part of the beauty of recording at Olympic Studios in London was using instruments that had been left from previous sessions. The glockenspiel was just laying around, so Jimi used it.”
Hendrix’s rich and watery guitar solo was, says Kramer, in part the product of a secret weapon. “One of the engineers had built this miniature Leslie,” continues Kramer. “It was like it was built out of an Erector set and had a small 8-inch speaker that rotated. Believe it or not, the guitar solo was fed through this tiny thing, and that’s the lovely effect you hear on the lead.”
But for the true meaning of “Little Wing,” it’s best to go straight to the horse’s mouth. “ ‘Little Wing’ is like one of these beautiful girls that come around sometimes,” explained Jimi. “You ride into town for the drinks and parties and so forth. You play your gig; it’s the same thing as the olden days. And these beautiful girls come around and really entertain you. You do actually fall in love with them because that’s the only love you can have. It’s not always the physical thing of ‘Oh, there’s one over there…’ It’s not one of those scenes. They actually tell you something. They release different things inside themselves, and then you feel to yourself, ‘Damn, there’s really a responsibility to some of these girls, you know, because they’re the ones that are gonna get screwed.’
“ ‘Little Wing’ was a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it. And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together, so I’m off here and there and off over there.”
17) "Cliffs of Dover" (Eric Johnson) - Eric Johnson Ah Via Musicom, 1990
“I don’t even know if I can take credit for writing ‘Cliffs of Dover,’ ” says Eric Johnson of his best-known composition. “It was just there for me one day. There are songs I have spent months writing, and I literally wrote this one in five minutes. The melody was there in one minute and the other parts came together in another four. I think a lot of the stuff just comes through us like that. It’s kind of a gift from a higher place that all of us are eligible for. We just have to listen for it and be available to receive it.”
While it is true that he wrote the song in a blessed instant, the fact is that Johnson, a notoriously slow worker, took his time polishing it up to form. “It took me a while to achieve the facility to play it right,” he says. “I was trying to work out the fingerings and how I wanted particular notes to hang over other notes.”
Even allowing for Johnson’s perfectionism, it took an extraordinarily long time for him to record a song that “came to him” in five minutes. That epiphany occurred in 1982, and within two years “Cliffs of Dover” was a popular staple of his live shows. He planned to include the song on his solo debut, Tones (Capitol, 1986), but, ironically, it didn’t make the cut. “It was ousted by the people who were doing the record with me,” Johnson explains. “I think they thought the melody was too straight or something.”
Luckily, wiser heads prevailed on Ah Via Musicom. Though he had been playing “Cliffs of Dover” live for four or five years by then, it still took Johnson multiple takes to nail the song to his satisfaction—and he was never pleased with any version. “The whole solo is actually a composite of many guitar parts,” Johnson says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound—almost regal—and though I had versions that were close, none quite nailed it, so I kept playing around with different permutations of the many versions I had recorded until I got it just right.
“As a result, I actually ended up using two different-sounding guitars. Almost all of the song is a Gibson 335 through a Marshall, with an Echoplex and a tube driver. But in the middle of the solo there’s 20 or 30 seconds played on a Strat. It really does sound different if you listen closely and at first I didn’t think it could work, but I really liked this string of licks so we just decided to keep it. It basically just sounds like I’m hitting a preamp box or switching amps.
“The difficulty on that song was to make the sound as clear as the melody is. It’s just a simple little repeating melody, and for the song to work it had be very upfront and crisp. Unfortunately, the G third on the guitar has a real tendency to waver and not be a smooth, clear note. As a result, I had to finger it just right—like a classical guitarist, using only the very tips of my fingers to achieve the best efficiency of my tonality That’s what took me so long: to be able to play all the fast licks with just the tip of my fingers, with just the right touch and tonality. Without a doubt, the most important thing is the song and melody, which in this case came very easily. But I like to do the best job I can of delivering it to the listener by the best possible way I can play it—and that came hard.”
16) "Heartbreaker" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 1967
Performing a convincing solo in a group context is difficult for any musician, but it takes a real man to stand unaccompanied and deliver. On “Heartbreaker,” Jimmy Page did just that. For an electrifying 45 seconds, Pagey let loose sans rhythm section, and, needless to say, the guitar world has never been quite the same.
“I just fancied doing it,” laughs Page. “I was always trying to do something different, or something no one else had thought of. But the interesting thing about that solo is that it was recorded after we had already finished “Heartbreaker”—it was an afterthought. That whole section was recorded in a different studio and was sort of slotted in the middle. If you notice, the whole sound of the guitar is different.
“The solo itself was made up on the spot. I think that was one of the first things I ever played through a Marshall. I was always having trouble with amps, and Marshalls were state-of-the-art reliability. By that time I was using a Les Paul, anyway, and that was just a classic setup.”
“We definitely recorded the solo section separately,” confirms engineer Eddie Kramer. “Jimmy walked in and set up and the whole session was over in about 20 minutes. He did two or three takes and we picked the best one, which was edited in later. However, to this day, I have a hard time listening to it, because I think we did a shitty edit—the difference in noise levels is pretty outrageous. But I don’t think Jimmy cared, he was more interested in capturing an idea, and on that level, he succeeded.”
15) "Highway Star" (Ritchie Blackmore) - Deep Purple Machine Head, 1972
“Highway Star” is but one highlight of Machine Head, Deep Purple’s greatest triumph. Ironically, it almost never came to be. In early 1972, shortly after retreating to Montreaux, Switzerland, to record, the British band was beset by a wealth of problems. First, the place they were staying, which overlooked Lake Geneva, burned down—inspiring them to write “Smoke on the Water.” Then, in response to a complaint about excessive noise, the police kicked the band out of the ballroom where they were recording.
“We were stuck in Switzerland with nowhere to go, and a friend of ours who was the mayor of the town said that there was an empty hotel we could use,” recalls Ritchie Blackmore. “We gladly accepted and retreated to this lonely hotel in the mountains. We set up all the equipment in the corridor, with the drums and some amps tucked into alcoves.
“We had the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit sitting outside in the snow, but to get there we had to run cable through two doors in the corridor into a room, through a bathroom and into another room, from which it went across a bed and out the veranda window, then ran along the balcony for about 100 feet and came back in through another bedroom window. It then went through that room’s bathroom and into another corridor, then all the way down a marble staircase to the foyer reception area of the hotel, out the front door, across the courtyard and up the steps into the back of the mobile unit. I think that setup led to capturing some spontaneity, because once we got to the truck for a playback, even if we didn’t think it was a perfect take, we’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough.’ Because we just couldn’t stand going back again.”
But while the vibe may have been loose, Blackmore’s solo on ‘Highway Star’ was well planned. “I wrote that out note for note about a week before we recorded it,” says the guitarist. “And that is one of the only times I have ever done that. I wanted it to sound like someone driving in a fast car, for it to be one of those songs you would listen to while speeding. And I wanted a very definite Bach sound, which is why I wrote it out—and why I played those very rigid arpeggios across that very familiar Bach progression—Dm, Gm, Cmaj, Amaj. I believe that I was the first person to do that so obviously on the guitar, and I believe that that’s why it stood out and why people have enjoyed it so much.
“[Keyboardist] Jon Lord worked his part out to mine. Initially, I was going to play my solo over the chords he had planned out. But I couldn’t get off on them, so I made up my own chords and we left the spot for him to write a melody. The keyboard solo is quite a bit more difficult than mine because of all those 16th notes. Over the years, I’ve always played that solo note for note—again, one of the few where I’ve done that—but it just got faster and faster onstage because we would drink more and more whiskey. Jon would have to play his already difficult part faster and faster and he would get very annoyed about it.”
14) "Layla" (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman) - Derek and the Dominos Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970
Seven minutes of pure, quivering passion, “Layla” was Eric Clapton’s magnificent scream of unrequited love for Patti Boyd, wife of his best friend—George Harrison.
“He grabbed one of my chicks,” said Clapton of Harrison, “and so I thought I’d get even with him one day, on a petty level, and it grew from that. She was trying to attract his attention and so she used me, and I fell madly in love with her. [Just] listen to the words of ‘Layla’: ‘I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down.”
Clapton poured all of himself into the intense, majestic “Layla,” which he named after the classical Persian love poem, “The Story of Layla and the Majnun.” The song began as a ballad, but quickly became a rocker, with Duane Allman reportedly coming up with the opening riff which would alter the tune. With Allman’s majestic slide guitar prodding him on, Clapton unleashed some of his most focused, emotive playing.
“The song and the whole album is definitely equal parts Eric and Duane,” says producer Tom Dowd, who introduced the two guitar titans, then sat back and watched them soar together. “There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other.”
Nowhere was the interplay between Clapton and Allman more sublime than on “Layla,” which, says Dowd, features six tracks of overlapping guitar: “There’s an Eric rhythm part; three tracks of Eric playing harmony with himself on the main riff; one of Duane playing that beautiful bottleneck; and one of Duane and Eric locked up, playing countermelodies.”
The tension of the main song finds release in a surging, majestic coda, which was recorded three weeks after the first part and masterfully spliced together by Dowd. The section begins with drummer Jim Gordon’s piano part, echoed at various times by Clapton on the acoustic. Allman takes over with a celestial slide solo, beneath which Clapton plays a subtle countermelody. As the song fades out after a blissful climax, Allman has the last word, playing his signature “bird call” lick.
13) "Texas Flood" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) - Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood, 1983
When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble walked into Los Angeles’ Down Town Studio in November 1982 to take advantage of 72 free hours of time offered by studio owner Jackson Browne, they had no idea they were about to start recording their debut album. “We were just making tape,” recalls drummer Chris Layton. “We hoped that maybe we were making a demo that would actually be listened to by a real record company.”
The first 24 hours were spent getting settled in L.A., and in the second and third days the band cut 10 songs—which became Texas Flood, in its entirety. “It really was just a big warehouse with concrete floors and some rugs thrown down,” says bassist Tommy Shannon. “We just found a little corner, set up in a circle looking at and listening to each other and played like a live band.” The trio recorded two songs the second day and eight the third—including “Texas Flood,” a slow blues, written and recorded by the late Larry Davis in 1958, which had been a live staple of Vaughan’s for years. It was the final tune recorded, cut in one take just before the free time ran out.
“That song and the whole first album captures the pure essence of what Stevie was all about,” says Layton. “Countless people would tell Stevie how much they loved his guitar tone on Texas Flood. There was literally nothing between the guitar and the amp. It was just his number-one Strat plugged into a Dumble amp called Mother Dumble, which was owned by Jackson Browne and was just sitting in the studio. The real tone just came from Stevie, and that whole recording was just so pure; the whole experience couldn’t have been more innocent or naive. We were just playing. If we’d had known what was going to happen with it all, we might have screwed up. The magic was there and it came through on the tape. You can get most of what the band was ever about right there on that song and that album.”
12) "Johnny B. Goode" (Chuck Berry) - Chuck Berry His Best, Volume One, 1997
Chuck Berry helped shape rock and roll by mixing elements of blues and country, adding some boogie woogie piano, and kicking it all together with his own slashing shuffle rhythms. Berry also was instrumental in making the electric guitar rock and roll’s primary instrument. In fact, for many years rock guitar was practically defined by Berry’s distinct, T-Bone Walker-inspired doublestops and frequent, dramatic use of slides, slurs and bends. A renaissance man rocker, Berry was not only a brilliant guitarist and performer, but was unparalleled as a songwriter as well. And his most enduring song, appropriately, celebrated himself; “Johnny B. Goode” was a thinly disguised account of Berry’s rise to international stardom.
“The song had its birth when a  tour first brought me to New Orleans, a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Waters’ lyrics, ‘Going down to Louisiana way behind the sun,’ ” writes Berry in his autobiography. “That inspiration, combined with little bits of dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through, turned into ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ ”
After naming the song’s protagonist Johnny after his keyboardist Johnnie Johnson, Berry wrote the lyrics in two weeks of “periodic application.” The repeated chorus calls of “Go Johnny Go” are a tribute to Berry’s mother’s constant encouragement, while other imagery was also inspired by his family. “I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up among the evergreens’ in a log cabin,’ ” Berry writes. “I revived that era with a story about a ‘colored boy name Johnny B. Goode’…but I thought that would seem biased to white fans...and changed it to ‘country boy.’ ”
The single was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, on December 29 or 30, 1957, with Berry backed by a lean, swinging blues trio of Willie Dixon (bass), Lafayette Leake (piano) and Fed Below (drums). The same session also yielded “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” While those tunes also became standards, their impact pales in comparison to that of “Johnny B. Goode.” As Billy Altman notes in his liner notes to The Chuck Berry Box (MCA, 1988), the song has become so ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. And, thanks to the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the whole universe may know the tune by now; it was hauled off on the Voyager 1 space probe, hurtling past Jupiter and Saturn and towards Neptune, some four-billion miles away.
11) "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
Jimi Hendrix’s publicist, Michael Goldstein, had successfully arranged for ABC-TV to produce a short news feature based primarily on the Experience’s triumphant success in America. Filming began on May 3, 1968, with 16mm cameras capturing the recording of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which, like many Hendrix songs, borrowed both musical and lyrical themes from Muddy Waters and other Delta bluesmen.
“ ‘Voodoo Child’ was something Jimi brought in, and we learned that song right on the spot in front of the cameras,” recalls bassist Noel Redding. “We ran through it about three times, and that was it.”
It is not known whether ABC ever used any of the footage. And, unfortunately, all the camera originals were stolen from ABC’s archives sometime after Jimi’s death. The reel also included footage of the group performing at the Fillmore East and the Miami Pop Festival.
Engineer Eddie Kramer recalls: “ ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ was recorded the day after Jimi tracked “Voodoo Chile,” the extended jam on Electric Ladyland featuring Traffic’s Stevie Winwood on organ and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Basically, Jimi used the same setup—his Strat through a nice, warm Fender Bassman amp. Jimi’s sound on both tracks is remarkably consistent, leading some to think they were recorded at the same session.”
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