50 Greatest Guitar Solos
Guitar World ranks the 50 greatest solos in rock and roll history.
50) "Shock Me" (Ace Frehley) - Kiss Alive II, 1977
“I basically did the same solo every night on that tour, with minor alterations, so I had it kind of planned out when I did it the night we recorded it for Alive II album,” says Ace Frehley.
“But if you listen carefully to the ‘Shock Me’ solo you can hear me make a mistake about two thirds of the way through. Instead of tapping a B at the 19th fret of the high E string, I accidentally hit the A# note at the 18th fret—that’s definitely a wrong note for the scale I’m using. We could have fixed it in the mix, but I said to Eddie [Kramer, Alive II producer], ‘Screw it! Leave it in. The run sounds cool, so who cares—it’s rock and roll!’ ”
49) "Europa" (Carlos Santana) - Carlos Santana Amigos, 1976
“I started writing this song in 1966 or ’67, but didn’t finish it until ’75 when we were on tour with Earth, Wind and Fire, in Manchester, England,” says Carlos Santana. “We were backstage while they were on stage playing. And we were just warming up, tuning up. I started playing it and [keyboardist] Tom Coster and I completed it right there on the spot. It immediately became a crowd favorite; it is one of those songs that, whether it’s played in Japan or in Jerusalem or in South America, it just fits right in with everything.”
48) "Sympathy for the Devil" (Keith Richards) - Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, 1968
Writer Stanley Booth once suggested to Keith Richards that “Sympathy for the Devil” was cut from the same cloth as bluesman Robert Johnson’s haunting “Me and the Devil Blues.” “Yeah,” Richards replied. “All of us pursued by the same demon.” But while “Sympathy’s” lyrics reflect the Stones’ attraction to the dark side and allegiance to Johnson, the music is a prime example of how in a real band, composition is a group effort.
“It started as sort of a folk song with acoustics and ended up as kind of a mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later,” says Richards. “That’s why I don’t like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand. Because you can write the songs, but you’ve got to give the band something to use its imagination on as well. That can make a very ordinary song come alive into something totally different. You can write down the notes being played, but you can’t put down the X Factor—so important in rock and roll—which is the feel.”
47) "Jessica" (Dickey Betts) - Allman Brothers Band Brothers and Sisters, 1974
Dickey Betts’ instrumental “Jessica” is as uplifting a piece of music as can be found in all rock. And that, says Betts, is no coincidence: the music actually began with his desire to express pure jubilation.
“My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love,” says Betts. “With ‘Jessica,’ I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then my little daughter, Jessica, crawled into the room, and I just started playing to her, trying to capture the feeling of her crawling and smiling. That’s why I named it after her.”
Betts wrote the song’s melodic theme while emulating one of his heroes—the gypsy guitarist Django Rheinhardt, who had the use of only two fingers on his left hand. “I came up with that melody using just two fingers as a sort of tribute to Django,” says Betts. “That the song turned out so well is very satisfying. In general, writing a good instrumental is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody.”
46) "Hot For Teacher" (Edward Van Halen) - Van Halen 1984, 1984
“I winged that one,” says Eddie Van Halen. “If you listen to it, the timing changes in the middle of nowhere. We were in a room playing together and I kind of winked at the guys and said, ‘Okay, we’re changing now!’ Because I don’t count, I just follow my feelings. I tend to do a lot of things in threes and fives, instead of fours.
“My weird sense of time just drives my brother Alex nuts because he’s a drummer, so he has to count. But generally he’ll say, ‘Well, Ed, you did it in five again. If that’s the way you want it…’ But that’s not the way I want it, that’s just what feels right to me.”
45) "Light My Fire" (Robby Krieger) - The Doors The Doors, 1967
“Light My Fire” was one of the first songs ever written by Robby Krieger, and his extended solo on the album version was also one of his shining moments as a guitarist. Ironically, however, in order for “Light My Fire” to become a hit for the Doors and Krieger the songwriter, Krieger the guitarist had to swallow his pride and allow his masterly two-and-a-half-minute solo to be trimmed down to its essential opening and closing themes for use on the single.
“That always bothered me,” Krieger readily admits. “We never wanted to cut it, but our first single, ‘Break On Through,’ flopped and radio stations told us that ‘Light My Fire’ would be a hit if we cut it down. We didn’t have much choice because AM radio ruled everything, and if you wanted to get on AM you had to have a short song.”
The longer solo now regularly broadcast on the radio in its entirety, is a perfect distillation of Krieger’s style. A flamenco-trained guitarist who played with his fingers and often evoked sitar-like Eastern sounds, with his Gibson SG, Krieger pulled out all the stops on “Light My Fire.” Still, the guitarist says that the complete version on the album is far from his finest effort. “It was the kind of solo that I usually did, but it was different every night. To be honest, the one on the album is not one of my better takes. I only had two tries at it. But it’s not bad; I’m glad that it was as good as it was.”
44) "Alive" (Mike McCready) - Pearl Jam Ten, 1991
“Basically, I copied Ace Frehley’s solo from ‘She,’ ” says Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. “Which, of course, was copied from Robby Krieger’s solo in the Doors’ ‘Five to One.’ ”
43) "Sharp Dressed Man" (Billy Gibbons) - ZZ Top Eliminator, 1983
In 1983, a smart gambling man would have bet the house on ZZ Top’s imminent doom. After all, it wasn’t the best of times for good and greasy Texas blues and boogie music. Then the Little Old Band from Texas surprised everyone with Eliminator, a brilliant merger of roadhouse blues and synthesizer swells and looped beats. The album quickly became their biggest hit ever, spurred in large part by the irresistible “Sharp Dressed Man.”
“That song and the whole album really embrace the simplicity of blues and techno music with the complex challenge of how to blend them together,” says guitarist Billy Gibbons. “If you zero in on the middle solo, you will find a slide guitar part played in open E tuning on a Fender Esquire and a sudden shift halfway through the solo to standard Spanish electric tuning played on my good ol’ Les Paul, Pearly Gates. Both were played through a Marshall plexi 100-watt head with two angled cabinets with Celestion 25-watt greenbacks. It was a compound track, two parts blended to one.
"To this day, the song certainly stands among one of the band’s favorites and we’re particularly delighted to share spotlight on a solo that enjoys such favoritism. There are, of course, the more intricate and demanding solos, but we will gladly finger through the solo of sharp dressed man at any requested moment! The track just has a really raucous delivery, which is a good ignition point on stage, sitting on the tailgate out in the middle of nowhere, sipping a cold one, or wherever you may be. It just does something to you.”
42) "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Eric Clapton) - The Beatles The Beatles (White Album), 1968
“When we actually started recording this, it was just me playing the acoustic guitar and singing it, and nobody was interested,” recalls the song’s author, George Harrison. “Well, Ringo probably was, but John and Paul weren’t. When I went home that night, I was really disappointed because I thought, ‘Well, this is really quite a good song; it’s not as if it’s crap!’ And the next day I happened to drive back into London with Eric [Clapton], and I suddenly said, ‘Why don’t you come play on this track?’
"And he said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that; the others wouldn’t like it…’ But I finally said, ‘Well, damn, it’s my song, and I’d like you to come down.’ So he did, and everybody was good as gold because he was there. I sang it with the acoustic guitar with Paul on piano, and Eric and Ringo. Later, Paul overdubbed bass. Then we listened back to it and Eric said, ‘Ah, there’s a problem, though; it’s not Beatlesy enough.’ So we put the song through the ADT [automatic double tracker] to wobble it a bit.”
41) "Brighton Rock" (Brian May) - Queen Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Universally venerated for his lavish guitar orchestrations and tasteful British restraint, Brian May kicked over the traces on this high energy rocker that leads off Queen’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. One of May’s most blues-based excursions ever, the song’s extended solo section grew out of the guitarist’s experiments with an Echoplex tape delay unit. His original goal was to reproduce his multi-part guitar harmonies live on stage with Queen, back in the days before harmonizers were invented.
“I started messing around with the Echoplex, the delay that was available at the time,” May recalls. “I turned up the regeneration until it was giving me multiple repeats. I discovered you could do a lot with this—you could set up rhythms and play against them, or you could play a line and then play a harmony to it. But I decided that the delay [times] I wanted weren’t available on the Echoplex. So I modified it and made a new rail, which meant I could slide the head along and make the delay any length I wanted, because the physical distance between the two heads is what gave you the delay. Eventually, I had two home-adapted Echoplexes. And I discovered that if you put each echo through its own amp, you wouldn’t have any nasty interference between the two signals. Each amp would be like a full-blown, sustaining, overdriven guitar which didn’t have anything to do with the other one.
“So, ‘Brighton Rock’ was the first time that got onto a record. I’d already been trying it live on stage in the middle of ‘Son and Daughter’ [from Queen’s self-titled ’73 debut album], when Queen first toured with Mott the Hoople. It was rather crude at first. But I certainly had a lot of fun with it.”
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