50 Greatest Guitar Solos
10) "Crossroads" (Eric Clapton) - Cream Wheels of Fire, 1968
For over three decades, Eric Clapton has been bemused by his fans’ adulation of his solo on Cream’s radical reworking of bluesman Robert Johnson’s signature tune, “Crossroads.”
“It’s so funny, this,” Clapton says. “I’ve always had that held up as like, ‘This is one of the great landmarks of guitar playing.’ But most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I’m playing on the one and the three and thinking, ‘That’s the off beat.’ No wonder people think it’s so good—because it’s fucking wrong.” [laughs]
Perhaps one reason for Clapton’s difficulty finding the downbeat was that the concert at which the song was recorded, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, got a late start due to drummer Ginger Baker’s tardy, and rather dramatic, appearance. Recalls Tom Dowd, who engineered the recording and ran the mobile recording unit that night: “The group was supposed to go on and we didn’t have Ginger and couldn’t figure out where the heck he was. We were worried, and Bill Graham and others said, ‘God, I hope he’s okay. Maybe we should call the police.’ Then I look out from our vantage point upstairs and see a Corvette speeding towards us, with a couple of police cars a block behind it. That was Ginger arriving. I have no idea what happened, but he pulled up to the stage entrance, abandoned the car, ran up on stage and the band started playing.”
And what they played is what you hear; contrary to a persistent, widely held rumor, the solo on “Crossroads” was not edited down.
“It’s not edited and I’ve got an audience tape from the same show which verifies that,” says Bill Levenson, who produced the Cream box set, Those Were the Days (Polydor). “That was a typical performance of the song. I’ve listened to a lot of tapes and all of the ‘Crossroads’ that I’ve heard come in at four minutes and change. They never seemed to expand it beyond that.”
9) "Crazy Train" (Randy Rhoads) - Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz, 1981
Guitarist Randy Rhoads employeed a two-part process when recording his solos for Blizzard of Ozz, Ozzy Osbourne’s first album following his ouster from Black Sabbath. First, the classically trained young shredder would take his customized Jackson guitars to a stone room downstairs at England’s Ridge Farm Studios where he would work out each of his solos, among them “Crazy Train.”
“This was after we did the backing tracks,” says Blizzard of Ozz engineer Max Norman. “Randy had a Marshall and a couple of 4x12s, and we had him set up in this room with the cabinets facing up out into the main studio. They were miked at various points: close, at three feet, and again at about 12 feet. I would make Randy a loop of the solo section and we’d just let that play into these big monitors downstairs, where he would just sit and jam away for hours and hours until he had composed his completed solo.”
With the solos arranged to his liking, Rhoads would then report upstairs to the control room to record them.
“We’d plug the guitar directly into the console,” recalls Norman. “We’d preamp it in the console and send it down to the amp from there. That way we could control the amount of gain that hit the amp, which is always a problem when running a remote amplifier and trying to get a good enough signal to it.
“Randy would put down his solos pretty quickly once he had them worked out. We’d do two or three takes to get the majority of the solo down, then maybe punch in a few little fix ups. He’d try to get the first take as good as possible, then he’d double it and triple it. Ozzy always wondered why Randy double tracked everything, and he really didn’t want him to. I must admit, at the time I really didn’t think it was a very good idea, either—but when you double and triple track a solo, it actually adds to the accuracy because it’s somewhat more forgiving as far as pitch and timing; it blurs the edges.
“Of the three tracks on each solo, the one that we liked the best would be pretty much down the center of the mix, and the other two would be ghosted back 3 or 4 db, swung out pretty wide on either side. What happens then is that it doesn’t become such an obvious double or triple track—it’s more of an effect, really, because you tend to get the phasing between the different pitches. In addition, with guitars two and three panned left and right, you get a fourth guitar—a phantom guitar—in the middle. So what Randy’s got on those solos is a double track of his main guitar, and the other two guitars attempting to create a ghost guitar. It actually averages out pretty well—it works better than you might think.”
8) "Hotel California" (Don Felder, Joe Walsh) - The Eagles Hotel California, 1976
Credit for the guitar majesty of “Hotel California” is often given to Joe Walsh, who toughened up the Eagles’ laid-back California sound when he joined the band just prior to the Hotel California album’s recording. Actually, the primary guitar heard throughout the solo belongs to Don Felder, who wrote the music for the track and actually conceived and played the solo’s intricate harmonies on his initial, instrumental demo.
“Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great plops into your lap,” says Felder. “That’s how it was with ‘Hotel California.’ I had just leased this beach house in Malibu and was sitting in the living room with all the doors wide open on a spectacular July day, probably in ’75. I was soaking wet in a bathing suit, sitting on the couch, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be and tinkling around with this acoustic 12-string when those ‘Hotel California’ chords just oozed out. I had a TEAC four-track set up in a back bedroom, and I ran back there to put this idea down before I forgot it.
“I set this old rhythm ace to play a cha-cha beat, set the right tempo and played the 12-string on top of it. A few days later, I went back and listened to it and it sounded pretty unique, so I came up with a bass line. A few days after that, I added some electric guitars. Everything was mixed down to mono, ping-ponging back and forth on this little four-track. Finally, I wound up with a cassette that had virtually the entire arrangement that appeared on the record, verbatim, with the exception of a few Joe Walsh licks on the end. All the harmony guitar stuff was there, as was my solo.
“Then I gave it to Don Henley on a tape with eight or 10 ideas, and he came back and said, ‘I really love the one that sounds like a Matador…like you’re in Mexico.’ We worked it all up and went into the studio and recorded it as I wrote it—in E minor, just regular, open chords in standard tuning—and made this killer track. All the electric guitars were big and fat and the 12-string was nice and full. Then Henley came back and said, ‘It’s in the wrong key.’ So I said, ‘What do you need? D? F sharp?’…hoping that we could varispeed the tape. But he said no, that wouldn’t work, and we sat down and started trying to figure out the key—and it turned out to be B minor! So out comes the capo, way up on the seventh fret. We re-recorded the song in B minor and all of a sudden the guitar sounds really small and the whole track just shrinks! It was horrible, so we went back and tried it again. Luckily, we came up with a better version in B minor.
“I kept the capo on and recorded the acoustic guitar through a Leslie. They took a D.I. out of the console and a stereo Leslie, and this got this swirly effect. Then I went back and did most of the guitars, except for the stuff where Joe and I set up on two stools and ran the harmony parts down. I play the first solo, then it’s Joe. Then we trade lines and then we go into the lead harmonies.
“Now that I’ve heard it for 20 years, the 12-string part sounds right to me, but it’s still not as nice as the E minor version we did. And even when we’d finished the song and made it the title track, I wasn’t convinced that it should be our single. I thought it was way too long—twice the normal radio length—and sort of weird because it started out quiet and had this quiet breakdown section in the middle. I was very skeptical, but I yielded to the wisdom of Henley.”
7) "One" (Kirk Hammett) - Metallica ...And Justice for All, 1988
“I had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with my guitar playing on …And Justice for All,” recalls Kirk Hammett. “Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for me to fully execute my ideas.
“We worked on basic tracks for six or seven months, and then I only had eight or nine days to record all my leads because we were heading out on the Monsters of Rock tour [with Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken and Kingdom Come]. To get that done, I had to do incredibly long, grueling days—like 20 hours at a pop—and it took so much out of me. As soon as I finished one solo, I had to do the next one. There was no time to breathe, as the whole vibe was to do it the best you could and keep moving. It was a pretty frustrating experience, to be honest.”
Despite these frustrations, Hammett was immediately pleased with most of his work on “One,” which featured three very different solos. “The first solo and the last solo were completely worked out in advance because I had been playing them for months,” recalls Hammett. “So in those cases it was just a matter of fitting in tonewise. I elected to use a clean sound in the intro solo, which was the first time we used that kind of sound. I dialed it up on an ADA preamp and, once we found the right sound, it just flowed. For the final solo, I used my conventional lead sound of the time. That one flowed quickly, too—once I worked out the intro right-hand tapping technique, a process I really enjoyed. I wanted a high energy intro that would be different from anything I had done in the past. So I got those two solos done quickly and was pleased with them. But the middle one just wasn’t happening.”
Ultimately, Hammett was so displeased with the results of his second solo that he returned to the studio in the midst of the Monsters of Rock tour—spending a day at New York’s Hit Factory with producer Ed Stasium. “I redid the entire second half of the second solo and worked to make it all fit in,” Hammett recalls. “It was better, though I was never totally satisfied with it. I guess I did a good enough job, though.”
Apparently so. The song would soon become Metallica’s first legitimate radio and MTV hit, its solos firmly established as Hammett signature licks.
6) "November Rain" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion I, 1991
Long before the world embraced Guns N’ Roses as the quintessential Eighties rock band, the L.A.-based outfit recorded in one day a demo tape that featured many of what would become the band’s best-known songs, including “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” and “Mr. Browstone,” all of which would wind up on the band’s 1987 breakthrough album, Appetite For Destruction. Also on the tape was a song called “November Rain,” a sprawling, grandiose piano-driven ballad that would lie dormant for the remainder of the decade, eventually resurfacing in 1991 on the band’s two record set, Use Your Illusion.
“I think that demo session was the first time we played ‘November Rain’ together as a band,” says Guns guitarist Slash. “We actually did it on piano and acoustic guitar. As far as the guitar solo, it was so natural from the first time I ever played it on the demo that I don’t even know if I made any changes to it when we did the electric version on Use Your Illusion. I never even went back and listened to the old tapes. One of the best things about a melody for a guitar solo is when it comes to you the same way every time, and that was definitely the case with ‘November Rain.’ When it came time to do the record, I just went into the studio, played the solo through a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall [2555, Jubilee head] and said, ‘I think that sounds right,’ ” he laughs. “It was as simple as that.”
5) "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
Joining the Experience for the initial “Watchtower” session was Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, who, it was decided, would contribute a 12-string acoustic part. “Dave hung out a lot with Jimi and was a regular in the studio,” says engineer Eddie Kramer. “Jimi was aware of his ability and felt that he could cover the part adequately.”
Jimi, says Kramer, had a firm understanding of just how the song was to be arranged and performed, but the session proved to be anything but smooth. Mason, whose job it was to double Jimi’s six-string acoustic rhythm part, struggled mightily, causing Jimi to reprimand him several times.
Hendrix and Noel Redding also clashed, and the bassist, angered by what he saw as Jimi’s obsessive quest for perfection, bolted from the studio midway through the session. Mason took over the bass in Redding’s absence, but Hendrix ultimately overdubbed the part himself, using a small, custom bass guitar that Bill Wyman had given to Andy Johns.
After the basic rhythm tracks were finally completed to Jimi’s satisfaction, he turned his attention to the song’s four distinct solo sections, each of which were recorded separately. “Once Jimi started working on his solos, the session moved very quickly,” says Kramer. “The thing that occurs to me was how completely prepared he was. One thing that people don’t realize is that Jimi always did his homework. He and producer Chas Chandler always got together to work out ideas well before he walked into the studio. Jimi knew exactly what he wanted to play.
“He used an different tone setting for each part. I recall him using a cigarette lighter to play the slide section, and that the delay effect on each of the sections was applied later. I used an EMT plate reverb—that was the only thing available to us at the time.”
4) "Comfortably Numb" (David Gilmour) - Pink Floyd The Wall, 1979
How do you reason with two guys who once went to court over the artistic ownership of a big rubber pig? That was Bob Ezrin’s mission when he agreed to co-produce Pink Floyd’s The Wall with guitarist David Gilmour and bassist/vocalist Roger Waters. The legendary tensions between the two feuding Floyds came to a head during sessions for The Wall in 1979—which was why Ezrin was called in.
“My job was to mediate between two dominant personalities,” recalls Ezrin. However, the producer turned out to be no mere referee, but contributed plenty ideas of his own. “I fought for the introduction of the orchestra on that record,” says Ezrin. “This became a big issue on ‘Comfortably Numb,’ which Dave saw as a more bare-bones track. Roger sided with me. So the song became a true collaboration—it’s David’s music, Roger’s lyric and my orchestral chart.”
Gilmour’s classic guitar solo was cut using a combination of the guitarist’s Hiwatt amps and Yamaha rotating speaker cabinets, Ezrin recalls. But with Gilmour, he adds, equipment is secondary to touch; “You can give him a ukulele and he’ll make it sound like a Stradivarius.”
Which doesn’t mean Gilmour didn’t fiddle around in the studio when he laid down the song’s unforgettable lead guitar part. “I banged out five or six solos,” says Gilmour. “From there I just followed my usual procedure, which is to listen back to each solo and make a chart, noting which bits are good. Then, by following the chart, I create one great composite solo by whipping one fader up, then another fader, jumping from phrase to phrase until everything flows together. That’s the way we did it on ‘Comfortably Numb.’”
3) "Free Bird" (Allen Collins, Gary Rossington) - Lynyrd Skynyrd pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd, 1973
“‘Free Bird’ was actually one of the first songs we ever wrote,” says guitarist Gary Rossington. “Allen [Collins] had the chords for the pretty part in the beginning, two full years, but Ronnie [Van Zant] kept saying that because there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody for it. We were just beginning to write and he thought that he had to change with every chord change.
“Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ Allen played it again, and Ronnie said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And he wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing! He came up with a lot of stuff that way, and he never wrote anything down. His motto was, ‘If you can’t remember it, it’s not worth remembering.’
“So we started playing it in clubs, but it was just the slow part. [A demo of this version of the song appears on the Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (MCA, 1991)—GW Ed.] Then Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes?’ So I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen played over them, then I soloed and then he soloed…it all evolved out of a jam one night. So, we started playing it that way, but Ronnie kept saying, ‘It’s not long enough. Make it longer.’ Because we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up. Then one of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie, Billy Powell, had come up with as an intro for the song. We did—and he went from being a roadie to a member right then.”
On the studio version of the song, which appeared on Skynyrd’s debut album, Collins played the entire solo himself on his Gibson Explorer, with Rossington playing rhythm on his Les Paul, “Bernice,” and adding the slide fills on his SG. “The whole long jam was Allen Collins, himself,” Rossington says. “He was bad. He was super bad! He was bad-to-the-bone bad. When we put the solo together, we liked the sound of the two guitars, and I could’ve gone out and played it with him. But the way he was doin’ it, he was just so hot! ! He just did it once and did it again and it was done.”
The resulting track was nine minutes long, and no one’s idea of a classic radio song. “Everybody told us that we were crazy to put the song on our first album, because it was too long,” recalls Rossington. “Our record company begged us not to include it. And when it first came out, they did all kinds of awful radio edits until it got big enough where it didn’t matter any more.”
Shortly after the album was recorded, bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the group after a brief hiatus and Ed King, his replacement, slid over to guitar, creating a three-guitar juggernaut that could reproduce the song’s majestic attack on stage. By the time Skynyrd cut the 1976 live album One More From the Road, Steve Gaines had replaced King and “Free Bird” had soared to over 13 minutes in length. This version, with its famous shouted intro, “What song is it that you want to hear?,” triggered air guitar frenzy from coast to coast and firmly sealed “Free Bird’s” status as a national treasure.
2) "Eruption" (Eddie Van Halen) - Van Halen Van Halen, 1978
It is hard to imagine a more appropriately titled piece of music than Edward Van Halen’s solo guitar showcase, “Eruption.” When the wildly innovative instrumental was released in 1978, hit the rock guitar community like a hydrogen bomb. Two-handed tapping, gonzo whammy bar dips, artificial harmonics—with Van Halen’s masterly application of these and other techniques, “Eruption” made every other six-stringer look like a third-stringer.
But the most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the unaccompanied solo is that it almost didn’t make it on the guitarist’s debut album.
“The story behind ‘Eruption’ is strange,” says Van Halen. “It wasn’t even supposed to be on Van Halen. While we were recording the album, I showed up at the studio early one day and started to warm up because I had a gig on the weekend and I wanted to practice my solo-guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape!'
“I played it two times for the record, and we kept the one that seemed to flow. Ted liked it, and everyone else agreed that we should throw it on the album. I didn’t even play it right—there’s a mistake at the top end of it. Whenever I hear it, I always think, ‘Man, I could’ve played it better.’”
As for the distinctive echo effect on the track, Eddie recalls that he used a relatively obscure unit—a Univox echo chamber. “It had a miniature 8-track cassette in it, and the way it would adjust the rate of repeat was by the speed of the motor, not by tape heads. So, if you recorded something on tape, the faster you played the motor back, the faster it would repeat and vice versa. I liked some of the noises I got out of it, but its motor would always burn out.”
“I like the way ‘Eruption’ sounds. I’d never heard a guitar sound like that before.”
1) "Stairway to Heaven" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV, 1971
If Jimmy Page is the Steven Spielberg of guitarists, then “Stairway” is his Close Encounters. Built around a solid, uplifting theme—man’s quest for salvation—the epic slowly gains momentum and rushes headlong to a shattering conclusion. The grand finale in this case is the song’s thrill-a-second guitar solo.
Page remembers: “I’d been fooling around with the acoustic guitar and came up with several different sections which flowed together nicely. I soon realized that it could be the perfect vehicle for something I’d been wanting to do for a while: to compose something that would start quietly, have the drums come in the middle, and then build to a huge crescendo. I also knew that I wanted the piece to speed up, which is something musicians aren’t supposed to do.
“So I had all the structure of it, and ran it by [bassist] John Paul Jones so he could get the idea of it—[drummer] John Bonham and [singer] Robert Plant had gone out for the night—and then on the following day we got into it with Bonham. You have to realize that, at first, there was a hell of a lot for everyone to remember on this one. But as we were sort of routining it, Robert started writing the lyrics, and much to his surprise, he wrote a huge percentage of it right there and then.”
Plant recalls the experience: “I was sitting next to Page in front of a fire at our studio in Headley Grange. He had written this chord sequence and was playing it for me. I was holding a pencil and paper, when, suddenly, my hand was writing out the words: ‘There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.’ I just sat there and looked at the words and almost leaped out of my seat. Looking back, I suppose I sat down at the right moment.”
While the spontaneous nature of Plant’s anthemic lyrics came as a pleasant surprise, the best was yet to come. The beautifully constructed guitar solo that Guitar World readers rated the “best ever” was, believe it or not, improvised.
“I winged it,” says Page with a touch of pride. “I had prepared the overall structure of the guitar parts, but not the actual notes. When it came time to record the solo I warmed up and recorded three of them They were all quite different from each other. All three are still on the master tape, but the one we used was the best solo, I can tell you that.”
“I thought ‘Stairway’ crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there, and showed the band at its best. I’m not talking about solos or anything; it had everything there. Every musician wants to do something that will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did that with ‘Stairway.’"
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