There is an unofficial pantheon upon which we tacitly ordain the finest moments of lead guitar genius with immortality. Here we might find Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, SRV’s Texas Flood and Hendrix’s, well, take your pick…
This is where we put Steve Vai’s For the Love of God, and all the other solos that pass into the canon to be held as exemplars of technique and composition. But so many great solos fall through the gaps.
Some might be conducted by great players who would never consider themselves guitar gods, other on which the technique is such a distant second to note choice, tone, feel, and being just what the song needed, that we overlook it. Maybe that is what defines a great guitar solo, giving the song what it needs.
Certainly, the solos we list here all take the song some place where it couldn’t get on its on. In rock, lead guitar is a power-up, a shot of coffee after lunch; it dials up the heat. Great solos, however, needn’t take the paint off the wall. Stephen Malkmus plays as though he’s half-awake and yet when he takes a solo, such as it is, he communicates an emotional intensity that could well change your life.
The guitar solos we are looking at are worthy of the pantheon but aren’t always held up as lodestars for lead guitar playing.
Some, like Jimmy Ryan’s on You’re So Vain and Luther Perkin’s on Folsom Prison Blues were hiding in plain sight, on songs we all know inside and out, but don’t quite make the connection between the song’s greatness and its solo. One criterion used here is that none of the following appear in Guitar World’s 100 greatest solos of all time list.
Likewise, Kurt Cobain’s unadorned solo in Smells Like Teen Spirit shows just what you can do with less, and how over-exposure can make us numb to the electrifying power of a song. Sometimes we have to take a moment and reconnect with a song to savor its magic anew.
Certainly, the solos we list here all take the song some place where it couldn’t get on its on. In rock, lead guitar is a powerup, a shot of coffee after lunch; it dials up the heat. Great solos, however, needn’t take the paint off the wall. Stephen Malkmus plays as though he’s half-awake and yet when he takes a solo, such as it is, he communicates an emotional intensity that could well change your life.
1. Carly Simon - You’re So Vain
Guitarist: Jimmy Ryan
We all know the song. It’s the one where Simon’s songwriting sensibility and acerbic wit are in perfect synergy for an unstoppable pop rock anthem. But you’ll sooner get a definitive answer as to who the subject of the song is before mastering the feel of Jimmy Ryan’s solo.
In Ryan’s recollection it was all in one take, cut in one evening. In producer Richard Perry’s it was more like 17. Either way, Ryan’s note choice is exquisite, and note how he switches to slide for a vocal intensity before we’re back in the awesome pre-chorus.
2. Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
Guitarist: Kurt Cobain
Because Smells Like Teen Spirit became shorthand for the whole grunge scene in just a few powerchords, we’ve been inured to its magic. Sure, the opening chords are total first riff material, but the solo should be a case study in taking a less-is-more, tone-first approach to lead guitar.
Butch Vig’s production is so perfect for this record, and never more so than for Cobain’s solo, which reprises the vocal melody through a sea-sick Small Clone chorus and a squall of DS-1 distortion.
3. The Knack - My Sharona
Guitarist: Berton Averre
The Bohemian Rhapsody of the wedding reception disco and the very quintessence of pop-rock, My Sharona has enough going on with it to be a bona-fide classic, but Berton Averre’s super-melodic approach to the solo is just such a rush. It’s like tasting Coca-Cola for the first time. Perfect.
4. Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues
Guitarist: Luther Perkins
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…” are the words that great us before we are whisked off on the boom chicka boom train to the penitentiary. While this is an incendiary track, proto-punk in attitude, a definitive recording by Cash, it is Luther Perkins’ rockabilly provocations on his Fender Esquire that liberated country music into the space occupied by rock ’n’ roll. Which leads us nice into our next entry...
5. The Cramps - The Way I Walk
Guitarist: Poison Ivy
There might be “better” players on this list but surely none cooler than the Cramps rebel-in-chief. Again, it’s all about the tone, the twang, the slap-back echo, the reverb, the sense of danger that many aspire to yet fall short.
The whole track is a lesson in groove but the solo foregrounds that sense of rhythm, timing, and the kind of self-assured performance that could only come from some who did not care what you thought of her.
6. Helmet - Ironhead
Guitarist: Page Hamilton
Page Hamilton’s jazz training and an avant-garde sensibility cultivated in the company of Glenn Branca are brought to bear on the searing, atonal lead that brings the hulking groove of Ironhead to a hault.
Meantime is an inhospitable, angry record, spiked with subversive alt-rock melody and quasi-metal weight, and solos such as this feel like anxiety made sound. It calls to mind Bill Pullman’s jazz sax in Lost Highway, albeit through a fug of distortion.
7. Black Sabbath - Master of Insanity
Guitarist: Tony Iommi
Dehumanizer is one of the most underrated records in metal. Released in 1992, an unfashionable year for Sabbath, this is premium steel, and Master of Reality was one of its strongest tracks.
It finds Iommi in ripping form with a solo that is as stately as anything he has every done. The melody that prefigures the aforementioned ripping is like something off a Marvel movie; how apt, because this is some superhero lead work from metal’s first Iron Man.
8. St. Vincent - Rattlesnake
Guitarist: St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark)
St Vincent is one of the world’s most interesting (read: best) tone-seekers and it lends her alt-pop an extra-dimensionary flavor. Whatever she is doing you can be assured that it is something totally unique and off-kilter.
Rattlesnake is a great tune first and foremost but when the solo kicks in with its violining fuzz of her Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth it is the sort of WTF moment that sits you back down on the floor rethinking your signal chain. Oh, and her note choices are great.
9. Suicidal Tendencies - How Will I Laugh Tomorrow if I Can’t Even Smile today
Guitarist: Rocky George
The Ibanez RG Series was to Rocky George what the light saber was to Obi Wan Kenobi. He applied a full-shred approach to crossover punk-thrash, typically opening a hectic ST jam with some blazing melodic lead before showcasing his prodigious technique later in the track when more intensity was needed. His legato is super-smooth, his tapping electric. Few could hold their own with Rocky George.
10. Silver Jews - Random Rules
Guitarist: Stephen Malkmus
The late, great David Berman was American indie rock’s poet laureate. He was its Dylan, its master of letters, and on Random Rules, his wry, observational lyrics are delivered with a measured distance that can’t help but pull you in.
Now, what has this to do with Stephen Malkmus’s solo? Well, everything, because within such a spare, minor-key arrangement, Malkmus finds the pocket of space to play a perfectly pitched solo that’s akin to taking a Sharpie to Berman’s lyric sheet and underlining the bits that mean the most.
11. The Cure - From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
Guitarist: Porl Thompson
When Robert Smith spoke to Guitar Player in 1992, he spoke of having to come to terms with guitar solos. “I used to abhor them,” he said. “I didn't like the whole wanky idea of stepping to the front and saying, ‘Look at me!’”
But things were changing for the Cure, and that year Wish had just been released, and Porl Thompson unleashed on From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea for an instinctive solo that amplifies the emotional intensity as the song reaches a climax.
12. Living Colour - Go Away
Guitarist: Vernon Reid
Vernon Reid was the sort of player who sent you back to the woodshed to rethink the instrument. Living Colour’s freewheeling approach to rock, to metal, to whatever, was already kinda dizzying, but it was truly lit up by Reid’s incandescent lead performances.
Go Away - an urgent riposte to apathy - is a prime example. Like Page Hamilton, Reid knows the value of tension and urgency, and dials it past the point of comfort with a flurry of alternate picking and outside notes.
13. Chris Cornell - Flutter Girl
Guitarist: Alain Johannes
The collaboration between Chris Cornell and Alain Johannes was ceaselessly inventive.
Take Flutter Girl: here Johannes serves up a soft-boil psychedelic tremolo, a psychologically queasy accompaniment to Cornell’s peerless voice, before using wah on a solo that's got him almost choking his phrasing, which is an interesting choice because, again, it resists taking on a vocal quality as many solos do to further contrast Cornell's vocal rather than competing with it.
14. David Bowie - Let’s Dance
Guitarist: Stevie Ray Vaughan
If you just did the math, giving SRV a platform to play with Bowie was never going to suck. Two geniuses, they’d make it work, right? Well, consider Let’s Dance for a second, listen to how it is constructed. It is a work of rhythmically ingenious pop without any precedent; that’s alien ground for a bluesman.
From that perspective, this was an audacious move. While the SRV/Bowie partnership never worked out for the touring (or the video, with Bowie wearing curator’s gloves miming along in the Australian outback!), Vaughan’s fat, juicy tone makes for an unorthodox but perfect complement to the track.
15. Europe - The Final Countdown
Guitarist: John Norum
The word was that John Norum thought the mix buried his guitar under the synth but surely his chagrin was salved once the royalty cheques started coming in. But he has a point, up to a point, because there’s nothing background about his solo.
A proto-powermetal masterclass in hyper-melodic shred, it foreshadowed the rise of power metal in the decade that followed, and it gave track that had too much of everything just a little extra, because this was the ‘80s, dammit.
16. The Pretenders - Kid
Guitarist: James Honeyman-Scott
James Honeyman-Scott, what a player. If Chrissie Hynde was the attitude and the propulsive force behind the Pretenders’ sound, Honeyman-Scott sugared it with melodies to bring out the best in Hynde.
For his solo on Kid, he borrowed Hynde’s Telecaster (only fair - she played his ES-335 on the song) and played it super-clean, foregrounding melody and a tasteful sense of Americana that belies his English roots.
17. Johnny “Guitar” Watson - Gangster of Love (1978)
Guitarist: Johnny "Guitar" Watson
There were a few versions of Watson’s track kicking around. This live recording is probably the best example of Watson’s prodigious showmanship and the evolution of a track that started out as a blues shuffle with the guitar firmly in the background.
Watson’s style was hard on his strings. His thumb would hammer them out. He carried his guitar like T-Bone Walker, hung over one shoulder as though he might have to make a sharp exit. A one-off.
18. Baroness - Borderlands
Guitarist: Gina Gleason
Gina Gleason’s arrival has seen the Savannah, Georgia, quartet’s evolution accelerate, with their expansive take on underground hard rock adopting such alien practices as using single-coil Fender guitars to make ostensibly heavy music. It also allows them to lean on Gleason’s prodigious chops and ear for tone.
Here, she’s pretty restrained, her solo taking on a Scott Gorham-esque quality in that it shapeshifts seemlessly back into the song, like it was rhythm guitar all along. Oh, and few use effects better.
19. Heart - Barracuda
Guitarist: Roger Fisher
Roger Fisher’s work with Heart is essential listening. We could have put Magic Man in here, but then those were more pockets of localized lead guitar genius rather than a sustained solo. There are two solos here. The first is more conventional, raising the stakes in the song, and it’s a neat example in the tension between freakishly good chops and restraint, complementing the hard-driving riff.
The second, best studied on the studio recording, is a masterclass in using delay and modulation, all the better to accommodate the famous alien attack effect, which Fisher got by taking the jack from his guitar cable and holding it near the amp’s tubes while his Phoenix Systems flanger was on.
20. The Tedeschi Trucks Band - They Don’t Shine
Guitarist: Susan Tedeschi
Susan Tedeschi’s lead guitar playing often gets overlooked, and for a number or reasons, not least of which is that her voice is one of the strongest in the blues, and among the 12-strong line-up of the Tedeschi Trucks Band she typically holds down the rhythm with Derek Trucks handling leads.
But They Don’t Shine, a bona-fide weekend party track from Signs, sees her cut loose on a Strat and remind us that she should put her Fender Stratocaster in the service of lead guitar more often.
21. Television - See No Evil
Guitarist: Richard Lloyd
This was the shape of punk to come that never came - no one could play like Television, no one else had the combined forces of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s well-drilled avant-gardism working in a telepathic lock-step.
Seriously, nothing compares to the energy on Marquee Moon. It’s an album more celebrated for its interplay, but this solo from Lloyd really tears through the ether and commands attention. It’s a lightning in a bottle moment. Why wasn’t this on our first list?