This year is not like any other. The response to the 2023 greatest guitar solo poll nigh-on overwhelmed the administration at Guitar World. It was a record turnout, and once we collated the votes, and our editors meticulously weighed up each solo’s melodicism, influence and technical prowess, we had a truly formidable top 10 on our hands.
The number one spot will come as no surprise. This was the year that gave us this decade’s Heartbreaker, its Eruption. We might all debate the guitar solo’s place in composition, the form it should take and whether it is even necessary in the first place, but it’s not going anywhere.
The solo will outlive us all, and this top 10 presents documentary evidence that the solo is ever-evolving – that at its best it can tell a story, give us a sense of spectacle, and even offer a window into a player’s soul. And if it sets your head on fire, then all the better.
10. Towa Bird – Boomerang
TikTok’s Towa Bird is just going to have to savor the irony in charting in the top 10 guitar solos of 2023 having already declared on this very website that they are “arrogant”. But then art is all about contradictions and subverting expectations, and if you’re the sort of player who discovered the guitar then mainlined Jimi Hendrix’s recorded output, then how could you deny yourself the pleasure of a few bars on the treble clef to cut loose?
Speaking to Guitar World in June, Bird said Boomerang’s solo had to “feel like a conversation”, and you can hear that in the phrasing – it’s inviting a response. Tone-wise, Boomerang is awesome, and should be a surprise to no one that a TikTok star should make use of plugins to dial in an electric guitar sound.
“Being able to do that in the box is really helpful,” said Bird. “Throwing things into different rooms, playing it on two different guitars and then having two different distortions or fuzzes was just so fun.”
9. Big Wreck – Hangers On
Ian Thornley was never going to wake up one morning and find Mike Varney’s face pressed up against his window with a big fat contract to draft him onto the Shrapnel roster. That’s not his game. But that is not to say that he is not a formidable lead guitar player, whose solos are often essential to his songwriting, an opportunity to say what he wanted to say in verse but perhaps couldn’t find the words.
That’s when you can let the guitar say what you couldn’t, and this solo – teased out, sparse but not minimalist – has an elliptical quality, an air of Peter Green about it. Not that it is blues, but rather that it is phrased with all due care and attention as it should be.
EDITOR'S PICK: Rose City Band – Slow Burn
The Rose City Band features Wooden Shjips/ Moon Duo man Ripley Johnson and pedal steel player Barry Walker, and the two players spark off each other in superb fashion on Slow Burn. The verse sections are laced with magnificent, melodic slide flourishes from Walker’s pedal steel, but it’s Johnson’s central solo – making his Strat’s single-coils really sing with some soft picked clarity and a beautiful vibrato – that keeps us going back. – Matt Parker
8. Angel Vivaldi – Six
If you’ve heard the name but have yet to experience what he sounds like on record, then Angel Vivaldi’s Six is the perfect introduction to his talents. It’s not as though it is the quintessence of his output. Vivaldi’s protean appetites have taken him all over the map, dabbling in all kinds of genres. But it’s as good as DNA and dental records for identifying the marvel with the Charvel: his style, how he addresses the electric guitar, note choice, intonation, pressure on the strings and melodic disposition.
“Six is the truest song from a compositional, arrangement and melodic sense,” he told GW. “It’s the one that best shows my ‘signature sound,’ as they say.”
It’s fusion, rock through the blender, a melodic arc that’s a pure flight of fancy. This is the sort of thing that might come of a fever dream after spending all night night woodshedding on Joe Pinnavaia’s Truefire course with nothing but strong cheese and crackers for sustenance.
7. Matteo Mancuso – Silkroad
It’s not, ‘How can Matteo Mancuso play all of this fingerstyle?’ It’s a case of fingerstyle making all of this possible, allowing Mancuso to apply classical guitar techniques to rock and take the instrument into uncharted territory.
It’s early days but let’s be bold and call it now: Mancuso is a generational talent. The amiable Sicilian has made an audacious debut with The Journey, and Silkroad, its opening track, is a product of his adventurous musical appetites, dedication to practice and application.
The lion’s share of The Journey was performed on a Yamaha Revstar, but on Silkroad you’re hearing a Pacifica, and like the physical Silk Road, this connects cultures, a fusion of east and west, a taste of something fresh on the palate that we have never experienced before. Suggested wine pairing: Frank Cornelissian Susucaru rosato, served chilled.
EDITOR'S PICK: Tash Sultana – New York
The Australian singer-songwriter and Fender signature artist is a musician of many talents, quite a few of which are simultaneously displayed on New York, an immersive epic from 2023 EP, Sugar. You don’t name a song after the Big Apple without wanting to conjure visions in listeners of endless bright lights and skyscrapers, traffic and magic, running down the street to chase a lost love… you get the point. Sultana executes the assignment flawlessly, leading the song out with a cinematic lead break that gets Gilmour-like mileage out of each note. – Jackson Maxwell
6. Nita Strauss – Surfacing (feat. Marty Friedman)
The undisputed shred heavyweight collab of the year lived up to the hype. Even for Hurricane Nita, who plays with Alice Cooper, has played with Demi Lovato, and can play most of us under the table, this was a moment where it came full-circle.
Strauss is not the first to have pored over Friedman’s Exotic Metal Guitar DVD for insight but few of us get the opportunity to send a track by way of the G.O.A.T. and engage in some back and forth for – arguably – the instrumental rock guitar track of the year.
Strauss says the experience taught her a lot about telling a story with the instrument, note choice and how to make melodies pop out. It made her a better player.
“This collaboration was such an education for me, as a sort-of young guitar player at the foot of the master!” she said. “The first metal song I ever heard had Marty playing guitar on it. We fleshed out the whole concept together. I sent him some riffs and then he sent back this crazy song with his own ideas.”
5. Avenged Sevenfold – Nobody
If the riff to Nobody was so simple it almost sounded like the push-button drone of a synth, then Synyster Gates' efflorescence of sweep-picked arpeggios offers a complex counterpoint, the audio equivalent of pairing a child’s crayon drawing of a donkey with a machine-learning algorithm. And it totally works, closing out the track with a masterclass in lead guitar as narrative device.
This virtuosity is a signature move of Synyster Gates, and is such that we have come to expect it. But sometimes you’ve got to sit back and admire it, to appreciate anew. Just imagine if this was your very first song you wanted to learn on guitar – to the exclusion of all other songs – the length of time it would take between learning the riff and the solo. Well, it could take years, maybe never.
EDITOR'S PICK: Unprocessed – Die on the Cross of the Martyr (feat. Tim Henson and Scott LePage)
When Manuel Gardner Fernandes recruited Tim Henson and Scott LePage for an Unprocessed track just this month, there was only ever going to be one outcome: a pure and uncompromising guitar masterclass. Be it the Polyphia pair’s curation of lightning licks or Fernandes’ own uniquely percussive approach to soloing, any of the trio’s individual lead efforts are worthy of inclusion on this list. The fact they appear in the same song is borderline obscene. A milestone track from three of today’s finest modern instrumentalists. – Matt Owen
4. Queens of the Stone Age – Paper Machete
That players spend so long trying to sound like Queens of the Stone Age, picking up fuzz pedals, overdrives, taking solid-state practice amps out of cold storage is all well and good. It’s good, healthy tone-seeking fun. But just so long as we all don’t underestimate how difficult it is to actually play like them. Y’know, that’s the important bit.
As with Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen’s tone, so it is with their arrangements, with riffs you’ve got to count, informing a groove you have to somehow innately feel, and then you’ve got solos like TVL’s here that are as good as copy-protected.
Van Leeuwen’s phrasing makes it sound as though it has been made up on the spot, a work of high-flying studio improv, but the note choices are all on point, in dialog with the tricksy melody, and tonally… Well, give it some neck pickup and a Univox Super-Fuzz and see how you go.
3. Red Devil Vortex – More Luck Than Brains
Red Devil Vortex sound like they are named after some energy drink that had to be removed off the market for our cardiovascular integrity’s sake, and listening to More Luck Than Brains and then trying to get those pull-offs just right on the seven-string guitar, tricksy tapping and all, might similarly give you palpitations.
Luís Kalil’s solo starts with the difficulty set to hard before taking it to advanced/expert, stepping on the Whammy for squeal-good kicks and sending us out to the hotdog stand with that ridiculously adroit legato style of his.
Watching the playthrough vid that the Brazilian virtuoso shot, we were taken by that signature reverse tapping move – a little theater goes a long way – but also a cleanliness next to godliness when it comes to those pull-offs to open strings. Check it out and see if you can play it. Just remember to breathe.
EDITOR'S PICK: Baroness – Last Word
In Gina Gleason’s six-year tenure with the tonally adventurous Savannah metal collective, we’ve never heard the ex-Cirque du Soleil shredder unleash quite such an unbridled flurry of notes as in 2023, when she broke Last Word’s hard-rock dam with a rushing waterfall of fuzzed-out arpeggios more acrobatic than any of Cirque’s most death-defying routines. As she relayed to GW, the secret to her blazing technique is hybrid picking, which explains why there’s a country flair to her spotlight-stealing solo. – Michael Astley-Brown
2. Mammoth WVH – Take a Bow
In any other year, this would have to take number one spot. Take a Bow is a solo that has everything and then some, and it is the ‘then some’ that is remarkable – the legend, the history that brought us here.
Because this is a solo brought to you courtesy of rock guitar’s Excalibur, the Frankenstein MacGuyver’d into being by Eddie Van Halen, and his son, Wolfgang. It is a solo that gives you the impression that two-handed tapping was taught at the dinner table between main course and dessert, or that it runs in the family.
But, of course, there were no tapping lessons at the Van Halen dinner table; there was conversation like any other family. Of course these skills don’t run in the family; they are developed over the years. They are a creative choice.
And while it might be a no-brainer that WVH should use EVH’s gear in the studio, it’s Wolfgang’s daring creative choice to deploy these tapping skills on a track that’s as epic and ambitious as anything he has written.
Given the context, the weight of history, that makes it all the more gutsy and poignant. Oh, and it’s just nice to hear that guitar in action again. Take a Bow is a real gift to Mammoth WVH’s audience, and to his father’s.
1. Extreme – Rise
The moment Rise hit YouTube, announcing Extreme’s then forthcoming studio album, Six, after 15 long years, Nuno Bettencourt’s phone lit up with messages from his peers. Legends like Steve Lukather and Brian May got in touch with him.
The messages were thank yous – a bit odd, but the penny soon dropped. They were thanking Bettencourt for bringing back an art that was lost, not just the act of a guitar solo – they’ve always been here, always will be – but the art of performing them.
That was what made the difference, said Bettencourt. It was the presentation. There is a case to be made that Rise isn’t necessarily the best solo on the album. There is an abundance of audacity on Six, the sound of Bettencourt on a tear and in the form of his life. But seeing him perform it, evidence before our very eyes that it wasn’t punched in or trickery we were hearing, made it all the more visceral.
As guitar solos go, this is a nuclear strike, a supernova. This is the guitar solo as pop-cultural event, as though the excitement of a sold-out stadium rock show could be harvested, reconfigured and reappropriated for 55 seconds of God-level shredding.
Shredding is an inadequate word but it’s what we’ve got. Best solo of 2023? Best solo of the 21st century so far, from rock guitar’s most imaginative, most effervescent lead stylist.