A few years ago, the editors of Guitar World compiled what we feel is the ultimate guide to the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time.
The list, which has been quoted by countless artists, websites and publications around the world, starts with Richie Sambora's work on Bon Jovi's “Wanted Dead or Alive” (100) and builds to a truly epic finish with Jimmy Page's solo on "Stairway to Heaven" (01).
To quote our "Stairway to Heaven" story that ran with the list, "If Jimmy Page is the Steven Spielberg of guitarists, then 'Stairway' is his Close Encounters."
On June 10, we kicked off a summer blockbuster of our own — a no-holds-barred six-string shootout. We pitted Guitar World's top 64 guitar solos against each other in an NCAA-style, 64-team single-elimination tournament. Every day, we asked you to cast your vote in a different guitar-solo matchup as dictated by the 64-team-style bracket. Now Rounds 1 and 2 have come and gone, leaving us with 16 guitar solos and eight matchups.
WELCOME TO THE SWEET 16 ROUND, where all 16 still-standing solos will go head to head before your eyes! As always, you can vote once per matchup, and the voting ends as soon as the next matchup is posted.
In some cases, genre will clash against genre; a thrash solo might compete against a Southern rock solo. But please get real, people! They're all guitar solos, played on guitars, by guitarists, most of them in some subset of the umbrella genre of rock. When choosing, it might have to come down to, "Which solo is more original and creative? Which is more iconic or important? or Which one kicks a larger, more impressive assemblage of asses?"
Winner: "Free Bird" (56.33 percent)
Loser: "No More Tears" (43.67 percent)
Today's Sweetwater Sweet 16 Matchup (3 of 8)
"Stairway to Heaven" Vs. "Heartbreaker"
Today, for the first time since the Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time readers poll began on June 10, a guitarist is squaring off against himself! Yes, it's Jimmy Page against Jimmy Page! (This shouldn't be too surprising, since the Led Zeppelin axman is responsible for four of our final 16 guitar solos; it was bound to happen at some point.) Be sure to cast your vote for his classic solo on "Stairway to Heaven" (01) or his equally classic "Heartbreaker" (16) solo.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
• "Stairway to Heaven" defeated Prince's "Little Red Corvette" (64) in Round 1 and Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" (32) in Round 2.
• "Heartbreaker" defeated a pair of instrumental tunes: Carlos Santana's "Europa" (49) in Round 1 and Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" (17) in Round 2.
Get busy! You'll find the poll at the very bottom of the story.
01. “Stairway to Heaven”
Soloist: Jimmy Page
Album: Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic, 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. Every musician wants to do something that will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did that with ‘Stairway.’ ”
Soloist: Jimmy Page
Album: Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic, 1969)
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, Page 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.”
[[ When you're done voting, start learning most of the guitar solos in this poll — and and a whole lot more! Check out a new TAB book from Guitar World and Hal Leonard: 'The 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time: A Treasure Trove of Guitar Leads Transcribed Note-for-Note, Plus Song Notes for More Than 40 of the Best Solos.' It's available now at the Guitar World Online Store for $29.99. NOTE: Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" guitar solo (solo number 39 on our list) is NOT included in this book. ]]
Cast Your Vote!
Winner: "Stairway to Heaven" (75.66 percent)
Loser: "Heartbreaker" (24.54 percent)