It’s that time of year when we give it up and offer the lead guitarists a well-deserved round of applause. Well done, everyone, you’ve earned it. As we guitar players know, a great guitar solo contains multitudes.
Oftentimes it’s all about the woodshedding, but then mavens of tantric sustain might beg to differ. Technique can be critical, but usually it’s the tone, or even the lack of a rigid schoolbook performance, that makes a solo worthy of multiple listens.
For many players, especially those whose names are not on the ticket, diplomacy is key when convincing bandmates to surrender 32 bars or more to your musical genius. But perhaps we should stop looking at lead guitar as being separate to the songwriting process. Here, we have a wide range of styles, and yet all conform to that one rule of serving the song.
It has been quite the year for lead guitar. John Petrucci has put his name to two albums and yet the top 10 eludes him. Julian Lage’s Blue Note debut, Squint, saw him attack electric jazz guitar with a freewheeling zeal, and then we had Eric Gales’ show-stealing solo with Joe Bonamassa, when he dug deep into his musical vocabulary to set alight to I Want My Crown.
Then there was Steve Vai’s act of one-armed legato genius, Knappsack. That none of these made the cut speaks to the impact of the following, and that the pop-cultural compass of the Guitar World reader is pointed towards the sounds of the '70s and '80s reimagined for today.
10. Slash ft. Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators – The River Is Rising
Is it even an end of year best guitar solos list if it doesn’t include the top-hatted rock animal who signs his Christmas cards ‘Slash’? Here, his long-time co-Conspirator Myles Kennedy gives him the big build-up, before the band take a deep breath and heave into a double-time feel for a solo that has shades of Slash’s fast-picking Paradise City approach, foregrounding a helter-skelter melody that resolves in a muscle-car AC/DC/Aerosmith lick.
There are faster guitar solos. There are more melodic guitar solos, too. But there’s something about Slash’s feel that is so aggressive you wonder how you could ever replicate it, least not on a Les Paul stringed with a set of 11s. Maybe we’ll try the Rocky method, downing raw eggs at sun-up, and perhaps spiking our superfoods smoothie with a healthy tot of sour mash whiskey.
9. Joe Bonamassa – Mind’s Eye
Time Clocks took all of us for a spin. The way Mr. Bonamassa was talking, this was to be a stripped-down New York album, a work of throw-and-go electric blues. And yet it turned out to be a long-form epic with the influence of prog heroes such as Chris Squire coming to the fore and broadening the canvas.
Mind’s Eye takes the blues ballad through the looking glass – a dark night of the soul on the dark side of the moon – and it’s capped with a lead passage that eschews any temptation for pentatonic boogie for melodic minor key virtuosity, played on guitars that could tell you first hand what John F. Kennedy was wearing at his inauguration.
With the feel on this one, it’s as though Bonamassa had been watching the weather channel for inspiration, building and building the intensity of the storm then allowing us a moment to get our heads together in the aftermath.
EDITOR'S PICK: Julian Lage – Twilight Surfer (opens in new tab)
No-one solos quite like Julian Lage, and his unique approach to lead playing is on magnificent display in Twilight Surfer. Lage seemingly leaves no fret unplayed, masterfully bounding between boxes via some remarkable runs that almost defy the laws of physics. Just when you think Lage is heading down a dead-end, he conjures up an inexplicable turnaround and sets off in another direction. Twilight Surfer is further proof that Lage is simply in a league of his own. – Matt Owen
8. Flock of Dimes – Price of Blue
And so for something skronky, spanky and crunchy. Jenn Wasner’s Flock of Dimes is always essential listening for budding tonesmiths who want to take the electric guitar out of its conventional jazz/blues/rock/metal law of gravity, and her latest album, Head of Roses, is exquisite in terms of tone and composition.
The Price of Blue solo, though, tracked on an '80s Fender Stratocaster owned by producer Nick Sanborn's father, is a remarkable piece of work. It’s the tone, yes, but it’s also the phrasing and Wasner’s use of the vibrato. It sounds like it has gently torn something in the mix, as though something mechanical has gone and it’s set loose the song’s ID. It also serves as a successful reference for how to hold the atonal and the melodic in perfect equilibrium.
7. Myles Kennedy – The Ides of March
As a soothsayer to the Roman Emperor, Caesar famously said, "Beware The Ides of March." Not necessarily because your courtiers and palace rivals might stick the knife into you, but because nailing the phrasing on this standout guitar moment from Myles Kennedy’s latest solo album might drive you madder than Schumann.
Guitar players will recognize the real heroes behind this piece – the guitar techs who set up the guitar, and the engineers who made the guitar tuner so accurate. Like walking on the moon, a solo that relies on such on-point intonation is a team sport, and spectacular when it comes off.
Kennedy’s profile as a guitarist is often overshadowed by his pals Slash and Alter Bridge bandmate Mark Tremonti, but the title track from his latest solo album is a showcase for his formidable talents, chief among them that sense of feel, intonational propriety, and phrasing.
EDITOR'S PICK: Courtney Barnett & Vagabon – Don’t Do It (opens in new tab)
Tackling a song like Sharon Van Etten’s Don’t Do It – a frank examination of a horrifically toxic, emotionally abusive relationship – is no easy task, but Courtney Barnett & Vagabon pull it off magnificently in this cover. Keeping things restrained and somber vocal-wise, Barnett lets her guitar paint the real picture with a brief but unforgettable outburst around three minutes in. Absolutely stabbing every single note, and letting things dissolve into a rush of squealing feedback at one point, Barnett captures all of the song’s despair, fury, confusion and terror in a handful of awe-inspiring bars. – Jackson Maxwell
6. Cardinal Black – Tell Me How It Feels
Chris Buck gives this neo-soul rocker a welcome power-up with some sweet cream fingerstyle lead guitar that seems to have culled its note choices and phrasing from the back catalog of Motown Records.
Okay, so most human voices might not get up this high – and God help Tom Hollister if his voice ever reaches this pitch – but Buck’s solo here really sounds like an ancillary vocal line played on guitar.
You might have arrived here as a Cardinal Black fan, but the chances are you will already be familiar with the amiable six-string phenom from his YouTube presence, and he has been typically kind enough to break this solo down for us on his YouTube channel.
Check out that video (opens in new tab) if you want him tell you more, but one last word from us – that Yamaha Revstar, Mythos Golden Fleece fuzz pedal, ThorpyFX Gunshot into a Victory V140 Super Duchess is a recipe for artery-clogging tone, leavened with a soupçon of lemon juice treble. It’s positively epicurean; Bon Appétit should run a column on Buck’s tone.
5. Tremonti – Marching in Time
Mark Tremonti’s guitar solos are a little like the post-millennial acting career of Tom Cruise. You know there will be running. You know there will be thrills, spills and a sense of shock and awe. But even though you know all this is coming, there’s a gratifying adrenaline rush for seeing – or in Tremonti’s case, hearing – this all come together.
Marching in Time is vintage Tremonti, widescreen and dynamic, and its solo could only come from a black belt in legato jiu-jitsu. Using a wah pedal as a filter, he showcases some ridiculously dexterous chops, with intervallic gaps that suggest you might need hands like E.T. to fret them comfortably. But if we are to anoint Tremonti as Top Gun of crowd-pleasing virtuosity, it is probably on the super-human fluidity of his position changes.
EDITOR'S PICK: Trivium – In the Court of the Dragon (opens in new tab)
One of the most productive bands in modern metal, Trivium released two albums during the Covid pandemic, but it’s the title track of this year’s In the Court of the Dragon that had us in awe this year. The track sees guitarists Matt Heafy and Corey Beaulieu serve up a volley of crushing guitar riffs before each letting loose with their own ripping solos from the 3:15 mark. For Heafy’s moment in the spotlight, he deploys a series of soaring and ultra-precise bends over an ascending, open-note-peppered pre-solo riff, before Beaulieu enters the fray with some rapid-fire string-skipping alternate picking lines. Now 10 albums down, Trivium have deviated little from their crushing twin-guitar songwriting formula, and yet they still continue to break new musical ground on every release. – Sam Roche
4. Dinosaur Jr. – I Met the Stones
A punk-rock, four-to-the-floor jam that sounds like the Stooges if they were stoned out their gourd and enjoying a six-month sabbatical in Tahiti, I Met the Stones is a highlight from an album of highlights. There’s something cosmic about J. Mascis’ timing; Sweep It Into Space arrived just when we needed it. A soulful, half-awake, half-blissed out, imaginative and human alternative rock album that injected some '90s optimism into our fraught and disquieting present.
While most of the album was tracked on a Fender Telecaster – with Mascis and Fender collaborating on a very smart signature model – Mascis reached for his Eastwood baritone for this solo. The lead guitar on this song is, again, like another vocal presence, snaking around the verse, always present, and it's a wondrous sound: thick, vibrant, and human.
3. Mammoth WVH – Mr. Ed
We've learned many things about Wolfgang Van Halen in the past year, but perhaps chief among them is that he is his father’s son and his own man. The dignity, strength and, indeed, good humor that he displayed in the months after losing his father, having to process his loss in the public’s eye, is a testament to his character.
And, as a musician, we all learned that WVH is not EVH and there are different influences shaping his sound. But on Mr. Ed, the Van Halen name indicates more than just the familial link, with a guitar solo that references Eddie Van Halen’s trick bag and makes a feel-good song a little more feel-good, but also bittersweet, too.
Even if you took all the names off this and it just arrived in your inbox in an unnamed FLAC file, the Van Halen ideology that says the guitar solo must boost serotonin and serve as a pick-me-up is all over this.
EDITOR'S PICK: Eric Gales – I Want My Crown (feat. Joe Bonamassa) (opens in new tab)
Truth be told, we considered abandoning the vote this year, because this jaw-dropping duel between two of today’s finest players is such a knockout it deserves all 10 spots. Yet democracy rules, and I Want My Crown only just missed out on a place in the final rundown. Inspired by Gales and Bonamassa’s head-cutting solos on the Keeping Blues Alive cruise, I Want My Crown ups the ante with a series of searing licks from both competitors, exemplifying their trailblazing contemporary blues-rock approach, which melds melodic pentatonics with exotic scale influences and whiplash alternate-picked runs. With JoBo behind the desk, we’re expecting to see Gales’ long-awaited new album, Crown, topping the best album vote this time next year. – Michael Astley-Brown
2. John Mayer – Last Train Home
Would the real Last Train Home solo please stand up? Such is John Mayer’s penetration of the Web 2.0, it seems like everybody who has ever picked up an electric guitar has put their stamp on this yacht-rockin’ Valentine’s Day standard. But by democratic assent, your favorite Last Train Home solo – and indeed your silver (sky) medalist for 2021 – is Mayer’s own ballad version.
Again, the tone is primo. We’d call it cutting edge, but we know Mayer was repping '80s Clapton here and enjoying reruns of Manimal and Cagney & Lacey between takes. The retro appeal for anyone who lived through that era is intoxicating. You might even let out a little squeal much like the slide that introduces Mayer’s solo here.
What can we say? This sort of material is right at the heart of the Mayer wheelhouse, and it’s sumptuous. Can lead guitar be coiffed? This sounds like Don Johnson’s hair looked onset circa ’85. Not a note out of place.
1. Greta Van Fleet – Age of Machine
Your number one solo of the year, and by a wide margin, Age of Machine represents the scale of GVF’s ambition on The Battle at Garden’s Gate.
Once upon a time, there was a sense that the influence from the big beasts of '70s rock was over-weening, but Jake Kiszka’s sleight of hand contends such notions with daring and bold cinematic compositions like this. Age of Machine does to classic rock what Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did to Tolkien; it updates the text, it recontextualizes it, and it challenges those who might argue that today’s audiences lack the attention span for world-building.
Perhaps conscious of this, Kiszka’s leads make regular appearances, pulling focus at the four-minute mark, just over halfway through the jam, to set the table for the track’s denouement.
When Kiszka was in conversation with Guitar World about The Battle at Garden’s Gate, he spoke of the importance of dynamics with regards to tone, but it holds similarly true for the songwriting. Altogether, it makes for an audiophile’s record. Or, as Kiszka describes it, "An orgasmic, cinematic piece of rock ‘n’ roll."