The 10 best guitar solos of 2021

Jake Kiszka, John Mayer, Wolfgang Van Halen and Jenn Wasner
(Image credit: Erika Goldring/Joseph Okpako/Scott Legato/Rick Kern/Getty)

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.


EDITOR'S PICK: Julian Lage – Twilight Surfer
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


EDITOR'S PICK: Courtney Barnett & Vagabon – Don’t Do It
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


EDITOR'S PICK: Trivium – In the Court of the Dragon
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


EDITOR'S PICK: Eric Gales – I Want My Crown (feat. Joe Bonamassa)
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

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.