Some of you reading this might be old enough to remember the golden age of shred, as electric guitar accelerated right on beyond thunderdome and it all seemed like guitar playing had reached its zenith.
Well, fast-forward to 2020 (don’t worry, it’s nearly over), and having counted your votes for the year’s best guitar solo, it looks like we jumped the gun.
For a start, we have the O.G. players still pushing the limits of the instruments. Some, such as Joe Satriani, find themselves expressing a sense of nostalgia, others like Steve Vai are marking personal milestones by attempting something new and daring. Then we have the relatively new kids on the block whose vision suggests that guitar playing’s zenith is some way off.
Indeed, we might say that it is so far off it will never come, and in a hundred years time there will be something different, a new interpretation, or a fresh energy to take on the old, just as Jared James Nichols and Joe Bonamassa do with the blues, their energy and talent picking up the torch.
So let’s do this. Next-level technique, old-school blues-rock, a clean tone tour de force, a power metal face-melter and more – these are your favorite lead guitar moments of the year, with a few staff picks along the way…
10. Plini – I'll Tell You Someday
Impulse Voices is full of moments like this. Moments where your mind is put through the Plini boggler. He is the Christopher Nolan of lead guitar, an audio illusionist who resolves his solos with a sort of melodic élan redolent of a Vegas stage magician lifting a velvet curtain to reveal a Bengal tiger baking a sourdough loaf.
When you take your technique and imagination to such limits, only the surreal is left to play for. And dynamics, of course, but with Plini those are a given, as on I’ll Tell You Someday, it rises and falls like the tide, his guitar bubbling away off in the distance, a new melodic trick to conjure.
9. Joe Satriani – Nineteen Eighty
Joe Satriani’s hard-rock instrumental is all the more poignant in the light of Eddie Van Halen’s passing. Nineteen Eighty is all about trying to recapture the excitement of first hearing Van Halen – a Rubicon for any rock guitarist – and bringing that memory to life in sound.
It is a worthy tribute, and a reminder of Satriani’s gifts when playing straight-up hard rock. His tone, often outshone simply by the white light of his playing, is always so life-affirming. This was a time when guitar playing was fun, says Satch, “a happy guitar moment,” and it would do us all a little good to try and keep that feeling in our minds and in our playing.
STAFF PICK: The Black Dahlia Murder - Sunless Empire
Lead man Brandon Ellis whips up a vortex of shred in this choice cut from TBDM’s latest album, Verminous. Offering a melodic sense of reprieve after the track’s cacophonic arrangement prior, he kicks things into gear with a whammy bar squeal followed by a series of descending lines, before letting loose with a rapid-fire note volley wrought with winding sweeps, killer alternate picking and pinpoint-precise bends. Not only is this solo fantastically virtuosic, but it spares no expense in terms of feel, either. – Sam Roche
8. Steve Vai – Candle Power
A track recorded as a challenge and a celebration of his birthday, Candle Power marries Steve Vai’s bleeding edge technique with classic single-coil clean tone and a fingerstyle approach. The juxtaposition of this vintage Fender spank (though he uses a single-coil JEM here) and a technique Vai calls “joint shifting” is, frankly, jaw dropping.
People can point to more important songs in the Vai canon – and there are some – but it is hard to think of a more audacious piece of playing than this, especially with no gain to hide behind.
On “joint shifting”, Vai says on his YouTube page: “This is where you bend a note while fretting another, but I wanted to do this technique with a combination of double and triple stop single note bends while fretting other notes and releasing bends.
“After considerable experimenting, I discovered it created a unique sounding passage. You can hear this technique on a few sections of the song. I certainly hope other ambitious guitar player see the potential in this technique and take it to the moon!”
7. Ozzy Osbourne feat. Slash – All My Life
Slash and Ozzy… Could you imagine the shenanigans if this partnership had been brokered in ’88? Well, these days, what can we say? Model professionals, gentlemen, and this stately rocker is yet another reminder that Slash has the best intonation of all the big beasts of rock.
When he hits a bend, it is as though his ears are used to test the accuracy of Peterson strobe tuners. That’s a gift he has always had, no matter how close to chaos his lead playing has taken him, and it is made all the more impressive by that Les Paul tone that just won’t quit.
All the Slash trademarks are here, the to and fro between the harmonic minor scale and the minor pentatonic, the feel changes to build intensity.
STAFF PICK: Larkin Poe - Holy Ghost Fire
The sisters Lovell were in fantastic form on their hard-rockin’, sound-expandin’ new album, Self Made Man. Though packed with great playing, the scorched-earth, straight-from-the-South ferocity of Megan Lovell’s Holy Ghost Fire solo really stands out – hitting all of its points efficiently and with authority in barely a blink of an eye. – Jackson Maxwell
6. Kiko Loureiro – Imminent Threat (feat. Marty Friedman)
The crossover event of the year sees Megadeth shredders past and present join forces on a two-hander of state-of-the-art instrumental metal guitar playing. Wantonly progressive, the lead playing on this has a cinematic grandeur and a sense of pantomime drama with some of the most playful phrasing we’ve heard this or any other year.
Friedman and Loureiro are quite similar in a sense. Both brought an ear for exotic scales to Megadeth, and would become the perfect foil for Dave Mustaine’s animalistic style. Here, it’s just nice to hear them both off the leash.
5. John Petrucci – Temple of Circadia
Cutting loose on his solo album, Terminal Velocity, with Dream Theater alum Mike Portnoy on drums, John Petrucci has been in ebullient form during 2020. And might we say, that signature beard oil is working a treat. Though, we have another working theory regarding this grooming product – might the be something in its chemical composition that makes it the secret lubricant that keeps Petrucci’s lead playing so smooth?
There’s something unnaturally natural about how he approaches these parts. Just listen to his playing here – it’s like whipped shea butter, a roman candle of fusion, the beauty of which is the suspense in not knowing where JP is going to take it next. It could be anywhere. It usually is. In all seriousness, he is playing better than ever.
STAFF PICK: Melanie Faye - It's a Moot Point
It’s a close call between John Mayer's sensual lead on Leon Bridges’ Inside Friend and this standout single from the breakout Instagram star for the neo-soul guitar performance of the year, but Faye's seemingly effortless pentatonic flurries and vocal slides see her take the crown. Guitar playing in 2020 really doesn't get much more expressive or melodic than this. – Michael Astley-Brown
4. Andy James – Die a Devil
A solo not to be attempted without first affixing a prophylactic string dampener to your nut and wolfing down a hearty breakfast, Die a Devil has Andy James alternating between super-quick runs to build tension and jumbo bends to release it with a melodicism that takes the lead into the unexpected.
James’s magic lies in his ability to balance the spectacular with the profound, utilizing a technique that deserves super slo-mo so we can see what’s what. C’mon, his picking hand is insane – like a hummingbird supping nectar from the bee balms.
Never mind the fret buzz, what about the screeching gears within that radiocarpal joint of his. Ah, who are we kidding – he’s had work done. There’s an engine in there somewhere…
3. Joe Bonamassa – Why Does It Take So Long to Say Goodbye
Everyone always makes a big deal about how many guitars Joe Bonamassa has and that sometimes gets in the way of the fact that this man could get a tune out of anything. Throw a set of strings on a chopping board and this man will give you a blues turnaround in A that’ll have you casting your number one down in despair.
This one, however, sees him pick up a ‘Burst and lean into the creaminess for a haunting, vocal lead that says it all without really needing any lyrics – which is what the solo is there for, either furthering the musical objective or as a power-up to change the energy.
This one is total blues-rock majesty, a Rolls Royce tone from a Rolls Royce player, tracking in the most famous recording studio in the world.
2. Jared James Nichols – Threw Me To The Wolves
There are no shortcuts to nailing Jared James Nichols’ blues-rock style. You’ve got to work on those string bends. You’ve got to be comfortable with volume, maxing it out, rolling back your guitar’s volume and tone control. If you ordinarily use a pick, kill it with fire. It isn’t needed here. And don’t even try to match JJN’s blues face.
We’ve heard of some players modding their boost pedal footswitches with a piece of Lego, stamping on it barefoot to try and nail some of that intensity. No, put the hours in with the bends. Keep it musical. Lean right into it. That’s what the big fella does here. It is as difficult as it looks.
1. Firewind – Welcome to the Empire
Here we have it, your number one guitar solo of 2020, from a man whose fretboard pyro is so hot his tech keeps a bucket of sand close to keep the fire department sweet.
Gus G’s gifts as a player are immediately abundant to anyone who has heard him with Ozzy, but it’s with his power-metal stalwarts Firewind where he truly lights the ‘board up.
Perhaps it was fitting that the top solo of a year in which we lost Eddie Van Halen would feature some primo two-handed tapping – although Gus G’s takes a more neoclassical path, all the better for advancing Firewind’s hyper-melodic, hyper-everything sound. It’s like the Cirque du Soleil are choreographing his fingers. No safety net.