Guitar World ranks the 50 greatest solos in rock and roll history.
50) "Shock Me" (Ace Frehley) - Kiss Alive II, 1977
“I basically did the same solo every night on that tour, with minor alterations, so I had it kind of planned out when I did it the night we recorded it for Alive II album,” says Ace Frehley.
“But if you listen carefully to the ‘Shock Me’ solo you can hear me make a mistake about two thirds of the way through. Instead of tapping a B at the 19th fret of the high E string, I accidentally hit the A# note at the 18th fret—that’s definitely a wrong note for the scale I’m using. We could have fixed it in the mix, but I said to Eddie [Kramer, Alive II producer], ‘Screw it! Leave it in. The run sounds cool, so who cares—it’s rock and roll!’ ”
49) "Europa" (Carlos Santana) - Carlos Santana Amigos, 1976
“I started writing this song in 1966 or ’67, but didn’t finish it until ’75 when we were on tour with Earth, Wind and Fire, in Manchester, England,” says Carlos Santana. “We were backstage while they were on stage playing. And we were just warming up, tuning up. I started playing it and [keyboardist] Tom Coster and I completed it right there on the spot. It immediately became a crowd favorite; it is one of those songs that, whether it’s played in Japan or in Jerusalem or in South America, it just fits right in with everything.”
48) "Sympathy for the Devil" (Keith Richards) - Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, 1968
Writer Stanley Booth once suggested to Keith Richards that “Sympathy for the Devil” was cut from the same cloth as bluesman Robert Johnson’s haunting “Me and the Devil Blues.” “Yeah,” Richards replied. “All of us pursued by the same demon.” But while “Sympathy’s” lyrics reflect the Stones’ attraction to the dark side and allegiance to Johnson, the music is a prime example of how in a real band, composition is a group effort.
“It started as sort of a folk song with acoustics and ended up as kind of a mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later,” says Richards. “That’s why I don’t like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand. Because you can write the songs, but you’ve got to give the band something to use its imagination on as well. That can make a very ordinary song come alive into something totally different. You can write down the notes being played, but you can’t put down the X Factor—so important in rock and roll—which is the feel.”
47) "Jessica" (Dickey Betts) - Allman Brothers Band Brothers and Sisters, 1974
Dickey Betts’ instrumental “Jessica” is as uplifting a piece of music as can be found in all rock. And that, says Betts, is no coincidence: the music actually began with his desire to express pure jubilation.
“My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love,” says Betts. “With ‘Jessica,’ I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then my little daughter, Jessica, crawled into the room, and I just started playing to her, trying to capture the feeling of her crawling and smiling. That’s why I named it after her.”
Betts wrote the song’s melodic theme while emulating one of his heroes—the gypsy guitarist Django Rheinhardt, who had the use of only two fingers on his left hand. “I came up with that melody using just two fingers as a sort of tribute to Django,” says Betts. “That the song turned out so well is very satisfying. In general, writing a good instrumental is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody.”
46) "Hot for Teacher" (Edward Van Halen) - Van Halen 1984, 1984
“I winged that one,” says Eddie Van Halen. “If you listen to it, the timing changes in the middle of nowhere. We were in a room playing together and I kind of winked at the guys and said, ‘Okay, we’re changing now!’ Because I don’t count, I just follow my feelings. I tend to do a lot of things in threes and fives, instead of fours.
“My weird sense of time just drives my brother Alex nuts because he’s a drummer, so he has to count. But generally he’ll say, ‘Well, Ed, you did it in five again. If that’s the way you want it…’ But that’s not the way I want it, that’s just what feels right to me.”
45) "Light My Fire" (Robby Krieger) - The Doors The Doors, 1967
“Light My Fire” was one of the first songs ever written by Robby Krieger, and his extended solo on the album version was also one of his shining moments as a guitarist. Ironically, however, in order for “Light My Fire” to become a hit for the Doors and Krieger the songwriter, Krieger the guitarist had to swallow his pride and allow his masterly two-and-a-half-minute solo to be trimmed down to its essential opening and closing themes for use on the single.
“That always bothered me,” Krieger readily admits. “We never wanted to cut it, but our first single, ‘Break On Through,’ flopped and radio stations told us that ‘Light My Fire’ would be a hit if we cut it down. We didn’t have much choice because AM radio ruled everything, and if you wanted to get on AM you had to have a short song.”
The longer solo now regularly broadcast on the radio in its entirety, is a perfect distillation of Krieger’s style. A flamenco-trained guitarist who played with his fingers and often evoked sitar-like Eastern sounds, with his Gibson SG, Krieger pulled out all the stops on “Light My Fire.” Still, the guitarist says that the complete version on the album is far from his finest effort. “It was the kind of solo that I usually did, but it was different every night. To be honest, the one on the album is not one of my better takes. I only had two tries at it. But it’s not bad; I’m glad that it was as good as it was.”
44) "Alive" (Mike McCready) - Pearl Jam Ten, 1991
“Basically, I copied Ace Frehley’s solo from ‘She,’ ” says Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. “Which, of course, was copied from Robby Krieger’s solo in the Doors’ ‘Five to One.’ ”
43) "Sharp Dressed Man" (Billy Gibbons) - ZZ Top Eliminator, 1983
In 1983, a smart gambling man would have bet the house on ZZ Top’s imminent doom. After all, it wasn’t the best of times for good and greasy Texas blues and boogie music. Then the Little Old Band from Texas surprised everyone with Eliminator, a brilliant merger of roadhouse blues and synthesizer swells and looped beats. The album quickly became their biggest hit ever, spurred in large part by the irresistible “Sharp Dressed Man.”
“That song and the whole album really embrace the simplicity of blues and techno music with the complex challenge of how to blend them together,” says guitarist Billy Gibbons. “If you zero in on the middle solo, you will find a slide guitar part played in open E tuning on a Fender Esquire and a sudden shift halfway through the solo to standard Spanish electric tuning played on my good ol’ Les Paul, Pearly Gates. Both were played through a Marshall plexi 100-watt head with two angled cabinets with Celestion 25-watt greenbacks. It was a compound track, two parts blended to one.
"To this day, the song certainly stands among one of the band’s favorites and we’re particularly delighted to share spotlight on a solo that enjoys such favoritism. There are, of course, the more intricate and demanding solos, but we will gladly finger through the solo of sharp dressed man at any requested moment! The track just has a really raucous delivery, which is a good ignition point on stage, sitting on the tailgate out in the middle of nowhere, sipping a cold one, or wherever you may be. It just does something to you.”
42) "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Eric Clapton) - The Beatles The Beatles (White Album), 1968
“When we actually started recording this, it was just me playing the acoustic guitar and singing it, and nobody was interested,” recalls the song’s author, George Harrison. “Well, Ringo probably was, but John and Paul weren’t. When I went home that night, I was really disappointed because I thought, ‘Well, this is really quite a good song; it’s not as if it’s crap!’ And the next day I happened to drive back into London with Eric [Clapton], and I suddenly said, ‘Why don’t you come play on this track?’
"And he said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that; the others wouldn’t like it…’ But I finally said, ‘Well, damn, it’s my song, and I’d like you to come down.’ So he did, and everybody was good as gold because he was there. I sang it with the acoustic guitar with Paul on piano, and Eric and Ringo. Later, Paul overdubbed bass. Then we listened back to it and Eric said, ‘Ah, there’s a problem, though; it’s not Beatlesy enough.’ So we put the song through the ADT [automatic double tracker] to wobble it a bit.”
41) "Brighton Rock" (Brian May) - Queen Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Universally venerated for his lavish guitar orchestrations and tasteful British restraint, Brian May kicked over the traces on this high energy rocker that leads off Queen’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. One of May’s most blues-based excursions ever, the song’s extended solo section grew out of the guitarist’s experiments with an Echoplex tape delay unit. His original goal was to reproduce his multi-part guitar harmonies live on stage with Queen, back in the days before harmonizers were invented.
“I started messing around with the Echoplex, the delay that was available at the time,” May recalls. “I turned up the regeneration until it was giving me multiple repeats. I discovered you could do a lot with this—you could set up rhythms and play against them, or you could play a line and then play a harmony to it. But I decided that the delay [times] I wanted weren’t available on the Echoplex. So I modified it and made a new rail, which meant I could slide the head along and make the delay any length I wanted, because the physical distance between the two heads is what gave you the delay. Eventually, I had two home-adapted Echoplexes. And I discovered that if you put each echo through its own amp, you wouldn’t have any nasty interference between the two signals. Each amp would be like a full-blown, sustaining, overdriven guitar which didn’t have anything to do with the other one.
“So, ‘Brighton Rock’ was the first time that got onto a record. I’d already been trying it live on stage in the middle of ‘Son and Daughter’ [from Queen’s self-titled ’73 debut album], when Queen first toured with Mott the Hoople. It was rather crude at first. But I certainly had a lot of fun with it.”
40) "Reelin' in the Years" (Elliot Randall) - Steely Dan Can't Buy a Thrill, 1972
While recording Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew they had a great track for “Reelin’ in the Years”—if they could only come up with the appropriate guitar solo to jumpstart the tune. So they put in a call to Elliott Randall, with whom they had worked in the backing band for Jay and the Americans, and who’d had played on many of the duo’s early, pre-Steely Dan demos.
“They were having trouble finding the right ‘flavor’ solo for ‘Reelin,’ and asked me to give it a go,” recalls Randall. “Most of the song was already complete, so I had the good fortune of having a very clear picture of what the solo was laying on top of. They played it for me without much dialogue about what I should play. It just wasn’t necessary because we did it in one take and nothing was written. Jeff Baxter played the harmony parts, but my entire lead—intro/answers/solo/end solo—was one continuous take played through a very simple setup: my old Strat, the same one I’ve been using since 1965, plugged directly into an Ampeg SVT amp, and miked with a single AKG 414. The whole solo just came to me, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play it.”
39) "Cortez the Killer" (Neil Young) - Neil Young and Crazy Horse Zuma, 1975
“Cortez the Killer” hails from Zuma, one of Neil Young’s most overlooked albums, often lost in the shuffle of its predecessor, the much-praised Tonight’s the Night, which came out just five months prior. But there’s really a very simple explanation for the song’s high rating. Just take it from Young himself, who once proclaimed that, “ ‘Cortez’ is some of my best guitar playing ever!”
Remarkably, the song’s structure was largely shaped by an accident—a power failure which occurred in the midst of recording a perfect, transcendent take of the song. Rather than recut the tune, Young just plowed forward and later he and producer David Briggs went back and did some creative editing, which required the lopping off of several verses. “They missed a whole verse, a whole section!” Young says. “You can hear the splice on the recording where we stop and start again. It’s a messy edit…incredible! It was a total accident. But that’s how I see my best art, as one magical accident after another. That’s what is so incredible.”
“Cortez the Killer,” about the Spanish explorer who conquered Mexico with bloody success, is also a prime example of Young’s physical style of lead playing.
“I am a naturally very destructive person,” he says. “And that really comes out in my guitar playing. Man, if you think of guitar playing in terms of boxing…well let’s just say I’m not the kind of guitarist you’d want to play against. I’m just scarred by life. Nothing in particular. No more scarred than anyone else. Only other people often don’t let themselves know how damaged they are, like I do and deal with it."
38) "Whole Lotta Love" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 1967
“I used distant miking to get that rhythm guitar tone,” says Jimmy Page. “Miking used to be a science, and I’d heard that distance makes depth, which in turn gives you a fatter guitar sound. The amp was turned up very high. It was distorting, just controlled to the point where it had some balls to it. I also used a depressed wah-wah pedal on the solo, as I did on ‘Communication Breakdown.’ It gets you a really raucous sound. The descending riff that answers the line ‘whole lotta love’ was created using slide and backwards echo. Backwards echo has been used a lot now, but I think I was the first to use it.”
37) "Sweet Child O' Mine" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction, 1987
“When ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was written, it was a joke as far as I was concerned,” says Slash. “I was just fuckin’ around when I came up with that riff. To me it was a nightmare because, for some strange reason, everyone picked up on it and, the next thing you knew, it had turned into a song. I hated it forever! The guitar solo itself is a one-take, spontaneous kind of thing. Having played the song at rehearsals enough times, when it came to recording it I knew exactly where the melody was and it came real easy.”
36) "Black Star" (Yngwie Malmsteen) - Yngwie Malmsteen Rising Force, 1984
“I’ve been playing that song, or variations of it, since I was a teenager in Sweden,” Yngwie Malmsteen recently told his fan club. “I used to play really long, uninterrupted improvisations when I played local shows in Stockholm back then, and it developed from that. I didn’t sit down and actually write out the notes for it; when I’m feeling inspired, the music just flows out of me. It’s in my head and my ears and flows out of my fingers.”
“Black Star” flew through Malmsteen’s fingers on his solo debut album, recorded in 1984 at Rocshire Studios in Anaheim, California, with the guitarist producing as well as playing bass and, of course, all guitar parts. “We recorded all the basic tracks and then Yngwie had to go on the road with Alcatrazz,” recalls keyboardist Jens Johansson. “He flew in here and there to do overdubs. There are probably three guitar tracks on ‘Black Star,’ and I remember watching Yngwie doing them and being blown away at how he could effortlessly synchronize the vibrato if he was overdubbing a harmony. It all happened pretty fast and on ‘Black Star,’ especially, he knew what he wanted it to sound like it. And he got it.”
35) "Cemetery Gates" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera Cowboys from Hell, 1990
“I got home with a pretty good buzz on, picked up my axe, turned on the 4-track, cranked it loud as hell with the loose buzz theory that anything and everything goes, and just played it,” Dimebag recalls. “I played three solos back-to-back, didn’t bother listening to ’em and crashed out not so happy. The next morning I woke up thinking I had a lot of work to do…I almost started from scratch but then decided to slow down and listen. So I fired up my 4-track, put my ears on and bam! Lo and behold, there it was! The first lead I played the night before was it for sure. Hey man, the second and third weren’t bad, but the first had that first-take magic! I didn’t touch it.”
34) "Paranoid Android" (Johnny Greenwood) - Radiohead OK Computer, 1997
Radiohead consciously patterned their sprawling, epic song, “Paranoid Android,” after the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” “It really started out as three separate songs and we didn’t know what to do with them,” explains singer/rhythm guitarist Thom Yorke.
“Then we thought of ‘Happiness’—which was obviously three different bits that John Lennon put together—and said, ‘Why don’t we try that?’ “ Still, the song wasn’t really complete until lead player Jonny Greenwood added a fourth section as a fade out—a lengthy, intense solo, which alternates between being backwards and forwards. “It was something I had floating around for a while and the song needed a certain burn,” recalls Greenwood. “I don’t usually have stockpiles of riffs lying around, but this happened to be the right key and the right speed and it fit right in.”
33) "The Thrill Is Gone" (B.B. King) - B.B. King Completely Well, 1969
“I carried this song around in my head for seven or eight years,” B.B. King recalls about “The Thrill Is Gone,” which had been an r&b hit for its author, pianist Roy Hawkins, in 1950. “It was a different kind of blues ballad. I’d been arranging it in my head and had even tried a couple of different versions that didn’t work. But when I walked in to record on this night at the Hit Factory in New York, all the ideas came together. I changed the tune around to fit my style, and [producer] Bill Szymczyk set up the sound nice and mellow. We got through around 3 a.m. I was thrilled, but Bill wasn’t, so I just went home. Two hours later, Bill called and woke me up and said, ‘I think “The Thrill Is Gone” is a smash hit, and it would be even more of a hit if I added on strings. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Strings in place, the song rose to Number 15 on the Billboard chart, becoming King’s first and only pop hit and earning him his first Grammy Award. “I felt especially proud because the song was true to me, and because Lucille is as much a part of it as me,” King says. “She starts off singing and stays with me all the way until she takes the final bow. People ask why I don’t sing and play at the same time, I’ve answered that I can’t, but the deeper answer is that Lucille is one voice and I’m another. I hear those voices as distinct. One voice is coming through my throat, while the other is coming through my fingers. When one is singing, the other wants to listen.”
32) "Machine Gun" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys, 1970
Contrary to popular belief, Hendrix was not in any kind of artistic decline during the last year of his life. In fact, it was quite the opposite. This apocalyptic performance of “Machine Gun,” featuring Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, demonstrates that Jimi was still growing in leaps and bounds near the end. But while Band of Gypsys captures some of the guitarist’s greatest improvisations to date, he was still dissatisfied with its outcome.
“I distinctly remember that Jimi wasn’t particularly thrilled with Band of Gypsys,” says engineer Eddie Kramer who recorded the album and co-mixed and edited it with Hendrix. “He felt that Buddy Miles was trying to steal his thunder throughout the performance with his excessive scat singing. I can still see Jimi with his head buried in his arms, laying on the mixing console during playback saying, ‘Buddy, would you please just shut up!’ So, I would chop out huge passages of Buddy singing. And then I’d chop some more.”
31) "Stranglehold" (Ted Nugent) - Ted Nugent Ted Nugent, 1975
“ ‘Stranglehold’ is a masterpice of jammology,” proclaims Ted Nugent. “We were in the Sound Pit in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was showing my rhythm section of Cliff Davies [drums] and Rob DeLaGrange [bass] the right groove for the song. I was playing my all-stock 1964 blonde Byrdland through four Fender Twin Reverbs and four Dual Showman bottoms on my rhythm settings—we were going to leave a hole there so that I could overdub a solo later. Then I started playing lead work, just kind of filling in and though I had never played those licks before in my life, they all just came to me.
And because I got so inspired and because they followed me so perfectly, that demo is exactly what you hear on the record today. Take one, rhythm track is the song—it made such organic sense with the flow of music that I said, ‘I’m not gonna fuck with that! That’s it, baby.’ And that is the essence of why people love it—because it is so spontaneous and uninhibited. The only thing we went back and overdubbed was Derek St. Holmes’ vocals and my two tracks of harmonized feedback, which come in and out of the entire song. All the engineers and everyone kept saying, ‘You can’t do that, Ted.’ And I said, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ Because I had the vision; I saw what the song could be, and I realized it.”
30) "Surfing with the Alien" (Joe Satriani) - Joe Satriani Surfing with the Alien, 1987
“We didn’t know where that song was going until one afternoon when we went to record the melody and I plugged a wah-wah pedal and a Tubedriver into my 100-watt Marshall,” says Joe Satriani. “Then, just on a whim, I said, ‘Let’s try this harmonizer.’ It was one of those Eventide 949s. The sound that came out of the speakers blew us away so much that we recorded the melody and the solo in about a half-hour and sat back and went, ‘Whoa! This is a song, man!’
“And then, of course, the Eventide broke down and we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t do anything. We lost our tone. When we finally got it working again, we weren’t able to recreate the original effect. It just sounded different. So rather than screw up a wonderful-sounding performance that may have had a couple of glitches, we decided to just leave it, because it was just swinging.
That wasn’t the title track of the album for quite a while. It was going to be called The Lord of Karma. It wasn’t until we finished that track and added the jet noises that we realized that ‘Surfing’ was the song that summed up the feeling of the whole album.
“The whole thing with the Silver Surfer was purely by accident. It came about because the product manager at the record label, Jim Kozlowski, used to be called the Silver Surfer when he was a DJ in Boston. When I delivered the album, he said, “This is a great title. We should put the Silver Surfer on the cover.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I literally did not know anything about the comic book character.”
29) "For the Love of God" (Steve Vai) - Steve Vai Passion and Warfare, 1991
“The song is about how far people will go for the love of their god,” says Steve Vai. “When you discipline yourself to quit smoking, to run faster or to play better, you have to reach deep down into a part of you. That is a profoundly spiritual event. That’s when you come into contact with that little piece of God within you. That’s what I was trying to achieve with ‘For the Love of God’—I was trying to find that spot.”
28) "Mr. Crowley" (Randy Rhoads) - Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz, 1981
“I’d have to say that ‘Mr. Crowley’ is my most memorable solo,” said Randy Rhoads. “I had spent hours trying to figure out a solo for the song, but wasn’t getting anywhere. I finally put something down. Then Ozzy came in and said, ‘It’s crap—everything you’re playing is crap.’ He told me to get in there and just play how I felt. He made me really nervous, so I just played anything. When I came back to listen to it, he said it was great, and I had to agree.”
27) "Pride and Joy" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) - Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood, 1983
“Pride and Joy” was recorded during the same 48-hour period as “Texas Flood”; both had been Vaughan live standbys for many years. “Stevie wrote ‘Pride and Joy’ for this new girlfriend he had when he was inspired by their relationship,” says drummer Chris Layton. “Then they had a fight and he turned around and wrote ‘I’m Cryin’,’ which is really the same song, just the flip side, lyrically.”
When “Pride and Joy” was released as Texas Flood’s first single, it quickly put the then unknown Texas guitar slinger on the national blues-rock map. More cosmically, it also signaled that from-the-gut guitar music was not dead as a commercial and artistic force, no matter how many hits Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls had on Solid Gold. “When I heard that on the radio, I just said ‘Hallelujah,’ “ recalls Dickey Betts, whose Allman Brothers Band were prominent casualties of the age’s anti-guitar disease. “He was just so good and strong and he would not be denied. He single handedly brought guitar and blues-oriented music back to the marketplace.”
26) "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Kurt Cobain) - Nirvana Nevermind, 1991
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” explained the late Kurt Cobain. “It’s such a clichéd riff—it’s so close to Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ riff or ‘Louie Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist [Novoselic, bass] looked at me and said, ‘That’s so ridiculous.’ So I made the band play it for an hour and a half.”
25) "Aqualung" (Martin Barre) - Jethro Tull Aqualung, 1979
“Aqualung was a difficult and very tense album to record, but at the end of the day it was important,” says Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre. “Ian wrote the riff and verses to the song ‘Aqualung,’ but he felt it needed a new section for the guitar break. I said, ‘Why don’t we just play the verse chords in half-time for the first part of the solo, then pick it back up for the rest of the solo?’ It was a simple solution that really worked.”
“While I was playing the solo, which was really going well, Jimmy Page walked into the control room and started waving. I thought, ‘Should I wave back and mess up the solo or should I just grin and carry on?’ Being a professional to the end, I just grinned.”
24) "Fade to Black" (Kirk Hammett) - Metallica Ride the Lightning, 1984
“I was still using my black Flying V on Ride the Lightning, but ‘Fade to Black’ sounds different—it has a warmer sound—because I used the neck pickup and played through a wah-wah pedal all the way in the ‘up’ position,” says Kirk Hammett. “We wanted to double the first two solos and I did the first one no problem. But I had a much harder time doubling the second solo because it was slow and had a lot of space in it. Later, I realized that I actually harmonized it in a weird way—in minor thirds, major thirds and fifths. After cutting those two, I really wasn’t sure what to play for the extended solo at the end. I was really bummed out because we had been in Denmark for five or six months, and I was very homesick; we were also having problems with our management. Because of that, and since it was a somber song anyway, I thought of very depressing things while I did the solo—and it really helped. We didn’t double-track that solo, although I did play some arpeggios over the G-A-B progression. After that, I went back and did the clean guitar parts behind the verse, and James [Hetfield] played an arpeggiated figure while I arpeggiated three-note chords. The result was what I always have considered a very Dire Straits-type sound.”
23) "Bulls on Parade" (Tom Morello) - Rage Against the Machine Evil Empire, 1996
"That's me playing a solo by flicking the toggle switch band and forth," says Rage Against the Machine's innovative guitarist, Tom Morello. "The story behind that sound starts with me going over to Ibanez one day. They were making a guitar for a guy in another band, and it had a special feature on it that they wanted me to try out. So I tried it, and it didn't really seem to do much that was anything different from a normal guitar. But I noticed that when you set the toggle between the two pickup settings, there was a really peculiar, high-pitched noise, and you could manipulate the tone of it dramatically when you turned the tone knob. I asked them what the noise was, and they said it was just incidental, that the guitar had an internal pickup and it was picking up this weird noise that they were trying to get rid of. I said, 'Oh no, no-come here with that one.' [laughs] I gave them an idea of what I thought was possible with that noise, and they were kind enough to custom build a guitar for me with that feature in it."
22) "Sultans of Swing" (Mark Knopfler) - Dire Straits Dire Straits, 1978
“ ‘Sultans of Swing’ was originally written on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, though I never performed it that way,” recalls Mark Knopfler. “I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat—which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album—and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place. It’s really a good example of how the music you make is shaped by what you play it on, and is a lesson for young players. If you feel that you’re not getting enough out of a song, change the instrument—go from an acoustic to an electric or vice versa, or try an open tuning. Do something to shake it up. As for the actual solo, it was just more or less what I played every night. It’s just a Fender Twin and the Strat, with its three-way selector switch jammed into a middle position. That gives the song its sound, and I think there were quite a few five-way switches installed as a result of that song.”
21) "Time" (David Gilmour) - Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
“Working with Pink Floyd is an engineer’s dream, so I tried to take advantage of the situation,” says studio wizard Alan Parsons. “Dark Side of the Moon came at a crucial stage in my career, so I was highly motivated.”
Parsons’ attention to detail obviously paid off: He won a Grammy award for the best engineered album of 1973, and DSOTM went on to ride the charts for a record-breaking 14 years.
But while Parsons takes credit for many of Moon’s sonic innovations, he says the massive guitar sound on the album can be attributed to only one man: David Gilmour. “David was very much in control of his sound system,” says Parsons. “We rarely added effects to his guitar in the control room. Generally speaking, the sound on the album is pretty much what came out of his amp. As I recall, he used a Hiwatt stack, a Fuzz Face and an Italian-made delay unit called a Binson Echorec.”
Gilmour confirms: “For most of my solos, I usually use a fuzz box, a delay and a bright eq setting. But to get that kind of singing sustain, you really need to play loud—at or near the feedback threshold.”
20) "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Brian May) - Queen Night at the Opera, 1975
“Freddie [Mercury] had the whole piece pretty well mapped out, as I remember, but he didn’t have a guitar solo planned. So I guess I steamed in and said, ‘This is the point where you need your solo, and these are the chords I’d like to use.’ The chord progression for the solo is based on the verse, but with a slight foray into some different chords at the end, to make a transition into the next part of the song. I’d heard the track so many times while we were working on it that I knew in my head what I wanted to play for a solo. I wanted the guitar melody to be something extra, not just an echo of the vocal melody. I had a little tune in my head to play. It didn’t take very long to record.
“The next section of the song, the heavy bit, was really part of Freddie’s plan. I didn’t change what he had very much. Those guitar riffs that everybody bangs their heads to are really more Freddie’s than mine. And at the end of that section, I sort of took over. I wanted to do some guitar orchestrations—little violin lines—coming out of that. And it blended in very well with what Freddie was doing with the outro.
“We were stretching the limits of technology in those days. Since ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was entirely done on 16-track, we had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along; the tape got very thin. This ‘legendary’ story, which people think we made up, is true: we held the tape up to the light one day—we’d been wondering where all the top end was going—and what we discovered was virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with it.”
19) "Floods" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera The Great Southern Trendkill, 1996
“That particular solo was thought-out in a more orchestrated fashion than some of the others I play where I just start ripping right off the bat,” says Dimebag Darrell. “The thing that really makes the ‘Floods’ solo come across like it does is [bassist] Rex’s playing behind it. He’s using his fingers and he plays a whole bunch of cool licks and shit in there. He definitely adds to the vibe and feel of my lead because I’m playing off his part a lot—it was a great foundation for me to build on, man.”
To fatten up the sound of the catchy arpeggiated theme that fills the first eight bars of his lead, Darrell doubled the part. “I picked up the idea of doubling from Randy Rhoads. It seemed appropriate to start off in a slow, melodic fashion and then build and build and build to the climax with the big harmonic squeals at the end. For that last big note I think there’s four guitars going on. There’s a squeal at the 2nd fret of the G string, a squeal at the 5th fret of the G and then I used a Digitech Whammy pedal on two-string squeals at the harmonics at the 4th and 12th frets of the G and B strings, I believe. That was one of those deals where I didn’t plan it out. I just sat there and fucked with it until it sounded right.”
18) "Little Wing" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold as Love, 1968
Covered by artists like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Sting, “Little Wing” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s most beautiful and enduring compositions. It’s easy to see why. The original is seductively warm, poignant and light as a feather. Engineer Eddie Kramer explains how Jimi achieved the song’s ethereal glow in the studio.
“One of my favorite touches on that track is the glockenspiel part, which was played by Jimi,” says Kramer. “Part of the beauty of recording at Olympic Studios in London was using instruments that had been left from previous sessions. The glockenspiel was just laying around, so Jimi used it.”
Hendrix’s rich and watery guitar solo was, says Kramer, in part the product of a secret weapon. “One of the engineers had built this miniature Leslie,” continues Kramer. “It was like it was built out of an Erector set and had a small 8-inch speaker that rotated. Believe it or not, the guitar solo was fed through this tiny thing, and that’s the lovely effect you hear on the lead.”
But for the true meaning of “Little Wing,” it’s best to go straight to the horse’s mouth. “ ‘Little Wing’ is like one of these beautiful girls that come around sometimes,” explained Jimi. “You ride into town for the drinks and parties and so forth. You play your gig; it’s the same thing as the olden days. And these beautiful girls come around and really entertain you. You do actually fall in love with them because that’s the only love you can have. It’s not always the physical thing of ‘Oh, there’s one over there…’ It’s not one of those scenes. They actually tell you something. They release different things inside themselves, and then you feel to yourself, ‘Damn, there’s really a responsibility to some of these girls, you know, because they’re the ones that are gonna get screwed.’
“ ‘Little Wing’ was a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it. And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together, so I’m off here and there and off over there.”
17) "Cliffs of Dover" (Eric Johnson) - Eric Johnson Ah Via Musicom, 1990
“I don’t even know if I can take credit for writing ‘Cliffs of Dover,’ ” says Eric Johnson of his best-known composition. “It was just there for me one day. There are songs I have spent months writing, and I literally wrote this one in five minutes. The melody was there in one minute and the other parts came together in another four. I think a lot of the stuff just comes through us like that. It’s kind of a gift from a higher place that all of us are eligible for. We just have to listen for it and be available to receive it.”
While it is true that he wrote the song in a blessed instant, the fact is that Johnson, a notoriously slow worker, took his time polishing it up to form. “It took me a while to achieve the facility to play it right,” he says. “I was trying to work out the fingerings and how I wanted particular notes to hang over other notes.”
Even allowing for Johnson’s perfectionism, it took an extraordinarily long time for him to record a song that “came to him” in five minutes. That epiphany occurred in 1982, and within two years “Cliffs of Dover” was a popular staple of his live shows. He planned to include the song on his solo debut, Tones (Capitol, 1986), but, ironically, it didn’t make the cut. “It was ousted by the people who were doing the record with me,” Johnson explains. “I think they thought the melody was too straight or something.”
Luckily, wiser heads prevailed on Ah Via Musicom. Though he had been playing “Cliffs of Dover” live for four or five years by then, it still took Johnson multiple takes to nail the song to his satisfaction—and he was never pleased with any version. “The whole solo is actually a composite of many guitar parts,” Johnson says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound—almost regal—and though I had versions that were close, none quite nailed it, so I kept playing around with different permutations of the many versions I had recorded until I got it just right.
“As a result, I actually ended up using two different-sounding guitars. Almost all of the song is a Gibson 335 through a Marshall, with an Echoplex and a tube driver. But in the middle of the solo there’s 20 or 30 seconds played on a Strat. It really does sound different if you listen closely and at first I didn’t think it could work, but I really liked this string of licks so we just decided to keep it. It basically just sounds like I’m hitting a preamp box or switching amps.
“The difficulty on that song was to make the sound as clear as the melody is. It’s just a simple little repeating melody, and for the song to work it had be very upfront and crisp. Unfortunately, the G third on the guitar has a real tendency to waver and not be a smooth, clear note. As a result, I had to finger it just right—like a classical guitarist, using only the very tips of my fingers to achieve the best efficiency of my tonality That’s what took me so long: to be able to play all the fast licks with just the tip of my fingers, with just the right touch and tonality. Without a doubt, the most important thing is the song and melody, which in this case came very easily. But I like to do the best job I can of delivering it to the listener by the best possible way I can play it—and that came hard.”
16) "Heartbreaker" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 1967
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, Pagey 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.”
15) "Highway Star" (Ritchie Blackmore) - Deep Purple Machine Head, 1972
“Highway Star” is but one highlight of Machine Head, Deep Purple’s greatest triumph. Ironically, it almost never came to be. In early 1972, shortly after retreating to Montreaux, Switzerland, to record, the British band was beset by a wealth of problems. First, the place they were staying, which overlooked Lake Geneva, burned down—inspiring them to write “Smoke on the Water.” Then, in response to a complaint about excessive noise, the police kicked the band out of the ballroom where they were recording.
“We were stuck in Switzerland with nowhere to go, and a friend of ours who was the mayor of the town said that there was an empty hotel we could use,” recalls Ritchie Blackmore. “We gladly accepted and retreated to this lonely hotel in the mountains. We set up all the equipment in the corridor, with the drums and some amps tucked into alcoves.
“We had the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit sitting outside in the snow, but to get there we had to run cable through two doors in the corridor into a room, through a bathroom and into another room, from which it went across a bed and out the veranda window, then ran along the balcony for about 100 feet and came back in through another bedroom window. It then went through that room’s bathroom and into another corridor, then all the way down a marble staircase to the foyer reception area of the hotel, out the front door, across the courtyard and up the steps into the back of the mobile unit. I think that setup led to capturing some spontaneity, because once we got to the truck for a playback, even if we didn’t think it was a perfect take, we’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough.’ Because we just couldn’t stand going back again.”
But while the vibe may have been loose, Blackmore’s solo on ‘Highway Star’ was well planned. “I wrote that out note for note about a week before we recorded it,” says the guitarist. “And that is one of the only times I have ever done that. I wanted it to sound like someone driving in a fast car, for it to be one of those songs you would listen to while speeding. And I wanted a very definite Bach sound, which is why I wrote it out—and why I played those very rigid arpeggios across that very familiar Bach progression—Dm, Gm, Cmaj, Amaj. I believe that I was the first person to do that so obviously on the guitar, and I believe that that’s why it stood out and why people have enjoyed it so much.
“[Keyboardist] Jon Lord worked his part out to mine. Initially, I was going to play my solo over the chords he had planned out. But I couldn’t get off on them, so I made up my own chords and we left the spot for him to write a melody. The keyboard solo is quite a bit more difficult than mine because of all those 16th notes. Over the years, I’ve always played that solo note for note—again, one of the few where I’ve done that—but it just got faster and faster onstage because we would drink more and more whiskey. Jon would have to play his already difficult part faster and faster and he would get very annoyed about it.”
14) "Layla" (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman) - Derek and the Dominos Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970
Seven minutes of pure, quivering passion, “Layla” was Eric Clapton’s magnificent scream of unrequited love for Patti Boyd, wife of his best friend—George Harrison.
“He grabbed one of my chicks,” said Clapton of Harrison, “and so I thought I’d get even with him one day, on a petty level, and it grew from that. She was trying to attract his attention and so she used me, and I fell madly in love with her. [Just] listen to the words of ‘Layla’: ‘I tried to give you consolation/When your old man had let you down/Like a fool, I fell in love with you/You turned my whole world upside down.”
Clapton poured all of himself into the intense, majestic “Layla,” which he named after the classical Persian love poem, “The Story of Layla and the Majnun.” The song began as a ballad, but quickly became a rocker, with Duane Allman reportedly coming up with the opening riff which would alter the tune. With Allman’s majestic slide guitar prodding him on, Clapton unleashed some of his most focused, emotive playing.
“The song and the whole album is definitely equal parts Eric and Duane,” says producer Tom Dowd, who introduced the two guitar titans, then sat back and watched them soar together. “There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other.”
Nowhere was the interplay between Clapton and Allman more sublime than on “Layla,” which, says Dowd, features six tracks of overlapping guitar: “There’s an Eric rhythm part; three tracks of Eric playing harmony with himself on the main riff; one of Duane playing that beautiful bottleneck; and one of Duane and Eric locked up, playing countermelodies.”
The tension of the main song finds release in a surging, majestic coda, which was recorded three weeks after the first part and masterfully spliced together by Dowd. The section begins with drummer Jim Gordon’s piano part, echoed at various times by Clapton on the acoustic. Allman takes over with a celestial slide solo, beneath which Clapton plays a subtle countermelody. As the song fades out after a blissful climax, Allman has the last word, playing his signature “bird call” lick.
13) "Texas Flood" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) - Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood, 1983
When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble walked into Los Angeles’ Down Town Studio in November 1982 to take advantage of 72 free hours of time offered by studio owner Jackson Browne, they had no idea they were about to start recording their debut album. “We were just making tape,” recalls drummer Chris Layton. “We hoped that maybe we were making a demo that would actually be listened to by a real record company.”
The first 24 hours were spent getting settled in L.A., and in the second and third days the band cut 10 songs—which became Texas Flood, in its entirety. “It really was just a big warehouse with concrete floors and some rugs thrown down,” says bassist Tommy Shannon. “We just found a little corner, set up in a circle looking at and listening to each other and played like a live band.” The trio recorded two songs the second day and eight the third—including “Texas Flood,” a slow blues, written and recorded by the late Larry Davis in 1958, which had been a live staple of Vaughan’s for years. It was the final tune recorded, cut in one take just before the free time ran out.
“That song and the whole first album captures the pure essence of what Stevie was all about,” says Layton. “Countless people would tell Stevie how much they loved his guitar tone on Texas Flood. There was literally nothing between the guitar and the amp. It was just his number-one Strat plugged into a Dumble amp called Mother Dumble, which was owned by Jackson Browne and was just sitting in the studio. The real tone just came from Stevie, and that whole recording was just so pure; the whole experience couldn’t have been more innocent or naive. We were just playing. If we’d had known what was going to happen with it all, we might have screwed up. The magic was there and it came through on the tape. You can get most of what the band was ever about right there on that song and that album.”
12) "Johnny B. Goode" (Chuck Berry) - Chuck Berry His Best, Volume One, 1997
Chuck Berry helped shape rock and roll by mixing elements of blues and country, adding some boogie woogie piano, and kicking it all together with his own slashing shuffle rhythms. Berry also was instrumental in making the electric guitar rock and roll’s primary instrument. In fact, for many years rock guitar was practically defined by Berry’s distinct, T-Bone Walker-inspired doublestops and frequent, dramatic use of slides, slurs and bends. A renaissance man rocker, Berry was not only a brilliant guitarist and performer, but was unparalleled as a songwriter as well. And his most enduring song, appropriately, celebrated himself; “Johnny B. Goode” was a thinly disguised account of Berry’s rise to international stardom.
“The song had its birth when a  tour first brought me to New Orleans, a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Waters’ lyrics, ‘Going down to Louisiana way behind the sun,’ ” writes Berry in his autobiography. “That inspiration, combined with little bits of dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through, turned into ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ ”
After naming the song’s protagonist Johnny after his keyboardist Johnnie Johnson, Berry wrote the lyrics in two weeks of “periodic application.” The repeated chorus calls of “Go Johnny Go” are a tribute to Berry’s mother’s constant encouragement, while other imagery was also inspired by his family. “I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up among the evergreens’ in a log cabin,’ ” Berry writes. “I revived that era with a story about a ‘colored boy name Johnny B. Goode’…but I thought that would seem biased to white fans...and changed it to ‘country boy.’ ”
The single was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, on December 29 or 30, 1957, with Berry backed by a lean, swinging blues trio of Willie Dixon (bass), Lafayette Leake (piano) and Fed Below (drums). The same session also yielded “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” While those tunes also became standards, their impact pales in comparison to that of “Johnny B. Goode.” As Billy Altman notes in his liner notes to The Chuck Berry Box (MCA, 1988), the song has become so ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. And, thanks to the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the whole universe may know the tune by now; it was hauled off on the Voyager 1 space probe, hurtling past Jupiter and Saturn and towards Neptune, some four-billion miles away.
11) "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
Jimi Hendrix’s publicist, Michael Goldstein, had successfully arranged for ABC-TV to produce a short news feature based primarily on the Experience’s triumphant success in America. Filming began on May 3, 1968, with 16mm cameras capturing the recording of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which, like many Hendrix songs, borrowed both musical and lyrical themes from Muddy Waters and other Delta bluesmen.
“ ‘Voodoo Child’ was something Jimi brought in, and we learned that song right on the spot in front of the cameras,” recalls bassist Noel Redding. “We ran through it about three times, and that was it.”
It is not known whether ABC ever used any of the footage. And, unfortunately, all the camera originals were stolen from ABC’s archives sometime after Jimi’s death. The reel also included footage of the group performing at the Fillmore East and the Miami Pop Festival.
Engineer Eddie Kramer recalls: “ ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ was recorded the day after Jimi tracked “Voodoo Chile,” the extended jam on Electric Ladyland featuring Traffic’s Stevie Winwood on organ and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Basically, Jimi used the same setup—his Strat through a nice, warm Fender Bassman amp. Jimi’s sound on both tracks is remarkably consistent, leading some to think they were recorded at the same session.”
10) "Crossroads" (Eric Clapton) - Cream Wheels of Fire, 1968
For over three decades, Eric Clapton has been bemused by his fans’ adulation of his solo on Cream’s radical reworking of bluesman Robert Johnson’s signature tune, “Crossroads.”
“It’s so funny, this,” Clapton says. “I’ve always had that held up as like, ‘This is one of the great landmarks of guitar playing.’ But most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I’m playing on the one and the three and thinking, ‘That’s the off beat.’ No wonder people think it’s so good—because it’s fucking wrong.” [laughs]
Perhaps one reason for Clapton’s difficulty finding the downbeat was that the concert at which the song was recorded, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, got a late start due to drummer Ginger Baker’s tardy, and rather dramatic, appearance. Recalls Tom Dowd, who engineered the recording and ran the mobile recording unit that night: “The group was supposed to go on and we didn’t have Ginger and couldn’t figure out where the heck he was. We were worried, and Bill Graham and others said, ‘God, I hope he’s okay. Maybe we should call the police.’ Then I look out from our vantage point upstairs and see a Corvette speeding towards us, with a couple of police cars a block behind it. That was Ginger arriving. I have no idea what happened, but he pulled up to the stage entrance, abandoned the car, ran up on stage and the band started playing.”
And what they played is what you hear; contrary to a persistent, widely held rumor, the solo on “Crossroads” was not edited down.
“It’s not edited and I’ve got an audience tape from the same show which verifies that,” says Bill Levenson, who produced the Cream box set, Those Were the Days (Polydor). “That was a typical performance of the song. I’ve listened to a lot of tapes and all of the ‘Crossroads’ that I’ve heard come in at four minutes and change. They never seemed to expand it beyond that.”
9) "Crazy Train" (Randy Rhoads) - Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz, 1981
Guitarist Randy Rhoads employeed a two-part process when recording his solos for Blizzard of Ozz, Ozzy Osbourne’s first album following his ouster from Black Sabbath. First, the classically trained young shredder would take his customized Jackson guitars to a stone room downstairs at England’s Ridge Farm Studios where he would work out each of his solos, among them “Crazy Train.”
“This was after we did the backing tracks,” says Blizzard of Ozz engineer Max Norman. “Randy had a Marshall and a couple of 4x12s, and we had him set up in this room with the cabinets facing up out into the main studio. They were miked at various points: close, at three feet, and again at about 12 feet. I would make Randy a loop of the solo section and we’d just let that play into these big monitors downstairs, where he would just sit and jam away for hours and hours until he had composed his completed solo.”
With the solos arranged to his liking, Rhoads would then report upstairs to the control room to record them.
“We’d plug the guitar directly into the console,” recalls Norman. “We’d preamp it in the console and send it down to the amp from there. That way we could control the amount of gain that hit the amp, which is always a problem when running a remote amplifier and trying to get a good enough signal to it.
“Randy would put down his solos pretty quickly once he had them worked out. We’d do two or three takes to get the majority of the solo down, then maybe punch in a few little fix ups. He’d try to get the first take as good as possible, then he’d double it and triple it. Ozzy always wondered why Randy double tracked everything, and he really didn’t want him to. I must admit, at the time I really didn’t think it was a very good idea, either—but when you double and triple track a solo, it actually adds to the accuracy because it’s somewhat more forgiving as far as pitch and timing; it blurs the edges.
“Of the three tracks on each solo, the one that we liked the best would be pretty much down the center of the mix, and the other two would be ghosted back 3 or 4 db, swung out pretty wide on either side. What happens then is that it doesn’t become such an obvious double or triple track—it’s more of an effect, really, because you tend to get the phasing between the different pitches. In addition, with guitars two and three panned left and right, you get a fourth guitar—a phantom guitar—in the middle. So what Randy’s got on those solos is a double track of his main guitar, and the other two guitars attempting to create a ghost guitar. It actually averages out pretty well—it works better than you might think.”
8) "Hotel California" (Don Felder, Joe Walsh) - The Eagles Hotel California, 1976
Credit for the guitar majesty of “Hotel California” is often given to Joe Walsh, who toughened up the Eagles’ laid-back California sound when he joined the band just prior to the Hotel California album’s recording. Actually, the primary guitar heard throughout the solo belongs to Don Felder, who wrote the music for the track and actually conceived and played the solo’s intricate harmonies on his initial, instrumental demo.
“Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great plops into your lap,” says Felder. “That’s how it was with ‘Hotel California.’ I had just leased this beach house in Malibu and was sitting in the living room with all the doors wide open on a spectacular July day, probably in ’75. I was soaking wet in a bathing suit, sitting on the couch, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be and tinkling around with this acoustic 12-string when those ‘Hotel California’ chords just oozed out. I had a TEAC four-track set up in a back bedroom, and I ran back there to put this idea down before I forgot it.
“I set this old rhythm ace to play a cha-cha beat, set the right tempo and played the 12-string on top of it. A few days later, I went back and listened to it and it sounded pretty unique, so I came up with a bass line. A few days after that, I added some electric guitars. Everything was mixed down to mono, ping-ponging back and forth on this little four-track. Finally, I wound up with a cassette that had virtually the entire arrangement that appeared on the record, verbatim, with the exception of a few Joe Walsh licks on the end. All the harmony guitar stuff was there, as was my solo.
“Then I gave it to Don Henley on a tape with eight or 10 ideas, and he came back and said, ‘I really love the one that sounds like a Matador…like you’re in Mexico.’ We worked it all up and went into the studio and recorded it as I wrote it—in E minor, just regular, open chords in standard tuning—and made this killer track. All the electric guitars were big and fat and the 12-string was nice and full. Then Henley came back and said, ‘It’s in the wrong key.’ So I said, ‘What do you need? D? F sharp?’…hoping that we could varispeed the tape. But he said no, that wouldn’t work, and we sat down and started trying to figure out the key—and it turned out to be B minor! So out comes the capo, way up on the seventh fret. We re-recorded the song in B minor and all of a sudden the guitar sounds really small and the whole track just shrinks! It was horrible, so we went back and tried it again. Luckily, we came up with a better version in B minor.
“I kept the capo on and recorded the acoustic guitar through a Leslie. They took a D.I. out of the console and a stereo Leslie, and this got this swirly effect. Then I went back and did most of the guitars, except for the stuff where Joe and I set up on two stools and ran the harmony parts down. I play the first solo, then it’s Joe. Then we trade lines and then we go into the lead harmonies.
“Now that I’ve heard it for 20 years, the 12-string part sounds right to me, but it’s still not as nice as the E minor version we did. And even when we’d finished the song and made it the title track, I wasn’t convinced that it should be our single. I thought it was way too long—twice the normal radio length—and sort of weird because it started out quiet and had this quiet breakdown section in the middle. I was very skeptical, but I yielded to the wisdom of Henley.”
7) "One" (Kirk Hammett) - Metallica ...And Justice for All, 1988
“I had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with my guitar playing on …And Justice for All,” recalls Kirk Hammett. “Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for me to fully execute my ideas.
“We worked on basic tracks for six or seven months, and then I only had eight or nine days to record all my leads because we were heading out on the Monsters of Rock tour [with Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken and Kingdom Come]. To get that done, I had to do incredibly long, grueling days—like 20 hours at a pop—and it took so much out of me. As soon as I finished one solo, I had to do the next one. There was no time to breathe, as the whole vibe was to do it the best you could and keep moving. It was a pretty frustrating experience, to be honest.”
Despite these frustrations, Hammett was immediately pleased with most of his work on “One,” which featured three very different solos. “The first solo and the last solo were completely worked out in advance because I had been playing them for months,” recalls Hammett. “So in those cases it was just a matter of fitting in tonewise. I elected to use a clean sound in the intro solo, which was the first time we used that kind of sound. I dialed it up on an ADA preamp and, once we found the right sound, it just flowed. For the final solo, I used my conventional lead sound of the time. That one flowed quickly, too—once I worked out the intro right-hand tapping technique, a process I really enjoyed. I wanted a high energy intro that would be different from anything I had done in the past. So I got those two solos done quickly and was pleased with them. But the middle one just wasn’t happening.”
Ultimately, Hammett was so displeased with the results of his second solo that he returned to the studio in the midst of the Monsters of Rock tour—spending a day at New York’s Hit Factory with producer Ed Stasium. “I redid the entire second half of the second solo and worked to make it all fit in,” Hammett recalls. “It was better, though I was never totally satisfied with it. I guess I did a good enough job, though.”
Apparently so. The song would soon become Metallica’s first legitimate radio and MTV hit, its solos firmly established as Hammett signature licks.
6) "November Rain" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion I, 1991
Long before the world embraced Guns N’ Roses as the quintessential Eighties rock band, the L.A.-based outfit recorded in one day a demo tape that featured many of what would become the band’s best-known songs, including “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” and “Mr. Browstone,” all of which would wind up on the band’s 1987 breakthrough album, Appetite For Destruction. Also on the tape was a song called “November Rain,” a sprawling, grandiose piano-driven ballad that would lie dormant for the remainder of the decade, eventually resurfacing in 1991 on the band’s two record set, Use Your Illusion.
“I think that demo session was the first time we played ‘November Rain’ together as a band,” says Guns guitarist Slash. “We actually did it on piano and acoustic guitar. As far as the guitar solo, it was so natural from the first time I ever played it on the demo that I don’t even know if I made any changes to it when we did the electric version on Use Your Illusion. I never even went back and listened to the old tapes. One of the best things about a melody for a guitar solo is when it comes to you the same way every time, and that was definitely the case with ‘November Rain.’ When it came time to do the record, I just went into the studio, played the solo through a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall [2555, Jubilee head] and said, ‘I think that sounds right,’ ” he laughs. “It was as simple as that.”
5) "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
Joining the Experience for the initial “Watchtower” session was Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, who, it was decided, would contribute a 12-string acoustic part. “Dave hung out a lot with Jimi and was a regular in the studio,” says engineer Eddie Kramer. “Jimi was aware of his ability and felt that he could cover the part adequately.”
Jimi, says Kramer, had a firm understanding of just how the song was to be arranged and performed, but the session proved to be anything but smooth. Mason, whose job it was to double Jimi’s six-string acoustic rhythm part, struggled mightily, causing Jimi to reprimand him several times.
Hendrix and Noel Redding also clashed, and the bassist, angered by what he saw as Jimi’s obsessive quest for perfection, bolted from the studio midway through the session. Mason took over the bass in Redding’s absence, but Hendrix ultimately overdubbed the part himself, using a small, custom bass guitar that Bill Wyman had given to Andy Johns.
After the basic rhythm tracks were finally completed to Jimi’s satisfaction, he turned his attention to the song’s four distinct solo sections, each of which were recorded separately. “Once Jimi started working on his solos, the session moved very quickly,” says Kramer. “The thing that occurs to me was how completely prepared he was. One thing that people don’t realize is that Jimi always did his homework. He and producer Chas Chandler always got together to work out ideas well before he walked into the studio. Jimi knew exactly what he wanted to play.
“He used an different tone setting for each part. I recall him using a cigarette lighter to play the slide section, and that the delay effect on each of the sections was applied later. I used an EMT plate reverb—that was the only thing available to us at the time.”
4) "Comfortably Numb" (David Gilmour) - Pink Floyd The Wall, 1979
How do you reason with two guys who once went to court over the artistic ownership of a big rubber pig? That was Bob Ezrin’s mission when he agreed to co-produce Pink Floyd’s The Wall with guitarist David Gilmour and bassist/vocalist Roger Waters. The legendary tensions between the two feuding Floyds came to a head during sessions for The Wall in 1979—which was why Ezrin was called in.
“My job was to mediate between two dominant personalities,” recalls Ezrin. However, the producer turned out to be no mere referee, but contributed plenty ideas of his own. “I fought for the introduction of the orchestra on that record,” says Ezrin. “This became a big issue on ‘Comfortably Numb,’ which Dave saw as a more bare-bones track. Roger sided with me. So the song became a true collaboration—it’s David’s music, Roger’s lyric and my orchestral chart.”
Gilmour’s classic guitar solo was cut using a combination of the guitarist’s Hiwatt amps and Yamaha rotating speaker cabinets, Ezrin recalls. But with Gilmour, he adds, equipment is secondary to touch; “You can give him a ukulele and he’ll make it sound like a Stradivarius.”
Which doesn’t mean Gilmour didn’t fiddle around in the studio when he laid down the song’s unforgettable lead guitar part. “I banged out five or six solos,” says Gilmour. “From there I just followed my usual procedure, which is to listen back to each solo and make a chart, noting which bits are good. Then, by following the chart, I create one great composite solo by whipping one fader up, then another fader, jumping from phrase to phrase until everything flows together. That’s the way we did it on ‘Comfortably Numb.’”
3) "Free Bird" (Allen Collins, Gary Rossington) - Lynyrd Skynyrd pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd, 1973
“‘Free Bird’ was actually one of the first songs we ever wrote,” says guitarist Gary Rossington. “Allen [Collins] had the chords for the pretty part in the beginning, two full years, but Ronnie [Van Zant] kept saying that because there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody for it. We were just beginning to write and he thought that he had to change with every chord change.
“Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ Allen played it again, and Ronnie said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And he wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing! He came up with a lot of stuff that way, and he never wrote anything down. His motto was, ‘If you can’t remember it, it’s not worth remembering.’
“So we started playing it in clubs, but it was just the slow part. [A demo of this version of the song appears on the Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (MCA, 1991)—GW Ed.] Then Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes?’ So I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen played over them, then I soloed and then he soloed…it all evolved out of a jam one night. So, we started playing it that way, but Ronnie kept saying, ‘It’s not long enough. Make it longer.’ Because we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up. Then one of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie, Billy Powell, had come up with as an intro for the song. We did—and he went from being a roadie to a member right then.”
On the studio version of the song, which appeared on Skynyrd’s debut album, Collins played the entire solo himself on his Gibson Explorer, with Rossington playing rhythm on his Les Paul, “Bernice,” and adding the slide fills on his SG. “The whole long jam was Allen Collins, himself,” Rossington says. “He was bad. He was super bad! He was bad-to-the-bone bad. When we put the solo together, we liked the sound of the two guitars, and I could’ve gone out and played it with him. But the way he was doin’ it, he was just so hot! ! He just did it once and did it again and it was done.”
The resulting track was nine minutes long, and no one’s idea of a classic radio song. “Everybody told us that we were crazy to put the song on our first album, because it was too long,” recalls Rossington. “Our record company begged us not to include it. And when it first came out, they did all kinds of awful radio edits until it got big enough where it didn’t matter any more.”
Shortly after the album was recorded, bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the group after a brief hiatus and Ed King, his replacement, slid over to guitar, creating a three-guitar juggernaut that could reproduce the song’s majestic attack on stage. By the time Skynyrd cut the 1976 live album One More From the Road, Steve Gaines had replaced King and “Free Bird” had soared to over 13 minutes in length. This version, with its famous shouted intro, “What song is it that you want to hear?,” triggered air guitar frenzy from coast to coast and firmly sealed “Free Bird’s” status as a national treasure.
2) "Eruption" (Eddie Van Halen) - Van Halen Van Halen, 1978
It is hard to imagine a more appropriately titled piece of music than Edward Van Halen’s solo guitar showcase, “Eruption.” When the wildly innovative instrumental was released in 1978, hit the rock guitar community like a hydrogen bomb. Two-handed tapping, gonzo whammy bar dips, artificial harmonics—with Van Halen’s masterly application of these and other techniques, “Eruption” made every other six-stringer look like a third-stringer.
But the most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the unaccompanied solo is that it almost didn’t make it on the guitarist’s debut album.
“The story behind ‘Eruption’ is strange,” says Van Halen. “It wasn’t even supposed to be on Van Halen. While we were recording the album, I showed up at the studio early one day and started to warm up because I had a gig on the weekend and I wanted to practice my solo-guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape!'
“I played it two times for the record, and we kept the one that seemed to flow. Ted liked it, and everyone else agreed that we should throw it on the album. I didn’t even play it right—there’s a mistake at the top end of it. Whenever I hear it, I always think, ‘Man, I could’ve played it better.’”
As for the distinctive echo effect on the track, Eddie recalls that he used a relatively obscure unit—a Univox echo chamber. “It had a miniature 8-track cassette in it, and the way it would adjust the rate of repeat was by the speed of the motor, not by tape heads. So, if you recorded something on tape, the faster you played the motor back, the faster it would repeat and vice versa. I liked some of the noises I got out of it, but its motor would always burn out.”
“I like the way ‘Eruption’ sounds. I’d never heard a guitar sound like that before.”
1) "Stairway to Heaven" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV, 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. I’m not talking about solos or anything; it had everything there. Every musician wants to do something that will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did that with ‘Stairway.’"