What’s On Your List? Guitar Solo Edition

What makes a great guitar solo?

What makes a great guitar solo? Is it epic length? Shredding power? Drama? Heartrending feats of pitch-bending brilliance? There’s no shortage of performances that might fit the general description of “All Time Most Stupendous” – below, in no particular order, are a few of mine. Please feel free to add your personal favorites, and tell why they’re meaningful. Thanks!

Jimi Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” from Electric Ladyland (1968). A case could be made for including virtually everything Hendrix ever recorded in a list like this. You have to start somewhere, though, and the solos on Electric Ladyland (particular this one and “All Along the Watchtower”) capture how radically Hendrix transformed the vocabulary of his instrument – here are lightning bolts of nerve-jangling dissonance wound up inside howling reanimations of old blues and followed, in short order, by thrillingly assymetrical (and disarmingly beautiful) melodies.

Eddie Hazel: “Maggot Brain” from Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (1971). This begins as a rather calm and almost introspective affair, and then, with a few furtive lunges and sustained long tones, Eddie Hazel draws listeners into what becomes a quest. For what? Eternal truth? Doesn’t much matter. Though there are displays of virtuosity here, they’re completely secondary to Hazel’s sense of extended “narrative”: Working methodically, he lingers over every hanging-in-midair phrase, wringing the maximum emotional portent from each one.

Jimmy Page: “Heartbreaker” from Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II (1969). The jarring solo break in the middle remains one for the ages – all odd angles and supercharged snarl, a completely new strain of guitar freakout.

David Gilmour: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975). From the moment he makes his first entrance, David Gilmour establishes a contemplative aura built on nothing but tone – the searching, liquid sound that is his trademark. The majestic tempo provides Gilmour with an atmosphere so engrossing he hardly has to move his fingers to seem “profound.” But when, after a time, he does begin to move his fingers, what transpires is blindingly intense guitar storytelling that goes beyond words.

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#1 from Al King, London - 03/30/2009 7:20

I’ve been waiting for this one ever since I read the intro to Tom’s book which hinted at something similar.  It doesn’t disappoint of course, but like Tom himself suggests, is only the beginning.  Let’s add a few more and get this one rolling.  I feel a Playlist coming on….....
Brian Robertson on Still In Love With You from Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous.  Poignant. Memorable.  ncredible.
Rory Gallagher on Million Miles Away from Irish Tour.  Live tour de force.
Carlos Santana on Transcendence from Santana’s Moonflower.  Ultimate sustain and crescendo.
Neal Schon on Live and Breathe from Journey’s Arrival.  Epic, soaring, cosmic.
Joe Satriani on Satch Boogie from Surfing With The Alien.  Tasteful shred work out.
Tood Rundgren on Tiny Demons from Go Ahead Ignore me.  Simple, haunting, brilliant.
Larry Carlton on Point It Up.  Unbelievable stamina and invention.
Eric Johnson on High Landron’s from Ah Via Musicom.  Chops and tone in equal measure.

#2 from bd, Philadelphia - 03/30/2009 10:42

Paul Kossoff ‘All Right Now’ from Free’s Fire & Water: Never has so much been said with so few notes. The ultimate rock guitar solo.

Pat Metheny “Have You Heard” from Letter From Home: Long Pat’s live gig ‘warm-up’ set opener, the stories he weaved on this extended blues during may times I caught him in the late 80s and 90s remain jaw dropping.

Duane Allman & Dickie Betts “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from Live At Fillmore East: The place where jazz and rock meet and it just becomes music in it’s purest sense.

#3 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 03/31/2009 2:02

As Tom notes, one of the issues when identifying great solos is technique versus soulfulness.  I bet that this is going to be a long, long list before the day is over.  Generally I’m a lover of the shorter song, but my two faves go against that.  They are:  Mick Taylor’s solo on “Shine a Light”, the second to last song on Exile on Main Street and Prince’s solo (comping himself) on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on Sign O’ the Times.  The best album for guitar solos is possibly Derek and the Dominoes.

#4 from Greg Scheer, Grand Rapids - 03/31/2009 4:07

I know everyone’s going to think I’m a dork, but I’ve always thought the dueling guitar solo of Hotel California is the perfect pop guitar masterpiece. Yes, it’s overplayed. Yes, technically it’s a duet. But the contour and pacing are perfect. It’s a solo that moves the drama of the song forward rather than feeling like a self-indulgent platform for technique.

For spontaneous, passionate and technical guitar genius, Roy Buchanon is one of my favorites.

#5 from Al King, London - 03/31/2009 11:10

This is exactly what I was hoping for; informed tasteful posts which drive me straight to my record collection.  Thanks Gents.  Adore “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, love Mick Taylor on “Cant You hear Me Knocking” and “Hotel California” is clearly valid, as would be “Freebird”.  A couple more while I’m on:
John Petrucci on live version of Under A Glass Moon on Dream Theater’s Score.  Dazzling display that moves too.
Dean Parks and Elliot Randall on Green Earings from Steely Dan’s Royal Scam.  Bouncy, springy, perfect.
Mark Knopfler on Sultans of Swing from Dire Straits.  Jaw droppingly good.  Listen out for the guitar onomatopoeia as the time bell rings.
Richie Kotzen on Fooled Again from Return of Mother Heads Family Reunion.  Relentless, soaring, epic workout.

#6 from Adam, New Jersey - 03/31/2009 9:30

A few months ago my cousin pointed out that Charlie Parker basically plain 16 bar solos, if not half that.  Can you come up with great solos that fit into that time stricture?

#7 from tom moon - 04/01/2009 4:52

dunno…16 bars is tough. The great solo by Larry Carlton on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” is longer than that, but not technically an entire chorus…that’s one that goes on my short list of great improvisations, period.

some terrific Jimmy Page solos are fairly short (I’m thinking Physical Graffiti)

not to forget the (2 I think) great 8 bar breaks Rick Derringer takes on “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.”

it’s endless….


#8 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 04/02/2009 6:18

The other thing that I find really interesting is when rather than sticking a the guitar solo in the middle of the song, it appears at the end.  I’m thinking of the song Houses of the Holy.  The other thing about short solos is that you’re more apt to find a short solo in a song that has a hook (Stax and Motown songs to the extent that the even have solos).

#9 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 04/04/2009 5:29

First of all, Maggot Brain! Absolutely seminal and epic and all of those kinds of words!

It’s so hard with Hendrix, because you just think of another song of his and you could probably make an argument for it being at the top of a list like this. If I had to pick one, I’d probably also pick “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” though I’d maybe want to check it against one of those live versions of “Machine Gun” (which I think are maybe Band of Gypsies).

But, I have a favorite Hendrix instrumental that a lot of people don’t know, that also has a very different and amazing guitar solo: it’s “Pali Gap” from the Rainbow Bridge album. It’s actually many guitar parts overdubbed, and they interweave in and out over a kind-of modal groove. But, there’s one solo near the end that is played fast and delicate at the same time - and Hendrix lays down this amazing beautiful, fast, phrase, and then plays it again 2 more times in way that makes it feel both impossible and simple at the same time.


Also, I always am wowed by Robert Fripp’s guitar solos on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” and on David Bowie’s “Fashion.” But, my favorite is his solo on Eno’s “China My China,” where he’s soloing over the typewriters. Maybe it’s the contrast of his abstract guitar solo against the sound of typewriters, but I love it. (And, I guess there’s a chance that the solo is “edited” to sound the way it does—but putting aside methods, it’s a completely amazing solo!)

#10 from Shane, Nashville - 04/10/2009 1:44

I really like this topic, it got my mind racing and I came up with a few solos that I never get tired of hearing. (in no particular order)

Eric Clapton - Old Love - from the album 24 Nights.  Great live version of this tune with a great solo.  EC at his best.

Adrian Belew - The Writing on the Wall - from the album Side One.  One of my favorite guitar players and a very weird solo.

Terry Kath - Dialoge part 2 - from the fifth Chicago album (Wood Grain on the cover)

Robert Fripp - 21st Century Schizoid Man - from the King Crimson album USA.  Live recording of this classic song

Clarence White - Ode to Billy Joe - from the Nashville West Album.  Great use of the B-bender that Clarence invented.

Clarence White - I am a Pilgrim - from the Kentucky Colonel album Appalachian Swing.  Lead Guitar in a Bluegrass band.

Steve Via - Tender Surrender - from the Alien Love Secret Album.

Don Rich - Buckaroo - He is the guitar player for Buck Owens.  Great country pickin’

Larry Carlton - Kid Charlemagne - From the Steely Dan album The Royal Scam

Steely Dan - Black Friday - From the album Katy Lied.  I don’t know who plays the solo on this, but I love it.

Wes Montgomery - 4 on 6 - from the album the incredible jazz guitar of wes montgomery

My two cents

#11 from JI, Pittsburgh, PA - 04/10/2009 7:26

One of my favorites I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Vernon Reid’s playing on “Memories Can’t Wait.”  I love how it just explodes right out of the gate.  Then it really blew my mind once I realized it was a Talking Heads cover.  Amazing!

#12 from Al King, London - 04/10/2009 5:37

Shane: inspired choices - am seeking them out now.  Inevitably, a few more while I am on:
Steve Vai on Crying Machine from Fire Garden.  The Master’s finest hour.
Ed Wynne on Erpland from Erpland by Ozric Tentacles.  Awesome space rock from criminally underrated genius.
Ritchie Blackmore on Mistreated from Rainbow On Stage.  Best version of the Blackmore/Coverdale classic.
Ernie Isley on Hope You Feel Better (Parts 1 & 2) from Funky Family.  Hendrix’s true successor goes nuts over ace groove.

#13 from Shane, Nashville - 04/10/2009 7:10

Here are a few more that I forgot.

Richard Thompson - Jealous Words - from the Old Kit Bag Album.  I have always thought that Mark Knopfler was heavily influenced by Richard, I think you can hear it in this song

Tommy Bolin - Quadrant 4 - from Billy Cobham’s album Spectrum.  Really great Rock guitar on a Jazz Fusion Album

Jeff Beck - Where were you - from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop.  I could listen to anything Jeff does

Tony Rice - Manzanita - from the Manzanita album.  One of the greatest acoustic guitar players alive.

Brad Paisley - Time Warp - from his Time Well Wasted album.  Brad is one of the only modern country artist that I think is worth listening to.  He is a great guitar player.

Buddy Miller - no one particular song, he is well known for being the guitar player for Emmylou Harris and for playing on the Plant/Krauss album Raising Sand.  He has solo albums that are all great.  Great singer and guitarist.

dig these up, it will be worth your time

#14 from EDC3, Tempe, AZ - 04/12/2009 8:23

Dave Mason’s incredible, note-perfect solo at the *end* of “Look At You Look At Me” from his Alone Together album.

#15 from Al King, London - 04/12/2009 1:47

Shane, forgot to mention:  The solo on Steely Dan’s Black Friday is by the man himself, Walter Becker.  Yeah, he’s that good.

#16 from Al King, London - 04/14/2009 6:46

Ive been in guitar heaven since this one was posted.  Here’s a few more I overlooked for your delectation:
Nuno Bettencourt on Get the Funk out by Extreme from Pornograffiti.  Jaw dropping Funk Metal chops.
Eddie Van Halen on I’m The One from Van Halen.  The defining guitarist of his generation packs it all in to one perfect solo.
Buckethead on Too Many Humans from Population Override.  Guitar nutter shames all with passionate lament to humanity.
Allan Holdsworth on Hazard Profile from Bundles by Soft Machine.  Jazz/rock/fusion pioneer nails it early.
Paul McCartney on No Words For My Love from Band On The Run by Wings.  Shut up for a sec Debby & let Macca have a go.  Nails it for 8 perfect bars before the twit in the studio fades it out.

#17 from J.D. Haight, Dallas, Texas - 04/15/2009 1:06

Here are my two favorites:

1.  The song Nevermore from the album U.K. by the band U.K.  Allan Holdsworth both opens (acoustic) and closes (electric) the song with variations on the same melody/solo that reflect a beautiful, aching, majesty.

2. Because We Ended as Lovers by Jeff Beck.  Never has heartbreak enjoyed such perfect expression.

#18 from J.D. Haight, Dallas, Texas - 04/15/2009 1:12

Here’s a third, included for it’s sheer audacity:

3. Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young.  More has rarely been wretched out of one note for so long.  The ultimate lo-tech, high-concept solo.

#19 from Al King, London - 04/22/2009 4:21

I just found at the bottom of my bag a list of top solos I made some months ago for a playlist.  The ones on it which I havent already posted are:

Live & Breather by Neal Schon from Journey’s Arrival.  Soaring, epic, heart rending.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Neil Geraldo on Pat Benatar.  The perfect pop rock solo.
Rock Bottom by Michael Schenker from Strangers In The Night.  Unbeleivable torrent of fabulous melodic playing and counterpoint with keys.

That might well be my last word on the subject but anymore for anymore?
Mick Box on Uriah Heep’s Salisbury.

#20 from Al King, London - 04/27/2009 3:56

EDC3: forgot to mention, the solo at the *end* of “Look At You Look At Me” is actually by Eric Clapton.  Considered by the cognoscenti to be his finest.

By the way, while I am on, I missed off a description for Mick Box’s solo on Uriah Heep’s Salisbury:

3 separate solos using fast picking and wah wah over a full orchestra grooving away.  This could ONLY have happened in England in 1971.

#21 from EDC3, Tempe, AZ - 04/28/2009 12:49

Al King -
Can you cite any sources or credits showing Clapton played the solo at the end of Dave Mason’s “Look At You Look At Me”? I have the original Blue Thumb vinyl LP (unfortunately, not the “marbled” one) and there is no such credit. Mason *did* credit many of the Delaney & Bonnie and friends (incl. Leon Russell on piano) but there’s no mention of Clapton.

#22 from DCN13, Los Angeles - 04/28/2009 2:46

Although very derivative of Chuck Berry, I really enjoy Billy Zoom from the band “X”. While most so-called “punk” bands eschewed the guitar solo, Zoom always had tasty rockabilly licks all over the band’s first four albums.  Try Johnny Hit & Run Paulene or Sugarlight from “Los Angeles”, the “Breathless” single or Motel Room In My Bed from “Under The Big Black Sun” for some classic soloing.  Guitar players I’ve talked to comment that he always adds an unexpected lick or chord change that are very hard for others to replicate.  He has a style all his own.  Great playing throughout.  And for something completely different, I still enjoy Steve Howe from Yes.

#23 from Al King, London - 04/28/2009 4:39

EDC3: sources or credits showing Clapton played the solo at the end of Dave Mason’s “Look At You Look At Me”.  Yes:

The 2008 Rev-ola CD release comes with excellent sleeve notes by Duglas T Stewart, which include this fact.  The album also features Rita Coolidge and many other guests.

Theres also a great shot of him jamming with Hendrix,  It was Mason turned Hendrix on to All Along The Watchtower.

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