Jimmy Page. Jack White. Jimi Hendrix: some of the music world’s greatest ever axe-shredders (and that’s only the Js). Fundamental to a band’s sound, the guitarist can make or break a record and – if they’re really something special – they can deliver a solo that elevates it to heights previously unimagined. Here, we celebrate those in the latter camp, who only needed six strings to change the world.
50 Babe Ruth – ‘The Mexican’
“This song is literally one very long solo. Alan Shacklock is spraying duelling solos all over the this sexy jam without looking over his shoulder once! That’s a pretty impressive feet considering the track is nearly 6 minutes long. I mean, the solos aren’t going to melt any faces, but you know, they don’t always have to.”
49 Kansas – ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’
The track is a golden rock monolith, full of prog-esque bombast and fittingly Kerry Livgren’s solo doesn’t pull any punches. Instead he brilliantly executes all of the classic guitar techniques in one: the slide, the bend and the vibrato.
48 Suede ‘Animal Nitrate’
Unlike their Britpop contemporaries, Suede never shied away from guitar solo bombast. Bernard Butler complemented Johnny Marr as he mirrored the urban isolation of the track on his Les Paul, picking away at the sad minor chord threads. Beautiful stuff.
47 Rage Against The Machine – ‘Bulls On Parade’
Rage Against The Machine’s second album might have had nothing on their jaw-dropping debut but it had a few moments of genius, and Tom Morello’s squeaky, squawky fretboard abuse a few minutes into ‘Evil Empire’’s second track was probably the entire LP’s high water mark. Try air guitaring to that bizarre squiggle; it would give the makers of Guitar Hero a heart attack.
46 The White Stripes – ‘Ball And Biscuit’
“Jack is an absolute genius. He never plays the same thing twice throughout this song, and the high solo parts are absolutely brutal. Like he’s killing the blues. Also, the moment where after five minutes, you hear him say ‘yeh well err, d’ya get the point now?‘ then he plays for another three minutes is basically the coolest thing to ever happen.”
45 Prince – ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’
“This is a perfect example of a guitar solo that you can sing along with. I think any good guitar solo should do that. Also this song is incredible. People think of Prince as this prolific genius wearing pink lace and thongs, etc.. which is true (and awesome) but he is also an incredible guitarist. I think he could put most of Rolling Stone‘s top 100 guitar players to shame in his sleep.”
44 Manic Street Preachers – ‘La Tristesse Durera’
The Manics’ bombastic rock ‘n’ Van Gogh tribute found producer Dave Eringa amping up everything and ensuring James Dean Bradfield’s melodic soloing gets a welcome spotlight. Influenced by Slash he lets rip on his trademark white Les Paul. The results are unforgettable.
43 Electric Prunes – ‘Holy Are You’
“That one sounds like you should be in front of a huge architectural masterpiece, like a church or a cathedral, and you should be on tons of acid, playing along.”
42 Dinosaur Jr – ‘Get Me’
J Mascis is a relatively underappreciated guitar hero, but his technical ability cannot be doubted. Taken from the band’s fifth album ‘Where You Been’, this solo is a blistering amalgam of 70s rock influences (especially Neil Young) and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. A peak in a career of sonic highs.
41 Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Soma’
“My personal favourite guitar solo would be by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins from the song ‘Soma’. It’s a perfect combination of melody, noise and technique by one of the most underrated lead players in modern rock music. There are so many haunting bends in this solo that show off what a unique and creative guitarist Billy Corgan is.”
40 Thin Lizzy – ‘Roisin Dubh (Black Rose)’
“There’s about five or six top class guitar solos in this song, while most bands can’t even do one. You can sing along to them all, too; they aren’t all ‘look how fast I can move my fingers on this piece of wood with wires attached to it’ ones.”
39 Bad Brains – ‘Banned In DC’
“I don’t know about an all-time favourite, but Bad Brains’ ‘Banned in DC’ has to be in my Top Five. There’s something so unique and melancholic about it.”
38 Blur – ‘Coffee And TV’
As fine an example of an anti-guitar solo as you’ll hear anywhere – just a string of discordant notes, building to a storm of haywire string-bending. You don’t have to widdle away like Eddie Van Halen to carve out a truly memorable solo.
38 Weezer – ‘Buddy Holly’
The hook may have gone “Ooo-wee-ooo,” and the video may have been an eye catching Happy Days tribute, but that didn’t detract from River Cuomo’s short-but-to-the-point solo, which ticked all the boxes of an ‘instant classic’.
37 Joan Jett And The Blackhearts – ‘I Love Rock N Roll’
She’d already earned her stripes with The Runaways, but the glam stomp through the Arrows track made her a bonafide international star. Ricky Byrd’s solo takes the riff of the song and pitches it harmonically upward, striking all the right, leather jacketed notes.
36 Prince – ‘Purple Rain’
It began with Prince attempting to write a crossover song in the style of Bob Seger for Stevie Nicks. It ended with his defining anthem. The solo took him to a whole other audience – it was part Hendrix freakout and part country-rock jam. He wouldn’t be known as just ‘a pop star’ ever again.
35 Santana – ‘Soul Sacrifice’
It’s almost hard to remember now, thanks to all the Steve Tyler and Dave Matthews collaborations and the torrent of shit that’s flown from his fretboard over the last few years, but back in the 70s Santana was a guitar god. This solo doesn’t wait for an introduction after the verse and chorus have had their say, it’s present throughout, and the performance at Woodstock is a work of art.
34 AC/DC – ‘Let There Be Rock’
AC/DC, as ever, know how to do it properly. Start with a riff, the kind of riff most bands would give both their balls for (but which comes naturally to you), drop it down to snare drum and bass, then unleash one of the wildest slabs of guitar chaos in rock and roll. Playing it while stomping around the stage topless and making sex faces just makes it all the better.
33 Television – ‘Venus’
Tom Verlaine is very much the ‘anti guitar player’, always distancing his work from the conventional School Of Rock guitar-isms (see for example his ‘no distortion’ policy). On ‘Marquee Moon”s Venus, Verlaine and Richard Lloyd unpick the song’s counter melody with the sparseness of true pioneers. In a field of show-offs, Television showed us that less can be more.
32 Cream – ‘Crossroads’
Eric Clapton may or may not be God (the celestial guitar jury’s still out on that one), but he knew his way around a Gibson SG. And Cream’s calling card took less than 90 seconds to make way for his fretboard wankery. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce provide a rock solid rhythm but it’s the bursts of guitar that make this track.
31 The Libertines – ‘Time For Heroes’
There’s not many truly great guitar solos from the last ten years – synths and samples seem to have superceded the traditional axe meander – but the Libs always knew how to do it old school. As chaotic and unpredictable as the song, and indeed the band, this short, sharp shock sees their fretwork at its finest.
30 The Rolling Stones – ‘Sway’
“There is something dramatic about Mick Taylor’s guitar solo. The way he plays it with a magnificent presence of measured, confident, authoritative youth but with a militaristic manner, which lends an extraordinary gravity to the song. I see the band through the song as a gang of mathematicians huddled round a problem, all with solemn faces, each fearlessly throwing forth their own take on where the solution may lie. This guitar solo always resonated with me because it carried the passion so profoundly it inspired me to play the guitar.”
29 Van Halen – ‘Eruption’
Often stuck in the Top Ten in these polls, we’ve shifted it down a peg or two because let’s face it, it’s a bit crass, really. However, if it’s unrelenting, shameless, show-off frantic fingerwork you’re after, this is the one. 100 seconds of axe worship and little else. Originally played by Eddie Van Halen on his own creation, the Frankenstat.
28 The Strokes – ‘Last Nite’
“This made learning the guitar fun again when I was 11. Everyone can sing it still today. It’s not complicated for the sake of being complicated.”
27 George Harrison feat. Eric Clapton – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
Proving that a great guitar solo doesn’t always need to rely on the number of notes you can cram into a bar, this Eric Clapton contribution to a Beatles track that Harrison initially wasn’t happy with is a masterpiece of understated fretwork. It really does speak for itself, this one.
26 Lynyrd Skynyrd – ‘Free Bird’
The first rule of guitar solo lists is that ‘Free Bird’ must make an appearance. For us, it’s midway through the 50. You wait four or five minutes for the shredding to commence and then it’s one long multi guitar freestyle that goes on for five, ten or fifteen minutes depending on the version. Rednecks and mostly dead they may be, but Skynyrd knew their way round a solo.
25 Led Zeppelin – ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’
“Jimmy Page really shows himself in this song. The subtleties at the start are replaced with ferocious runs towards the end. The dog’s bollocks of solos.”
24 Thin Lizzy – ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’
A classic riff doesn’t just stand alone. It needs a great song, vocal and a massive solo to support it. Well ‘TBABIT’ had two. The ‘twin guitar solo’ from Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson pushes the track over the top, making it an axe classic.
23 The Strokes – ‘Reptilia’
Nick Valensi’s guitar solo here is a thing of spidery beauty, climbing over the formidable combo of Fab Moretti’s drums and Nikolai Fraiture’s bass with mammoth new wave power. Perhaps the most ‘Strokesian’ track they ever recorded.
22 Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’
“This was a tough one, but I’m going to have to pick ‘November Rain’ by Guns N’ Roses, which features one of the first guitar solos I ever tried to learn. We have history together so it hits me a different way than most, still, until this day.”
21 Radiohead – ‘Just’
“The Greenwood. Like being smashed in the face with a bucket of rabid razor blade wielding ejaculating crabs.”
20 Stone Roses – ‘I Am The Resurrection’
Memorably described as “more like the eternal crucifix” in the pages of NME, John Squire’s solo tunnelled into the eight minute plus ‘…Resurection’ like a massive rave-guitar lighthouse of sheer power.
19 Muse – ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
We could try and take Matt Bellamy’s guitar masterclass but we still wouldn’t have a clue how he does it. ‘SS’ is a case in point; he makes his guitar sound like a rocket ship, cruising and crushing into a million different shapes at once.
18 Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
“It’s just the best thing. I don’t think it could ever be duplicated quite as perfectly because Brian May has such a unique style of playing. And he does it all with a sixpence coin!”
17 Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’
Smoother than a moonwalk, Eddie Van Halen ripped ‘Beat It’ a new one, giving it all the bawdy street anger that MJ’s vocal didn’t have.
16 The Eagles – ‘Hotel California’
“I love this guitar solo. It’s an eyes closed, eyebrows up classic. Like duelling banjos but with guitars, laid back Californians and less congenital deformity. It gets overlooked because it’s not part of a ‘rock’ track but that only enhances its effect, replacing pomposity with glorious loops of finger picking cool. Eat that grebos.”
15 Led Zeppelin – ‘Communication Breakdown’
Yet another Jimmy Page face-melter makes our top 50. A fine example of a solo that builds in intensity as it progresses – right up until the dizzying widdly-widdly-WAAARGH climax.
14 Oasis – ‘Live Forever’
Inspired by The Rolling Stones’ ‘Shine A Light’, Noel’s optimistic ode to youthful joie de vivre punched a ray of light into Britpop. His guitar solo was appropriately uplifting, popping up as it did after brother Liam’s immortal “You and I, we’re gonna live forever,” line.
13 The Rolling Stones – ‘Sympathy For The Devil’
Jagger’s indie disco staple gets made umpteen times more awesome two and a half minutes in when Richards seemingly strangles his instrument around the neck. Less a solo than a series of notes wrung out of a squealing victim, this one is short, sharp and a sensual shock to the system.
12 Neil Young – ‘Hey Hey My My’
Neil Young’s another of those guitar torturers, and the screeches he coaxes out of his long-suffering musical companion sound delivered straight from hell. Think of it as guitar waterboarding: bad for the instrument, great for the local guitar shop, and wonderful for us listening at home.
11 Deep Purple – ‘Highway Star’
“As an eager 11-year-old classic rock fan I skipped school to go down to London and see Deep Purple an the Albert Hall. Throughout the performance an old Scottish man was being a total creep to my friend’s mum, and the band were about a thousand years old. Needless to say, I was disappointed, but the solo to this track has a life unto itself and it bends in all the right places.”
10 Pink Floyd – ‘Shine On you Crazy Diamond’
David Gilmour slows it right down to stoner-pleasing BPMs during the Floyd’s extended epic. As far removed from the intricate, manic shredding of some of these other solos, this is more introspective, more lethargic, a little self-indulgent, and utterly compelling for all those reasons.
9 Radiohead – ‘Paranoid Android’
“It’s like the ‘anti-solo’. Greenwood’s choice of texture and tonality is unlike anything else of its time. This solo was created in the mid 90’s when Radiohead’s nearest peers were still playing guitar solos using the same blues pentatonic scales that have dominated guitar solos since the start of rock music.”
8 Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B. Goode’
“As far as guitar solos go, this song brought it all together for me. The myth is that he stole this guitar phrase from his piano player without giving him credit for years. All my favorite guitar players – Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Link Wray, Wilko Johnson, Nicke Royale – play this simple, catchy, and memorable guitar phrase in one form or another. It is easy to play, but of course no one can play it with the feeling Chuck Berry had. So all the young guitar players out there, before trying to tackle that Dragonforce song, make sure you can play this guitar solo and do the duck walk.
7 Radiohead – ‘The Bends’
A steaming juggernaut of 90s grungey guitar goodness. Producer John Leckie stacked Jonny Greenwood’s guitars 100 feet high. Greenwood saved his best chops for the solo however, which soared like the spirit of hope which was hovering above Thom Yorke’s outsider anthem.
6 Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Although ‘…Teen Spirit’ is remembered for its chunky power chords, it’s actually Kurt’s skeletal solo that rubs together with his disaffected lyrics the best. A sour retread of the melody of the verses, Kurt makes his guitar sound as anguished as his lyrics were.
5 Muse – ‘Knights Of Cydonia’
Muse’s entire histrionic rock opera schtick might an exercise in more is more, but at the heart of some of their most bombastic moments lies Matt Bellamy’s fretwork. On ‘Knights…’, Bellamy uses his solo slot to unleash a rumbling piece of riffery, a frenetic solo that works as well in the spotlight as it does under his high pitched vocals, a kind of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ rock out they extend brilliantly live.
4 Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’
“Out of a list of greatest guitar solos ever, one of the most unique guitarists to be part of it would have to be Tom Morello. The solo in ‘Killing In The Name’ is a classic, it’s one of those pieces of music that will be stuck in my brain forever. Loads of trilling and whammy pedal make up the bulk of it and give it that uniqueness compared to a lot of other rock solos. Live he’s got loads of style and energy and yet he’s still so solid. Tom Morello is without a doubt one of my favourite guitarists of all time.”
3 Jimi Hendrix – ‘All Along The Watchtower’
Any number of Hendrix’s tracks could have hit the top ten, but the guitar work on his cover of the Dylan classic wins out for its sheer shape-shifting inventiveness. We all know Jimi could play a burning guitar behind his head with his eyes closed after enough spliffs to sedate a hardened stoner or whatever, but ‘Watchtower’ shows that even without any whistles and bells, Hendrix could pull out the kind of mind-altering melodies that others could barely dream of.
2 Led Zeppelin – ‘Stairway To Heaven’
So good, so monumentally epic and in-its-own-league briliant, it took a double necked guitar and one of history’s greatest axeman to execute it, Zeppelin’s calling card defines the solo. It should be a set text for budding guitarists, and in fact, it is. ‘Stairway’ is the highest selling piece of sheet music of all time. The key thing is, though, no-one in history has bettered the original.
1 Guns N’ Roses – ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’
Slash’s solo is a masterclass in build-up, managing to get progressively more exciting with each pitch-perfect Les Paul squeal – the perfect foil for Axl Rose’s high pitched rawk squall. Not bad for a song that started life as a rehearsal room piss-about.