I happen to be privy to the list (because I made it up) of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time. Countless people (Zach Swan) have asked about this list and so now, without any financial obligation, you can be in the know.
The list was compiled using a very scientific equation that balances musicality and virtuosity — it has to be a good song and it has to feature an impressive guitar solo. Thankfully, meeting these requirements is easy because it’s rock-n-roll we’re talking about and the musical standards are fairly low. I give you, as proof, “Louie, Louie, (Richard Berry/Kingsman)” “Free Falling,” (Tom Petty) and almost every song written by the Rolling Stones. And guitar solos? Is it really rock music if it doesn’t have a guitar solo? I know it’s not the 70s or the 80s anymore (the golden age of guitar solos) but they are still a rock staple.
The only other qualification was that I had to actually like the song. With empirically iron clad standards like that, who can argue?
Of course, this equation rules out alotta songs.
Take, for instance, Bach’s Piano Prelude in C. It’s probably the most amazing rock song ever written (Baroque music is the rock music of the classical world, what with its steady, hard rhythms), but it’s disqualified on account of the guitar solo. It doesn’t have one. Great song, no guitar solo? Not on the list. No jazz or bluegrass solos, either — just rock. Johann Sebastian Bach – Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Prelude No. 1 in C, BWV 846
Great song, lousy guitar solo? Not on the list. Like Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Great song, but the guitar solo? Well, it’s not lousy, but it’s nothing to write home about.
Lousy song w/ amazing guitar solo? Not on the list, either. Some lesser lists put Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” at the very top — greatest of all solos. I would agree that it is one of the most amazing displays of guitar skill I’ve heard. But while it’s a COOL song to listen to, it’s not much by way of music. It’s only about virtuosity. You should certainly listen to it if you never have, but I never find myself humming the tune in the shower. Van Halen – Eruption
For the record, there are some horrible songs with horrible guitar solos. Have you ever listened to Neil Young’s guitar solo in “Southern Man?” I don’t recommend it. You could suffer a ruptured eardrum. The song is so bad and just when you don’t think it can get any worse, he starts “playing” his guitar. Ug. Compiling a list of the worst guitar solos of all time would be a fun exercise. Neil Young would probably appear on that list more than once. Ironically, Lynard Skynard (Neil Young’s nemesis) has one of the worst guitar solos of all time, too. “Free Bird.” I think it might include three different notes.
So put on your headphones and give a listen. The Spotify links seem a bit clunky to me, but at least you can just listen (as opposed to watching what are usually distracting videos). Solo time starts are listed, but you should really listen to the whole song to get the full effect. I should also warn you that these songs aren’t hymns (in the traditional sense). The lyrics probably won’t bring you into right relationship with the Master of the Universe, but the music might! Anyway, without further ado, here’s the list.
#1 — “Hotel California,” by the Eagles. I don’t think I need to justify this choice. Simply the best musically and lyrically and the solo never gets old. Song was mostly written by Don Felder (additional credits to Henley and Walsh) who also does the guitar solo (w/ some harmonies added by Walsh). If this comes on the radio and you don’t turn it up and hush everyone in the car, you are not fully human. Starts 4:18. Eagles – Hotel California
#2 — “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd. Such a haunting song that might be thought, at first hearing, too mellow to be considered rock. It builds to a pleasant guitar prelude — a major key solo at the 2:05 mark that is wonderful in its own right. But the final solo turns minor, hard, and dark. Magnificent. Written by Roger Waters and David Gilmore, guitar solo by David Gilmore. Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb – 2011 – Remaster
#3 — “Goodbye to Love,” by The Carpenters. Yes, the Carpenters. Rock? No, they were the very definition of easy listening. But Richard Carpenter and John Bettis wrote “Goodbye to Love” and they wanted a guitar solo. They called guitarist Tony Peluso and the first time through he played what he thought they wanted — something milquetoast tame. But Richard Carpenter told him to “really let go.” So Peluso got out his metal pick, turned up the fuzz and pushed the envelope. There is a prelude solo at the 1:25 which is melodic until 1:40 when we hear some of the best rock licks — (feedback, tremelo, speed, etc.). At 2:45 the main solo plays on top of the signature Carpenter harmonies. This song is in the top three partly for historical reasons — mainstream music was pretty tame and hard rock music with angry guitar solos played way up the fretboard were still considered by many, demonic. I’m convinced this solo mainstreamed the hard guitar solo. Richard and Karen said they were pretty stunned when they heard him playing — they thought it was way too much, but they left it on the album. Richard later said it was the best guitar solo ever recorded. I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly in the top three. Carpenters – Goodbye To Love
#4 — “Jump,” by Van Halen. Let’s face it, Van Halen was not trying to better humanity by elevating our musical tastes or trying to raise the moral culture. They were party boys who wrote party music — but Eddie Van Halen is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest rock guitarist of all time. Stunning skills and phenomenal musicianship. In song after song, in rhythm and solos, he rises above the shallowness of his own band and offers genius and beauty. The song “Jump” is a mindless thing about meeting girls (“you might as well jump,”) but the guitar at 2:17 redeems it all — the solo has, I will confess, brought tears to my eyes! The rhythm changes in the song drove Eddie’s drummer brother, absolutely bats. I wish I were a better guitarist so I could tell you all the reasons it’s good, but I know it’s packed. Stunning, and all in a song that’s barely 15 seconds long. Van Halen – Jump
#5 — “Limelight,” by Rush. Is it possible for a n0n-mainstream band to be popular? Because these guys were considered “progressive rock,” which is another way of saying “not commercial enough to be liked by most people.” But they were huge in the 80s and guitarist Lifeson is considered one of the guitar greats. “Limelight’s” guitar solo is appropriately progressive. Modern and almost clinical — as if Lifeson is just trying to see what kinds of sounds he can coax out of his guitar. But in the process of massaging the fretboard (watch the video — it’s like he’s pulling, petting, squeezing the sounds out of the guitar) he produces something that is quite lovely. Solo starts at 2:38. Drummer Neil Peart wrote the lyrics — Getty Lee and Alex Lifeson the music. Rush – Limelight
#6 — “Haitian Divorce,” by Steely Dan. Steely Dan is probably one of my favorite bands of all time, even though they are just two guys with piles of carefully selected studio musicians. These guys (and this solo) almost fall off the greatest rock solo list because Steely Dan is too gifted musically to be rock! They are essentially classical jazz musicians. What’s more, it’s almost not a solo — played by studio guitarist Dean Parks but modified later by Walter Becker with the signature talk-box effect. It’s practically a duet. Still, listen to the licks and solos in this song and you will realize this is no ordinary guitarist. I think it’s amazing how the guitar can be so distinctive and so background (for lack of a better vocabulary) at the same time. The licks throughout the song are easy to overlook, but they are worth a listen. Then at 2:44 the voices “fade to black” for a guitar solo and again at 4:17 through the end of the song. Enjoy the key changes, too! Steely Dan – Haitian Divorce
#7 — “Panama,” by Van Halen. Hey — I told you he was good. Another hedonist song about a girl, but another amazing guitar solo. It’s a three part solo, traditional hard with some cool triplets and harmonics, but then it shifts to a slow and quieter section that is my favorite part of the song (in the third part, Eddie plays behind David Lee Roth talking — stupidly). The Panama video is debauched and juvenile, but I think it shows the ease with which Eddie plays the guitar. While other guitarists are straining, suffering, and contorting their faces absurdly as they play, Eddie just stands there and smiles. Of course, he was probably on drugs, too. Sigh. You wonder what he might have done if his musical and poetic goals had been a bit higher. Starts 2:05. Van Halen – Panama
#8 — “Hydra,” by Toto. Toto, like the Eagles, was started by session musicians — and, like the Eagles, amazing ones! Lots of guitar solos and lots of musical excellence (“99” is probably one of my all time favorite songs — it has a pretty amazing slow guitar solo too, come to think of it). Toto was pretty poppy, but they were writing back in the day when you could write a couple singles on your record and then do whatever you wanted on the rest of the songs. Hydra is one of those non-pop songs — it’s over 7 1/2 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. I’m not sure what the song means (lyrics seems like they had been playing Dungeons and Dragons a bit too much), but the guitar solo at the end is pretty impressive. Keeps getting bigger and bigger. Steve Lukather was the lead guitarist on Hydra (and most of Toto’s music). Starts at 5:33. Toto – Hydra
#9 — “Hitch a Ride,” by Boston. I confess that this solo could be here just because I liked Boston so much when I was a kid (and rock guitar solos were in their prime). First rock album I ever bought was Boston. I couldn’t believe my Mom let me. Anyway, it’s the happiest guitar solo of all time, if nothing else. Solo starts at 2:30. Boston – Hitch A Ride
#10 — “Annabelle,” by Gillian Welch. No, it’s not bluegrass. So they don’t play amplified electric guitars (most of the time)…. So what? There’s is generally an acoustic folk rock (though they do sing a song, “I want to play that rock-n-roll,” so that has to count for something). Anyway, just listen — David Rawlings plays a solo starting at 1:58 that will make your head spin. You’ll say, “This is rock.” The finger work at 2:23-2:31 is impossible. There is another solo at the end, but it’s the first one that is a religious experience. (Spotify link may not play, so here’s a youtube alternative — sorry.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb7fm6YCAI4 Gillian Welch – Annabelle
Well there you go — the definitive list. I’ve included some honorable mentions, too, but this list is definitive, so while I will entertain other honorable mentions, I’m afraid the canon is closed.
*** “Dead or Alive,” by Bon Jovi. I could almost put this in the top 10 except that I hate Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi – Wanted Dead Or Alive
*** “Killer Queen,” by Queen. How could such an amazing band with such an amazing guitarist (Brian May with is Ph.D. in astrophysics and his home-made guitar) produce such amazing music and not have something in the top 10? Dunno. Bohemian Rhapsody is pretty amazing, but I like the cheerful one in Killer Queen, mostly probably just because I like the song so much. Also, while you’re in, listen to the harmony vocals at two spots — the tail end of the word “anytime” (at 0:36 and 1:25) then compare the “anytime” at 2:26! Slides up a third, I think. Nice! Queen – Killer Queen
*** “Kid Charlemagne,” by Steely Dan. I don’t really want to know what this song is about (“cough, drugs, cough”), but the lyrics are poetically wonderful: “Clean this mess up lest we all end up in jail — those test tubes and the scale — just get it all out of here. Is there gas in the car? ‘Yes, there’s gas in the car.'” Gotta love that! Solo starts at 2:18, but in earnest at 2:27. Steely Dan – Kid Charlemagne
*** “Hold the Line,” by Toto. I hate heavy vibrato, and this solo is loaded with it — the fact that I like the solo anyway must mean something. Solo starts at 1:48. The harmonies at the end of the solo are perfect. Toto – Hold the Line
*** “Minstrel Gigolo,” by Christopher Cross. I’m more embarrassed about this one than I am “Goodbye to Love.” 2:23 and again at 4:16. The song is beautiful musically, but probably too soft for rock and it’s dorky lyrically. Maybe pudgy Christopher Cross was more of a babe magnet that I know, but the whole notion of him as gigolo just seems ridiculous. But the first solo (at least), you must admit, is pretty nice. Christopher Cross – Minstrel Gigolo