10 Guitar Solos

March 14, 2008 | 2 Comments

10 awesome standout guitar solos picked by someone who wasted a great deal of his teenage years in a tiny bedroom in Portsmouth with a Washburn Les Paul copy trying and failing to learn most of ’em.

This is not a definitive list of the 10 best in the world and I’m aware it’s only rock guitar that features. And neither Jimmy Page nor Jimi Hendrix are represented here — you’ll see why.

I welcome all arguments/comments/flames/praise.


1. Steve Vai, Tender Surrender

I’ll be first to admit Vai isn’t very accessible. I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t a guitar geek who really enjoys listening to him. He is however, in my mind the greatest exponent of electric guitar on the planet today. This track, essentially an extended solo in its entirety, is something that never leaves my MP3 player. I like the way it tricks you. From the off you think you’re getting a gentle jazz-tinged chordfest but slowly, inexorably Vai starts to warp and twist and take you away on a freakish journey of sheer craziness. Just around 1:39 as he starts to move slowly up through the gears you get the first inkling that something is not quite right. At 2:11 –my favourite sequence — the warning lights are flashing and before you know it, this track has morphed into a no-holds barred full-frontal aural attack. Vai has many weapons in his arsenal and if the video on Youtube is to be believed just about every one of them is employed here bar using his teeth. The thing about Vai though, is he never, ever lets the virtuosity get in the way of the emotion. I wonder sometimes if, when he composed this piece he really had a concrete idea what would await him at the end? No matter, Vai tames this beast all the way, playing it out like a wily fisherman before reigning it back in just when you think it can’t go any further. Awesome.

2. David Gilmour, Comfortably Numb #2, Pink Floyd

If you think it’s a little self-indulgent to have two David Gilmour solos in a top-ten list then taking both from a single song is, you’d probably say inexcusable. I would contend you don’t know Gilmour. He has two sides: one is his soft, flowing and lyrical, the other is angry, blues-edged aggression. Comfortably Numb is well known for many reasons but for me it’s because it contains the two styles side-by-side perfectly complementing each other in blissfull Jekyll and Hyde togetherness. Solo #2 at the end of the song is probably the more enjoyable. For the guitar geeks it’s a hard-as-nails minor-pentatonic slashfest which I suspect was done mostly off the cuff. I particularly like the little stops and white space he leaves at unexpected places like at 5:17. What really annoys me though is the fade out — somewhere in a record company’s vault lies a tape with the full unedited version of this. We should get to hear it.

3. Eddie Van Halen, Beat It, Michael Jacksoneddie-van-halen.jpg

It’s an obvious choice for an EVH selection because for most people this is the only time they’ll ever hear Van Halen in action (apart also from that bit in Back to the future when he fries the guy’s brains with a Walkman and an EVH cassette). This solo makes the list because it’s a brilliant example of the solo matching the song. Van Halen as a group were always brilliant because the rhythm section were locked in tight to what Eddie was doing and vice-versa. On this track the producers were stumped for the right tone, had a last minute brainwave and decided it needed something edgy. Well, they made the right call. Beat It’s backing riff is famous and very simple which you might think unsuited to the falling-down-the-stairs style of Van Halen’s totally self-taught play. But the whole things works. Eddie’s chainsaw opening, chainsaw middle-section and I suppose chainsaw ending give Beat It the menacing tone they were going for. I really like the ominous knocking sound around 2:44 — I like to think this is Eddie’s monster kit warming up or some crazy Van Halen secret effect — or it could just be something falling over. Whatever, I’m glad they left it in.

4. Brian Robertson/Scott Gorham, Emerald, Thin Lizzy

When I first heard Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham going at each other like angry badgers on this 1976 track, it was clear that a good guitar solo didn’t just have to have a single guitarist. This little-known track from the album that gave us “The Boys are Back in Town” stands-up today as a masterclass in double guitars with question and answer phrases coming thick and fast from the moment they let rip. I particularly like the descending bluesy scales just prior to the off — sets up some tension for the solos perfectly. Some brilliant out-of-phase effects around 2:50 add to the overall evocative feel of a song which I suppose is all about Ireland rising up to defeat the British. The frantic pace is resolved nicely around 3:03 with a wonderful sort of phase-shifted meshing where the two duellers come together briefly before going their separate ways once more to lob smoking licks at each other from afar. Who’s the best outta the two? It would take a brave man to nail that.

5. Walter Becker (?), Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Steely Dan

I’m not sure who plays this solo because as per usual with a Dan song there seem to have been a gazillion people in the studio during the the making of the album. I’m guessing it was Becker though. Google isn’t much help on this. The solo is understatement personified and, as you would expect from anything which Donald Fagen is involved with, oh so tasteful. A gentle opening leads up to some tasty trilling around 3:14 (my timings are based on the version of the song from the ’06 Definitive Collection that has that weird keyboardy thing at the start, other compilations omit this) and the pay-off at the end is so sweeeet. Lilting and sublime.

6. Don Henley, Boys of Summer

A great example of a solo following the structure and melody of a song and moving it on. The haunting rhythm of this classic tune is carried over nicely into the solo which at 23 seconds long, is like eating soup with a fork — you just can’t get enough. Like the solo on Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ this one ends with a great bit of low-end scrunching. I’m pretty sure Henley plays the solo although there are a few YouTube clips of the Eagles covering the track with Joe Walsh doing the dirty work while Don looks on semi-approvingly. Can anyone confirm? Delicious and supremely measured. If it’s a little too clean for you and you like your solos with a bit more grunt, check out the excellent 2003 cover by The Ataris.

7. Richie Sambora, Dry County, Bon Jovi

If and when aliens ever land on Earth and ask “What is thing you call guitar solo?” then I would play them this. Cheesy in the extreme yes, no real surprises but this is Richie Sambora who has in my opinion a wonderfully warm style if a little obvious. This solo is made all the more brilliant by the fantastic — and I mean first class — drumming by Tico torres (I think it’s him) who seems to be hitting the skins for all he’s worth. There’s a great build up with some lilting picking and the bassline thrubbing at 5:55 just before Richie lets rip is a nice touch. But the thing I like most about this solo is that it starts at absolute top-speed and keeps up the pace right until the fret-melting, ear-blistering end. No let up at all which usually makes for a dull solo, but in Sambora’s hands it’s treated like the unleashed beast it wants to be. Check out the scrunching around 6:42 — awesome.


8. David Gilmour, Comfortably Numb #1, Pink Floyd

Wonderfully flowing and mellifluous this solo has the added bonus of being easy to play. I’ve heard Dave say in interviews that the reason he has such a restrained bluesy style is ‘cos he could never get his fingers to work at the top speed of someone like say Vai. I’m not so sure — ok, Vai’s blistering pace is probably out of the reach of most mortals, even Gilmour, but I reckon the Floydman could out-Slash Slash if he really wanted to. But thankfully on this solo he holds back and matches the notes to the track absolutely perfectly. With micro-bending and just a hint of echo this solo at times comes close to sugary overload, but Gilmour always knows when to pull back. Short, sharp, sweet and all the more satisfying for being followed by the angry monster at the end of the song.

9. Adrian Smith, Wasted Years, Iron Maiden

Great solo from an underrated guitarist. He’s the melodic one out of the Maiden trio (check out his sweet-as solo on Stranger in a Strange Land for a close runner-up to this entry) and if I still had a record player I’d be listening to his solo effort ‘Silver and Gold’ which I bought on LP many moons ago. The picking at the start of this solo is quite innovative and I like the way the whole solo is neatly divided into 5 sections. Section #2 — the super-quick bending — is my favourite and although it looks easy on paper it’s damn difficult to get just right. Nice finish up in the nether regions of the fretboard.

10. Tony Peluso, Goodbye to Love, The Carpenters

Everyone knows the story by now of Karen phoning up Peluso, Peluso not believing it, then believing it, getting to the studio, playing a sedate sort of Carpenter-esque solo before being told by Richard that he was supposed to go a bit wild. Thankfully for us Peluso seems to have taken the hint and the end result is a great example of dry-as-a-bone fuzzy threshing.


2 Comments so far

  1. phil on April 12, 2008 11:55 am

    Nice choices on the whole. On such a deeply personal topic, it’s hard to make any comments.

    Out of context of the song, individual instruments mean very little, so you’ve really got to like the song too in order that the solo is fully appreciated. To that end, the henley, jovi, steely dan and carpenters choices don’t grab me much.

    I couldn’t see why Hendrix wasn’t in there, except for all the others were caucasian?

    Having said that, your choices are much more diverse and balanced than mine – I’d just have Vai and Zappa in all ten slots. I might start choosing other artists if it was a list of 50 solos.

    It’s funny, I always thought of angry badgers when listening to Emerald too.

  2. Rediscovered track of the month: Jun ’12 : Paul Coletti on June 1, 2012 5:39 pm

    […] absolutely beautiful guitar solos (both by Adrian Smith I think and which I wrote about 4 years ago here) but I would never have though this balls-to-the-wall rocker would have suited the gentle […]

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