AB’s Top Five Guitar Solos

In this list, I give you my top five guitar solos of all time. Various characteristics were considered for placement on this list: technical skill, melodic composition and framework, pop sensibility, harmonization, but no value was considered more important than ‘does it move me?’.

There are no numbers indicating whether one is first or fifth. If the solo is listed here, it is simply one of the best.

Guitarist: Robert Fripp
Song: “St. Elmo’s Fire”
Time: 1:20
Album: Another Green World
Artist: Brian Eno

Amongst a landscape of lush piano chords, modulating synthesizers, and a ‘blue August moon’, Robert Fripp’s guitar bursts through like a freight train rolling up the mountainside. Fripp swoops fiercely from top-to-bottom of the fretboard with high-speed hammer-ons and pull-offs, mind-twisting repetitions, and epic sustain. In the album’s liner notes, Fripp is credited with playing the Wimshurst Guitar on the track, a reference to Eno’s request that the solo imitate the electrical charge between two poles on a Wimshurst machine. It would be an understatement to call Fripp’s playing on this track ‘electric’. What this solo lacks in easy-to grasp melodies it makes up for it with slides that squawk like a dial-up modem yet glide over and blend into Eno’s acoustic backdrop effortlessly making you believe that robots can have a soul. Digital, acrobatic, and heart-warming, Robert Fripp is king.

Even the top Youtube comment from user FuttBucker667 says it: “Fripp showing us why he is the greatest guitarist.”

Guitarist: Jerry Garcia
Song: “Friend of the Devil”
Time: 5:00
Album: Dead Set
Artist: Grateful Dead

Jerry’s guitar cries of joy on this slowed down “Friend of the Devil” from Dead Set, a collection of live material from the Grateful Dead recorded from concerts in September and October of 1980, a period where “Garcia was definitely in the best condition he’d been in for quite a while, both physically and mentally,” writes Garcia biographer Blair Jackson. Jerry starts the solo with an ascending cry followed subtle slides and whimpers. Sensations while listening range from twitching to tears to absolute fist-raising joy in a matter of two measures. Jerry’s ability to communicate the universal feelings of struggle and redemption all through a simple string of notes and perfectly placed accents is romantic in the Wagnerian sense: glorious and moody. Jackson adds “[Dead Set] consists mostly of unadventurous (and edited) version of first-set tunes,” and he’s right. You can download FLAC/MP3/Ogg Vorbis or stream the unedited version here, but I prefer the more expressive and clearer sounding edited version.


This is the edited version

Guitarist: George Harrison
Song: “Michelle”
Time: 1:25
Album: Rubber Soul
Artist: The Beatles

Sing it back to me. Right now. I bet you can. And if you can’t, the second you listen to The Beatles’ “Michelle” and Harrison sneaks into the mix, you will find yourself humming or whistling George Harrison’s well-paced melody which follows a complex sequence of minor seventh, dominant seventh, and diminished chords. “La, da-da-da, da-da-da, da.” Is it a solo? Or is it just a background phrase? It’s an earwig, another essential role a guitar solo can play. It’s not always about the guitarist’s speed or technique or flagrant expressiveness. In Harrison’s case, his simple yet well-spiced melody fits perfectly into the song between vocal melodies and adds another layer of character to the composition as a whole. C’est très magnifique.

Guitarist: John Petrucci
Song: “Take the Time”
Time: 6:45
Album: Images and Words
Artist: Dream Theater

Master shredder John Petrucci exhibits flawless melodic composition combined with mind-boggling technical mastery that leaves the listener constantly wondering where this solo is going next. By the outro, Petrucci has already plastered down mega-riffs, used a multitude of different harmonic chord voicings across the neck, and danced in unison at break-neck speed with keyboardist Kevin Moore. He starts the form with a harmonization on the refrain “Find all you need in your mind if you take the time,” and elongates to a bluesy slide pattern. He settles the rhythm with power chords and soars back into the “Take the Time” harmonization with flair. He sweeps multiple arpeggios with swing. Petrucci gives high-speed riffs a funky and natural feel, an incredibly difficult task. All the while, the melody actually builds upon itself. Each phrase is impossible to the resolve until you hear the next. Petrucci unleashes a flurry of triplets like machine gun fire. After an alternating and descending scale, the song fades, and his solo continues. In the darkness, Petrucci sails on with majestic licks, although we may never find out what they were.


Well, in this live video, you can actually see where the solo goes.

Guitarist: Alex Lifeson
Song: “Limelight”
Time: 2:35
Album: Moving Pictures
Artist: Rush

Alex Lifeson’s “Limelight” solo from Moving Pictures is a sonic exploration through ambience and futuristic harmonies. First his guitar moans. Then, like wisdom or a beacon of light shooting from someone’s forehead, Lifeson pierces his stratosphere of gloomy tension with a blocky set of high-pitched phrases, not resolving the tension from before, but providing a new light to his previous agony. A dive bomb is followed by a set of blistering bends. Lifeson hangs on dearly to the final note providing no actual resolution from the tension between the overcast beginning and the hopeful second half. Maybe Lifeson is telling Neil Peart’s story. Geddy describes Peart’s relationship to the song: “Limelight was probably more of Neil's song than a lot of the songs on that album in the sense that his feelings about being in the limelight and his difficulty with coming to grips with fame and autograph seekers and a sudden lack of privacy and sudden demands on his time ... he was having a very difficult time dealing with” (“Moving Pictures”, In the Studio with Redbeard. 1988.) Lifeson’s solo is a bittersweet reflection on Peart’s condition: while there are moments of brilliance and joy there still remained a pervasive sadness.

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Comments
Ladyfingers's picture
No Pink Floyd? No Hendrix? No

No Pink Floyd? No Hendrix? No Led Zeppelin?

GeorgeHolland's picture
It's just an opinion not

It's just an opinion not factual. Very similar to Stereophile's reviews.

JoeinNC's picture
just an opinion...

@GeorgeHolland

"It's just an opinion not factual. Very similar to Stereophile's reviews."

Good one  ;)

mrplankton2u's picture
LOL!

TOUCHE!

 

Good one George! Thanks for the chuckle.

Ariel Bitran's picture
No...

Jimmy Page is my favorite guitairist ever. His solo on "Since I've Been Loving You" was heavily considered for this list, but left off b/c at the end of the day, it is 'just a blues solo' like many of his solos, but very emotional. this was a tough cut.

Hendrix is a guitar-firebomb but really does not have any iconic "solos" just "riffs" and "songs", except for maybe his solos on "Red House", "Little Wing" and "Axis: Bold as Love"

David Gilmour makes every fucking list. that man has some of the cleanest and best bends, certainly an inspiration to the slow-playing melodicist, but at the end of the day, his solos are kind of boring and fail to totally blow me away.

philipjohnwright's picture
Errrr?

How could 'best guitar solos' be factual? 

Besides, it's a bit of fun, enter the spirit....  smiley

But AB, how could you omit Tony Peluso's heart wrenching solo on the Carpenter's Goodbye To Love? OK their type of music isn't the most obvious (or fashionable) place to look for scorching axe work. If in fact it is scorching; I'm not technically up on the art I'm afraid. But boy does it pull the heart strings in almost prescient way.  

Tend to agree something a la Gilmour from DSOTM or WYWH would be a strong contender as well. Where to start though.....

Ariel Bitran's picture
Carpenters Solo

Simple and melodic but boring...not boundary breaking.

all the solos i've listed here I feel redefine the role of the electric guitar beyond the basic blues scale and licks either through technique, note selection, or feel thus pushing the guitar forward in its use in contemporary music.

soulful.terrain's picture
Top 5 guitar solos

What genre? Jazz? Rock? Fusion?

If this is a Rock-n-Roll list, heres goes:

Eric Johnson -  Cliffs of Dover/ When the Sun Meets The Sky

David Gilmour - Comfortably Numb

Eddie Van Halen - Eruption

Steve Lukather - Rosanna

Neal Schon (HSAS) - Valley of The Kings

 

Ariel Bitran's picture
The Genre of

The genre of Guitar Solo

Ariel Bitran's picture
Good List

thank you for contributing your top 5 Soulful. i gotta check out that Schon track.

soulful.terrain's picture
cool.

 

I have to add this song too, because it has two great solos in it. Peter Framptons' "I'll Give You Money" tune from his 1976 'Frampton Comes Alive' album. This one totally smokes! And you'll really like it because Frampton is on a Les Paul Black Beauty, the one with three humbuckers.

philipjohnwright's picture
Try out the Schon / Beth Hart track

On the Les Paul tribute / compilation album (it defies categorisation but who cares). If so I agree, it meets the criteria. Spotfy link -  Les Paul – I Wanna Know You

I bet Clapton doesn't meet the criteria though so I won't mention him. And how come Soulful didn't get an earful for mentioning Gilmour?   :-)

Ariel Bitran's picture
haha

Soulful didn't get an earful b/c that was his own list, but when asked why i didn't include gilmour by ladyfingers, i had to clarify.

Listening to this LP tribute track: Schon's playing is pretty darn good, especially towards the intro, but no surprises there, but not a genre-bending/guitar-transforming/cathartic experience, but that's just me. 

Clapton: an excellent guitarist and an underrated songwriter -- as far as his "solos" go: kudos to Clapton for not being afraid of speed and his musical grasp of the blues and ability to reharmonize with different modes is both subtle and takes the song to new places, but it's just never very memorable as say, Duane Allman's solo at the end of Layla.

john abramson's picture
jerry garcia's solo not robert hunter's solo acoustic album

ab- methinks you inserted the wrong album cover. the cover you inserted was for a robert hunter solo acoustic album. double clicking on the title brings on to the utube site and the correcr song with comments.

Ariel Bitran's picture
image in youtube video

that  thumbnail is the one selected for the YT video. in fact, i'm not really sure what's going on in that link b/c it also claims to be the live version from Radio City but it's the edited version from Dead Set... either way, if you click around 4:45 in the embedded link, you'll be able to hear the solo i'm talking about shortly after.

jrmandude's picture
Cruisin' with My Boys

When we were first going gonadal the gospel was Steely Dan’s Reelin’ in The Years.  But AB should not so quickly dismiss the idea of genre – we really are just adolescents talking rock.  Otherwise, names like Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell, and greats from other categories would no doubt pop up.  And since it’s pretty obvious that most of the great rock solos were so practiced as to be composed, dismissing classical guitarists is arbitrary.  I seem to recall greater musical revelations from Burrell at a small club, than down front for Page and Company at some big dome, though the stories are clearly better from the latter.  

Ariel Bitran's picture
'Reelin in the Years'

i believe Jimmy Page called this solo his favorite solo ever (or something along those lines)

Marou's picture
Guitar solos

George Barnes's solo on Lipstick On Your Collar, Duane Allman's on Boz Scaggs's Loan Me  A Dime, Hank Garland's on Elvis's Fool Such As I, and Jeff Baxter's on  the Doobie Brothers' Little Darling

Regadude's picture
A few of my favorites

This is a great subject of discussion Ariel! Here are a few of my favorite guitar solos.

 

Kansas (Livgren or Williams?) - Carry on wayward son

The Cars (Elliot Easton)- Tonight she comes 

Boston (Barry Goudreau)- Long time 

Rod Stewart (Jeff Beck) - Infatuation

Ariel Bitran's picture
Great Lists!

love'em!

I actually aggree about that Carry On my Wayward Son -- it's really top-notch playing/melodically courageous/down and dirty

 

and Jeff Beck.... ugh. if this were a list of top 5 guitar instrumental tracks he might be on here twice. and we end as lovers??? gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous.

burnspbesq's picture
Two Names

Two names without which any list of great guitar solos cannot have credibility.

Django Reinhardt. Tony Rice.

also, for a phenomenal solo by a guy for whom guitar wasn't even his primary instrument, check out "Slopes," from The Telluride Sessions by Strength in Numbers.  Yes, that's Mark O'Connor.

Ariel Bitran's picture
thanks for the tip

never heard of this super-group (Strenght in Numbers) but it's certainly go the best players in the field!

Paul Luscusk's picture
The group only did one album which is a classic

Sam Bush, Edgar  Meyer, Bella Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Mark. BTW Mark's first pro gig was replacing Tony Rice  on Guitar in David Grismans  group. And way no Larry Carlton, or even Jay Graydon's classic solo on Steely Dan's  Peg?

nihl.strangelove's picture
Nice list, though very

Nice list, though very limited.

Slash's solo at the end of November Rain is another great one.

BokenBoy's picture
Fripp, yes, but wrong choice!

For my money, it should have been Fripp's UNBELIEVEABLE solo on Brian Eno's "Baby's on Fire" on his 1st solo album "Here Come The Warm Jets"!

defgibbon's picture
Sweet lists, all of 'em

I agree with your assesment of the Gilmour omission, but the solo in Comfotably Numb is just SO tasty, if not particularly innovative. "Reelin'" is great too, but if I had to pick a Steely Dan solo (not sure why I'd have to, but...) it would be Skunk Baxter's on "My Old School". I'm a sucker for those solos that build up momentum though the entire song then get awesome right at the fade, much like Steve Gadd's rhythmic lunacy on Aja.

Thanks for getting me to think about guitar solos this morning, what a great way to start the day.

jrmandude's picture
we need lives

we need lives

jefpare's picture
What? No... and no...

I fever there was a memorable one it is the messiah will come again from Roy Buchanan. As laid back as can be but stil...  If you don't know it, look it up, it starts in the middle

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yM4Soeyabss

 

I hear Cralos Santana not bad either!

 

;-)

garysi13's picture
Fripp

  Nice top know that I am not alone in thinking St Elmo's Fire is one of the great guitar solos in rock history.  From the first time I heard it, after buying the record in '75, it has be in my head. The album is one of those rare landmark records, along with the other three from his vocal period.

tjeven's picture
2 cents

This deserves a mention...

Tom Verlaine - Marquee Moon

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