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.

Frank M's picture

Prince comes running to tie some serious shoes...

I might suggest this be on the list - if you can't wait, forward to minute 3:29 - this may as well be the finest guitar solo of all kind on earth or in any galaxy - happy viewing!


Ariel Bitran's picture

Guitarist: Elliot Randall

Song: "Kings"

Artist: Steely Dan

Album: Can't Buy a Thrill

zettelsm's picture

Funkadelic, Maggot Brain 

Eddie Hazel's extended solo on the title track of Funkadelic's 1971 release defines the genre "guitar solo". Angry, soaring, anguished, transportive -- it runs the gamut. After hearing Eddie perform this, the only thing to do is quietly turn off the stereo and sit in a darkened room for a while.

Reed's picture

Stevie Ray Vaughan - RivIera Paradise

Absolutely remarkable.  

markotto's picture

UFO's Obsession [1978]. Michael's short solo on Only You Can Rock Me is certainly not the leading edge or state of the art but always takes me to the place I need to be each time I hear it!! Check it out. 


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