We haven’t had any good musical arguments in a while, so what better way to get some going than guitar solos? Guitar solos are one of the wonders of the universe. As many people (mostly male, it has to be said) understand, they’re emotional, visceral channels to the space where you think, if that’s the word, Jeez, where did that come from? You can do things with electric guitars that you can’t do with any other instrument. And, as classical guitarist John Williams once pointed out, music composed for other instruments just sounds different when played on a guitar anyway. Twentieth century music is distinguished, in part, by the re-emergence of improvisation as an important component of music making, in all sorts of musical genres, and the electric guitar was one of the revolutionary technologies that furthered, and indeed accelerated, this process. And while the electric guitar is inexorably bound up with the history of rock and roll, it’s had a much broader musical influence. Thank you, Les Paul!
But of course it is rock and roll when we think of when we think of guitar solos, and there’s a reason for that. The short, gritty three chord format is still a durable musical construct, and groups keep coming along and proving it still works in new ways—or the same old way, just expanded and nuanced,. It doesn’t matter—that’s the great thing about rock and roll—it’s so accommodating. Especially that guitar break part, which has given birth to all sorts of astonishing musical moments. And musical memories. I have a list of guitar solos burned into my brain, and I continue to carry them around, savoring them. I stand on the underground and run through some of them when I’m bored. Or while I’m driving. And I still go back and listen to them, and they continue to delight me with the mastery of the instrument, the perfect match between song and solo, and the sense that pretty much anything is possible within this genre with this instrument.
So here are some of my favorites, in more or less chronological order. Since I’m an old fart, there’s more earlier stuff than later stuff—a clear old fart bias, in fact. But I also think that’s because forms of experimentation does get explored more vigorously in the early periods of any technological development in general anyway—the history of any technology has multiple examples of this. But that just makes it all the more fun when someone comes along and shows you that, yes, it’s still possible to come up with something new, and memorable, and often astonishing. And of course these are just my personal favorites—which doesn’t mean they’re the best, or most distinctive, or most important. Everyone will have their own. But I also like many of these because I can hear their influence in much that has come along since. I’m following the rules of the TOR here—post Beatles, so there’s lots of great earlier stuff I can safely ignore for the time being.
I should mention that I’m cheating a bit by fudging the issue of pure instrumentals. There are a number of guitarists whose work is mostly, or almost entirely, instrumental—Jan Akkerman and Jeff Beck come to mind. I’ve worked some of them in, but I’m not about to get into some pointless discussion over what distinguishes a solo from something else.
So in kind of chronological order:
1. Peter Green—Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On, 1969). Green is still alive, which is sort of amazing given the Class As and the schizophrenia. He replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and did a better job. Green is pure blues here, and his most recent band, Peter Green’s Splinter Group, put out some fine blues albums in the 1990s and 2000s. After he left Mayall’s band he founded Fleetwood Mac—which he also left a couple of years later, but not before putting out the classic Then Play On. I recall seeing an interview with B.B. King at some point where he said the only guitarist that ever scared him was Green. Green has a very pure sound, much like what Mark Knopfler developed. Green got there first.
2. Jimi Hendrix—All along the Watchtower (Electric Ladyland, 1969). This is such a great example of Hendrix playing in a self-imposed space. Much of his work was blues oriented, particularly his later work, that allowed him to be more free-form when we wanted to be. But in this case he shows his chops in a Dylan song, of all things, and transformed the song for all time. Electric Ladyland was a transformative album, in fact—in may respects very different from what Hendrix had been doing before that, and it still holds up amazingly well. This is one of those perfect solos that sounds as good forty years after it was recorded as it did when I first heard it. That’s Dave Mason on the intro.
3. Harvey Mandel—So Sad (Canned Heat, Future Blues, 1970). Mandel filled in for Henry Vestine for a couple of years while Vestine went off and did something else for a while, and took the group much higher than Vestine had ever done. This is one smoking guitar piece from beginning to end—you can just feel the burn. Like an astonishing number of other guitarists (Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor), Mandel played with John Mayall for a while.
4. Duane Allman—One Way Out (Allman Brothers, Eat a Peach, 1972). This is actually part of the series of concerts that showed up first on the Live at Fillmore East album (and I was at all of them—hah!). Live at Fillmore East has often been called the best live album ever, and I’m not about to disagree. And I’ve got lots of that album in my head too. But this is the one that pops into my head at the oddest moments—it encapsulates everything Allman could do—taste and intelligence combined with ferocity and feeling. The fact that Hendrix and Allman both died too young is one of the great tragedies of rock—Allman in particular was just getting started, you feel.
5. Mick Taylor—Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, 1971). This was the peak of the Stones, in some respects—a great song, a group playing at its tightest, and Taylor’s great guitar. I always thought the Stones went into quick obsolescence when they brought in Ron Wood to replace Taylor. In this, it’s Taylor at his best—fluid and fiery at the same time. The great stuff is the second half of the song; when the group recorded the song, it was ending and Taylor just kept on playing, taking everyone else along with him. Brilliant stuff.
6. Mark Knopfler—Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits, 1978). Even though this was early in Knopler’s career, it’s the one that as stayed in my head. And one of his best songs. Like Taylor, Knopfler has a jazz/blues style that works well on any number of songs, but particularly well on this one.
7. David Gilmour—Money (Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973). Pretty close to the definitive guitar solo. Not much needs to be said about this—except that I actually prefer the version on the live Delicate Sound of Thunder. But so what? Dark Side of the Moon holds the record for an album remaining on the Billboard top 200 list—a total of 741 weeks, from 1973 to 1988. Personally, I think it’s because of this song, and this solo, which rise above a very fine album. Gilmour isn’t exactly a guitarist of great breadth, but within his realm he’s a master.
8. Jeff Beck—Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Wired, 1976). Beck is unique, and I’ve got lots of his stuff stored away in my head. This may be his best album, and his cover of Mingus’s song here is just masterful. We usually think of Beck as loud power everything—this is surprisingly subtle.
9. Jerry Garcia—Alabama Getaway (Grateful Dead, Go to Heaven, 1980)—Like Hendrix, Allman and Beck, Garcia took the guitar places where no one had gone before. He had considerably broader range than either Allman or Hendrix, though, both of whom were directly rooted in the blues. Garcia could play anything, and often did, and it was often messy, and lots of times not very good. When he was on, though, he was untouchable—he played like no one else. Like everyone here, there’s lots to choose from—it was pretty close between this one and China Cat Sunflower from Europe 72. This one reminds us that, at heart, the Dead was a great rock and roll band.
10. Richard Thompson—Tear Stained Letter (Hand of Kindness, 1983). Unlike many of the people here, Thompson is not dead, and is still going strong. Coming out of a mixture of American blues and the British folk and music hall traditions, Thompson, like Garcia, has a broad palette, and ranges all over the place. Like a number of the pieces here, the solo in the break isn’t as fun as the solo at the end of the song—this is driving, surging guitar.
11. Trevor Rabin—Redemption Song (Manfred Mann, Somewhere in Afrika, 1983). My all time favorite guitar solo, for what that’s worth, and maybe the shortest one here. This is a cover of a Bob Marley song that Mann (who was born in South Africa, like Rabin) works into a broader suite of an interesting blend of rock and African tunes. It’s an angry song, and an angry solo fitting the song and the theme perfectly.
12. Jennifer Batten—Take it Like a Man (Sara Hickman, Shortstop, 1990)—A real treat. Hickman’s second album is a classic folk/rock album in its own right, and it closes with an all woman band doing a great goof on the blues, and boy, does it cook, largely driven by some searing work from Batten. Batten’s got great guitar chops, and mainly has a reputation as a studio musician. She toured with Michael Jackson for several years as his lead guitarist. Hmmm. On the other hand, she played with Jeff Beck for three years. This song shows you why.
13. Dave Navarro—Three Days (Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual, 1991). Talk about a band prone to wretched excess, but when they were cogent and on, they were fantastic. Navarro’s work here is amazing—he’s all over the place, but it works magnificently. It’s one of those great songs where you think, where on earth did they get that? One of the laughable aspects of the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists was Navarro’s absence. Whatever it was Navarro did to piss off Jan Wenner, it must have been really something. (This is a list that has Joni Mitchell on it, but not Navarro, or Chet Atkins, for that matter.)
14. The Edge—Until the End of the World (U2, Achtung Baby, 1991) There are always strong feelings about U2 one way or the other. They’re not always a great band, sometimes just a good one, but when they’re great, they’re great. This is one of those times. One of the things I’ve always liked about these guys (aside from the act that they’re still going strong with the same line-up for so long) is their determination to pound the power trio format for whatever they can get out of it, and I like that fact that they’re still doing that. The Edge has never been considered as great a guitarist as many on this list, but he has a sense of what works for each song, and the power of this solo is undeniable.
15. Jan Akkerman—Tranquilizer (Live in Concert, 2007). Akkerman has been burning up the stage ever since Focus burst on the scene in the early 1970s from the Netherlands. Akkerman has about the broadest range of any guitarist I’ve ever heard, maybe because he’s Dutch, and now mostly does jazzy rocky things like this quite a lot with his quartet, which shows up in London from time to time. Rock and roll for grown-ups. Akkerman didn’t make the Rolling Stone List either. He was, however, voted the best guitarist in the world in 1973 by Melody Maker magazine here in Britain. I wouldn’t argue with that, frankly.
This is hardly exhaustive of great guitar solos, just my favorites, which turn out to be mostly old hippie shit. Who knew? There are lots of great guitarists out there. Make your own damn list.