What makes for a great guitar solo? Is it mind-melting precision or bone-chilling soul? Is it the way it can leave you slack-jawed, wondering, “How did he do that?” Or is it something that you can sing from memory, a melodic passage that weaves itself into the DNA of the song? Or are the greatest solos ever played the ones that somehow manage to do all of the above?
Gibson.com is on a mission to find out, so we polled a panel of rock and roll experts (Gibson editorial staff and writers, some of our favorite musicians and, most importantly, our fans), asking for everyone to name the greatest guitar solos in music history. Through the course of the week, we’ve revealed #50-41, #40-31, #30-21 and #20-11.
Without further ado, we are thrilled to present the Top 10 Guitar Solos of All Time:
10. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen (Brian May)
Truly a solo worthy of Wayne and Garth’s Mirth Mobile, Brian May’s work on “Bohemian Rhapsody” transports the song from its ballad portion to the monstrous opera that’s to come. As such, May’s solo isn’t just a show-off moment; it’s a real, functioning part of the song. His counterpart to the main melody makes a seemingly simple transition from the weighty emotion of Freddie Mercury wishing he’d never been born to the whimsy of scaramouche and fandango. Of course, the solo itself is a startlingly beautiful piece of work – a singable classic complete with May’s quivering notes, that cascading run and those mountain-scaling highs. And then, after the opera, we all get to headbang. – Bryan Wawzenek
9. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry
This is the primal matter, which spawned The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and nearly every other guitar act that followed. Launched on the inspiration of boogie pianist sidekick Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s opening solo is a textbook combination for rock guitar: multi-string combinations to fill the space, bends for feel and a late arpeggio for flair. The middle solo takes those same elements and restacks them for even more dynamic results. In the 52 years since its release, nothing has come close to surpassing this model of bad-ass efficiency. – Michael Wright
8. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles (Eric Clapton)
It’s all about who you know, isn’t it? After taking multiple passes at the solo for this “White Album” epic (including a backwards guitar solo), the song’s composer and presumed lead guitarist, George Harrison, just wasn’t feeling it. Fortunately, he happened to find himself sharing a car ride with Eric Clapton (a.k.a. “God” to the general public) and convinced his good friend that he should take a crack at it. Clapton reluctantly agreed and turned in one of the most emotive and biting solos of his career. Every bend is struck with equal power and feel. If ever a guitar expressed a song’s lyrics, this was it. Slowhand makes his Les Paul cry like a baby. – Michael Wright
7. “Layla,” Derek and the Dominos (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman)
Inspired by Eric’s yearnings for best pal George Harrison’s wife Patti, “Layla” quickly became Clapton’s trademark song, even though the instantly recognizable lead-in riff came courtesy of slide guitar genius Duane Allman. Lifted from Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By,” the slow blues line “There is nothin’ I can do” is sped up by Allman to kickstart the song. Originally, the song was soft and mellow, a romantic ballad about his love for George’s missus, but with Allman bringing more rock to the pot, producer Tom Dowd cajoled one of the great solos out of Allman and Clapton, as they both play inspired counter melodies over Clapton’s rhythm tracks and Allman’s wailing slide. – Andrew Vaughan
6. “Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (Gary Rossington, Allen Collins)
“Free Bird” was actually one of the very first songs Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant ever wrote together. And it wasn’t always the 13-minute juggernaut Lynyrd Skynyrd fans quickly grew to love. Over time, the song kept getting longer and longer as the band played it in the clubs. On the studio version of the song, which appears on Skynyrd’s debut album, (Pronounced 'Leh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd), Collins, playing an Explorer, actually handles all of the solo with Rossington keeping solid rhythm on a Les Paul. The solo works so well, in part, because of its contrast to the much slower and soulful first half of the song. If you’ve ever been to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show, this iconic – and lengthy – multi-guitar solo is a full-fledged attack on the senses. It’s aggressive, unrelenting and entirely mesmerizing. – Sean Patrick Dooley
5. “Comfortably Numb,” Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)
Relations between feuding Floyds, Gilmour and Waters, were at their worst when Gilmour came to lay down his classic guitar work on “Comfortably Numb.” A great song, without any guitar work, Gilmour wanted it bare bones and minimal while Waters wanted orchestration. Somehow yielding to pressure, Gilmour adapted his original guitar vision into one of the most sonically beautiful guitar tracks of all time. The touch and feel he gives to the brain-warping solo is that of a master at the top of his game. – Andrew Vaughan
4. “Hotel California,” Eagles (Don Felder, Joe Walsh)
Don Felder, who came up with the music for this ’70s classic, had to call home to listen again over the phone to his original guitar demo in order to remember the guitar solo he plays on the record with fellow Eagles guitar-slinger Joe Walsh. With a reggae-like, tropical feel, the left-field song needed a climactic finish, and when Walsh suggested a ‘“da-da-da-da-da-da-dum” line, Felder and he went to work. With Felder on the higher harmony lines and Walsh on the lower part, the two players blended in a sea of descending harmonies making this one of the most audacious and memorable twin guitar duals in rock and roll history. – Andrew Vaughan
3. “All Along the Watchtower,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Although written by Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower’s” ownership was transferred to Jimi Hendrix as soon as the guitar god’s version was released in 1968. An “overwhelmed” Dylan was all too happy to comply, saying, “He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.” While some of those things might be the vigorous opening and Hendrix’s wild vocal delivery, Dylan also had to be talking about the guitarist’s mind-blowing middle passage. The minute-long solo takes one unbelievable turn after another, drawing on blues, rock and soul, and merging Hendrix’s ridiculous technical ability with his knack for melody and smart use of woozy effects. It’s one, big psychedelic rocketship that blasts you somewhere else – the Vietnam War, your high school parking lot, a lazer light show, outer space, anywhere. You can get lost in that solo and, quite happily, not find your way back out for days. It’s no wonder Dylan started playing the song Hendrix’s way. – Bryan Wawzenek
2. “Eruption,” Van Halen (Eddie Van Halen)
You’ve heard of the Big Four? With apologies to Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, I’m referring to the original Big Four: “Mona Lisa” (Leonardo da Vinci), “David” (Michelangelo), “The Thinker” (Auguste Rodin) and, of course, “Eruption” (Eddie Van Halen). The first time I heard “Eruption,” I remember asking my friend to play it again for me because I wasn’t sure what I had just heard. “Oh, it’s a guitar, and it’s being played by one guy!” he assured me. It was too difficult for these young ears to comprehend that the symphonic cacophony I had just heard came from one man, one guitar and no overdubs. “Eruption” was an epiphany to me as a fledgling guitarist, as well as to millions of music fans everywhere. Nearly 30 years (and a zillion guitar solos) later, I’ve yet to hear its equal. – Sean Patrick Dooley
1. “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
Haters have railed against this song for years because of its ubiquitous presence on FM playlists, but the power of Page’s presence in this Renaissance-ballad-turned-hard-rock-Valhalla is undeniable. From the tender acoustic fingerpicking of the song’s intro to the power chord barrage at the end, “Stairway” is the ultimate showpiece for one of rock’s ultimate guitarists. After allowing the spotlight to shine on John Paul Jones’ multi-track maypole-dance recorders, Robert Plant’s illustrative lyrics and vocal flourishes and John Bonham’s thunderous entrance to the parade, Page finally commands it for himself with the solo to end all solos. Bathed in reverb, as though they were crashing down from the heavens themselves, Page’s notes bend and blur in a rising movement that blows into the final verse with a goosebump-raising speed flurry. If you ask me, what makes for a good solo is its ability to propel the song forward; not to distract from the song for the sake of technical showboating, but to actually contribute to the musical ideas put forth in the composition – and to enhance them. Page’s solo on “Stairway” does just that. It takes the folkie intro piece and provides a Bifröstian bridge to the thunderous end verse. Hammer of the Gods, indeed. – Michael Wright
Votes for the Top 50 Guitar Solos of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean Patrick Dooley, Russell Hall, Ted Drozdowski, Paolo Bassotti, Dave Hunter, Bart Walsh (David Lee Roth), Jeff Cease (Black Crowes, Eric Church) and the Gibson.com Readers Poll.