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. Today we begin revealing the Top 50. Check back each day this week as we unveil 10 more, with the Top 10 Guitar Solos of All Time to be revealed on Friday morning.
50. “Beat It,” Michael Jackson (Eddie Van Halen)
When fans think of Eddie Van’s best solos, they often forget his guest turn on Michael Jackson’s crossover classic “Beat It.” Van Halen’s solo cuts through the song like a chainsaw, before his fast fingers erupt into a frenzy not normally heard on a #1 pop single. The guitarist – who recorded the solo with Quincy Jones and Jackson free of charge – perfectly balanced his contribution between slick pop and overdriven rock. The result was something perfect for the King of Pop, and yet unmistakably Eddie. – Bryan Wawzenek
49. “The Messiah Will Come Again,” Roy Buchanan
Roy Buchanan, who turned down joining The Rolling Stones, became the best unknown guitarist in the world and died in a jail cell at 48, also gave us one of the most recognizable guitar solos in rock and roll. It’s all gospel at first, with choppy blues runs over a “Whiter Shade of Pale” organ. And then it builds and builds – the notes more intense, the string bends more tortured – before culminating in a wailing climax of cathartic rock and roll pain. – Andrew Vaughan
48. “The Great Curve,” Talking Heads (Adrian Belew)
This incendiary solo, from Talking Heads’ pioneering Remain in Light album, saw Adrian Belew unleash his unique fretwork style in dazzling fashion. Befitting the track’s jungle vibe, Belew coaxes animal-like shrieks from his guitar, creating impressionistic beauty with sounds that, in the hands of a lesser guitarist, might come off as mere noise. Belew gave the solo an even more ebullient flavor in live shows – his screaming dive bombs, spot-on sustain, and synth-enhanced tone creating the sonic equivalent of a riveting abstract painting. – Russell Hall
47. “Off the Handle,” Rory Gallagher
The Irish pub rocker lived to play on stage. He was a brilliant improviser, perhaps the best in his day (a day that included Beck, Page and Clapton). “Off the Handle” is a blistering slice of “slash your veins” blues with Gallagher holding the guitar back, always threatening to unleash the barrage of demonic runs that finally fires this song into rock orbit. – Andrew Vaughan
46. “Dirt,” The Stooges (Ron Asheton)
As The Stooges crawled their way through the Fun House, the late, great Asheton swabbed the record with psychedelic slime. You could argue his solo on the midnight ballad “Dirt” is his finest moment. Given the go-ahead by Iggy Pop’s cathartic scream, Ron charges neck-first into the garage with a stinging attack some have compared to Coltrane. After about a minute, things get hazy and he lands in wah-wah land, with one parting, climactic squeal. – Bryan Wawzenek
45. “Highway Star,” Deep Purple (Ritchie Blackmore)
Music writers throw around the word “incendiary” a lot. Too much, really. But there’s just no other word that adequately describes Blackmore’s fiery attack on this Machine Head opener. The opening of the solo (on the studio version, at least… but check out Made in Japan!) starts out a bit run-of-the-mill, as if Ritchie’s just loosening his fingers. Then the climbs begin, slowly at first. They build steadily until four deep bends launch us into speed king territory, which ultimately descends back down the fretboard into a hard whammy-bar slam. Bach and roll starts here. – Michael Wright
44. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (live), Aerosmith (Joe Perry)
An old Johnny Burnette hit turned Aerosmith Guitar Hero special, “Train Kept A-Rollin’” has long been a concert favorite for Aerosmith fans. Perry’s version on Rockin’ the Joint sees him taking Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter’s original guitar work, (on 1974’s Get Your Wings) and seize every ounce of talent, sweat, blood and rock and roll inspiration he can from the guitar gods to add his own stamp to an already blistering guitar track. – Andrew Vaughan
43. “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on “Whole Lotta Love” is all the more effective because of what directly precedes it. For nearly two minutes, listeners are treated to a smorgasbord of ethereal sonic space-out in the form of libidinous grunts and moans from Robert Plant and a deluge of hitherto foreign-to-earthling-ears electronica-obscura. Then like a wrecking ball, Page launches into a series crunching mini-riffs, each brief stanza separated and accentuated by a thundering “pound, pound” of drums, bass and barre chord. Glorious. – Sean Patrick Dooley
42. “The End,” The Beatles (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon)
The last thing The Beatles ever recorded together as a group, this final song in the Abbey Road “side two medley” features a true call back to the band’s rock and roll roots. Three guitarists standing alone in a studio (Yoko was not invited in, curiously) traded urgent, aggressive licks, as if they knew this was the last chance they would ever have to squeeze something out of the band that was their lives for over a decade. McCartney, Harrison and Lennon (in that order) each lend their own distinct personality to the rotating two-bar sequences. – Michael Wright
41. “Hitch a Ride,” Boston (Tom Scholz)
Criminally neglected in most “all-time great guitarist” conversations, Tom Scholz and his dazzling fretwork shines brightly on the acoustic-laden Boston classic, “Hitch a Ride.” Always fond of thick, fuzzy overdrive, reverb, echo and layer upon layer of sound (Scholz created the multi-patented Rockman effects boxes, after all), Scholz brilliantly uses crisp staccato picking and overdubbed second guitar to propel the solo, which is easily one of his most memorable and identifiable. – Sean Patrick Dooley
Votes for the Top 50 Guitar Solos of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean 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.