We may not all agree on what the best guitar solos of all time might be, but what makes the timeless solos on this list so amazing? let’s break down what makes these great, from a technical standpoint.
Making this list was extremely difficult. I scoured reddit, and all of the major guitar forums to find the best guitar solos of all time. While there may be differing opinions across the board, there were a few that everyone agreed on. These are not all going to be technical, or complex. Some of them just sound great, and this makes them timeless. Some changed guitar forever.
I wanted to approach this like a guitar player, and really dig into some more modern styles. But that isn’t what makes a guitar solo timeless and amazing. As guitarists, we hear music differently, especially when it comes to guitar solos. If you asked 100 guitar players what their favorite solo was, you might get 90 different answers. So I’m sorry if you were looking for a modern list, although that will be coming one day soon!
The Best Guitar Solos Of All Time: What Makes A Classic?
These are the best guitar solos of all time because they are remembered by everyone, even people that are not guitar players. That’s exactly what makes something timeless in nature. Sure, I would be able to replace every single one of these solos with something better, and more complex or harmonically rich. But my choices were from a guitar player’s perspective, and solos that inspire us in the beginning. Why did you pick up a guitar for the first time?
Today we are looking at the solos and artists that made a cultural impact. These are solos that made their mark on the world for different reasons. The whole point of this article is to break down these choice pieces from a guitar player’s perspective. I am also going to break down why the general public and average music listener get excited by these solos.
Having an education in music, I think I have a very unique viewpoint. I have heard people talk about these guitar solos for years, and how they are moved by them. But these people don’t have any idea why they like the guitar parts so much, because they are not musicians. I could tell someone how they tone was crafted with a certain amp and a particular guitar, but this would mean nothing to someone who doesn’t play.
So what we are going to do today is break these down with musical terms, and talk about amps and guitars. But we are also going to be looking at these solos from a listener’s perspective. Rick Beato does this pretty often on his popular YouTube channel. I love his videos, but we are going to try to blend what Rick does, with someone that has no musical knowledge at all. This is going to be an interesting balance!
I have talked to friends, my brother, and several other people that do not play music. They are huge fans of music altogether, but they never picked up an instrument. So I am going to try to get their perspective across just as much as mine. This is tough because I can’t help but listen with a “guitarist mindset”. Some of the listener opinions are from other people in my life.
So let’s dive into the guitar solos that have made their mark on the world for guitarists and listeners alike. These will span all kinds of genres and all kinds of artists. I will try to listen to what makes these greatest guitar solos of all time, and see why they are remembered for being so fantastic…from both points of view. It would be easy to do this as a guitarist, but what about just being a fan of music?
These are in no particular order, as that would be impossible.
#7 “Eruption” By Eddie Van Halen
This may be the easiest of the best guitar solos of all time to explain, for several reasons. I heard this solo long before I ever played the guitar, and I imagine most guitarists were in the same boat as me. I got Van Halen’s first album for my 12th birthday and every single song was a sonic assault on my ears. Every single damn song was amazing, and Eddie with his striped guitar is now iconic.
But what stuck out more than any other song on the album, was the second track: “Eruption”. The album makes a huge opening statement with opening with “Running With The Devil”, but it goes to the next level of greatness with the second track. Eddie managed to confuse every guitar player in the world with this 1-minute long solo.
Some people couldn’t believe that Eddie did this with a guitar. There were people that said it was done with a keyboard/synthesizer, or with some kind of studio trick. But then Eddie played it live, at every single show. He put the myths and gossip to rest by lighting up the stage every night, sometimes changing the solo and making it even longer!
This solo is so unique because guitarists and music fans alike were equally confused with what they were hearing with this solo. No one knew what was going on! But once we got to see Eddie play it at concerts and live TV spots, we know that it was two-hand tapping. Now Eddie didn’t invent this by any stretch of the means. But he did change the way guitar players viewed it forever.
From A Musician’s Perspective: This is not only a fantastic look at two-hand tapping on steroids. This is also a blend of rock arpeggios and even some neo-classical runs. Eddie had lots of training when it came to classical music, and he put that to work in this solo. The crazy string acrobatics start in A flat in the intro, and after a blazing amount of notes ends with a twelfth fret harmonic that echoes into “You Really Got Me”.
After the intro in A flat, we hear Eddie slide into a bit of a famous piece with “Etude No. 2” by Rodolphe Kreutzer. But he doesn’t stay there very long. The piece then moves on to blazing-fast tapping triads that have a neo-classical tone to them, ending with a huge whammy bar dive. This changed the way we looked at the guitar, and the entire decade was full of EVH wannabes. But as much as people tried to copy him, he never got mad about it. He just stayed a few steps ahead of everyone, all of the time!
For An Average Listener: This just sounds like total insanity, and watching Eddie perform it looks like he is doing something superhuman. Eddie was smart to add those classical influences to the solo because they put the listener into familiar territory. This is a familiar sound for anyone that ever heard classical music, even in passing.
The effects pedals that Eddie used help to transport the listener into another dimension. On top of the flashy tapping that sounds like someone playing guitar at light speed, the effects bounce the sound from the ear to ear in stereo reverb. For someone without a trained ear, this still sounds like an inhuman feat, and the last note trails off right into the next song, a cover of The Kinks. “Eruption” never gives the listener a second to catch their breath.
Eddie Van Halen will be remembered forever for his amazing contributions to the zeitgeist of guitar playing and his innovations to the instrument. Eddie was a monster guitar player, that could also write a pop song. The music appealed to guitar players because of Eddie’s technique, but it appealed to everyone else because his music was infectious and had memorable hooks. This is a talent that happens once in a lifetime, and Eddie will be missed but never forgotten.
#6 “Still Got The Blues” By Gary Moore
Gary Moore was somewhat of a musical chameleon. He was known for his work in Thin Lizzy as much as he is known for playing blues and jazz! Gary managed to blaze the trails of heavy metal and hard rock, as well as crossover into blues and jazz later in life. Gary could do it all, and it makes him a very interesting guitarist that played one of the best guitar solos of all time!
Gary was one of many guitarists that could have their own list of “best guitar solos of all time” because he has some many different songs to choose from. Gary also was the type of guitarist that used several different types of guitars. He is just as well known for using a Fender Stratocaster as he is a Gibson Les Paul. In fact, he once played the famous “Greenie” 1959 Les Paul that Peter Green made a legend. Kirk Hammet owns this guitar these days!
Gary spent years playing in different bands, but he really made an impact with his solo material. He was incredibly well-renowned in the guitar community throughout the 70’s and 80’s for both playing with bands, and his solo career. But it wasn’t until 1990 that he released a song that would define him as a guitarist; “Still Got The Blues”.
From A Musician’s Perspective: Guitarists have broken down this solo so many times over the years, and it is a staple of learning how to play lead guitar. Gary used a Les Paul Standard to record the song, and usually played one live for this track. Breaking down the song, we can see why this is so much fun to learn to play, and to study. The chord progression is:
- G Cmaj7
What makes this so cool for guitarists, is that there are a few rules broken here. The tonic is definitely A minor in this song, and the progression would usually call for the Aeolian mode for the solo parts. The chord pattern is a circle of fourths, which is interesting for a few reasons as well. Normally, you would use an E minor chord in an A minor progression, but not here. In this song, you use the harmonic minor scale in A, this changes that E chord to major instead of minor.
The reason guitar players gravitate to this, and why its one of the best guitar solos of all time, is because of the note choices. Gary plays his lead lines, but each line ends on the note of the chord that is being played. This would usually be too simplistic for most guitarists, but here it sounds so moving because of the add 7 chords being played. This is the harmonic minor scale, but Gary uses it just a little differently by resolving each note against the chord being played!
I often tell students to learn this song when they are trying to master bending. The bends that Gary does in this song are not only a good lesson in precision, but shows students how to bend with emotion. It never gets old when I see a new player master this song, and I see their faces light up because the melody is just so beautiful. It is impossible not to make a “guitar face” with this song.
For An Average Listener: A friend described this perfectly for me! The easiest way to describe this song, is “the guitar sounds like it is singing”. The lead line may be pretty simple, but this is a case of the guitar lead being a “hook” for the song. It opens immediately with a beautiful line that will stick in your head for the rest of your life. Gary really nailed this, and while listeners also love the song itself, the “singing guitar” is what stands out.
Blues music in general is easy to digest, and as a genre its the root of all rock music. You might have a tough time trying to reinvent blues, but Gary managed to do just that. His 1990 album was a big hit on the Billboard Charts, and he gained tons of new fans. It is not only technically proficient, but it can also be a very moving piece of music for listeners. The singing guitar displays a wide range of emotions, and captures the sound of lost love.
#5 “Kid Charlemagne” By Larry Carlton
Technically, this song is not written by Larry Carlton at all. This song was written by Steely Dan, and Larry just played the solo. You see, Larry was a session guitarist that played guitar on so many albums that it would be a whole article just to list them! he was all over famous albums, and even did some TV theme songs. These days Larry has a solo career, and even has his own signature guitars made by Sire Guitars.
The first time I ever heard this song, I was blown away by the guitar, and I knew immediately that this was one of the best guitar solos of all time without even knowing who Larry was at the time. I knew that I was hearing something very special. Later on in life, I realized why this guitar solo stuck out so much and why it still holds up today. The song is about a drug dealer, and his eventual demise, a cool story for the listener for sure. The solo seems like a song all in itself, though.
From A Musician’s Perspective: Larry is primarily a jazz guitarist when you really break down his playing. This is so evident in his playing on this song. At the apex of the solo, he is using a minor pentatonic which sounds like something very basic. But he uses thirds over the minor chords, giving the solo a weird but beautiful flavor. When he first starts playing, the distorted lead tone makes you think this is going to be a rock pentatonic solo. But the way he plays this, and subverts that expectation, is what makes it so interesting.
There is a bit of a jazz swing to the solo, where Larry is playing in the pocket. The licks that involve the thirds and added ninths are technically just following along to the chord shapes that the band are playing. He is playing triads too, all in the pocket like a jazz player. But he is also approaching the song like a blues guitarist with the pentatonic scale being the basis.
Larry also has a few quick Lydian licks that fit in with the rock music theme, but then he switches back to jazz triads in the middle of the lick. This constant back and forth, makes our ears perk up as guitarists. The way the solo sounds, it is almost simplistic to the ear. But once you realize that this is jazz being incorporated into a rock song, and Larry is right in the pocket, you know this is something amazing. The chromatic licks that get thrown in are straight out of Bebop jazz, and the sound is just so unique.
Steely Dan was a unique band in general, as they never toured. The “band” was composed of a few core members, with session gurus like Larry Carlton playing on the albums. There are famous guitar players all over their albums, and that could never be recreated live for that era or the band. This song has always stood out to me because of the reasons above. Larry nails this solo, and it got me interested in his own music from his solo albums. He is one of my favorite “non rock/metal” players.
For An Average Listener: Steely Dan was a force to be reckoned with musically, but they also knew how to write a great song that tells a story. People had no problem digesting the solo that Larry plays, because everything is so well composed for the listener. The song never gets boring, and by the time the solo comes around the listener is well prepared for it to happen!
But what makes this one of the best guitar solos of all time is how well is flows for the listener. Larry is right in the pocket when he launches into the solo, and the way he plays is just so smooth and easy to digest. The listener never gets bored with the solo, because it flows so well, and weaves in and out of the chord progressions. You can feel every note Larry plays, with or without any music training. The whole song works well in transporting the listener to a different realm, possibly a dark one where this story takes place!
#4 “Hotel California” By Don Felder and Joe Walsh
The Eagles are a band that I never really appreciated until Joe Walsh became a part of the band. I might catch some serious gruff for this, but I thought the band was incredibly boring and very basic for their first songs/albums. The blend of country and rock was not really new, and they wrote some good songs, but they never appealed to me. As a fan of classic country and rock I should love The Eagles, but they never “did it” for me.
Joe Walsh on the other hand, is a totally different subject. Joe was a hard rocker that already had a solid solo career when he joined The Eagles. The band wanted a change in sound, and in my opinion they needed someone like Joe to really propel them to the next level. When he joined, Joe didn’t change his hard rock approach at all. He changed the band for the better in my opinion, and whether you agree or not…I think we can both agree that “Hotel California” has a hell of a solo.
The song has been the subject of controversy when it comes to the lyrics and the association of Hell being California. “Hotel California” is a legendary rock song that has all of the right elements, and the dual solo at the end just makes it even more bombastic. It showcases both guitarists in an interesting way, and it adds to the song by slowly building to a crescendo. But why is it so amazing?
From A Musician’s Perspective: The song can be best described as “A Spanish themed reggae feel with medieval overtones”. This sounds a little convoluted, but it is totally true. Go listen to it right now if you disagree! “Hotel California” has all of those elements, and the modal shift gives it the same feel of “Green Sleeves”. So the song is already very strange and interesting for a mainstream rock band. But the solo section is what we are focusing on here, and this is very different, especially for the time.
When the solo starts, the guitar follows the chords perfectly using minor pentatonic lines. But what makes this one of the best guitar solos of all time is the weird passing tones in between the lines. Don and Joe are also playing in unison in other parts of the song, like when the chorus kicks in, and they play harmonized licks. Don starts the final solo though, and his bends and passing tones give a lot of character to the start of the solo.
At the end of the phrase, Joe kicks in with his signature pentatonic blues licks and bends while Don goes back to playing rhythm guitar. His phrasing matches what Don just played, but with different feel and phrasing. Then, at the end of Joe’s part, both guitarists play an ascending scale pattern in harmonic unison. Once they reach the top note, they begin the famous scale pattern that will play out for the rest of the song, both in harmony. Even the bass is playing this pattern to accent the notes. Right when you feel like they are going on too long, the song abruptly ends.
The solo “trade off” between the two guitarists acts like a duel between Joe and Don. This is so cool, and it sounds like a jam session. But the notes were carefully written by both guitarists and they play it the same almost every show. Most live footage I have seen has Don playing a double neck SG, or a Gibson Les Paul, and Joe is playing a Fender Telecaster. This gives both guys a unique tone, so when they play in unison, the guitars are together but tonally separate.
This solo is a master class in being cool. Having one talented guitarist in you band is pretty awesome, but having two? They get to play off of each other and you can tell they are having a blast when you watch live footage. Even the harmonies in the verses that Joe and Don play is awesome, since the bends are hard to play so perfectly together.
For An Average Listener: The song is the antithesis of what should hold the audience attention. It has a long intro, multiple verses of different lengths, and a long guitar duel at the end that goes on for multiple bars. If this song came out today, I’m not sure that it would be popular. Vocals don’t even come in until about a whole minute into the song. But this sets the mood for the listener, you are going on a journey, so strap in and prepare yourself.
The solo may be long, and it may not be super technical in nature, but it really adds to the song. This solo is different from the others so far on the list, as it just another verse of the song with guitars replacing Don Henley’s vocals. The solo is not just a big moment to show off for the guitarists, it builds tension in the song for the listener. It just keeps building, until they lock into the final solo pattern.
This song is an epic, and most rock fans know it really well. There’s a reason its still so popular after all of these years. Some songs take you on a long path of twists and turns, and sets a mood for you. It doesn’t take a musician to appreciate how well this song and solo are crafted.
#3 Anything Jimi Hendrix Played
This list of the best guitar solos of all time wouldn’t be complete without Jimi. So I wanted to pick “All Along The Watchtower” to showcase the best solo for Jimi Hendrix. But as I dove into his entire catalog this morning before writing this article, I found tons of amazing solos. I couldn’t pick just one, because they are all amazing. Then I watched some live footage, where he would usually improvise the solo.
Like Eddie Van Halen, Jimi was an innovator and a genius when it came to blending styles and techniques. Songs like “Little Wing” and “Foxy Lady” are a perfect blend of blues and psychedelic experimentation. Jimi seemed to come out of nowhere, and made such an impact that some people still think he is the best guitarist to ever live. But what made his style so great?
Jimi grew up on blues, and he used that as his basis for most of his insane riffage. His solos were often played in between chords, just like blues, but it was with a shot of high octane frenzy. Jimi also had a keen interest in jazz and big band music, and while that may not seem to show in his music… it does. Jimi used quiet to loud dynamics just like big band music does, and right before his death he wanted to put together a full orchestra band.
His solo style as out of this world, and it changed the landscape for guitar players forever. He used fuzz pedals and cranked Marshall amps on the stage to weave feedback into his solos in a musical way. Jimi was very calculated when it came to his tone, even if it may have seemed like total chaos on the stage…it was all planned. He knew how to manipulate effects to do what he needed on stage, and he blazed the trail for gear heads everywhere.
For musicians, and the average listener alike, its really hard to not be taken aback by Jimi. Guitar players were wowed by his riffs and alien-like tones. The audience was transfixed by not only the sound, but his stage antics as well. Jimi was a showman that had all of the qualities that a guitar hero needs. He was the original guitar hero that inspires us still to this day, 50 years after his untimely death. The dude set a guitar on fire as an offering to the audience, like some kind of magic ritual.
If I did single out “All Along The Watchtower” then the best thing I can say about Jimi is this wasn’t even his song, it was a Bob Dylan song. But Jimi made that song his own, so much so that Dylan said “It belongs to Jimi now”. Jimi explored the outer realms of guitar playing and his legacy lives on in all of us as guitarists. Pull up any song and enjoy some amazing guitar playing!
#2 “Sultans Of Swing” By Mark Knopfler
I could have picked quite a few songs by Dire Straits, but this one always resonated with me because it blew me away the first time I heard it. I remember hearing this for the first time as a teenager, and I thought Mark was tapping the solo. How could anyone play that fast otherwise? He must have some sort of secret right? How did he do it without high gain?
Mark had a secret weapon for sure, but it wasn’t tapping. He played with his fingers, and while tons of his riffs are amazing, “Sultans of Swing” is by far one of the best guitar solos of all time. For one, it’s the only guitar solo on this list that doesn’t have a high gain tone. The solo is all clean, played on a Fender Strat through a Fender Twin amp. There is no distortion on this one, just outstanding technique.
The song itself is a bit of a story about being in a rock band and playing the bar scene, and has a flamenco feel to it. There are tons of little runs that Mark plays in between the verse riffs of the song, and he seems to switch it up every time. There are really only few parts to the song, and they are all variations of the same theme. I recently showed my girlfriend this song for the first time, and she agrees…it’s a banger!
From A Musician’s Perspective: Mark Knopfler has a totally unique approach to fingerstyle guitar, he blends Spanish style flicks with faster banjo-like picking. This is what makes this one of the best guitar solos of all time. He starts the solo with a simple minor lick that goes up and down the neck. What makes this so interesting is the fact he does this completely clean, using only a compressor and a little bit of reverb.
As the solo takes stabs here and there, Mark starts doing some really cool unison bends that are hard to pull off with a pick, much less with just your fingers. The minor pentatonic stabs are so quick, and he uses his thumb on the downstrokes along with his fingers to do these little stabs. Almost every lick begins or ends with a full step bend, and it sounds crazy. The whole solo is just so fluid, and he leaves space in between these licks. This is quite a feat.
The solo builds and builds, much like “Hotel California”, until Mark finally climbs to the insanely fast pattern that you’re probably hearing in your head right now. Mark shifts from this pattern being played lower, and playing the same pattern higher on the neck. he does this for 8 measures, back and forth with lightning precision. It still blows my mind today, and I can do it with a pick these days. But with my fingers? No thanks!
For An Average Listener: This song is a great story, and if you have heard it before then you are probably waiting for the solo. Even if you aren’t a guitar player! I’m sure plenty of people have played air guitar to this song, and I don’t blame them. The song doesn’t have a vocal hook at all, which is also unique as hell. The refrain is what holds the audience’s attention, not a chorus with a vocal hook.
People are used to hearing a guitar solo that has lots of gain and delay, even if they don’t know what those effects are. The fact that Mark pulls all of this off playing clean, will make anyone pay attention because the whole thing is different. This is a song that can appeal to so many different people’s tastes too. People who like country, blues, rock, or any other guitar-based genres can get into this song and solo! Its a genre-bending experience that we hear more often these days, but was rare when this song was recorded.
#1 “Comfortably Numb” By David Gilmour
Boy, I bet you never saw this one coming, did you?
Look, I know it’s almost a cliché at this point to even mention this guitar solo. But guitarists still learn this solo every day, and they are still mesmerized by how beautiful and well played both of the solos are in this song. This is why the solos for “Comfortably Numb” is my #1 pick for the best guitar solos of all time. It has two distinctly different solos in one song, and they are polar opposites in feel.
David Gilmour is a guitarist that may not be a shredder, but he doesn’t have to be. His technique and choice of notes is what makes him such an amazing guitarist. He knows how to serve the song just as much as he knows how to show off. Over all of the Pink Floyd albums, he has tons of incredible solos to study. I love the solo for “Time”, “Echoes”, and so many other songs…but this is the money shot.
But for better or for worse, David will always be remembered for this song. The song itself is a bit of an anomaly because of the structure. The verses are all very dark and in a minor key, while the chorus is a beautiful major key explosion. This is jarring at first, but it’s also very pretty. It may be hard for me to even explain how I feel about this song, and all of the elements that makes it special. The details are what makes this song so amazing, and the solos are part of those details as much as the orchestral parts.
From A Musician’s Perspective: David Gilmour did not play either solo all the way through, unfortunately. But this could be the reason why it is so perfect. If you isolate the guitar track, you can tell were the edits are, and I just recently discovered this. David recorded multiple versions of both solos, and through the magic of editing, the solos were pieced together. This doesn’t lessen the impact of the solos for me at all. If anything, I think its amazing that he did it more than once.
The guitar solos are both very different from each other, and they happen in strange spots for a mainstream rock song. The first solo is played after the first chorus, which is in major key. The first chorus vocal ends, and it immediately goes into the first guitar solo. David starts us on this journey with a gentle pick scrape into a descending, bendy scale. This solo is just beautiful and it sings.
There is so much emotion being conveyed in this major key section, and several of David’s runs follow the drums with a little bit of staccato that leads back into those famous bends. David stays mostly in one place during the D to A progression…until song moves to C and G. He switches modes, and it sounds very serious yet beautiful. The final descending scale ends on the tonic, perfectly. If this were all the song had, it would still be legendary.
The second solo starts with a hard scrape into a high pitched squeal. This is played over the verse section, using harmonic minor elements to set a much darker tone. The band keeps up with David’s intensity, as he climbs the fretboard and descends. The drums and bass both speed up slightly and start playing harder, with cymbal crashes on the upbeat. The solo ends up so high on the neck that the guitar is in danger of choking out. The vibrato is perfect and just bleeds intensity. We never hear the end, because the song just fades out.
For An Average Listener: Pink Floyd is an acquired taste for some, as the band does tend to be self indulgent and meandering. But this is a great example of Floyd at their most focused. The song is a story, like most good songs are. You are taken on a journey as the listener, and the guitar solos just punctuate the different sections of the song. They represent the positive and negative, the high and the low. Of course, this song is a part of a bigger story, but it works great all on its own.
I am guilty of watching some of those YouTube “reaction” videos. It is always a treat to see someone hear this song for the first time, and some people even cry while listening. The song itself is already powerful, and the solos just add to the experience. The simplicity of David’s playing is perfect, and these are guitar solos that you can hum along to. The experience is unforgettable for just about everyone.
The Best Guitar Solos Of All Time: Wrapping Up…
These are all songs that show up on the “best of” lists all the time. I know for a fact that I really haven’t said anything hugely profound here, or totally new. But there is a reason that these solos still resonate with us as guitarists all of these years later. The thing that every one of my picks have in common, is that I could have picked any song that they played on.
These are not just randomly picked guitar solos where someone got lucky in the studio. These are all artists that have so many wonderful guitar solos under their belts, that you could throw a dart at their discography and pick any album. From that album, there is a song that has an amazing guitar solo. Each of these players are great for different reasons. That’s sort of my point here…
These are not just great guitar solos that are isolated incidents. These are great guitar players, period. These are people that had/have something extremely special. Their talent and proficiency on the guitar is off the charts. I mean, I couldn’t even pick a song for Jimi Hendrix. These are the best of the best, and they still inspire new generations. Hopefully, they inspire you to play better, and keep learning, improving…the way that they do me.
Guitar solos are just one component of a great song, and the really amazing ones actually add to the song. The best guitar solos of all time are just additions to already incredible songwriting. A good solo can be the highlight of a song, or it could be the centerpiece. What makes them great, are all of the perfect elements put together, and creative players that push boundaries.