- Since rock and roll music's inception in the 1950s, countless guitarists have delivered mind-bending solos that have become ingrained with the history of the genre.
- During live solos, Jimi Hendrix frequently played the guitar behind his back, with his teeth, and even when it was on fire.
- Eddie Van Halen's solo on "Eruption" changed the landscape and vocabulary of guitar playing forever.
- We ranked the 20 best guitar solos ever, and Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven" solo took the top spot.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Few things defined the genre of rock and roll more than the guitar solo. Sometimes powerful and loud, at other times gentle and orchestrated, the guitar solo changed pop culture and the way rock musicians approach composing songs.
Ranking these solos isn't easy: There are countless solos throughout rock and roll's history that are worthy of recognition. To narrow down the selection process, our ranking only includes studio versions of songs, rather than live performances.
From Carlos Santana's "Europa" to Jimmy Page's "Stairway to Heaven," here are the top 20 guitar solos of all time, ranked.
20. "Jessica" — Dickey Betts, Allman Brothers Band (1973)
Dickey Betts' Grammy Award-winning instrumental jam is a showcase of the Southern rocker's virtuosity of the guitar.
Throughout the song, Betts conjures a playfully upbeat melody that fits right in the middle of Chuck Leavell's top harmony on the electric piano and Gregg Allman's bottom harmony on the organ. Although the song is grounded by a dominant riff, Betts' playing constantly wheels through new rhythmic variations to keep the train rocking.
Released in 1973 two years after the death of band leader Duane Allman, Betts shines here as the lead guitarist on the track.
19. "Johnny B. Goode" — Chuck Berry (1958)
Chuck Berry shaped all future rock and roll songs with the release of his 1958 hit song "Johnny B. Goode." Though it's not the craziest guitar solo ever recorded, it certainly was integral to the development of the instrument and rock and roll because Berry brought elements of the blues and country to electric guitar.
This is apparent from the opening lick when Berry uses a double stop to play two notes at once while sliding down the first two strings. Throughout the rest of the song, he uses bends and slurs in ways that would be copied by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Jerry Garcia.
It's safe to say that most of the other solos on this list wouldn't be here without Berry and this song, and that electric guitar wouldn't have played such a primary role in the success of rock and roll without "Johnny B. Goode."
18. "Paranoid Android" — Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead (1997)
When "OK Computer" dropped in 1997, it was clear that Radiohead had a masterpiece on its hands. This was ever apparent in the band's lead single "Paranoid Android," which, inspired by The Beatles' "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," can be separated into four distinct parts.
Guitarist Jonny Greenwood has two solos in the song — a short one in the second section and an epic one in the last part of the song that sends it spiraling to its end. As it switches between 4/4 and 7/8 time, Greenwood's solo weaves through distorted sound effects before ending on a descending chromatic riff.
It's a wicked solo that helped establish "Paranoid Android" as one of Radiohead's biggest hits.
17. "Crossroads" — Eric Clapton, Cream (1966)
Eric Clapton's spin on Robert Johnson's 1936 Delta blues song "Crossroads" is a classic from the guitar legend's catalog. Over the years it has become one of Clapton's most iconic solos and is a fan-favorite to see live, as the guitarist improvises a new solo each time.
On the initial recording from 1966, Ginger Baker lays down a driving beat and Clapton goes to work with a dominant riff that he frequently repeats throughout the song. During his solos, Clapton draws from the blues and dances on the high strings, giving us tasty triplets and bends.
What might make the solo most impressive is that Clapton is actually playing on the off beat. He told Guitar World, "Most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I'm playing on the one and the three and thinking, 'That's the off beat.' No wonder people think it's so good — because it's f—ing wrong."
16. "La Villa Strangiato"— Alex Lifeson, Rush (1978)
In my opinion, Alex Lifeson is one of the most criminally underrated guitarists in progressive and classic rock, largely because he was overshadowed on recordings by Neil Peart's virtuosic drumming and Geddy Lee's imaginative bass playing. But on "La Villa Strangiato" Lifeson showcased his abilities with two insanely crisp solos.
The first is a Spanish classical guitar solo that starts out slow to ease us in before gradually building to an impressive winding flamenco riff.
The second solo is the vehicle that lets the band build up to the song's climactic breakdown. It starts out ambient and grooves along until Lifeson is screeching through slides and landing mind-bending licks. What stands out here is Lifeson's use of silence; it makes the delivery of each new phrase that much more impactful.
15. "Texas Flood" — Stevie Ray Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (1983)
Known for Hendrix-esque stage antics and effortless blues solos, Stevie Ray Vaughan had a certain magic to his playing, as well as soloing that is unrivaled. When he was in a groove it was like he and the guitar were one entity, and listeners could feel the emotion being portrayed through his playing.
Arguably his best solo is on the track "Texas Flood." He seamlessly weaves stanky blues licks in between each of the song's verses and relies heavily on vibrato and string bends to achieve his signature sound.
An underrated part of these solos is the warm and tender tone of Stevie's guitar, which delivers the idea of devastating floodwaters to listeners' ears with ease.
14. "Sympathy For The Devil" — Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones (1975)
"Sympathy for the Devil" is amazing in many aspects: It's one of popular music's best songs ever recorded, it's an amazing dance song, and it also features Keith Richards' best guitar solo.
As Mick Jagger sings from the perspective of the devil in each verse, he's building up for Richards to take over with his solo. Against the background of the samba rhythm coming from the percussion, Richards lets loose a howling solo.
He isn't constantly shredding throughout the entire last three minutes of the song. Instead, the empty space in between each of his crunchy licks emphasizes the power of his solo and keeps the listener on edge waiting for the next run to grace their ears.
13. "Hotel California" — Don Felder and Joe Walsh, The Eagles (1976)
Over the years this quintessential Laurel Canyon jam has turned into somewhat of a yacht rock classic, but "Hotel California" features one of the best solos in rock history. While others on this list earned a spot for their technicality, what Felder and Walsh prove here is that sliding into the pocket and grooving a more laid back solo can also prove to be just as successful.
As the two duel back and forth it's like they're communicating through their guitars. The solo features dramatic slides and iconic triplets that have become a favorite for air-guitaring over the years.
12. "Europa (Earth's Cry Heaven's Smile)" — Carlos Santana, Santana (1976)
On this beautiful instrumental, Carlos Santana's guitar isn't just translating the guitar legend's beautiful playing, it's singing.
From the beginning of the song, the power of Santana's tone is apparent, driving the sorrowful nature of the track home. With about a minute-and-a-half left in the song, Santana's playing begins to seem frenetic. Energized by the clash of the drums, Santana speeds up and begins to shred, sustaining bends on the high strings and spitting out licks effortlessly.
Santana's solo has made "Europa" a signature track from the band and is what many consider its best instrumental.
11. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" — Eric Clapton, The Beatles (1968)
Not counting session musicians, The Beatles almost never featured other artists on their records. On the rare occasion when George Harrison tapped his friend Eric Clapton to play guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," he surprisingly didn't want to record the track because "nobody ever plays on The Beatles' records." But after some convincing and a promise that it would sound "Beatles-y," he laid down one of the rock world's most legendary solos.
What makes this solo so poignant is the meaning behind the song. Harrison wrote it as a social commentary about the abundance of hate in the world and humanity's inability to love one another. The song is summed up perfectly in the lyric "the love there that's sleeping."
Clapton captured the emotion of the song perfectly; it's as if with each sorrowful string bend he is pouring out his heart through his guitar. Unsurprisingly the meaning still holds up well today. Despite the fact that a non-Beatle recorded it, I'd argue this is the best guitar solo in the band's catalog.
10. "Voodoo Child (Slight Return) — Jimi Hendrix, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1972)
Upon hearing the first few notes of "Voodoo Child," even a non-guitar player can tell that there's something about the way Jimi's playing the guitar that's special. It's a disorienting pattern of oscillating wah sounds created by the wah-wah pedal.
While Frank Zappa originally put the wah-wah pedal to use before introducing it to Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Hendrix would ultimately popularize the effect. Throughout the song, Jimi's guitar also features his signature feedback screech — something else he helped popularize — which he created by bringing his guitar in close range to his amps.
The solo is a masterclass in shredding and showcases Jimi's toolbox of effects that helped leave his mark in rock guitar history.
9. "Brighton Rock" — Brian May, Queen (1974)
"Brighton Rock" is a song often overshadowed by Queen's other hits, partly because the energetic soloing on the track is out of character compared to the theatrical solos found on more grandiose tracks like "Bohemian Rhapsody."
But May's solo on this track is arguably his best. About two minutes into the song, May begins small with some tasteful triplet runs, with lots of echo and delay. A minute later, he picks up the pace and shreds some blues riffs.
But one of the best parts is May's energy with drummer Roger Taylor, who comes in with syncopated hits and uses the hi-hats to build on the suspense and power of May's playing.
8. "One" — Kirk Hammett, Metallica (1988)
Kirk Hammett's epic solos throughout Metallica's hit song are nothing short of breathtaking.
He begins the song slow and clean by soloing over some Spanish-influenced chords. Hammett returns to that motif in his second solo but elevates it with some slick triplets. On his final, critically acclaimed solo, Hammett dials into the militaristic sounds of gunfire and war that James Hetfield is producing. Later, he switches to some blisteringly fast triplets and throws in a few bends.
The song, and surely Hammett's solo, would go on to earn the band its first Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
7. "Purple Rain" — Prince, Prince and the Revolution (1984)
Before "Purple Rain," the world knew that Prince was more than capable of creating pop hits like "Little Red Corvette" or "I Wanna Be Your Lover." But after the 1984 album and song of the same name dropped, it became clear that Prince could shred.
The emotion at the center of "Purple Rain's" guitar solo is a big reason why it's so memorable. It's at once evocative of the pain haunting Prince yet hopeful that the rain will cleanse him of his sorrow. The rock world has been better off ever since Prince's fiery blues licks graced the airwaves.
6. "Free Bird" — Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
Would a best guitar solos list even be complete without "Free Bird"? While I may think the song is a bit overhyped, there's no denying the latter half is a riotous feat of guitar soloing. When played live it often turned into an extended jam session that showcased just how explosive the Skynyrd boys could be while improvising.
As guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins duel solos back and forth, they use bends and hammer-ons and have an absolute shredfest. As the solo goes on it's almost impossible to stop yourself from dancing along to this Southern rock anthem.
The "Free Bird" solo left an indelible mark on the guitar world and whenever live shows happen again, you can bet you'll hear someone shout "Play 'Free Bird'!"
5. "November Rain" — Slash, Guns N' Roses (1991)
"November Rain" could have been like any other hair rock-era power ballad, but thanks to Slash's guitar solos, it lives on as one of the best guitar songs to date.
The song starts out sentimental and Slash's first two solos mirror that, producing mournful melodies that affect the listener. Slash's final solo during the last two minutes of the song, however, is a triumphant juxtaposition compared to the wails of sorrow pouring out of his guitar during the main portion of the song.
His epic, driving conclusion is a reminder that no matter how bad the heartbreak, better times are on the horizon.
4. "Comfortably Numb" — David Gilmour, Pink Floyd (1979)
David Gilmour's solos in "Comfortably Numb" are acts of genius. They portray the exact feelings the song is trying to convey — loss, melancholy, survival — and are so emotionally powerful they hit you right in the soul and make your hairs stand up. It's hard to do anything but close your eyes and nod along in amazement at the sounds produced by Gilmour's playing.
What's important is that Gilmour's solos are melodious — they are a continuation of the ideas in the song's verses and choruses and help push the narrative arc of the song toward its climactic end.
3. "Eruption" — Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
When Van Halen dropped its self-titled debut album 1978, people freaked out when they heard "Eruption" for the first time. No one had ever made melodies by tapping the way Eddie Van Halen did.
As I previously wrote after Eddie's death: The "Eruption" solo is "full of chromatic tapping, hammer-ons, and dive bombs yet there's nothing about it that seems superfluous, every single note helps hook the listener in. Even more impressive – or perhaps frustrating to other guitarists – is that the solo started off as a riff Eddie would jam with Alex while warming up for a gig or before the 'Van Halen' recording session until producer Ted Templeman encouraged him to record it."
The solo forever changed the landscape and vocabulary of rock guitar playing and it instantly became a measure of success whether or not you could play the "Eruption" solo.
2. "All Along the Watchtower" — Jimi Hendrix, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
Jimi Hendrix loved Bob Dylan's body of work and played many of his songs throughout his career but his rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" is among his best playing. It also gifted the world one of the best guitar solos ever.
The fact of the matter is that in 1968 when the song released, guitarists just weren't doing the things Jimi was doing. Through the song's four solos his distinct psychedelic tone mixed with his innovative playing style — in the third solo he used a cigarette lighter for the slides and his trademark wah-wah pedal is most present in the fourth solo — give "Watchtower" its frenzied spirit. It's no wonder the song became the anthem of the Vietnam War.
According to Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan told the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel in 1995 that he thought Hendrix improved his song. "He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using."
1. "Stairway to Heaven" — Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin (1971)
Since its release in 1971, "Stairway to Heaven" has topped numerous lists as the best rock song and best guitar solo of all time, and it's primarily thanks to the masterful architecture of Jimmy Page's guitar solo.
Page begins his solo on a 12-string acoustic guitar and keeps things slow and mellifluous, the pastoral lilt of his playing fitting in perfectly with Robert Plant's smooth vocals. About halfway through the song, John Bonham's driving drums come in and Page begins building the speed and power of his playing, preparing listeners for the song's epic crescendo. With about 2:07 left in the tune, Page switches to electric guitar and starts his gnarly solo filled with the bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs that have made it a classic — all before crashing to the song's dramatic resolution.
"Stairway" immediately became the defining track on "Led Zeppelin IV" and cemented itself as one of the greatest guitar songs of the classic rock era.
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