As a guitar player, I look to the guitar greats to provide me with inspiration. Throughout the years, rock & roll has produced some truly awe inspiring moments of musical genius. Nowhere more so than in the arena of guitar solos. From the early classic rock masters such as Hendrix, Page, and Clapton, to head bangers like Van Halen and Angus Young, the history of rock & roll is full of guitar mastery and brilliance.
The following list is by no means definitive and by no means an attempt to rank solos throughout the history of rock. To even attempt to do so, I believe, is a fool’s errand. There are far too many to choose from and such lists always end up being so controversial. These are songs which I think exemplify guitar playing virtuosity. Not so much by their physical prowess or musical perfection but by the way they really complement the songs they are found in. As a songwriter, I know that coming up with a guitar solo that fits the song is one of the more difficult aspects of songwriting.
Guitar solos are like spice: not enough, and the song can come out bland; too much, and they’re just over-powering and obnoxious. Just like a master chef, the guitar master is able to combine just enough snap and sizzle to make the song really pop. What makes music great is when extremely talented musicians play off each other and complement each other to create a delectable dish.
Reeling In the Years – Steely Dan, guitar solo played by American session musician Elliott Randall. It has been reported that Jimmy Page considered it his all-time favourite guitar solo. Wikipedia, verified by info found on the official Steely Dan website.
The wonderful guitar work on this song helps to define its signature sound. Combined with Donald Fagen’s distinctive vocals and superlative piano playing, the snarky lyrics, beautiful guitar fills, and the wonderful harmonies, including harmonized guitars, this truly memorable guitar solo (or series of guitar solos) helped to define the sound of this song and of the sound of 1970’s rock & roll in general. Do yourself a favor and have a listen to this classic among classics.
To read more about the fascinating history of the incredible musical collaboration between Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, check out the Bio section on the official Steely Dan website – it is a fascinating read.
Thinking of You – Harlequin. OK, unless you’re Canadian like I am, you probably never heard of this song. Look it up on the Internet. If you love guitar as I do, you will not be disappointed. This Canadian band had a good run in the eighties, releasing some powerful hits that had staying power. Wikipedia for verification of facts.
In the song Thinking of You, the rhythm guitar work, the bass, the tremendous lead vocals and awesome harmonies combine to make a power pop song, that I think, rivals anything Def Leppard put out in their heyday. But it’s the guitar solo that is a true stand-out. It may not be the most note-worth guitar solo ever played but it is true to the premise of this article – it fits the song beautifully.
Running With the Devil – Van Halen. Well, duh…Van Halen and guitar greatness are synonymous you might say but this song, from their first album released in 1978, is truly unique as rock songs go in that it doesn’t have one identifiable guitar solo but features the same guitar solo repeated twice. The original line-up of Eddie Van Halen on guitar, Alex Van Halen on drums, David Lee Roth on lead vocals, and the vastly under-rated Michael Anthony on bass.
This song starts off with what sounds like an air raid siren and thundering bass with just enough distortion, thumping out a single whole note repeated eight times. It then launches into crashing drums and incredible sounding power chords, played in a way that only Eddie could. David’s powerful voice draws you in like few singers could, combined with backing vocal harmonies by Michael and Eddie. The rhythm section, courtesy of Alex, Michael and Eddie (and maybe just a little studio magic) provide a rock solid foundation to this unique and timeless rock classic. To me, the guitar work in this song is the strongest element of this song. The guitar solos fit perfectly with the song and are just long enough in both instances.
Thunderstruck – AC/DC. This song from the band’s 1990 release, The Razor’s Edge, features Angus Young on lead guitar (of course), Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, Cliff Williams on bass, Chris Slade on drums and the inimitable Brian Johnson on vocals. Angus Young’s searing guitar lick introduces this song and keeps it going for 30 seconds, along with the distinctive Ah-ah-ah-ah by (I’m assuming) the rest of the band. At the 30 second mark, thundering drums kick off the rest of the song in a very definitive fashion. The opening riff and a modified version of it lasts for 2 and half minutes until the break. At the 2:41 mark, the chorus begins and lasts for a few bars, which then leads into another Angus riff, then to a bridge, followed by one of Angus’s signature guitar solos. The guitar solo is quite short but fits the song perfectly well and adds just the right amount of spice, as does the outro lead guitar.
It’s the song’s tremendous guitar work, with that instantly recognizable riff or some version of it, repeated throughout most of the song that really sets it apart. Combine that with Malcolm’s chugging rhythm guitar and the steady rhythm section, courtesy of Cliff and Chris, and of course, Brian’s screaming banshee vocals and you have a hard rock classic among hard rock classics. The iconic riff in this song reveals Angus’ true guitar virtuosity.
Waitin for the Bus – ZZ Top. This song appears on the band’s 1973 release, Tres Hombres (Spanish for three men), featuring the only lineup this band has had for over the last 50 years: Dusty Hill on bass, Frank Beard on drums, and the superlative Billy Gibbons on guitar.
The song starts with just a little snare kick and Billy’s distinctive blues inspired guitar lick that forms the basis of the song. After about eight bars, Dusty Hill’s bass joins in. At the 1:13 mark, we hear a bridge followed by a really cool blues harp solo, just to lend it that true blues feel, in turn followed by Billy’s beautiful but simple guitar solo.
On the record, this song blends right into Jesus Just Left Chicago and typically, when played on the radio, both songs are played one after the other. The guitar work on that song is equally as impressive but for the purposes of this article, Waitin for the Bus has a guitar solo that blends very naturally into the song and adds just enough pizzazz.
The opinions expresses in this article are solely my own and are meant for discussion purposes only. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree, or if you would like to suggest another song or your own list of songs which you consider to feature guitar solos that perfectly complement their song.
For another article in this series, click here: Better the Second Time Around.