In the relatively short period of time since guitars became electrified and music became recorded, the guitar has been transformed from a tool for rhythmic accompaniment, to a powerful and versatile instrument that can give listeners chills when placed in the right hands. When you look at what people have done with guitars since that recent beginning, it’s natural to be in awe of the breadth and depth of incredible work – which is why compiling a list like this presents a bit of a challenge.
What Makes a Solo “Uniquely Inspiring?”
With so much out there to consider when thinking about what makes a great guitar solo, it becomes a little blurry. We can split hairs about who’s the fastest. We can also debate who’s the heaviest. But, my own considerations have led me to believe that a solo is at its best when it’s a) really, really good; and b) fits perfectly within the context of a great song. I crowned this “uniquely inspiring.”
The way I think about it, if a fantastic guitar player is shredding at your local Sam Ash, while you might be impressed by what they’re doing, you won’t remember that solo. That’s because it has no context or meaning without an established song behind it. That’s not to say that technical playing doesn’t have value— it definitely does. But its value is maximized when it’s properly placed in the framework of a great song.
The principle is the same for more subdued solos. So unless you’re a master of sustaining your own rhythmic foundation and simultaneously soloing over it (lookin’ at you Mateus Asato), you really need some context to make a solo great, or in this case, uniquely inspiring.
With that in mind, I started considering what solos really inspire me and asked around to see what others thought. I chose a bunch that I found to be technical, interesting, and fit well in the context of the song. I skipped over certain bands and guitar virtuosos that were basically all-solo because I didn’t feel they could accurately fit into this category.
So, while I know there have been a myriad of outstanding guitar solos over the past century, here are some stand-outs that I consider uniquely inspiring (in no particular order):
Metallica – Ride the Lightning
I could have put 10 Metallica songs on this list, but this is the one that always really moved me. Beginning right off the bat with an awesomely heavy riff, the song quickly becomes old-school-Metallica thrash, up until the moment where it goes into half-time. Then you feel the epic-ness approaching, like when there are storm clouds on the horizon and the air changes. The chord progression entering the solo section perfectly sets Kirk up to do some damage. He pops on his Tube Screamer and starts with some steady tapping. Then the riffing builds along with the rhythmic backing. The key jumps up a step, which creates an awesome sonic dynamic, and then he really begins to mesmerize, ripping non-stop wild licks up and down the fretboard. The song speeds up to a gallop and Kirk doesn’t miss a beat. Everything about this solo makes you feel like you’re going to explode.
Rage Against The Machine – Bulls on Parade
Walking a path no guitar player had come close to walking before, Tom Morello’s scratching solo on this track was so unique that people were left asking if the band had a DJ. This pulsing Rage Against the Machine hit is driven by Zach De La Rocha’s bouncing, politically-charged rapping. Towards the middle of the song, he temporarily backs off, allowing the smooth bass line and guitar to say their piece. Then Morello begins his wild string-scratching, which moves in-time with simultaneous switching of the pickup selector. To achieve the proper sounds from this technique, Morello used a custom Ibanez which created a high-pitched noise when the pickup selector was between two settings. Previously, he had tried another Ibanez prototype that had done the same thing, which the people at Ibanez initially thought of as a defect and intended to fix. Nonetheless, Morello liked it and knew he could make use of it, so he had a custom Ibanez built with it intact. It’s hard to think of any guitar work as unique as this.
Thin Lizzy – Don’t Believe a Word
Only 53 seconds into this short, punchy Thin Lizzy song, begins the bending of notes, swelling through a wah-wah pedal. Then comes swirling pentatonic blues moves with a few minor hits, all while moving in perfect, swinging rhythm with the backing progressions. By the time you realize how great it is, they’re already back to the captivating lyrics, and a minute later, the songs all over. The whole track clocks in at just 2:19.
Van Halen – Eruption
While some of the techniques in this song have become, dare I say, “commonplace,” in 1978 Van Halen’s guitar work was mind-blowing. Really, it still is. The incredible soloing on this song isn’t diminished because your cousin spent weeks watching Youtube videos and eventually mastered it. Being the first to create and execute this type of guitar work is the truly unbelievable part. Though it almost falls outside of the context I was looking for (since it’s mostly just Eddie playing), the way in which he phrases the various solo parts, strings them together, and segues into “You Really Got Me,” is nothing short of spectacular. The sound also plays a major part in this work. Eddie’s powerful, in-your-face “brown tone” is comprised of a Gibson PAF humbucker, placed in a Strat body, running through a Univox EC-80 echo unit, plugged into a 100-watt Marshall head. There’s no doubt that what Eddie Van Halen did on this track inspired legions of guitar players to push their boundaries and find a more exceptional sound.
Dinosaur Jr. – Start Choppin’
J. Mascis doesn’t necessarily come off as a shredder at first glance, but trust me, Fender doesn’t just hand out signature Jazzmaster models for good behavior (though they might for bad behavior)—the man can play. This early ’90s grunge track ebbs and flows with uplifting angst from start to finish. It eventually breaks out into a battering, heavily over-driven guitar solo with tons of bends, presumably aided by a Big Muff pedal. It then morphs into the fun, head-bobbing type solo, before returning the song back to its mix of groaning vocals and finger tapping rhythms. The dynamic soloing resumes again towards the end, playing out the song.
Pantera – Cemetery Gates
The late Dimebag Darrell is without a doubt one of the greatest metal guitarists of all time. This 7-minuteish Pantera track is a hybrid metal ballad/shredding exercise. On this one, Dimebag really shows he’s not a one-dimensional metal player, displaying admirable versatility as he moves along with lighter aspects of the track, pounds with the chorus, and then blows us all away with his technically precise, soul-guided soloing. To achieve the fuzzy, dark tone he had on this track, Dime used his 1981 Dean, through a Randall RG100H. Though toying with interesting leads throughout, the solo doesn’t begin until 5 minutes in, when Dime starts floating melodically over the subdued verse of the song. His brother, drummer Vinnie Paul, soon kicks it up a notch, and Dime completely rips up the fretboard, with non-stop, powering licks. Despite his incredible solo lines never seeming to have a beginning or end, they flawlessly flow into each other with perfect phrasing. The song ends with Dime pulling his whammy bar to make a demon-like shriek, battling to outreach Phil Anselmo’s vocal prowess.
Mr. Big – To Be With You
While you may know this early ’90s pop-rock hit by Mr. Big, you may not know that the one-and-only Paul Gilbert was their guitar player. Paul is one of the greatest guitarists ever, hands down. When he was in Mr. Big, he exercised some incredible restraint in creating this uplifting acoustic solo. It partially follows the melody line, but thoughtfully strays into a concise, perfectly fitting, classically-styled exercise. If you check out some later live videos of Paul Gilbert playing this song, you’ll only be more impressed (can you say, “finger-tapping while singing the chorus?”).
Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
As one of the singles off of Appetite for Destruction, Sweet Child O’ Mine anchored Guns N’ Roses into rock and roll history. The lovely rock ballad immediately hooks you in with its opening riff and Axl’s one-of-a-kind, treble-filled vocals, but it really wows when the solo hits. Slash first plays around with some minor-focused, mid-range notes to set the stage. In the second section, he quickly glides upward on his Les Paul and relentlessly hammers away on some high string bends. He then brings it back down to quietly intertwine with Axl’s inquisitive “Where do we go?” vocal musings. The two go back and forth antagonistically, until the song breaks out again with Axl’s inimitable voice dueling with Slash’s upper octave. The whole thing is like a rollercoaster—by the time it’s over you need to remind yourself to exhale.
All That Remains – The Deepest Gray
Unless you’re into early 00’s metal core, you probably don’t know this song, but I assure you it’s got a great solo section. The song as a whole is just the right amount of heavy, where it doesn’t sacrifice melody to achieve power. It’s composed in such a way that it crescendos to a breakdown, which lays the foundation for a two-guitar solo section. The first guitarist does some minor scale runs with tactful taps throughout, while the second drifts more towards pentatonic bends. The contrast is killer. Then the song jumps right back into the chorus and finishes heavy.
Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
I know, I know, of course Stairway is on the list, but I couldn’t leave it out. If it’s cliché to you by now, that’s only a testament to how incredible it is. Page’s perfectly placed notes elevate the entire composition from medieval folky journey to legendary rock triumph, and he takes his sweet time doing it. He used his fabled ’59 Telecaster, given to him by Jeff Beck, to complete the twangy, reverberating solo part. From beginning, to chord chugging, to note-bending end, Page’s guitar work is unforgettable, and Plant delivering the last line by himself feels like the closing of a heroic novel.
Days of the New – Touch, Peel and Stand
This is one of those songs that you don’t know that you know, because you mentally associate it with another ’90s band. Nonetheless, these guys did some really cool stuff on this track, including playing a dropped D tuned acoustic guitar, which definitely qualifies it to be uniquely inspiring—and it’s done damn well. Following the choppy rhythm of the rest of the song, the solo rolls around the pentatonic scale with a pretty impressive flow for an acoustic, until the section cuts abruptly and the vocals return to bring in the last catchy chorus. You don’t often get acoustic rock musings like this.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird
You know I had to close the list with Free Bird. The way this song goes from ambient organ underlying a sorrowful tale of moving on, to wild, upbeat guitar solo that seems to be indicating there’s some adventure out there waiting for you, is a feat of musical fluidity the likes of which we may never see again. Over 4 minutes of dynamic, intertwining rock soloing grace the studio version of this Skynyrd classic—and lord knows how long it’ll go when played live. But let’s be honest, despite it being nearly half a century old and the inescapable irony of screaming “Free Bird!” at any concert, most people still love every minute of this iconic song.
Check out our Spotify playlist of all the songs we mentioned so you can rock out to them!