By By Martin Popoff
Looking at small bits of art necessarily enters the realm of the abstract, and, of course, a guitar solo is usually shorter than a band’s catalog, much less an album or even a song. So, this gets tricky.
Nonetheless, I polled a bunch of industry experts, as well as fans, and then sifted for trends to answer this question. And since I’m the one writin’ it, I weighed in very heavily myself to come up with this ears-a’-ringin’ collection of the greatest metal solos of all time.
Criteria? I used hummability, musicality, memorability, structure, technicality, impact on the music world and influence on other guitar players. But, I quickly discovered a nice rule of thumb I came back to more and more: If a song title is mentioned, could I almost instantly sift my mental circuitry and happily, accurately, reverently, to hear most of the thing in my head?
I found that to be a sort of objective, involuntary way of ascribing importance outside of intellectual thought or even a temptation to fudge the results. And yes, to reiterate, I took in a wide range of opinions on the subject, so another criterion would be… democracy. So, if you find the list too predictable, remember, I’m going for accuracy and truth here, not cleverness.
Finally, I’ve always felt that to be “the greatest of all time” it helps to be old enough for folks to consider whether it’s “stood the test of time.” Couple that with the ability to fix ’n’ fake things all too simply in the studio these days, and… yeah, I found myself (and all the people who voted, incidentally, as well) gravitating toward material from two distinct places: the classic-rock era and ’80s heavy metal.
Seriously, practically nobody voted for any of today’s generation of shredders, of which there’s got to be at least a couple dozen bona fide guitar heroes. Do this again in 10 years, and those guys (Mike Amott, Alexi Laiho, Zakk Wylde) will get their due.
In any event, here they be… discuss amongst yourselves!
Let’s start with our (highly subjective) honorable mention list for 21-40, then move on to the expanded listings for Nos. 20-1.
40. Metallica — “Master Of Puppets”
39. Sweet — “Set Me Free”
37. Pantera — “Floods”
36. Steve Vai — “The Attitude Song”
34. Dokken — “Mr. Scary”
33. Ted Nugent — “Wango Tango”
32. Blue Oyster Cult — “Godzilla”
31. Soundgarden — “Jesus Christ Pose”
30. Megadeth — “Symphony Of Destruction”
29. Y&T — “Forever”
28. Kim Mitchell — “Rumour Has It”
27. Rush — “La Villa Strangiato”
26. Guns N’ Roses —“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
25. Montrose — “I’ve Got The Fire”
24. Rainbow — “Kill The King”
22. Ram Jam — “Black Betty”
20. Dokken, “Mr. Scary”
George Lynch was essentially “the other one” back in the late ’70s L.A. metal scene, competing with Eddie Van Halen for top dog honors. With Dokken, he proved to be a quintessential and characteristic shredder, actually one of the first to push guitar acrobatics to the fore within the fledgling hair-metal scene. “Mr. Scary” is George’s instrumental workout, an opportunity to utilize the whole fret board, to compose at length, and to relax and blow off some of the tension he always felt with Don garnering most of the spotlight as thespian, Joe Lynn Turner-like lead vocalist. Indeed, Don and George fought like cats and dogs, but they did manage to put out four solid albums of classy stadium-rock in the ’80s that found Lynch alongside Ratt’s Warren DeMartini as the genre’s professors of fret fire.
19. KISS, “Strange Ways”
Seriously, go listen to this one again. You gotta love Ace, if only for the legions of fun-time rockers he inspired with his space boots and smoking guitar and, yes, his crazy, emotional approach to soloing. He’s like the Keith Moon of the guitar, attacking and raw, and usually quite memorable and musical despite the love of noise. Ace also reminds me of Sweet’s underrated Andy Scott, both guys sort of shoving their way into the song at hand, offering a bit of a slap to the face.
18. Alcatrazz, “Island In The Sun”
It’s easy to go to Yngwie’s second solo album Marching Out and find something, but his work on Alcatrazz’s classic first album is so much more fun, upbeat and massaged into the fecund creativity of these smart songs. “Island In The Sun” is the poppiest track on the album, and so, Yngwie answers in kind, not yet a slave to his much-maligned rigidity of style, turning in a thrilling, vaulted, ornate-but-soul-replenishing jewel-within-track.
17. Accept, “Princess Of The Dawn”
OK, I am championing this one, but a lot of people voted for it, too. This is a classic example of building drama, the concept of writing a song within a song, versatility, violence contrasting finesse, and medieval Germanic seriousness set against bluesiness. And the way the song is written, its resolute plod… it’s almost as if the whole regular verse/chorus structure is merely a warm-up act for the Teutonic axe magic to come.
16. Iron Maiden, “The Trooper”
Maiden is mostly known for Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s twin leads, a characteristic with a pedigree usually attributed to the Allman Brothers, Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy. That is certainly on display here, through the memorable, recurring pattern that is virtually the main riff, but there’s also a few shots across the bow of the band’s Iommi-esque burbling, giving this one much contrast as well as drama, given the stop/start nature of the song.
15. Metallica, “One”
Surprised to see the overwhelming number of Metallica votes going to “One,” the band’s protracted, prog-metal epic. Kirk is his usual effects-happy, nutbar self on this one, really exploding in tandem with the track doing the same. He’s a really bubbly, almost atonal kind of soloist and certainly not the heavy-metal norm. But, on the tough slog of “One,” he’s a shot in the arm.
14. Judas Priest, “Electric Eye”
It helps that “Electric Eye” is one of Priest’s most thrilling rock rides, but the solo placed on top of the custom chords of the break has everything you want from K.K. and Glenn, marrying technicality to a cogent harnessing of lurching noise to the establishment of themes. Also, the guys have a knack for wrapping it up in a big red bow before getting back to the business of banging heads with Rob. One of the great metal teams and, like Schenker, distinctive in more up-market, less “tricks”-related ways.
13. AC/DC, “Back In Black”
AC/DC’s penultimate anthem got the most votes, with Angus getting to solo over a track with amusing spaces and pregnant pauses. Angus is an old-time rock ’n’ roller like Ted Nugent or Billy Gibbons, looking around and finding himself immersed in a hard-rock world and forced to make hay while the sun shines. As a result, there’s a timelessness to his rootsy, rock grind. And when you’re hearing him, you can’t help but picturing him perilously headbanging.
12. Thin Lizzy, “The Cowboy Song”
I’ve put Lizzy on this list twice, because they had essentially two (but actually about five) different guitar configurations. The two celebrated eras include one lone album with John Sykes, but the lyrical, sublime twin leads woven by Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham through all the big albums in the middle are even more praised. “The Cowboy Song” includes one of the best of these (“The Boys Are Back In Town” got votes as well), but it also includes a series of boogie-rocking solo leads that, like the twin ones, are instantly hummable and enhancing of the song itself, effortlessly vaulting ‘The Cowboy Song” to anthem status.
11. UFO, “Lights Out”
“Rock Bottom” got more votes, but I prefer Michael Schenker on this rousing, golden-era classic. There’s an ironic confidence to him in his craziest years — of course, this is when the “Michael Schenker Is God” thing reprised the Eric Clapton story from a decade earlier. In any event, Michael has proven over the years to be an irresistible synthesis of full-on medieval/Euro tones with a pop sensibility. His style is, in fact, very distinctive, but not as obviously so to novices as, say, Eddie Van Halen or Robert Fripp or Yngwie Malmsteen. It’s more of a discerning thing.
10. Black Sabbath, “Neon Knights”
Tony Iommi is the riff master, no question, but his soloing is often skronky, wah-wah-laden, noisy and illogical, oddly akin to that of Kirk Hammett. Mob Rules and Heaven And Hell contain the man’s best solos, however, and when he’s on, he’s highly memorable — the “Neon Knights” passage evoking the man’s weirdly melancholy and wistful, bluesy vibe with structure and melody and resolution that is rare for Iommi, who, like I say, is usually a bit of a… blower.
9. Thin Lizzy, “Baby Please Don’t Go”
The Thin Lizzy votes were plentiful and varied, so much so that I had to support the many John Sykes nods (“Cold Sweat” getting the most votes) with a gracious bow to the “Baby Please Don’t Go” solo, which is my personal top pick when I get hit with that question in a radio interview. This one always gets me pulling out the air guitar. It swoops, dives, explodes and divebombs, and yet, it is so melodic and logical… it’s pure genius, as is Sykes on Whitesnake’s seminal “Still Of The Night,” I might add.
8. Jimi Hendrix, “All Along The Watchtower”
Curiously, most of the Jimi Hendrix votes went to this otherwise uneventful Bob Dylan cover. But, inside it, Jimi does many of the things that made all those previous greats like Clapton, Townshend and Page look like also-rans, indeed, most believing that Jimi had rewritten the rulebook, essentially reworking what could be done with the instrument through what was virtually a new guitar vocabulary. Not exactly Jimi’s heaviest metal track or solo, but you can most definitely hear the fire in the belly he applies to his louder rockers.
7. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Zakk Wylde comes to mind as the only other guy besides Brian May who has this way of sounding like he’s wrenching each note from the guitar, making it howl, and kick and scream, in pain. The “Bohemian Rhapsody” solo is an amusing demonstration of this. It’s pretty much simple, laid-back and relaxed, but each note sounds like it’s going through torture, as May methodically writes a tune within a tune that would be good enough to be a vocal line within one of the medium-loud passages of this groundbreaking epic track. No doubt part of this comes down to May’s use of a coin as a pick, but whatever the reason, it’s a brutishly executed solo that sounds like a hard-won victory.
6. Scorpions, “The Sails Of Charon”
Most hardcore fans will agree that Scorpions was at its best when Ulrich Roth was in there adding his strange hippie/Hendrix twist to the modern, heavy-metal writing coming out of Klaus and Rudy. “The Sails Of Charon” solo (off Taken By Force) is really cool, because of its mix of riffing and soloing, its heavy Spanish influence and the fact that it innovatively and grandly opens the song. It is testimony that disparate elements within a band can result in great art. Roth would amicably leave the band after this last “obscure” Scorpions album to follow his left-field muse.
5. Dio, “Stand Up And Shout”
Talk to Viv Campbell, and he famously forsakes metal for pop, but amusingly, his entire reputation is forever assured and completely based on his work all over the first two Dio albums, “Stand Up And Shout” being an example of his violent, muscular, motion-filled, yet incredibly hooky soloing style. Oddly — or for sure synergistically — he is to the guitar what Vinny Appice is to the drums, both putting on a highly rhythmic and squarely musical display, turning the Dio band into one of metal’s more fiery and sensual outfits of the intense ’80s.
4. Led Zeppelin, “Stairway To Heaven”
You know, the votes on this actually put it at about #2, but I’m penalizing it down a few spots, because I think the song and the solo are both overrated, as is Jimmy as a soloist. I do, however, think Physical Graffiti is the greatest album ever made, and Jimmy is one of the greatest axemen of all time, but that’s more for his acoustic writing and his riff writing, not his (admittedly amusing) “wisecracking” approach to soloing. Anyway, this is a very memorable solo as it builds and resolves, almost as a microcosm of the song as a whole. It’s also very tuneful, hummable, etc., and it is structured nicely in tandem with a backing track that moves toward its own conclusion.
3. Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”
Randy Rhoads was an unknown with a couple of Japan-only albums to his name as part of Quiet Riot, but his time with Ozzy, as well as his shocking airplane crash death, made him a legend. “Crazy Train” was his introduction to the world, and his classically trained chops, coupled with an immense electric sound put way up in the mix, could not be denied. The “Crazy Train” solo made use of both the obsessive training and the unyielding sonics, with Randy turning in a composed and criss-crossingly melodic solo that bridged Blackmore to Malmsteen via Michael Schenker.
2. Deep Purple, “Highway Star”
Many votes, and I’m in total agreement — this is one of the most singable, gorgeous, passion-filled, classy guitar solos in rock, with Ritchie Blackmore running aristocratic medieval runs all over a tossed-off lyric about driving cars fast. Jon Lord helps out and duels with the Blackmore in time-honored Purple fashion and a baroque, frilly-sleeved good time is had by all. Note: “Burn” and “Child In Time” also gathered a fair number of admiring nods.
1. Van Halen, “Eruption”
I’ve had more guitarists tell me lately that Eddie is really only second to Jimi Hendrix in sheer importance to the art of the guitar. Here, the man single-handedly invents shred, touching off a decade’s worth of explosive guitar acrobatics through the ’80s — namely the golden age of metal. And even though folks credit Steve Hackett and Rick Derringer’s Danny Johnson with coming up with the tapping technique, this is the world’s first involved, musical, triumphant exercise in that little, tricksy innovation. Finally — and sort of related to the first point — “Eruption” made more kids want to take the guitar seriously than any musical event in history, save for perhaps The Beatles (and yes, KISS) inspiring kids to pick one up in the first place. Sure, this is cheating a bit, as it’s a stand-alone solo and not a brief bit enveloped in a song, but Eddie was a rule-breaker, too.