The 25 Greatest Guitar Solos Ever!

My pal Mark Cutler began his Facebook day by posting a clip of Hendrix steaming through “Power To Love,” and it reminded me of an interview piece I did eons ago (1992) for Musician magazine. Asking 25 string players – many of them masters – about their favorite jazz, rock, whatever guitar solos was fun as I recall. Want to check the consensus between Vernon Reid to Marshall Crenshaw? Want to see what everyone from Nels Cline to Bill Frisell to Jim Hall to Gary Lucas comes up with – the answers were often unexpected. The Reducers saved the piece (Peter Detmold was interviewed), so ultra thanks to the guys for the retrieval help. Here are a couple jewels from the list. Make the jump for lots more.

Kelvyn BellBuzzy Feiten‘s solo on “Superwoman” from Stevie Wonder‘s Music of My Mind. Then Larry Carlton on the Crusaders One album – he’s great throughout the record. The last is Vernon Reid on the introduction to “Information Overload,” the one where he sounds like an AT&T telephone. That’s some bad shit.

Vernon ReidAmos Garrett‘s solo on [Maria Muldaur‘s] “Midnight At the Oasis” is perfect. But I think the greatest “electric rock guitar” solo of all time has got to be Hendrix doing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was the first solo that was more – much more – than a solo. It’s an orchestral rendition on guitar. Maybe I shouldn’t put it in context of where the country was, but I haven’t heard a solo that went beyond notes and went into just, everything else, you know? Between that and “Machine Gun,” well, the whole “Machine Gun” song is staggering. There are better solos in terms of playing and all that, but in terms of what it can actually mean to play the guitar – more than notes, licks, chops – and to be about everything that was happening in the country.

Mick Goodrick – There’s so many good things Pat [Metheny] and Scofield and Stern and Frisell have done, it would be hard to pick one, so I’d go with the version of “My Funny Valentine” by Jim Hall and Bill Evans, from Undercurrent. Every note they play should be put in a time capsule. For years that was the standard by which we judged that kind of music. Not that there haven’t been a lot of great Hall solos, like on The Bridge with Sonny Rollins, but it’s not just what Jim plays, it’s also the way the two fit together. His comping is classic Jim Hall, and he develops his solo by taking one little idea, staying with it and making rhythmic variations of it. There’s a two- or three-note thing he starts moving around, and there are points where Bill’s comping goes da-dah, so Jim goes da-dap, the kinda go back and forth, then they start hitting the same ones together – like one person playing two instruments. And it really swings, the time is great – no bass, no drums, just piano and guitar.

Paul Geremia – The thing that immediately comes to mind is something Lonnie Johnson did with Ellington in the late ’20s, “Hot ‘n’ Bothered.” It’s done with a 12-string, one of the first guitar solos that you hear on a record. It was a different style that his solo work; he had to fit the arrangement, of course. I never heard him play anything like that by himself – he usually used a more simple approach, always tasteful. With Ellington he adjusts to the situation wonderfully; it’s a really quick tune and the invention and speed of his improvisation rises to the occasion. He kicks ass working those swing rhythms.

Henry Kaiser – Certainly the most impressive guitarist I’ve heard in my life is Derek Bailey. This 62-year-old Englishman has, over the course of about 100 albums and CDs, completely redefined the state of the art of modern guitar playing. Bailey has the most technique and the most advanced and expressive improvisational capabilities of any guitarist on the planet. Since his recordings are nearly impossible to find in the U.S., I suggest you write to Incus Records, 14 Downs Road, London E5 8DS, England and order a copy of his most recent solo recording: Solo Guitar Volume 2. The first track, “Ten 10,” is one of the most phenomenal things that I’ve ever heard. I’m astounded by the fact that one man could come up with so many unprecedented technical and musical ideas on the instrument. In a word: inspirational.

John Scofield – I don’t have a favorite solo, but when asked I keep thinking of a tune from a Django Reinhardt record I got at age 12: “Minor Swing.” It’s on an RCA record called Djangology.

Rory Block – I’m thinking about Willie Brown, but it really comes down to Robert Johnson, probably “Crossroad Blues.” Beyond that melancholy soulfulness that you can’t put your finger on that makes him extraordinary, he’s mixing every syncopated style from the Mississippi. That song combines everything in the most spontaneous-sounding pattern. I’ll never reproduce it, but I sometimes feel I’m getting close when I allow rhythms to have spontaneous delays. In classical music there are fortissimo and pianissimo and all these words that mean “delay now,” and it’s up to the artist to figure out how much. There’s perfect clock rhythm and beyond that, which is more brilliant, is being able to move the beat according to inspiration. Emotional rhythm. That’s what he had. My latest hero is Mark Knopfler, but that’s another story.

Peter Detmold, The ReducersPete Townshend‘s solo on “I Can See For Miles.” Because it’s one note, and it’s better than [Neil Young’s] “Cinnamon Girl,” which is also one note, because it’s the right note. It’s perfect. Just listen to it.

Marshall Crenshaw – [Ricky Nelson’s] “Hello, Mary Lou” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine.” I caught my father putting just the guitar leads from those songs on a driving tape. That’s James Burton. Plus Bo Diddley‘s “Who Do You Love,” where the tone and attitude are impeccable. I believe it’s Jody Williams. A lot of George Harrison solos, especially those that seem worked out in advance, like “And Your Bird Can Sing.” But what I finally figured out was that the best solo ever is “Machine Gun” by Hendrix. It’s unbelievable. Sense of humor, drama, emotion and imagination – it’s a challenge to keep up with it as a listener. The ideas never stop, the intensity never drops. He starts with this really tense note, holds it for like 16 bars, and then just hammers away. Plus, it ends when it’s supposed to end.

Gary Lucas – Has anyone mentioned Lou Reed‘s break on “I Heard Her Call My Name”? I thought that was a pivotal solo because it goes into the free, Coltrane and Ayler realm. At that time I was ignorant and couldn’t hear like that. But I loved the amphetamine sound. He says, “And then my mind split open,” but it sounds like his head is splitting open, an explosion on the guitar and these joyous rushes of whoop and shriek. To me it sounds happy at the same time it sounds demented. Syd Barrett and David O’List from the Nice are great. Check out “Dawn” from the first record. And One String Sam, a country blues guy who plays a wire attached to the side of a barn with a knife. They call it a diddey-wah in some places. The song’s called “I Need $100.”

Glenn Phillips – Well, mine would be the second half of Mike Bloomfield‘s solo on “East/West” by the Paul Butterfield band; the first half they do the long, modal, Indian-type jam, and then the second half takes off in a different direction. That’s the part that had a tremendous effect on me regarding not only playing technique, but musical possibilities. His playing had personal commitment, but also a great sense of humor. You could really hear that in the Electric Flag stuff. Bloomfield didn’t try to cop the sources, he built on them. Today there’s lots of blues playing that just sounds exactly like the sources, and to me that’s not what it’s about. He’s not really acknowledged that much, and I’m kind of surprised that he’s gotten lost in the historical shuffle.

Elliott Sharp – Not only the guitar, but all the music on Sonny Sharrock‘s Monkey-Pockie-Boo. I got it in a Woolworth’s in Ithaca, New York for $.99, and it killed me. It’s not as if I was unprepared for it; I’d been reading LeRoi Jone‘s Black Music and was into Trane, Ornette and Cecil. I took it home and blew my mind while driving my roommates crazy. It has complete viscerality and insanity. At first I couldn’t even tell what was guitar because Linda [Sharrock] does a lot of singing on the record. It was a totally “other” conception of sound. Asking questions like “What is music?”

Nels Cline – I won’t say “Manic Depression.” I’ll say Jim Hall on “Secret Love” from a Japanese Horizon record with that Don Thompson and Terry Clarke trio, 1976. I don’t gravitate toward wistful major keys, but he’s so economical and restrained yet so consistently inventive. On this solo there’s something memorable in every idea and little twist and also on the coda going out. I think of them all the time. When I first heard it my conception of music was much less informed; with this one, the smarter I get the better it sounds. For pure sound it’s John McLaughlin on Miroslav Vitous“I Will Tell Him on You” from Mountain in the Clouds. Or “Blues for Spacegirl,” Thurston Moore‘s track from Guitarrorists.

Bill Frisell – What came into my mind when I heard the question was older things that still excite me. Wes Montgomery, say. But the truth is that recently I was most excited by John Hiatt playing acoustic – just four quarter-note triads. He was solo, and what he was playing – just strumming up and down, and the rhythm – defined the feel of each tune so well. It wasn’t hard to understand, just a C chord. But the way he was being musical with it transcended that it was a guitar, and for me that’s one of the heaviest things someone can do. The guitar doesn’t really mean anything anymore to me, just music. So that got me more than hearing a million notes. Or Jim Hall‘s stuff with Rollins, Paul Desmond, Art Farmer – the way he interacted with a horn. And Ali Farka Toure really messed me up.

Leo Kottke – The first thing I thought of was the solo Buddy Holly took on “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” because it my be the first guitar idea that really snagged my ear. I was a kid in Oklahoma just beginning to play. The funny thing was that it wasn’t the kind of guitar I wanted to play. But all the melody sense he had a writer was in that solo. It was simple and just right. He was a tricky player, great rhythm. I just ran into Gary Busey, who has Buddy’s guitar, and when I played the thing it had that Holly sound – can you believe that? Until he pulled it out I never thought I’d be struck by somebody’s guitar, but I’m tellin’ ya, I’m tellin’ ya…My second choice would be “It’s Easy When You Know How” by Lonnie Johnson. I don’t know anybody who has figured that one out. Lonnie was a freak.

Walter “Wolfman” Washington – It might be Wes or Johnny “Guitar” Watson, things that have real meaning in the context of the song. But Kenny Burrell on “Mighty Low” really takes it. He lets the tone of the guitar express the different ins and outs of what he’s trying to explain. It really opened my eyes to Kenny; he was playing with Jimmy Smith. When I saw him in person, he had the same tone as he did on the record and I said to myself, “I’m gonna have to get me a guitar like he has.” Ha-ha. Try to capture that myself. But the tone comes from the mind, not the guitar.

Jim HallCharlie Christian‘s playing on “Solo Flight” with Benny Goodman, and arranged by Eddie Sauter, gets my vote for musciality and intelligence.

FOR THE REST OF THE LIST, HEAD TO THE REDUCERS SITE. Everyone from Steve Morse to Charlie Sexton weighs in there.

7 responses to “The 25 Greatest Guitar Solos Ever!

  1. Think it’s gotta be Phil Manzanera’s two solos on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire.”

  2. re: squally showers & “Baby’s on Fire”. The guitar on that one and “Blank Frank” were done quite phenomenally by Robert Fripp of King Crimson. I would put that up at the top of my list, too.

    The album is “Here Come the Warm Jets” by Brian Eno. Highly recommended!

  3. What do you guys think of this playing (see YouTube video called “Cheap Guitar Tricks” by Daniel Minteer)? Sounds like pretty choice stuff, don’t you think?

  4. Yes I just watched it – it ROCKS. It is that nice old beefy rock sound that you don’t hear much anymore (at least, anything new).

  5. 25 best solos ever?

    Wes Montgomery fist 25 takes!

    guitar instructions

  6. My Top 5

    1. Lou Reed “I Heard Her Call My Name”
    2. Robert Fripp “Baby’s On Fire”
    3. Phil Manzanera “Third Uncle”
    4. Jimi Hendrix “Voodoo Chile”
    5. Keith Richards “Sympathy For The Devil”

  7. You actually dealt with a few engaging things in this posting. I found this article by using Msn and I’ve got to admit that I already subscribed to your site, it is quite fine ;)

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