Top 10 Highlights
Warning! Before you go any further you should know that Eddie didn’t make the cut. Nor did Slash. Nor did most really, really fast, twiddly, finger tapping metal guitarists. In fact we considered having a Most Boring Solo section but that’s not in the spirit of Listland.
Our top 10 guitar solos are technically great, but they also have heart and soul, and variation, and texture, and depth. The 1980’s spawned a lot of ‘technically awesome’ guitarists, but to our mind a lot of it is like listening to a machine play the guitar. Boring.
So we are kind of stuck in the late 1960’s and 70’s but that was the era of the lead break. The rest are just imitations. (Comments section below!)
10. Tony Iommi – Sleeping Village
Black Sabbath burst onto the scene in 1970 with their self titled first album that was so scary parents all over the world were genuinely afraid their children would turn to the devil if they listened to the music. The band name and cover of their first album certainly didn’t help. Nor did Ozzie Osbourne’s stage antics, although we know now that he’s pretty harmless.
Heavy Metal was born with Sabbath. Even though we clearly state above that we don’t think much of mechanical metal lead, Iommi gets a free pass because he defined a new style and, much of the time, it was less mechanical lead than fuzz and phased infused fast blues lead.
In Sleeping Village we are introduced to the Iommi stand alone lead break at 7’07” minutes and again at 9’48”. He dishes out his trademark high toned SG lead with abandon in this Guitar Solo. Nicely done.
Iommi is the second from our right. Dark, swathy type.
9. Robert Fripp – Sheltering Sky
Sheltering Sky is from King Crimson’s 1981 album Discipline, the only entry that’s not from the 1960’s or 70’s although clearly King Crimson are great prog-rockers from that period anyway.
Robert Fripp is the weird looking guitarist sitting down to the right. He developed electronics that he called ‘Frippertronics’ that gives his guitar its sound and sustain.
This is such a great track and Fripp’s lead (first at 1’40” and again at 7’30″) is something from another planet. It’s like an alien race dropped him in just for this concert and will pick him up later to take back to Fripperland. He’s also done a lot of fantastic work with Brian Eno. Figures.
Check out front man Adrian Belew on the guitar at 4’38”. Are these guys having some fun or what! Is that a guitar or a moog?
8. Steve Howe – Awaken
Steve Howe was one of the most technically capable guitarists of the 20th Century and the lead break on Awaken, from the album Going For The One (1977), showcases his skills wonderfully. Fast, clear, nimble, varied, with trademark Howe tone and plenty of flourishes.
The main break comes in at 2’47” and there is more beauty at 9’52” and 12’29”.
Be warned, this is prog rock at it’s most majestic. If you don’t know if just listen without any preconceptions, and give yourself time. Put the headphones on and close your eyes.
The studio version is the best version I have heard so far.
7. David Gilmour – Time
Dark Side Of The Moon took the world by storm in 1973 and it remains one of the greatest albums of all time. Age does not seem to weary it. Along with its brother (or sister), Wish You Were Here, here are two albums that will still be listened to in the year 3014.
3’29” minutes into Time Gilmour gives us the creamiest of lead breaks. Not nearly as dazzling as many of the others on the list, but it more than makes up for speed and flicks with bends and tremolo. It really is a beautiful thing, seamlessly entering and exiting the song, completely in touch with the mood of the album.
Far away across the fields, the tolling of the iron bell calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spell…
Beware the bells at the start of the track. They are loud!
(Regarding Comfortably Numb, yes, it’s great but we think it has become a bloated parody of itself. We don’t like Gilmour after Animals actually, particularly when he’s live and rehashing the proper Pink Floyd stuff. Please go and live on an island. Oh, you do…).
6. Jimmy Page – No Quarter
This live version of No Quarter comes from Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, The Song Remains The Same (1976). The song has an incredible wah influenced chorus riff and features some deft chord chopping that surrounds the main break.
The break itself starts gently enough after a lovely long jazz influenced chord intro and there are sparse elements throughout, but when Page gets going there are some incredible runs and rocking moments. However it’s not speed that gets this on the list, it’s the feel and gorgeous touch that makes every note special. Great track. Great lead break.
The version on the Song Remains The Same album is the full track. The version on the film, while being the same instance of the song, has had some of the lead break cut out plus has JPJ’s fantasy over it
Here’s the album version, the one we like, the best one. (Main break at 6’06”):
Did we mention we love John Paul Jones on keys and base pedals?
Here’s the film version (main break from 5’00”).
5. Eric Clapton – Steppin Out
Live Cream Vol. 2 gave us fantastic versions of Cream classics like White Room, Politician and Tales of Brave Ulysses, but it’s the bluesy 13 minute Steppin Out that gives us Eric Clapton’s greatest lead break (apologies to Crossroads). It’s pure Clapton with that lovely feel and unmatched ability to just keep going and going and going… and going.
This whole song is essentially one long break but the first 3’55″ minutes is structured around Jack Bruce bass. Clapton takes over solo from that point with the incredible Ginger Baker quickly adding support (and some duelling!) and Bruce coming back in later. There’s no tune, just Clapton lead taking us for a ride that we don’t want to stop.
No live footage unfortunately, but we still have the music.
4. Ritchie Blackmore – Highway Star
Highway Star on the live Made In Japan (1972) album features Ritchie Blackmore at his absolute peak. This is not a long, complex lead break like many of the others on our list, this is just frenetic fun with bends and tremolo at every twist and turn (the guitar practically speaks).
There’s no time for sustain and the feedback barely gets a look in such is the pace at which the notes pound your ears. Pure excitement. (The main break starts at 4’15”).
There are plenty of different versions of Made In Japan out there. This version of Highway Star Guitar Solo is the version that was released in 1972. The original and the best.
3. Neil Young, Steven Stills – Southern Man
“This is usually a really long song folks, and we’re gonna do it real slow tonight…”
The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Album, 4 Way Street (1971) was a colossal live album encapsulating not only the best CSN&Y songs, but the feel of the ’60’s on the West Coast. The first disc was acoustic and the second disc electric.
Southern Man, one of their great jamming songs, features a long, long lead duo between Neil Young and Steven Stills. The way they build, release and play off each other is simply brilliant, incredible and so great to listen to, and the moment they break back into the chorus (12’31”) is pure magic. Music history. Lead royalty.
We love Lynyrd Skynyrd, but sorry guys, this Guitar Solo is classic in every respect.
No video again, but just close your eyes…
2. Jimmy Page – Since I’ve Been Loving You
This live version of the Zeppelin blues classic Since I’ve Been Loving You never made it to album. The only official release was in the film The Song Remains the Same and for some unknown reason it didn’t make it onto the album of the same name. The song opens with Page totally knocking our ears off with a lead break that is akin to a physical assault. As they say, he ‘lets rip’. His fingers weren’t being controlled by his brain, they were simply channeling notes direct from lead heaven.
After the initial assault we are treated to blues lead that matches the feel and emotion of any blues break in history. (Any ‘heavy’ blues break anyway). The lead continues in a supporting role to Plant’s vocals until, at 3’54” minutes into the song he goes again. Whack!
This is virtuoso stuff and apologies to Slash fans (because we know you’re out there), it’s like comparing a Formula One car with a Hyundai.
Watch in awe.
Then compare with Slash.
1. Jimi Hendrix – The Star Spangled Banner
There are so many brilliant pieces of Hendrix lead that it’s difficult to pick out a single break. In fact his music is so imbued with lead that there are often no ‘breaks’ in the traditional sense. It’s all just one long avalanche of Hendrix guitar. Having said that, The Star Spangled Banner on the Woodstock (1969) album is pure lead. No chords, no supporting instruments, just incredibly loud, emotion filled lead punctuated with screaming highs and growling, bomb-like lows.
The tremolo arm and strings get a punishing work out but survive. The psychedelic elements of Hendrix’s interpretation of the American National Anthem are what make it. War painted with music. Watching this all pour from his fingers as he leans back, eyes closed, sums him up. He and his Strat were a single entity and it’s the way the music came from him, rather than being played, that makes it impossible to put this anywhere but number one.
If you want to get to know a lead guitarist here are some tips on how to handle yourself.
1. Be genuinely impressed with their playing, no matter what your musical preferences of what youk really think.
2. Don’t touch their picks. These are sacred and valuable objects and a guitarist will know if you are even thinking of touching one of theirs. Probably worse than picking up their guitar (one of their guitars that is).
3. If you are not a guitar player don’t have an opinion about who the best guitar player in the world is. Only guitarists are allowed to judge other guitarists.
4. Don’t say that you prefer another brand of guitar over their favorite brand. They will secretly hate you forever.
5. Don’t knock their hair. If you do they may never play in front of anyone else again. Ever. You will have ruined their life.