The birth of rock music also gave rise to a whole new way of playing guitar. Blistering solos, fresh guitar licks, and effects pedals all came to define the sound of rock and roll. The genre combines blues, jazz, and folk elements to form subgenres like hard rock, gypsy jazz, and roots rock.
From the early rock days of Chuck Berry to rock and roll’s heyday with the Stones in the ’70s and ’80s, here is a high-energy list of rock’s best guitar solos.
All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan released his song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ in 1967 on his album John Wesley Harding. Rock and roller Jimi Hendrix was a huge Dylan fan, and when he heard the track, he decided to cover it. He released his own version in 1968, featuring a faster rhythm, heavier instrumentation, and wailing Hendrix solos throughout it. When Dylan heard his version, he loved it so much that he modeled his live performances of the track after Hendrix. Total Guitar magazine rated ‘All Along the Watchtower’ as one of the greatest covers of all time.
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Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
This epic-style song was written in several parts after Pink Floyd had to part ways with their lead guitarist, Syd Barrett, due to declining mental health and drug use. Amid piano, organ, and occasional light brass work, emotive blues guitar riffs are cleanly delivered for both solos and between vocal lines.
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Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
One of FM radio’s most-played songs is also one of rock music’s most notorious. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is one of the first songs any fledgling guitarist learns due to the track’s simple yet commanding riff. Fans immediately gravitated toward the song appearing on the band’s 1971 Led Zeppelin IV album. While rumors claiming the song contains satanic messages if played backward spread, band member Jimmy Page had to appear in court to fight a plagiarism suit from the band Spirit, with an appeals court ruling in favor of Led Zeppelin.
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Maggot Brain – Funkadelic
Ranked by Guitar World magazine as one of the best wah-wah pedal solos of all time, frontman George Clinton convinced Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel to record the solo in a rather unconventional way. He placed Hazel inside a massive circle of powerful amps and told him to play as if he had just discovered his mother had passed away. Hazel’s raw emotions and masterful improv produced such a moving solo that it’s often regarded as one of funk’s greatest guitar solos ever recorded.
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Eruption – Van Halen
For Van Halen’s first single, they covered The Kink’s 1960s tune ‘You Really Got Me.’ Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work on the track is filled with swagger, but the powerful solo work was just his warmup routine. Ted Templeton, Van Halen’s producer, loved it so much he tacked it onto the single and called it ‘Eruption.’ Eddie ran his guitar through one of his own amp recreations to give the recording a “growling” sound.
Hotel California – Eagles
Written as a commentary on the vast availability of countless vices in the music industry, the Eagles’ funk-tinged ‘Hotel California’ is one of their most enduring hits. For the moody solo and light fill work throughout the single, Eagles’ founding member Joe Walsh used his go-to ’70s-style Fender Telecaster, a popular guitar model among rockers of the day.
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Minor Swing – Django Reinhardt
Written in the A minor key, Django Reinhardt’s 1937 composition ‘Minor Swing’ is a common historical piece many musicians study when they are taking an introductory course on the gypsy-jazz subgenre. The rhythm guitar player holds a classic A minor chord progression as one or more lead players trade solos over the chords. Aside from honing one’s jazz chops, this is a popular piece for gypsy-jazz jam sessions.
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Purple Rain – Prince and The Revolution
With lyrics focusing on the complicated relationships of those closest to him, one of Prince’s most impassioned tunes is his popular single ‘Purple Rain.’ Classic instruments like piano and strings are used to give the song a slight gospel effect. Once the lyrics reach their climax, Prince’s soulful guitar solo pans throughout the speakers. Ushering in the song’s ending is one last piano solo accompanied by a strings section.
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Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
An impromptu jam session between lead guitarist Slash and drummer Steven Adler produced Guns N’ Roses’ most popular track, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ The single’s joyful, bouncing opening resulted from Slash messing with Adler by playing a circus-like scale on the guitar. Before long, at the band’s request, Slash’s comedic guitar work transformed into the single’s spirited opening riff because they loved the notes so much.
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Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Guitarist Brian May was responsible for several of Queen’s legendary riffs utilizing multiple instruments. For hits like ‘We Will Rock You,’ May’s infectious percussive rhythm takes over the listener. For ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ he delivered an anthemic solo fitting for rock-opera history. While May’s solo is easy to rock out to, Freddie Mercury’s gripping piano work stays with the listener long after the song is over.
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Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
Rock and roll is synonymous with Chuck Berry due to his pioneering fretboard skills, high-powered song choices, and infamous on-stage duck walk. For ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ Berry tells his life story in song form while executing effortless blues-rock guitar riffs that gave him his signature early rock sound.
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Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler
“You get a shiver in the dark.” Moody roots-rock meets blues-swing like never before with Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sultans of Swing.’ Performed by his band Dire Straits, Knopfler wrote the grooving track in ’78 while waiting out a thunderstorm in an empty bar. Knopfler uses the D minor key and flat notes to give the song its eerie yet hopeful quality.
Beat It – Michael Jackson
At the request of his producer, pop icon Michael Jackson penned ‘Beat It’ to construct a mainstream hit in mind. The song chronicles two rival gangs, but Jackson had never experienced life on the streets. So instead of taking a literal approach, he channeled the popular musical play Westside Story. Producer Quincy Jones borrowed Eddie Van Halen for a day and recorded his guitar work for ‘Beat It,’ which beefed up the artistic approach to match the song’s story.
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Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, two original Lynyrd Skynyrd members who would go on to form a new duo after the band’s tragic plane crash, supplied the enduring guitar solo heard on ‘Free Bird.’ One of rock music’s most iconic songs, the key of G allowed Collins and Rossington maximum freedom on the guitar neck, utilizing bends, blues notes, and a change in tempo to give the track its mournful but dominating feel.
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Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
After Ozzy Osbourne’s devilish introductory laugh, bassy drums and driving single-strummed rhythm guitar make way for a memorable rhythmic electric guitar riff played by Randy Rhoads. While the band relied on distortion and compression effects in the studio for their classic hard rock sound, Rhoads played both major scales and minor scales interchangeably for an amped-up listener experience.
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Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
Tackling the philosophical dilemma of separating one’s mind from reality, Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ has a dreamlike quality to its production. To achieve this with his guitar solos, bandmate David Gilmore fashioned together pieces of quite a few different solos from other songs and rounded them out with a distortion pedal and delay effects while recording in the studio.
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Paranoid Android – Radiohead
Running at almost 6:30 minutes long, Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ was written after frontman Thom Yorke got cornered in an L.A. bar and felt he couldn’t get away from the crowd of onlookers. With an underlying theme focusing on his worry about the vast expansion of technology, the song’s guitar solo toward the end, played by Johnny Greenwood, gives the tune a discombobulated feeling because some phrases are played forwards, and some are played backward.
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Like a Hurricane – Neil Young
Written while yearning for a woman he couldn’t have, though folk songwriter Neil Young is known for his lyrical prowess, ‘Like a Hurricane’ features guitar work that music critics have long hailed as one of rock’s most eclectic recordings. Young’s pent-up emotions are delivered lyrically and instrumentally, with heavy feedback and extra effects driving an almost eight-minute guitar solo.
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Crossroads – Cream
Eric Clapton has covered many blues classics over his tenure, and one of his most popular is his recording of ‘Crossroads’ while fronting the band Cream. Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson wrote the track way back in the 1930s. One of his most enduring efforts, Clapton took Johnson’s grainy, haunting song and turned it into a modern, clean blues standard.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
Blues guitarist Eric Clapton sat with The Beatles for their eastern philosophy-inspired song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ Clapton laid down guitar work, while Beatle bandmate George Harrison’s lyrics focus on the elusive element of universal love he wished society would seek out more.
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Europa – Santana
Chart-topping Santana singles often find the guitar virtuoso playing lead and filling in between vocal lines with duet songs like ‘Smooth’ with Rob Thomas. However, Carlos is at the top of his game with instrumentals like ‘Europa,’ recorded after Earth, Wind, and Fire members heard it and recommended he record it. The Mexico-born musician adds a touch of jazz to the song’s stylings while his notes tell the story of a struggling friend trying to free herself from drug use.
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
Inspired by the magical realist book The Master and Margarita, written by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, the song details the duality of man’s dark and light sides. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards added to this theme with his ferocious guitar chops, played wildly to signify the back and forth between devil and angel.
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One – Metallica
Hard rock band Metallica is known for their head-banging guitar solos, and ‘One’ contains a couple of different signature Metallica guitar stylings. The song is about a soldier severely injured in battle. With this serious lyrical content in mind, they delivered powerful guitar solos. Guitarist Kirk Hammett completes a “tapping” solo (this technique was made popular by Eddie Van Halen), then dueling solos take place between Hammett and guitarist James Hetfield.
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Highway Star – Deep Purple
Guitarist Richie Blackmore borrowed heavily from the classical stylings of Bach for Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ despite the song’s heavy, modern rock sound. Blackmore meticulously worked over his solo note by note during the recording process, making sure to draw from baroque elements just enough to drive home the song’s energetic, open-road feel. Lasting just under 1:30 minutes, Guitar World rated his solo one of the best of all time.
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Kid Charlemagne – Steely Dan
Larry Carlton takes several guitar solos in Steely Dans’ ‘Kid Charlemagne,’ a wild ride of a song about a chemist who produces commercial-grade drugs for the masses. Carlton is a well-known blues player, but he shows off his jazz chops for this song. While most of his solos feature some over-dubbing and splicing together of different takes, his last featured solo on the tune is pure improv.
Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Set to the structure of a blues standard, Stevie Ray Vaughan compares his troubled romantic relationship to a ‘Texas Flood’ with this blues rocker. Vaughan’s soulful, genre-fused playing caused critics to draw comparisons between him and Jimi Hendrix. Much like Hendrix, Vaughan’s ability to blend rock, blues, and red-dirt Texas elements put him in a class all his own. He covered two Hendrix tunes before his passing, ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return).’
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Still Got the Blues – Gary Moore
For years, Northern Ireland musician Gary Moore played in hard rock bands. When he returned to the blues genre he loved so much with his album Still Got the Blues, he cracked open a dusty guitar case and pulled out his old, beloved 1959 Les Paul. The guitar’s tone proved to be perfect for the album and its title track. During his first day recording, he tracked ‘Still Got the Blues’ in a single take.
Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix
“Well, I stand up next to a mountain. I chop it down with the edge of my hand.” Though Jimi Hendrix was notoriously shy, his music was filled with classic rock components like swagger-filled solos and braggadocious lyrics. One of the guitarist’s most high-octane songs, ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return),’ pair soaring blues riffs with Hendrix’s wild playing style behind a thin wall of distortion. All of these elements give this Hendrix staple a larger-than-life feel.
Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band
Released after The Allman Brothers’ big hit ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ instrumental piece ‘Jessica’ didn’t chart nearly as high. Despite this, fans, critics, and rock enthusiasts all deemed the song a significant contribution to the ’70s musical era. Guitarist Dickey Betts wrote it for his daughter, and he tried to capture her jovial spirit by channeling gypsy jazz impresario Django Reinhardt. The guitar work is meant to be played with just two fingers on the player’s fretting hand.