The Top Ten Heavy Guitar Solos, 20th Century
In the newsagent, I stood there shaking my head. Some rock magazine had done a story on the top one hundred guitar solos of all time, but it was the same old stuff. I’d gone straight to the top ten and there they were – ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘Comfortably Numb,’ ‘Hotel California,’ and so on. Great solos, sure, but what a boring, predictable selection!
So I’ve decided to list my own top ten solos. I’ll do it in two lots: first, with heavy rock, then next time with more mainstream rock. I’ll also stick to the 20th century for now.
Before I start, a couple of points. First, this isn’t really the top ten solos, of course. There are too many bands and songs I haven’t heard for me to make that list. Second, I’ve ignored the total shredders from prog, death, and guitar instrumental albums. That includes you, Malmsteen! This list is more about some of my favourite solos within a song. In no particular order, here they are.
Over the Mountain – Randy Rhoads
When this came out on the second Ozzy Osbourne album, it was a mind-blower. It combined the heaviness of Sabbath with the precision of Schenker or Van Halen. I have the tabs for this one.
Lonely is the Word – Tony Iommi
The Black Sabbath maestro is all about feel, never more so than in this song off the Heaven and Hell album.
Valley of Kings – John Sykes
After leaving Whitesnake, John Sykes put out an album called Blue Murder which never got the success it deserved. No one can beat Sykes for tone and vibrato.
Hot for Teacher – Eddie Van Halen
This is far from my favourite Van Halen song – I prefer anything off the Fair Warning album – but it’s got a typical off-the-wall solo that no one does better. There will never be another band like Van Halen.
Ladies Nite in Buffalo – Steve Vai
When he went solo, David Lee Roth recruited Vai to replace Eddie – and Vai did not disappoint, especially on this great song.
Dead Skin Mask – Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King
Some say that the Slayer guitarists play out of key, over-relying on speed, atonal runs, and the whammy bar. That’s not right, and to the small degree that it is right, it totally misses the point. Slayer is beyond music and its normal rules. The sickness of this guitar solo perfectly reflects the song’s mood and subject matter, the twisted mind of serial killer Ed Gein.
Holy Wars – Marty Friedman
Marty’s two short solos on this Megadeth song are pure class. A perfect combination of technique and feel. Check out Marty’s recent interview on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel.
And here is Holy Wars.
Death Certificate – Bill Steer, Mike Amott
The Heartwork album, by Carcass is full of melodic death metal, although the underground purists will say the use of melody meant the band ‘sold out.’ All things are relative, I suppose! ‘Death Certificate’ is a great song to end the album.
Baptism of Fire – Glenn Tipton
There’s no shortage of good Judas Priest solos – think ‘Bloodstone’ or ‘Painkiller,’ for example – but this piece off Glenn’s solo album shows off all his skills. I’ll make an exception to the ‘no instrumentals’ rule for this track.
Omega – Adrian Smith
Smith does a Dave Gilmour impression – and outdoes him – on this Bruce Dickinson song from 1997. Beautiful tone and phrasing.
Well, that’s my top ten for now. It’s just off the top of my head, and when I’ve got a spare couple of months, I’ll sit down and do it properly. In the meantime, if you disagree with my list, by all means send me your own choices. I’m always looking for new stuff to learn or teach my students.
Duncan Smith teaches guitar and bass in Sydney.
Update in 2023 – Have I heard any great new solos lately? Well, maybe not new, but here are a few more classics: ‘Peg’ by Steely Dan, ‘Point in the Distance’ by Skyhooks, ‘Painkiller’ by Judas Priest, and anything by Jeff Beck. As for new releases, I’ve been listening to the new Arch Enemy album, and a Japanese band called Lovebites play power / speed metal.