What’s your favorite guitar solo?

Photo: Total Guitar Magazine/Contributor/Getty Images. Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
Photo: Total Guitar Magazine/Contributor/Getty Images. Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

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We asked this question years ago, but it inspired enough debate, and it’s been long enough, that it seemed worth asking anew:

What is your favorite guitar solo?

Queen, like The Smiths, was one of those bands that had a standout frontman, but everyone else in the band was at least as great as he was, which is what made those outfits so far above so many others. Second only to Freddie Mercury as my favorite Queen member is guitarist Brian May. In Queen’s overplayed anthem “We Will Rock You,” the entire song for about two minutes is just Mercury’s call-to-action vocals, only backed by fierce foot stomps and hand claps. Then May coyly hits a note and just takes off with it. This solo is so strong that it’s the only instrumentation “Rock You” even needs, as May grips his guitar neck and soars to the stratosphere and back with it, fulfilling the song’s cheeky promise. When the celebratory “We Are The Champions” kicks in, it’s almost a letdown. I’ve heard this solo about a million times, and it never fails to send me.

This is a great question, and also a very hard one for me, as I am generally unable to hear guitar solos as anything but pointless technical virtuosity and the vestigial tail of cock-rock self-satisfaction. And yet I have an incredible soft spot for the closing guitar solo of Weezer’s “Only In Dreams,” from an album that does a lot of very traditional things better than it has any right to, including, in its final moments, the power-ballad guitar breakdown. Like pretty much everything else on The Blue Album, Rivers Cuomo’s closing solo isn’t technically complicated, beginning with a trickle of light picking before slowly gaining steam alongside that singular bass line. A lot of it is less solo than pushing, pulling countermelody, and, in a point that is woefully on-brand for me, my favorite part of the whole thing is actually the atomic drum fill at 6:43, after which Cuomo’s guitar finally snaps off for a few moments of rock-god shredding, right when it has fully earned it and for not a second too long.

Although I have more tolerance than most of my colleagues for guitar solos, I can’t stand guitar solos that seem like purely perfunctory add-ons, existing solely out of some compliance with rock ‘n’ roll regulation or so Axl Rose can steal off and have sex with Steven Adler’s girlfriend. The best guitar solos feel like a catharsis, and I can think of no better example than Phil Manzanera’s work on Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache.” Appearing on the band’s second (and in my opinion, best) album, For Your Pleasure, the song begins as an airy, anxious thing, with Bryan Ferry crooning a creepy love ballad to an inflatable doll over just some droning Farfisa and Brian Eno’s electronic abstractions. Then, right as Ferry’s lyrics reach their orgasmic end, Manzanera suddenly rips open an extended, bluesy, dizzyingly phase-shifted run of notes that brings the whole thing to its own shuddering climax. If you watch live footage of the group at the time—which I highly recommend!—Manzanera looks like a man who’s finally been set free to unleash all of his own pent-up frustrations. It’s the exact kind of wankery I can fully endorse.

Around the time I bought my first acoustic guitar, Eric Clapton’s MTV Unplugged session was airing on TV, a show that blew this 11-year-old’s mind so hard that he begged his parents to buy the laser disc version. While the session most famously produced “Tears In Heaven,” the track I replayed over and over was “Old Love,” which originally came out three years earlier on Clapton’s underrated Journeyman album. The Unplugged rendition of “Old Love” was a moodier affair—until Clapton’s solo on his acoustic guitar, the aural equivalent of setting off pyrotechnics in the foggy night. For a minute and 27 seconds, Clapton doused the blues with kerosene and lit up the sky.

I know virtually nothing about music, so I probably can’t be trusted to tell a good guitar solo from somebody just hitting two loaves of bread together, but I definitely do have a favorite. It comes about halfway through Brand New’s “1996,” a demo song that leaked 10 years ago and finally got a proper release in 2015 on the appropriately titled Leaked Demos 2006. The song itself is mostly a gloomy piece on the death of a loved one, but when guitarist Vinnie Accardi’s solo kicks in, it transcends the gloom and explodes into something that deserves to be heard at a sold-out stadium show instead of on a low-quality MP3 downloaded from some message board. It also brilliantly builds up the song’s energy, making the eventual return of Jesse Lacey’s vocals (and gloomy, self-deprecating lyrics) all the more dramatic. Again, I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’m pretty sure this is awesome.

The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has earned every snide remark ever made about it, and that goes double for the annual album-oriented-rock-dinosaur circle jerk Jann Wenner and friends throw every spring in New York. But there was a stretch during the early 2000s when the Rock Hall’s induction ceremonies were genuinely great television. (Do I say this because it was also the time when a lot of my favorite artists were being honored during the ceremony? We’ll never know.) The 2002 ceremony is the closest thing I’m ever going to get to a Talking Heads reunion tour; in 2003, Elvis Costello and Bruce Thomas actually managed to share the same stage without any petty sniping, though Thomas didn’t join the rest of The Attractions for their celebratory set. And a year after that, Prince tore his way through “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” completely reshaping my perception of The Purple One in the process. I’d come to know his slinky sex-god side through singles like “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Kiss,” but until that broadcast, he’d never struck me as a guitar hero. (Apparently I wasn’t paying close attention to the intro from “When Doves Cry.”) That all changed in a handful of hammer-ons, the prelude to a ripping coda that seems to take the song’s title as a challenge. (“You think those are the blues? Listen to this.”) In addition to capturing that all-important instrumental catharsis, Prince’s take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” breathes new life into a song that’s been trampled by a million Guitar Center show-offs, in the same fiery, soulful way his ’80s recordings shoved arena-rock showmanship into the future. And when he’s done, he seemingly makes his Telecaster disappear into thin air. It’s just as well: That guitar’s finished—nobody’s ever going to make it weep like that again.

I don’t have a strong opinion on guitar solos, but that has far more to do with my general lack of technical knowledge about music craft than any sort of informed membership in the non-alignment movement for shredding ax. But even I can be roused from my ignorance by a really great solo, like the one in Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” Like most songs off of Eno’s early solo albums, the lyrics are deliberately ambiguous, a disjointed story of disaster told by a bored, condescending narrator. That contrast between indifference and violence is highlighted with lines like “Photographers snip snap / Take your time she’s only burning.” The lyrics are delivered with such a snotty remove that it’s all the more jarring when the song is bisected by a passionate guitar solo delivered by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. His solo takes off immediately, with little buildup. It’s impassioned and intense, with a screeching urgency that stands in stark contrast to Eno’s lethargic tattling. On an exceptional album, Fripp’s solo helps this track stand out as one of the best.

Fuck virtuosity, class, and good taste. Guitar solos exist for one reason: to get the listener so damn pumped they can kick a hole in a heavy wooden door. By that criterion, few do the job better than Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” Nakedly manipulative and emotional, it never feels smart to get washed away by Brad Delp’s whispery falsetto or writer Tom Scholz’s various guitars (which come in both flavors, tinkly acoustics and over-the-top electrics). But that doesn’t matter once the second chorus gives way for the solo, with Scholz dancing up and down the scales like he’s wrestling some kind of fiery classic rock dragon. It’s pure, epic, brainless emotion, and in the moment, it’s all that I want, now or ever again. (Just keep me away from any doors.)

Hollywood has done its best to turn the song into an overplayed shell of its former self, but I’ll always love the guitar solo that runs through The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” Rather than the bland, technically impressive virtuosity that so many of my fellow Clubbers have come out for, it’s instead a transfixing, characterful performance. Keith Richards’ guitar acts as a second incarnation of the devil Mick Jagger is portraying, its curt, impish interjections cutting through with all the magnetic personality of the song’s conceited narrator. Making it even better are the incessant, lifeless “woo woos” that continue through the solo like the chanting of faceless devotees that have been hypnotized by Satan’s swagger and the song’s feverish samba beat. No amount of groan-inducing uses in montages and trailers can take away from the potency of a concoction that wicked.

Since Erik already singled out an exemplary Prince guitar solo, I’ll set aside my passion for his Super Bowl halftime show performance of “Purple Rain” (where he precedes the solo by asking, “Can I play this guitar?”) and go straight to one that has inspired countless air guitar performances in my room: the dual-guitar noise solo assault that concludes Sonic Youth’s “100%.” Growing up as a punk rock kid who believed that guitar solos belonged on the endangered species list, I instinctively shied away from the bombastic nature of, say, Slash’s ridiculous solo from “November Rain” and others of that ilk, gravitating instead toward a sound that made it seem like a rejection of every guitar solo in history. When Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore get to the coda of the lead single from their album Dirty, the bass-and-drums lead-in makes it seem like it’s time for an old-fashioned wank-a-thon. Instead, they absolutely shred the idea of what guitars should sound like in songs you hear on the radio, a roiling combination of feedback, skronks, and demented slides replacing the usual silliness. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone perform such an amazing challenge to the very idea of the traditional solo, and it’s stuck with me ever since.