If you grew up loving rock and roll as I did, then you grew up loving guitar solos.
In fact, I consider myself really fortunate to have grown up in the sixties and seventies, which was a time when the guitar solo absolutely ruled music. So when it comes to narrowing things down to who were the obvious candidates for the best of the era, there are no shortage of choices.
Just go ahead and pick em’.
You’ve got your Jimmy Pages, your Eric Claptons, your Alvin Lees, and your Eddie Van Halens. And of course, looming large above this entire group, you’ve got the two ton gorilla that is Jimi Hendrix.
So yeah, I grew up loving all of these guys. But there is only a select few whose music spoke directly to my heart and to my soul. And I’m not even going to get into the bass players here. At some point in the future though, I promise you that we will go there — and get into just why guys like Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and Uriah Heep’s Gary Thain played such a crucial role in the sound of this particular era.
But for now, we are going to narrow our focus to guitar players — and more specifically to the greatest guitar solos of the rock era. The candidates here are as numerous as they are obvious — from Page, to Clapton, to Hendrix. But my criteria in picking my personal favorites is just a little bit different.
Rather than going for the most obviously groundbreaking solos — from Clapton’s use of the wah-wah on Cream’s “White Room,” to Mike Bloomfield’s ingenious raga styled take on the blues in Paul Butterfield’s “East West,” — I’m going to narrow in on the guitar solos which spoke most directly to me when I first heard them. And just why they did.
So in descending order, let’s start with the guitar mechanic.
5. Jeff Beck: “Beck’s Bolero”
When I first heard Beck’s solo on the Yardbirds “Shapes Of Things,” I was immediately taken aback by the violin-like sounds he got of his axe. But what he does on the classical-influenced “Beck’s Bolero” is something else entirely. Going from hard rock, to classical, to Hawaiian styles over the course of this song’s four or so minutes, the performance here really doesn’t do the song the justice it deserves. Beck makes the guitar sing like a bird on this one.
4. Carlos Santana and Neal Schon: “Jungle Strut”
The key element in pretty much any Carlos Santana guitar solo is fluidity. There is plenty of that here, as well as the other things which make Santana’s playing so distinctive — there are elements of everything from Spanish sounding flamenco to Wes Montgomery-inspired jazz here. In this song from Santana’s third album though, what really sticks out is the interplay between Santana’s ultra-clean delivery, and then 16-year-old prodigy Neal Schon’s much edgier style.
3. Jimi Hendrix: “Machine Gun”
The first Hendrix solo I heard that really knocked me on my ass was “Voodoo Child.” But with “Machine Gun,” — originally recorded for the Band of Gypsies album with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox — Hendrix took things to an entirely different plane. Hendrix’s guitar work here is simply amazing — emulating the sound of machine gun fire at times during this politically charged song protesting America’s involvement at the time in Vietnam. The version here comes from one of Hendrix’s final performances at the Isle of Wight festival in England in 1970.
2. Neil Young: “Like A Hurricane”
The thing about Neil Young is that while nobody could ever accuse him of being the cleanest sounding guitar player, there is just something downright transcendent about the noise he makes when he cranks “Old Black” up to eleven and lets things shred. There are numerous candidates for great Neil Young guitar solos — from “Cowgirl In The Sand,” to “Cortez the Killer” — but “Like A Hurricane,” in all of its fuzzed out glory, remains his defining moment.
1. Steve Hackett (Genesis): “Firth Of Fifth”
Hackett’s use of sustain is, in my opinion, simply unequaled in all of music. Genesis were — and are — all incredible musicians. But Hackett’s solo here is an absolute standout. There is not a hint of excess in this performance, where Hackett instead uses tonal color to add just the right amount of dramatic shade in what is, for my money, his signature guitar solo. Since leaving Genesis some years ago, Hackett has made something of a career of similarly understated yet breathtaking performances on solo albums like Spectral Mornings.