In the 70’s – the Vinyl Era – we put the needle back and tried again. In the 80’s – the Cassette Era – we hit rewind and tried again. Later on it was the Compact Disc and now it’s an mp3 file.
No matter the era, guitarists have always learned other players’ solos, whether by ear using the methods above, from transcriptions in magazines and books, or from TAB or videos on the Internet.
It’s a time-honored tradition, and not only for guitarists; sax, trumpet, bass and piano players, as well as drummers, do it too.
You can learn a ton from mimicking the phrasing and note choices of your fave players. As a bonus, analyzing how and why they played their particular lines will do wonders for building your knowledge base and your vocabulary of licks and phrases.
In short, this is the fast track to soloing like a champ.
In my guitar studio, there are certain solos that are “go-to” material. I’ll list 10 of them below and share some thoughts on these classics. Let’s rawk!
The “Must Know” Guitar Solos
1 – “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry (on The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry)
Chuck’s intro solo is the sound of early rock and roll, and bits and pieces of it – heck, sometimes whole phrases – can be heard in tracks by Van Halen, AC/DC, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Bob Seger and Georgia Satellites, among others.
Knowing this uptempo, 12-bar blues intro means knowing your rock and roll history, as it’s chock full of all the double-stops and bluesy bends that we associate with the sound that started it all.
Although “Johnny B. Goode” was originally played in Bb, the intro is moveable, so you can play it in any key. It also gives you plenty of room for improvisation, as you will notice if you check out Chuck’s reworking of it on some of his other tunes, such as “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Carol”, and “Born in the USA”.
For my money, one of the best versions of this intro is not even played by Chuck, but rather can be found on The Beach Boys’ classic, “Fun, Fun, Fun” – the playing is super-clean and features some perfect double-stop sequences. (Rumor has it that the great Glen Campbell of The Wrecking Crew played the intro.)
2 – “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris (single)
This summer classic is best known for its tribal-style drum solos, but the guitar part is almost as famous and just as much fun to play!
Featuring an uninterrupted stream of 8th-notes over a 12-bar blues form, the melody is close to 100 notes without a rest. So although the bluesy phrases themselves are not particularly difficult – save for one tricky position shift – it takes some mental and physical stamina to complete the 12 bars.
“Wipe Out” is also quite the alternate picking exercise.
3 – “You Shook Me All Night Long” by Angus Young (on Back in Black by AC/DC)
I love to teach this Angus solo for a number of reasons. First, it just sounds flippin’ awesome – perfectly-placed phrase after perfectly-placed phrase, delivered with stellar tone and maximum attitude.
Second, it takes you through a few of the most important spots on the neck and gives you a nice pentatonic/blues workout. You hit your primary pentatonic box, travel through your “Albert King” and “BB King” blues boxes, and finish in the primary box an octave higher.
Third, did I mention it sounded flippin’ awesome?
4 – “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” by David Gilmour (on The Wall by Pink Floyd)
David Gilmour’s out-of-phase Strat solo is so melodic that you can sing it. It is mostly pentatonic/blues in nature, but features the added 2nd note of the scale for extra flavor. It also features the über-cool signature move of double bending the same note – first up a step, then up another step.
As if tempting fate and the strength of his guitar strings, our boy Dave does it again, but this time takes it up 2-1/2 steps!
[Note: You can also do a JB-style variation on this move, with a bend-slide-bend, in order to preserve your strings from breakage, and it’s virtually indistinguishable from Gilmour’s move. A future lesson perhaps…?]
5 – “Eruption” by Eddie Van Halen (on Van Halen by Van Halen)
Eddie’s lead playing is so unique and often random in its phrasing that it is very difficult to mimic, even for veteran guitarists like me. But that’s part of what makes Van Halen’s playing interesting: he sounds only like himself. Unfortunately, that’s the very thing that makes his phrases tricky to play.
Fortunately, the tapping section of “Eruption” is well within our reach with just a little practice, and there is no better introduction to right hand tapping than learning this VH masterpiece.
It’s based on a standard triplet arpeggio, using 2 left hand fingers plus 1 right hand finger, and has some patterns to follow within some clearly delineated sections. It also teaches you two key movements: a static left hand while moving the right, and – more challenging but arguably more important – a static right hand while moving the left. Fun stuff!
6 – “Hotel California” by Don Felder and Joe Walsh (on Hotel California by The Eagles)
This all-time classic can truly be categorized under the heading of “epic”.
For the intermediate-to-advanced player, “Hotel” has a bit of everything: wide bends (the opening lick is 1-1/2 steps wide), country-style oblique bends, rapid-fire blues lines, Chuck Berry-style double-stops, long pentatonic scale sequences, and an outro full of major, minor and dominant 7th arpeggios. I’m exhausted just writing all of it!
But the sense of accomplishment after learning this bad boy is unbelievable. Break it into short phrases and get started – stat.
7 – “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix (on Axis: Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix)
“Little Wing” is pretty much the defining moment of R&B-style guitar for rockers. Add in a dose of “Wind Cries Mary” and you really don’t need anything else.
Although this kind of playing – clean arpeggios laced with double-stop embellishments, slides and hammer-ons – was common among guitarists in the Muscle Shoals and Memphis traditions of blues and R&B (see Cornell Dupree for one of the acknowledged masters of this style), rock and pop musicians can thank Jimi for introducing it to them and putting his unique stamp on it.
Deceptively tricky to play well, but absolutely required. Like “Johnny B. Goode”, this intro is a rock history lesson, and the fact that there are so many covers of “Little Wing” just confirms its importance in the lexicon of rock guitar.
8 – “Stairway to Heaven” by Jimmy Page (on IV by Led Zeppelin)
“Stairway” is not just one of the most legendary songs in rock history; Jimmy Page turned it into a full-on minor pentatonic tour de force.
Save for a few strategically placed F notes to match the chord changes, this solo takes A minor pentatonic through all the important spots on the neck, in great detail and at a pretty good clip. Add in the lightning-quick bends and triplet pull-offs in the solo’s climactic final third and you’ve got one of the most important solos in the history of recorded music. Word.
9 – “Lights” by Neal Schon (on Infinity by Journey)
This entire track could be considered one long guitar break – there is an intro solo, single-note lines complementing the lead vocal throughout, and an absolutely ripping lead. One needs to go no further than the intro to hear the strong Hendrix/”Little Wing” influence here. And of course Neal plays with his typical fire, incredible feel and perfect note choices. Highly recommended and very satisfying.
10 – “Santeria” by Bradley Nowell (on Sublime by Sublime)
This song doesn’t exactly have the “classic” status that the other songs on this list have, but it is always one of the most popular requests in my studio, and for good reason: it’s a fun, melodic solo played with great skill. Major and minor pentatonic lines, wicked hammer-on triplets, and the vibey, double-stop bend plus minor arpeggio at the end (so nice he played it twice) are the highlights.
This is not a definitive list, but it’s tried-and-true material with loads of benefits. Your list might be a little different.
And, of course, my “go to” solos happen to fall into the rock, pop and blues categories because that’s what most of my students are interested in. Wicked solos certainly abound in jazz, country, metal and funk, as well.
But the idea remains the same: find some great solos and learn them inside and out. Feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with playing, note-for-note, alongside your own musical heroes. You’ll be amazed at the difference in your chops and your confidence level.
More great guitar solos that I love and recommend are listed below. And for most of these players, you could pick ANY solo and it would be an incredible learning experience; these are just a few that come to mind.
“Something” by George Harrison (The Beatles)
“Sultans of Swing” by Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits)
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Ed King (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
“I Know a Little” by Steve Gaines (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
“Comfortably Numb” by David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
“Crazy Train” by Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne)
“Promises in the Dark” by Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar)
“Middle of the Road” by Robbie McIntosh (The Pretenders)
“Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Stormy Monday Blues” by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band)
“Jessica” by Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers Band)
“China Grove” by Tom Johnston (Doobie Brothers)
“Reeling in the Years” by Elliott Randall (Steely Dan)
“Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” by Larry Carlton (Steely Dan)
“Rosanna” by Steve Lukather (Toto)
“Breakdown Dead Ahead” by Steve Lukather (Boz Scaggs)
“Two Tickets to Paradise” by Jimmy Lyon (Eddie Money)
“Black Magic Woman” by Carlos Santana (Santana)
“Crossroads” and “Sunshine of Your Love” by Eric Clapton (Cream)
“Limelight” by Alex Lifeson (Rush)
Question: Have you learned one of these bad boys? Got one to add to the list? Leave a comment below!