I’m a child of pop music.
As much as I love to rock, you can’t escape what you grew up listening to first. For me, that was mom’s favorite pop station on the car radio, as well as my best friend’s mom’s collection of Beatles 45’s.
From there I graduated to arena and album rock like Led Zep, AC/DC, Foreigner, Styx, Kiss and many more, but I always kept the love for that sweet melodic pop.
Even today, I’m more likely to listen to the pop stations on the radio than anything else. I’m also quite the connoisseur of the “one hit wonder”. And one of the things that continues to thrill me is finding a gem of a rock guitar solo in an unexpected pop tune.
So I set out to make my fun diversion into the journalistic masterpiece you have before you!
There are so many songs that could have made this list, so I had to create some criteria for inclusion and elimination. Right away, I knew I would have to eliminate the following:
1 – Bands with a legit lead guitarist who commonly played solos, ex. Journey, Poison, Boston, Pat Benatar, The Cars, Doobie Brothers, Bon Jovi, etc.
Unfortunately this leaves out some killer stuff, including personal faves like Trevor Rabin’s harmonized lead break in Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, Steve Lukather’s five-bar gem and blazing outro in “Rosanna” by Toto, and Kenny Withrow’s auto-wah clinic in “What I Am” by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Bummer.
2 – Steely Dan, since they regularly used “hired gun” guitarists who delivered absolutely epic solos, ex. Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Jay Graydon, Hugh McCracken, Denny Dias. Read more in the Hall of Fame section below.
3 – Songs featuring the aforementioned Steve Lukather, since he was the go-to rock studio guy for pop songs in the late-70’s and 80’s. Again, read more in the Hall of Fame section or follow the link to his Unsung Guitar Hero article.
For inclusion, I looked for songs by artists who are more known for being a singer and/or songwriter; who are famous for standard pop songs; or who regularly employ backup dancers. 🙂 This usually means that a rockin’ guitar solo is more the exception than the rule.
I also managed to uncover some neat connections between certain songs, so some spots in the list may actually be occupied by more than one song. (It’s my list so I can fudge the rules if I want, right?) Of course, there are plenty more examples than these sixteen, so give me more ideas in the comments!
1 – “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
This is probably the iconic example of a rock guitar solo in a pop song. “Beat It” absolutely floored people when it was released, as it seemed completely out of character for Michael Jackson.
It was a sensation for three main reasons: the driving rhythm riff (provided by session ace Steve Lukather), the group dance number in the West Side Story-inspired music video, and the hyperkinetic, finger-tapped solo courtesy of Eddie Van Halen (who apparently did this solo as a favor to MJ). Given all of Eddie’s incredible work with his own band, he is arguably just as famous for this cameo.
2 – “Two Tickets to Paradise” by Eddie Money
Eddie Money delivered some great pop tunes in the 80’s, but none better than this one. And the solo guitar work by Jimmy Lyon is absolutely tremendous. Lyon also played on another one of Money’s hits, “Walk on Water”, and later served as touring guitarist for Greg Kihn and Tina Turner.
3 – “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins (from the film Top Gun)
This is one high-energy, rockin’ track, courtesy of Dann Huff, formerly of the band Giant. Another first-call guitarist in the LA session scene, Dann played for artists such as Whitney Houston, Whitesnake, Chicago, and Paula Abdul.
He then went on to Nashville to produce and play on recordings by some of country music’s biggest stars, including Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Rascal Flatts.
4 – “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and “Faith” by George Michael
These two songs, as different as night and day, have one thing in common: the same guitarist. The raging rock solo in “Baker Street” and the rockabilly lines in “Faith” are both played by Hugh Burns. As an added bonus, Hugh also contributed the sweet nylon-string solo in Wham’s “Careless Whisper”. As a double added bonus, “Faith” is a perfect example of the Bo Diddley beat.
5 – “I Want a New Drug” and “Power of Love” (from the film Back to the Future) by Huey Lewis and The News
To the general public, The News was sort of a faceless backup band for vocalist Huey Lewis, but they were actually a polished rock and soul act. Original guitarist Chris Hayes played some fierce blues-rock guitar – think Albert King and SRV – and he delivered in spades on these monster pop tracks.
6 – “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
Neil Giraldo – guitarist and husband to Pat Benatar – is famous for playing top shelf solos on Benatar hits like “Hell is for Children”, “Promises in the Dark”, “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. But most people don’t know that he was also responsible for the guitar work on one of the iconic pop songs of the 80’s.
7 – “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie
None other than the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar on these tracks. His solos here served as anticipation for the avalanche of incredible blues recordings that were to come, as his fat signature Strat tone was already in full effect. “Let’s Dance” was the title hit, but for my money, “China Girl” is where he really shines.
8 – “Maniac” by Michael Sembello (from the film Flashdance)
Before he became a solo artist, Michael Sembello was the guitarist for r&b legend, Stevie Wonder. The Flashdance soundtrack brought him to prominence and he delivered with a huge hit and a sweet, finger-tapped solo in the Van Halen style.
9 – “Easy Lover” by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey
Longtime Genesis guitarist, Daryl Stuermer, plays a rippin’ solo on this danceable, pop track. Daryl is a great example of a guy who has flown under the radar for a long time, but is a tremendous player. He played with Genesis for a long time as a sideman and unofficial band member, only to follow Phil Collins when he made the leap as a solo artist. You can hear his guitar work all over Phil’s solo albums, including the terrific lead break on “Don’t Lose My Number”.
10 – “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer
Robert Palmer’s comeback hit was accompanied by an iconic video that featured a “band” of identical leggy supermodels. But the song was fueled by the grinding power chords and squealing guitar solo by session guitarist Eddie Martinez.
Martinez also provided guitar tracks for artists such as Billy Ocean, Mick Jagger, Steve Winwood and David Lee Roth, as well as the “rock” sound behind the rap-meets-rock of Run-D.M.C. (“King of Rock”).
11 – “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer
An original member of both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter periodically brought his guitar skills to bear for other artists. This disco classic gets a major lift from Skunk’s blazing, single-coil solo. Baxter is also famous for his angular, staccato lead lines on the Dan’s “My Old School”.
12 – “Black Cat” by Janet Jackson
Following in the footsteps of her big brother, Janet got herself a rockin’ track courtesy of Dave Barry. The rhythm parts are the epitome of groovy rock and the solo is a chops-fest filled with big bends and jazzy chromatic ideas.
13 – “Say You’ll Be Mine” by Christopher Cross
Christopher Cross has long been viewed as a “lite rock” kind of dude. He’s got a strange, high-pitched voice and wrote sweet, super-catchy tunes. But the other thing he had were some blazing guitar solos by some top session players.
This tune features a phenomenal solo by Jay Graydon. Jay was one of the top LA session guitarists of the 70s and early 80s, and his chops are on full display here. As an added bonus, Jay is even more famous for providing one of the great solos in the Steely Dan catalog: “Peg”. Give another listen to these tracks and be amazed!
14 – “Middle of the Road” by The Pretenders
After the death of original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, the band recruited Robbie McIntosh and he made his mark immediately with the extended solo on “Middle of the Road”. Full of rapid-fire bends and pull-offs, double-stops sequences and big, bluesy pentatonic moves, this lead break is absolutely in the “advanced” category.
Prince has always laid down some great rhythm guitar in his songs, and he’s always surrounded himself with fine guitarists, such as Wendy Melvoin, from the Revolution days. But these two outro solos are evidence that Prince is not only a terrific funk rhythm guitarist, but a pretty nasty rock lead guitarist as well! He’s got Hendrix-style chops galore, but his solos are dripping with soul.
(Unfortunately, the audio track to “Let’s Go Crazy” can’t be posted on YouTube due to copyright issues. Go find it on iTunes and let it take you back to 1984.)
16 – “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind and Fire
Al McKay is famous in the funk world for laying down the rhythm parts on a number of hits for the legendary band he co-founded, Earth, Wind and Fire. But if you think Al can’t solo, think again. The lead break on “Shining Star” is a pentatonic shredding clinic!
The Hall of Fame
1 – Steve Lukather
As one of the go-to rock guys in the LA session scene of the late-70s and 80s, Luke played on more than enough pop songs to fill up this list a few times over.
Some of the highlights include “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, “Somewhere Out There” (from An American Tail) by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, “Talk to Ya Later” by The Tubes, “Breakdown Dead Ahead” by Boz Scaggs, “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley, “All Right” by Christopher Cross, and “Running With the Night” by Lionel Richie.
2 – Steely Dan
The Dan has employed a number of world-class axemen over the years, and indeed many of their hit songs have been elevated by top shelf guitar solos. To name but a few:
Elliott Randall on “Reeling in the Years” and “Green Earrings” (second solo)
Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive”
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on “My Old School” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”
Hugh McCracken on “Hey Nineteen”
Walter Becker (co-founder of Steely Dan) on “Josie”, “Bad Sneakers”, “Black Friday” and “Pretzel Logic”
Denny Dias on “Green Earrings” (first solo), “Aja”, “Bodhisattva” and “Do It Again”
Jay Graydon on “Peg”
QUESTION: Got a great rock solo/pop song that you’d like to add? Leave me a comment below!