Let’s face it, thousands upon thousands of great blues solos have been played on the electric guitar. So you can imagine how daunting it was for us to narrow our selection down to just 50.
For starters, we siphoned off more than a dozen artists and solos that have already been so widely celebrated that they hardly need additional mention. After all, who isn’t already hip to Clapton’s extraordinary solo on “Crossroads” or Jimi’s on “Red House”?
We also excluded a few legendary players who were renowned for their acoustic solos but did little of note once they switched to electric, such as Tampa Red, along with several well-known guitarists that played fantastic electric blues, but didn’t really take solos, like John Lee Hooker.
And early on we decided not to include seminal acoustic blues players like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie Johnson, both because their numbers are too great, and because in most cases they played unaccompanied, and therefore didn’t “solo” in the same sense as the artists on our list.
Whether you hail us as brilliant or bash us as bums, we at least hope that you’ll dig reading this as much as we did writing it.
Here’s our first installment of 10. Look for the rest to follow in weekly installments of 10. —Barry Cleveland
Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)
“Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell”
Billy G. is one of the finest blues players around, but ZZ Top’s boogie-oriented repertoire tends to overshadow a tune like this slow-burn gem from the 1972 album, Rio Grande Mud. The song isn’t in the classic 12-bar mold, but Gibbons decorates the 12/8 groove as if it were. Deploying a moderately distorted tone for the licks he plays over a clean arpeggiated rhythm figure, Gibbons shows his usual mastery of note choice and placement, building his solo to create maximum emotion during the song’s extended outro. —Art Thompson
Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys)
Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach is never flashy, but he’s naturally poignant, and the fuzz freak is largely responsible for the past decade’s dirty blues resurgence. Auerbach eschews prominent guitar breaks, and almost never strays past the pentatonic box. “I’m not much of a solo guy,” he told GP in his February 2012 feature. But I do love ‘rips.’” Auerbach really rips near the end of the single “Ohio,” which was released independently from 2010’s Brothers. The Akron native’s vibrato quivers like the shivers of a cold Midwestern winter. Auerbach eventually engages a wah, induces feedback, and then climbs up the fretboard with flurries of tremolo picking until he reaches a dramatic climax. —Jimmy Leslie
Already astounding when he made the classic Live at Liberty Lunch with Joe Ely in 1990, Grissom has refined his style through the years in stints with Storyville (featuring the SRV rhythm section) and the Dixie Chicks. It is all there in “Lonesome Dave,” from his first solo record: the Danny Gatton organ pedal point, the pedal-steel licks (Grissom taught himself to do B-Bender licks without a B-Bender), and the ZZ Top grind. Imagine Bluesbreakers Clapton and Billy Gibbons meet Brent Mason and Albert Lee and you get the idea. Throughout, Grissom’s innate taste and musicality let him be jaw dropping without being flashy. —Michael Ross
When Michael Bloomfield appeared on the scene with the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band in 1964 no one had ever heard guitar playing quite like that, nor did any previous blues album have a printed exhortation to “play this record loud.” Indeed, Bloomfield’s excitable, ahead-of-the-beat soloing had more to do with rock energy than blues mystery. It wasn’t until 1968’s Super Session, featuring Bloomfield with Al Kooper and Steven Stills, that Bloomfield settled into this pocket of more traditional blues playing, while retaining the desperate energy that set him apart from the traditionalists, and gave him his distinctive voice in the first place. —Michael Ross
Gary Clark Jr.
“When My Train Pulls In”
The second flight on the second track from buzz bluesman Gary Clark Jr.’s diverse major label debut Blak and Blu is a gnarly fuzz/wah solo that kicks off hissing. “We recorded that track first and cut it live in one take,” revealed the Epiphone Casino enthusiast in his January 2013 GP cover feature. “I had my Fender Vibro-King, and stomped on all of my pedals for that solo.” It peaks when Clark launches into a Chuck Berry-like lick at the 12th fret, and then starts incorporating the G at the 15th fret and the F# at the 14th fret on the high E string. “I’d been experimenting in that range,” revealed Clark. “I played that lick over and over to build momentum. We were eager to prove ourselves, and there was an overwhelming sense of ‘Let’s go for it!’” —Jimmy Leslie
Jimmie Vaughan (The Fabulous Thunderbirds)
The other Vaughan is as cool as the other side of the pillow, especially compared to his fire-spitting brother. They both favor Strats, but the similarities pretty much end there. Jimmie rarely plays fast or dirty, and is never flash. He mostly sticks to stabbing single notes within a traditional framework giving them plenty of space to breathe. Jimmie Vaughan reminds us that less notes can certainly mean more, and solo on the title track from the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ 1986 album Tuff Enuff is a shining example. Vaughan doesn’t usually do effects, but in this instance shimmering reverb and delay add remarkable depth to his sparse phrasing. It’s hard to find better evidence of a pure blues solo building a perfect bridge to a crossover hit. —Jimmy Leslie
Hound Dog Taylor
“Wild About You Baby”
Famously called “The Ramones of the blues” by the Village Voice, Hound Dog Taylor and his band the House Rockers played a ferociously raw kind of boogie blues. Based on the familiar “Dust My Broom” slide riff, “Wild About You Baby” (from Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers) is all about a game of call-and-response between the vocals and the guitar. When the time comes for Taylor to solo, he doesn’t stray far from the main riff, and his note choices are perfect examples of a solo taking the place of a vocal line. –Teja Gerken
Although he’s known for his monstrous chops, Greg Koch displays tasty restraint for most of this slow blues, and the results are simply delicious. Much as the native people did with the mighty buffalo, Koch uses every part of the scale on these amazing seven minutes, blending major, minor, and chromatic lines brilliantly over the changes and milking several notes out of every bend. It’s hard to pick the coolest part, but a strong contender would have to be his jarring, pre-bent, triple-stop descending groans. This solo has it all: space, dynamics, humor, sensitivity, and bombast, with damn near every lick being of the “must steal” variety. Yes sir! —Matt Blackett
“Prison of Love”
The word “uptown” is sometimes used to describe blues with more jazz-inspired harmonies—chords beyond the common I, IV, and V. Ford can take the blues farther uptown than just about anybody, as this minor-key shuffle from his 1992 record Robben Ford & the Blue Line illustrates so colorfully. He stays in familiar pentatonic territory for the first four bars, and then shades his phrases with canny chromaticism in the next four. He plays even more ear-tweaking lines in the next few measures before taking the express train back downtown for a gritty finish. —Adam Levy
Doyle Bramhall II
If ever there was a guy to get a handle on the SRV attitude and fire without copping Stevie’s licks, it’s Doyle Bramhall II. On this slow 12/8 number, Bramhall gets all kinds of righteous Strat tones, including spooky tremolo, clanging semi cleans, and a positively massive, exploding-amp lead tone. He does a killer, thematic break mid-tune but saves his best stuff for the end of the song. For the outro solo he coaxes awesome, howling feedback before leaning into his powerful bends that are jam-packed with emotion. His note choices and phrasing as fresh as always—due in part to playing lefty-strung-righty—but Bramhall’s super-deep pocket might be his greatest asset. —Matt Blackett