11. Eric Clapton “Crossroads” (1968)
This one is a giant among giants. Little did Slowhand know, after he walked off the Winterland stage in San Francisco, he had created a template setting the standard for expressive, lyrical, howling bluesrock guitar.
Armed with a ‘64 Gibson ES-335 and a couple of non-master volume 100-watt Marshall stacks, Clapton’s first break is a textbook example of how to build a solo’s intensity, while the second manages to kick it up one more notch for maximum climax.
Not a duff note in the bunch, impeccably phrased, and with a vibrato that’s as classy as they come, Clapton could have never played another note and he’d still be one of the most influential players ever.
12. Jimi Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower” (1968)
One can only guess what sort of “light bulb” moment Jimi experienced when he first heard this tune from Bob Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Maybe it was the biblical references in the lyrics, or the great melody—or perhaps just the wide-open space for improvising afforded by the four-chord progression.
Whatever it was, the version that appeared on Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland album gave rise to one of Jimi’s most memorable solo outings. Playing soulfully and inventively using a wah and fuzz, Hendrix reinvented “All Along the Watchtower” to such a degree that it’s sometimes easy to forget who actually wrote the tune!
13. Peter Green “Black Magic Woman” (1968)
B.B. King once said of Green, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” After establishing himself as a masterful blues stylist in John Mayall’s band, Green quickly evolved both as a player and a songwriter with Fleetwood Mac.
On his D minor tour-de-force “Black Magic Woman,” Green pulls off an incredibly captivating melody, and his beautiful phrasing and soulful bending on a Les Paul with “magnetically out of phase” pickups was pure gold.
Carlos Santana made the song a huge hit on Abraxas, and Green was also influential on Irish blues rocker Gary Moore, who would own—and eventually sell— Green’s famous Gibson.
14. Robert Frigg “21st Century Schizoid Man” (1969)
Fripp’s serpentine solo on this alarmingly virtuosic track combines a supersaturated sustained tone with atypical intervallic movement, non-bluesy bends and trills, and note choices and phrasing that had more in common with Coltrane than Clapton.
Playing a three-pickup ‘59 Les Paul Custom through a Marshall stack and probably either a Burns Buzzaround or a Colorsound Tone Bender, he recorded the seminal progressive rock solo.
15. Jimmy Page “Heartbreaker” (1969)
Selecting the most influential Page solo led to a heated debate. But the squawking tone of a ‘58 Les Paul into a Marshall SLP 1969 Super Lead, maniacal cluster picking, wicked hammer-ons and pull-offs, and behind-the-nut G-string bending in the first solo on “Heartbreaker”—not to mention the smoking second solo—explain why everyone from Brian May to Steve Vai to Steve Morse have hailed it as a definitive guitar solo.
16. B.B. King “The Thrill is Gone” (1969)
With a tone sweeter and thicker than molasses, B.B. King graced this song with one of his most emotive blues solos of all time. King knew what the tune called for in context of the highly produced album Completely Well (his first with strings), and it wasn’t about showboating.
Far from it, judging by the way he grooves so succulently behind the beat. Besides being a big hit for B.B., “The Thrill is Gone” showed guitarists the power of playing slow and cool. In an era when Johnny Winter was introducing bluesrock shredding, B.B. King’s huge vibrato and deep soul defined what “playing from the heart” was all about.
17. Leslie West “Mississippi Queen” (1970)
Leslie West’s massive and massively influential tone on Climbing!—which included “Mississippi Queen”—was created by playing through a Sunn Coliseum P.A. head and four 4x12 speaker cabinets.
“The head had four microphone inputs and a master volume control, huge transformers and gigantic KT88 tubes, and the cabinets were loaded with Eminence speakers, which never hurt your ears, even with the treble all the way up,” West told GP in 2010.
He was playing Gibson Les Paul Juniors at the time, and used a single-cutaway 1956 Jr. with a single P-90, strung with La Bella Electric Guitar strings (with a .010 banjo string for the high E and the other strings moved down one to create a light-gauge set) on the track. The song reached #21 on the Billboard charts, assuring that West’s signature sound was heard across the country and around the world.
18. Duane Allman “Statesboro Blues” (1971)
By 1970 Duane Allman and Dickey Betts had forged one of the most iconic guitar sounds of all time with their harmonized melodies on songs like “Revival” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
But as far as slide players went, few at the time got more acclaim than Duane himself, after the 1971 release of The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East. Duane’s slick phrasing and fat, singing tone on the opening track of the double live album was inspired by hearing Taj Mahal’s rendition of the song with Jesse Ed Davis on slide.
Sonny Landreth, who remembers seeing the Allman Brothers at the time, recalls: “That huge tone that Duane got when he played slide on a Les Paul through a Marshall was a real game changer. I don’t remember anyone else who had a sound like that back then.”
19. John McLaughlin “Meeting of the Spirits” (1971)
Although he had already done revolutionary work with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Miles Davis, and as a solo artist, McLaughlin’s combination of molten Gibson-throughcranked Marshall distortion, impossibly fast and complex yet ultra-precise picking, and unique phrasing on The Inner Mounting Flame shattered all existing concepts of “electric guitarist” and lit the fuse of fusion.
20. Richie Blackmore “Highway Star” (1972)
Actually a harmonized pair of solos, the tasty bends, rapid-fire triplets, and whammy manipulations on this Strat-into-a-Marshall (via a reel-to-reel tape recorder preamp) solo make it one of Blackmore’s most memorable, and the Deep Purple guitarist’s influence on legions of rock and metal shedders from Morse to Malmsteen to Mustaine is undisputable.
21. Billy Gibbons “La Grange” (1973)
Gibbons made his mark on this classic shuffle with two solos. The first, done on a ‘55 Strat, enters screaming with that classic rear pickup Fender bite, before Gibbons flips to the front pickup for a swinging double-stop workout and some liquid pentatonic runs delivered with his impeccable sense of time and swing.
But it’s the track’s second solo that the guitarist is most famous for, and the one that every hard rock player would study, due to Gibbons’ insane pinch harmonics. With his “Pearly Gates” ‘59 Les Paul, the Reverend squawks, grunts, and chokes out so many pinch harmonics that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so damm bad ass.
22. Brian May “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
Brian May’s touch, tone, and orchestral instincts have proven impossible to imitate, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. His majestic lines on this classic are quintessential May, with precise picking, impeccable phrasing, and a bold, loud sound.
The solo’s placement in the mix was influential, informing how bands such as Boston and Styx featured their solos. You’ve got to assume Dr. May’s harmonized lines at the end of the song got Tom Scholz’s attention as well.
23. Larry Carlton “Kid Charlemagne” (1976)
Carlton was already a session legend known for his smooth-as-silk lines that were reminiscent of Wes, Pass, and Trane when he cut this Steely track. But when Mr. 335 combined a rock dude’s tone with a jazzer’s harmonic sensibilities, he created the standard by which every jazz rocker would be judged. Ask Steve Lukather, Robben Ford, or Mike Stern what impact this solo had on them. Alright then.
24. Carlos Santana “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)” (1976)
Santana masterfully caresses the tune’s main melody with his trademark singing sustain and thick tone, never quite giving up the goods until the outro solo where he lets it all hang out in an outpouring of soulful yet wicked playing.
He displays a fluid, tactile control at all times, and his tone is more open-sounding and less compressed than in recent years.
And when he kicks the wah on, look out—he ratchets up the intensity tenfold, just when you think it can’t go any higher. Simply put, “Europa” is a study in pace, melodicism, and space— as well as good, old fashion burning!
25. Al Di Meola “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway” (1977)
Sure, there were people who could play fast before Di Meola, but nobody had made it such a central part of their deal before Big Al came along. Di Meola’s picking ability coupled with his sick, self-described “mutola” technique raised the bar for audacious shred and players interested in pushing the limits of picking.
Far from being a pattern-minded monotone shredder, Di Meola’s Latin influences and his compositional sense have always made his displays of virtuosity supremely musical. And for all of the shred haters, Di Meola proved that the emotional impact of many notes is just as valid as a few well-placed ones.
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