Although guitar solos are prominent in jazz music, they have also featured in some of the biggest pop songs in history. To celebrate this, we’ve picked ten of the most famous pop guitar solos of all time.
Pop music originated in the 1950s, a style of music heavily influenced by blues, soul and gospel. As the genre developed, other influences made their way into the chart hits, including jazz, rock and classical.
Throughout the history of popular music, the guitar has played a central role and it was only with the advent of electronic music techniques that its popularity waned.
In this list of the greatest pop guitar solos of all time, we take a trip through three decades of music, from the blues-influenced rock & roll of Chuck Berry to the 80s pop of George Michael.
Johnny B Goode, Chuck Berry (1958)
Released in 1958 and solidifying itself as a staple of rock and roll, this solo is almost teased at the start of the song with that iconic intro that rolls us right into the melody.
Chuck Berry’s guitar playing was influential on so many guitarists, and still is to this day, one of the most famous examples being Keith Richards of Rolling Stones.
His bluesy, erratic, and joyful playing is on full display here.
If you want to skip to the good bit, the solo begins at 1:25.
Little Wing, Jimi Hendrix (1967)
You can’t really talk about popular guitar solos, let alone guitar itself, without mentioning Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix is a psychedelic rock legend, but take a listen to one of his solos and you’ll instantly hear the heavy influences from blues and jazz.
Interestingly, Hendrix’s final performance before his tragic and untimely death was a jam session at the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s.
The blues-inspired ballad, Little Wing is a perfect example of Hendrix’s penchant for jazz. The track, which was later covered by blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, is introduced with a beautiful and iconic guitar solo from Hendrix.
He then returns with a more extended solo to end the song, starting at 1.37. The solo is perhaps most notable for Jimi’s elegant and wholly melodic playing. This one never gets old.
Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin (1971)
Granted to us by the legendary lead guitar player Jimmy Page, the solo in Stairway to Heaven is surprisingly short and sweet for a solo played by such a formidable guitarist.
Although it’s a cliche, there’s a reason the song is such a household name.
Although the guitar solo is one of the most iconic of all time, the song is arguably more well known for its first half where Page delivers a beautifully melancholic acoustic melody.
The solo begins at 5.55, and brings in the second half of the song.
Free Bird, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
If you hang around the average rock guitarist long enough, the song “Free Bird” will undoubtedly come up at some point.
And, if you’re a guitarist yourself, there’s no doubt in my mind that someone at some point will ask if you can play the legendary guitar solo that lives within it.
In fact, a good half of the tune, if not more, is made up of this guitar solo. It’s a relentless attack, and a true test of stamina and skill, even if I’m sick of hearing it (and about it).
Money, Pink Floyd (1973)
Guitar World magazine’s No.62 of “The Greatest 100 Guitar Solos“, and Rolling Stone‘s No. 69 of “The Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”, the solo in “Money” plays out in a three-act structure of sorts.
David Gilmour’s blues-rock guitar solo enters with a great build up from the band, letting out soaring notes full of echo and reverb, before dropping down in a subtle and fully dry sound that gives the natural impression of musicians playing casually in a dry room.
It ends as it started, soaring and wet with effects. The solo itself is roughly two minutes long and starts at 3.05.
Fun fact: the saxophone solo from this song also made our list of the ten most famous sax solos in pop music.
Hotel California, Eagles (1976)
The Eagles’ discography contains many great guitar solos, but this is by far their most notable, if not just for its sheer success.
The solo is a pinnacle of country-rock guitar, and is notable for the fact that it’s played by two guitarists!
Joe Walsh and Don Felder take turns playing during the solo and then come together to harmonise before playing the arpeggio that ends the song.
This legendary starts at 4.20.
Mr Blue Sky, Electric Light Orchestra (1977)
Perhaps one of the more famous solos on this list, and with a tone that is perhaps more notable than the solo itself, this is another short and sweet affair.
The melody is sweet, almost addictive and like the rest of the song, shouts out with childlike joy. Jeff Lynne’s solo fits the song perfectly. It’s never a bad time to listen to this one.
Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits (1978)
Known for his finger-style guitar, front man and lead guitar player Mark Knopfler has his roots in blues and jazz. His playing was initially inspired by his uncle’s boogie-woogie piano playing.
His influences are easy to hear, and he is a known fan of jazz, including the traditional sounds of Dixieland. In fact, this song is about a Dixieland band.
Knopfler displays great guitar playing throughout the song, but if you want to skip straight to the magic, it’s at 3.25 and again at 4.48.
If you want something extra special, go and listen to the Alchemy Live version of this song. It is arguably better than the studio version.
Faith, George Michael (1987)
Far from being famous for its guitar solos, Faith is somewhat of an exception on this list.
The solo is played by prolific Scottish session player Hugh Burns (who also played on classics like “Baker Street” and “Careless Whisper“).
Burns’ solo is played in a classic 50s style, reminiscent of something that might’ve appeared on a Buddy Holly track.
Strangely, what’s most notable about this track is perhaps the impeccable synching between the guitar solo and Michael’s adlibs.
The solo begins at 2.19.
I Hate Myself For Loving You, Joan Jett (1988)
The Queen of Rock N’ Roll’s biggest hit since “I Love Rock N’ Roll” features a short-but-sweet solo in full force.
The solo was played by Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, and plays out like many of the classic rock solos of the 80s.
What makes it special is the way the song moves around the solo, or rather, how Taylor plays his solo around the band. You can skip straight to it at 2.25.
In the early 21st Century, acoustic pop underwent a sharp rise in popularity, with the electric guitar-led sounds of the 70s and 80s making way for the acoustic guitar of artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran.
However, guitarists like John Mayer continued the tradition of bringing virtuosity into pop guitar solos with songs like Something’s Missing and Gravity.
Looking to discover more great guitar solos from the world of jazz?
Harry Sprinks is a gigging musician and writer from the Isle of Wight (UK) who recently graduated with a first-class degree in Commercial Music. He has been playing guitar and singing in various projects for the last five years, taking inspiration mainly from rock and blues greats including BB King, Marc Ribot and Mark Knopfler.