“The most important part of any rock song is the guitar solo.” – David Lee Roth
The joy of seeing live music comes with the promise that you can bear witness to something unexpected. Something that has never been done, and likely will never exist in the same fashion ever again. Whether it’s a fully improvised piece or a take on a classic recorded part, a live guitar solo has the unique ability to make your hairs stand on end.
If you need a place to start regarding how transcendent live guitar solos can be, or you’re just looking for the best all in one spot, then look no further. We’ve compiled ten of the best, most gorgeous, most ferocious six-string solos ever to be played on stage and recorded for our later enjoyment.
As John Frusciante once said: “Any guitar solo should reflect the music that it’s soloing over and not just be existing in its own sort of little world.”
With that in mind, here at ten of the greatest live guitar solos of all time, in no particular order.
The 10 best live guitar solos of all time:
10. Jerry Garcia: ‘Morning Dew’ – Grateful Dead (Europe ’72)
Guitar solos don’t always have to be about flash. Jerry Garcia was capable of technical fireworks when they felt right, but his focus was matching a song’s emotional core with a guitar line that could best illustrate those themes, whether they be anger, goofy playfulness, or zonked out psychedelia.
‘Morning Dew’ is something else entirely: a lament. As the apocalyptic track gently ebbs and flows, Garcia produces a number of lines that accentuate the sadness and beauty that comes with watching the end of the world with the person you love.
9. Duane Allman and Dickie Betts: ‘Whipping Post’ – The Allman Brothers Band (At Fillmore East)
As pure jam band workouts go, guitar solos don’t get any bigger and more expansive than on At Fillmore East. Through just seven songs, The Allman Brothers Band bring blues and tightly wound musicianship to a never-ending open plain of improvisation.
At Fillmore East is the ultimate testament to Duane Allman’s superb ability and his sorely-missed presence with a Les Paul, but fellow lead axeman Dickie Betts his fair share of incredible licks in as well, creating a struggle for supremacy that stretches out the most mind-blowing 22 minutes you’ll ever hear.
8. Jimi Hendrix: ‘Machine Gun’ – Band of Gypsys (Band of Gypsys)
The list of amazing live Hendrix solos could make up its own formidable list. His take on ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock is legendary, as is his seminal interpretation of ‘Wild Thing’ at the Monterey Pop Festival.
That said, it’s his performance of ‘Machine Gun’ on Band of Gypsys that finds Hendrix at his most virtuosic. Starting with a slow burn of blues riffs, the song crashes and careens with explosive abandon. Hendrix is at the wheel of the runaway ship, causing as much chaos as he possibly can and bringing the sounds of war directly to the stage.
7. Eddie Van Halen: ‘316’ – Van Halen (Live: Right Here, Right Now)
Why settle for just one Eddie Van Halen guitar solo when you can have a miniature greatest hits medley in one giant solo?
For nearly 12 minutes, Van Halen drops in references to ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Cacthedral’, and of course ‘Eruption’ as he circles the fretboard, finding inspiration and ties to his older work as they suit him in the moment.
‘316’ doesn’t get as much of the acclaim as his various ‘Eruption’ live performances, but it works fantastically as a summation of his full powers.
6. David Gilmour: ‘Comfortably Numb’ – Pink Floyd (Pulse)
The studio version of ‘Comfortably Numb’ is a consistent consensus pick for the greatest solo of all time. Through its two emotional solos, the second of which finds Gilmour reaching for the highest and most searing notes of his guitar playing career, ‘Comfortably Numb’ stands as an absolute triumph of six-string drama.
The live setting allowed Gilmour to stretch out that final solo by a few minutes, really allowing him to create a story told exclusively through his unparalleled ability to chose the perfect notes at the right moment. Screaming and soaring higher than ever before, the Pulse version is unadulterated guitar bliss.
5. Alex Lifeson: ‘La Villa Strangiato’ (Exit: Stage Left)
Alex Lifeson‘s playing on Exit: Stage Left is indicative of his incredible precision and emotion in his playing. His ability to translate even the most complicated passages in the Rush canon to the live setting is a feat all on its own, but it’s his take on what is likely the most difficult Rush composition that takes the proverbial cake.
Despite its nearly ten-minute run time, ‘La Villa Strangiato’ doesn’t allow for a lot of free form jamming. Lifeson is mostly beholden to the composed parts. But those predetermined parts are given added weight and thunderous drive. Plus, Lifeson finds some time to let loose during the song’s languid middle passage.
4. Prince: ‘Purple Rain’ – Prince & the Revolution (Purple Rain)
Recorded live at the legendary First Avenue venue in Minneapolis, it’s technically unknown if Prince overdubbed the cathartic final solo or played it live. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because if there’s even a small chance that this solo was played live, it deserves a spot on this list.
Another clear example of emotion overindulgence, Prince gets to through in a flurry of notes occasionally, but mostly sticks to high wails and precise melodic phrases during his ‘Purple Rain’ solo, showing off a keen ear for impact and weight. The result is transcendent and impossible to replicate.
3. Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Steve Gaines: ‘Free Bird’ – Lynyrd Skynyrd (One More From The Road (Deluxe)/All Time Greatest Hits)
The first six minutes are just build-up. Gary Rossington’s beautiful slide melody, Billy Powell’s delicate piano work, and Ronnie Van Zandt’s tender vocals are ballad perfection, but they mainly serve as a precursor for what’s to come.
It’s when the song barrels headlong into its final coda jam that the goosebumps start to come out. Rossington, Steve Gaines, and especially Allen Collins get to prove their southern-fried guitar god bona fides in nearly eight minutes through trading licks and lines that spit fire and sparks of ecstatic flash and delirium. They managed to bring it every time the song was played, but it’s their take at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta that might be the band’s greatest recording.
2. Jimmy Page: ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – Led Zeppelin (The Song Remains The Same)
If you’re Jimmy Page, at the ultimate peak of your powers, in the undisputed rock and roll cathedral of America, you can’t simply play just another ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo. You have to melt faces and leave little doubt that you are now the owner of Madison Square Garden.
Melting faces is precisely what Page does in his extended ‘Stairway’. Page incorporates lines from the studio version but mainly focuses on building up the song’s dynamics throughout his solo, reflecting the ever-escalating nature of the track itself. Page could be a sloppy player live around this time, but he’s laser-focused here.
1. Eric Clapton: ‘Spoonful’ – Cream (Wheels of Fire)
Eric Clapton was the ultimate purveyor of “less is more”. Slowhand got that nickname for a reason: he rarely, if ever, produced the maelstrom of notes and sounds that most other guitar gods, and a fair few individuals on this list, were keen to release upon the unsuspecting public. Instead, he kept his emotions and notes in check, simply playing into the song’s feeling without trampling it.
Clapton’s solos on ‘Spoonful’ are the finest example of this minimalist approach to guitar solos. You can almost hear Clapton straining for those same heartbreaking tones that he must have heard Hubert Sumlin reach for on the original Howlin Wolf track. It’s appreciation at its most potent.