A few years ago, the editors of Guitar World magazine compiled what we feel is the ultimate guide to the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time.
The list, which has been quoted by countless artists, websites and publications around the world, starts with Richie Sambora's work on Bon Jovi's “Wanted Dead or Alive” (Number 100) and builds to a truly epic finish with Jimmy Page's solo on "Stairway to Heaven" (Number 1).
To quote our "Stairway to Heaven" story that ran with the list, "If Jimmy Page is the Steven Spielberg of guitarists, then 'Stairway' is his Close Encounters."
We've kicked off a summer blockbuster of our own — a no-holds-barred six-string shootout. We're pitting Guitar World's top 64 guitar solos against each other in an NCAA-style, 64-team single-elimination tournament. Every day, we will ask you to cast your vote in a different guitar-solo matchup as dictated by the 64-team-style bracket.
You can vote only once per matchup. The voting for each matchup ends as soon as the next matchup is posted (Basically, that's one poll per day during the first round of elimination, including weekends and holidays).
In some cases, genre will clash against genre; a thrash solo might compete against a Southern rock solo, for instance. But let's get real: They're all guitar solos, played on guitars, by guitarists, most of them in some subset of the umbrella genre of rock. When choosing, it might have to come down to, "Which solo is more original and creative? Which is more iconic? or Which one kicks a larger, more impressive assemblage of asses?"
Winner: "Comfortably Numb" (76.44 percent)
Loser: "Master of Puppets" (23.56 percent)
Today's Round 1 Matchup (Day 31):
"Cliffs of Dover" Vs. "Sympathy for the Devil"
Round 1 is almost over! To celebrate, we present you with a simple case of shred mastery vs. gnarly, bendy, blues-fueled genius. We give you Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" (17) vs. the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" (48), which features a solo by Keith Richards. Get busy! You'll find the poll at the very bottom of the story.
17. “Cliffs of Dover”
Soloist: Eric Johnson
Album: Ah Via Musicom (Capitol, 1990)
“I don’t even know if I can take credit for writing ‘Cliffs of Dover,’ ” says Eric Johnson of his best-known composition. “It was just there for me one day. There are songs I have spent months writing, and I literally wrote this one in five minutes. The melody was there in one minute and the other parts came together in another four. I think a lot of the stuff just comes through us like that. It’s kind of a gift from a higher place that all of us are eligible for. We just have to listen for it and be available to receive it.”
While it is true that he wrote the song in a blessed instant, the fact is that Johnson, a notoriously slow worker, took his time polishing it up to form. “It took me a while to achieve the facility to play it right,” he says. “I was trying to work out the fingerings and how I wanted particular notes to hang over other notes.”
Even allowing for Johnson’s perfectionism, it took an extraordinarily long time for him to record a song that “came to him” in five minutes. That epiphany occurred in 1982, and within two years “Cliffs of Dover” was a popular staple of his live shows. He planned to include the song on his solo debut, Tones (Capitol, 1986), but, ironically, it didn’t make the cut. “It was ousted by the people who were doing the record with me,” Johnson explains. “I think they thought the melody was too straight or something.”
Luckily, wiser heads prevailed on Ah Via Musicom. Though he had been playing “Cliffs of Dover” live for four or five years by then, it still took Johnson multiple takes to nail the song to his satisfaction—and he was never pleased with any version. “The whole solo is actually a composite of many guitar parts,” Johnson says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound—almost regal—and though I had versions that were close, none quite nailed it, so I kept playing around with different permutations of the many versions I had recorded until I got it just right.
“As a result, I actually ended up using two different-sounding guitars. Almost all of the song is a Gibson 335 through a Marshall, with an Echoplex and a tube driver. But in the middle of the solo there’s 20 or 30 seconds played on a Strat. It really does sound different if you listen closely and at first I didn’t think it could work, but I really liked this string of licks so we just decided to keep it. It basically sounds like I’m hitting a preamp box or switching amps.
“The difficulty on that song was to make the sound as clear as the melody is. It’s just a simple little repeating melody, and for the song to work it had to be very up-front and crisp. Unfortunately, the G third on the guitar has a real tendency to waver and not be a smooth, clear note. As a result, I had to finger it just right—like a classical guitarist, using only the very tips of my fingers to achieve the best efficiency of my tonality. That’s what took me so long: to be able to play all the fast licks with just the tips of my fingers, with just the right touch and tonality. Without a doubt, the most important thing is the song and melody, which in this case came very easily. But I like to do the best job I can of delivering it to the listener by the best possible way I can play it—and that came hard.”
48. "Sympathy for the Devil"
Soloist: Keith Richards
Album: The Rolling Stones—Beggar’s Banquet (Abkco, 1968)
Writer Stanley Booth once suggested to Keith Richards that “Sympathy for the Devil” was cut from the same cloth as bluesman Robert Johnson’s haunting “Me and the Devil Blues.” “Yeah,” Richards replied. “All of us pursued by the same demon.” But while “Sympathy’s” lyrics reflect the Stones’ attraction to the dark side and allegiance to Johnson, the music is a prime example of how in a real band, composition is a group effort.
“It started as sort of a folk song with acoustics and ended up as kind of a mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later,” says Richards.
“That’s why I don’t like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand. Because you can write the songs, but you’ve got to give the band something to use its imagination on as well. That can make a very ordinary song come alive into something totally different. You can write down the notes being played, but you can’t put down the X factor—so important in rock and roll—which is the feel.”