Guitar solos. Guitar songs. We love them, right? The thought of being onstage dealing out raging flurries of notes and riffs to glorious applause is what motivated many of us to start playing this beast of an instrument. The great thing about the guitar is making cool noises is pretty easy at first. Learn your cowboy chords, power chords, and a couple Black Sabbath riffs and great fun can be had. The first time you get to play “Paranoid” through a 100-watt stack at a volume level that blows the dust off of your pant legs, you start to understand what the electric guitar is all about.
Once simple riffing becomes easy, however, most players like to challenge themselves by playing increasingly complex material. Any instructor worth their salt will tell you straight up that the best way to improve is to push yourself. Once you have a comfort zone, don’t practice in it. Too many folks continue to play “Blues in E” way past the point when they were learning anything from it. Today, I’m here to steer you towards ten songs and solos that are as tough and developmentally rewarding as anything out there. We all have our favorites that inspire us but any or all of these will let you find out how good you really are. Ready? Put your helmet on and let’s go!
1. “Eruption” – Eddie Van Halen
There’s no way to discuss difficult guitar solos in the modern era without starting with “Eruption.” In 1978, no one had ever heard playing like this before. It was completely unconventional at the time and immediately raised the level of playing that was expected of a rock guitarist. All of a sudden, tone, technique, and sheer bravado mattered more than ever before. Much of “Eruption” is based in supercharged pentatonics, the sound of which was not completely unfamiliar, but Eddie’s legendary tapping run in the middle of the track kicked open the door to a whole new world. It brought arpeggios and wide-interval playing into mainstream rock. In addition, his tone here, and on the rest of the first two Van Halen albums, is arguably the best Marshall amp sound ever put to tape. Of course, many players took these ideas further in the years that followed but, if you want to truly be able to call yourself a rock guitarist today, you’ve got to go through “Eruption” to reach the front of the line.
2. “Cliffs of Dover” – Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson is a giant of the guitar, to be sure, and this is his signature song. The track is a guitar instrumental, so it’s easy to think of it as one long solo, but it is as powerful melodically as it is technically. Johnson’s compositional abilities are fully-formed and unique and the main wide-interval head melody is one of the most individualistic lines in the rock guitar vocabulary. Also, “Cliffs of Dover” demands to be played perfectly, with no slop. The tone and touch needed to play this are never reached by most players and the track offers no place to hide your deficiencies. Johnson is known in the guitar community as a wildly eccentric mad scientist when it comes to his gear but underneath all that is one of the most technically proficient players in the world. Even a failed attempt at this will make you a better player.
3. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” – Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix was the first modern rock guitarist and many people feel this is his greatest moment. Playing this authentically is difficult for a totally different set of reasons than many other challenging songs. Harmonically, it isn’t complicated at all. It’s kind of one big E7 chord. The hard part is copping Jimi’s feel and slippery melodicism. You almost have to attempt to assume his personality to start getting it right. Hendrix was playing culture as much he was playing guitar and an understanding of the blues and R&B that were the foundations of his style is absolutely necessary to get into his game. It’s easy to learn this from TABs and sound like a wind-up toy playing it back. Playing Hendrix requires big ears and an effortless humanity most will never achieve but it sure is inspiring to try.
4. “Mr. Sandman” – Chet Atkins
Country music is notoriously difficult to play and no one did it better than Chet Atkins. His thumbpick-based style is iconic even now and playing his stuff is another pass/fail test in terms of perfection. “Mr. Sandman” is one of Chet’s biggest hits and is filled with things that often strike fear into the hearts of lesser players, such as no distortion in use, a thumbpick-and-fingers approach that treats the guitar like a small piano, and chord melody playing. The song uses more than 50 chords in a little over two minutes, so learning it requires the ol’ thinking cap to be firmly stapled into place. Beyond that, getting it up to Chet’s level of offhand style and grace is the challenge. Again, no slop allowed. Get to work!
5.“Jordan” – Buckethead
There are difficult solos and then there are Buckethead solos. Our man B is in possession of one of the most unique musical minds and two of the most amazingly skilled hands in the guitar world. “Jordan” is one of his wildest moments and the cool feel of the initial groove belies the fire that awaits in the middle. Buckethead has chops that border on being more than human and plays so fast and with such precision that his licks don’t seem possible. Nobody will ever confuse Buckethead with B.B. King in terms of human feel but that’s not what he seems to be going after. If you can play this solo, Van Halen and Eric Johnson are a walk in the park.
6. “Rude Mood” – Stevie Ray Vaughan
All blues isn’t slow and “Rude Mood” proves that beyond a doubt. It is one of the most challenging blues guitar tunes to learn due to its speed. Chordally, it is a blues in E with a ii-V change at the end, which is pretty standard stuff, but the way SRV attacks it is unparalleled. Many students have burned up their practice amps learning this one and I expect that trend to continue. There will be interest in Stevie as long as there is interest in the electric guitar and tracks like this are the reason why.
7. “Sultans of Swing” – Dire Straits
Dire Straits mastermind Mark Knopfler has never been suitably macho for many fans of rock guitar to realize what a genius he is. “Sultans of Swing” was his introduction to the world back in the day and it sounds much easier than it really is. It is all clean tone, fingerstyle, and perfect phrasing. This is one of those songs that teaches the lesson that “difficult” doesn’t always mean “fast.” Plus, it’s an actual lyrical song that would still hold together with only a rhythm guitar and a vocal. So many lessons to learn here.
8. “Cult of Personality” – Living Colour
“Cult of Personality” was a high point of 80s guitar playing and still holds up well today. Vernon Reid is a deeply idiosyncratic guitarist with a rock/funk/fusion/blues approach that is difficult to recreate. The solo is a full-on assault of the instrument and Reid plays with an explosive noise/experimental style in the middle of this MTV hit. Reid plays plenty fast but that’s not what makes this so tough. His wildness and weirdness are what’s hard to cop. He sounds like he’s about to smash into a brick wall at any moment but never does. He rides the edge of control and that’s why you hardly ever see anyone play this song, much less get the solo right. I have a feeling the even Reid, himself, never played it the same way twice. It just has that sound. So much fun.
9. “CAFO” – Animals As Leaders
If you want to go all the way crazy, you gotta go with Animals As Leaders. Extended-range guitarist Tosin Abasi represents the leading edge of modern rock guitar and no discussion of challenging music to play would be complete without him. His technique, harmonic sense, and odd-meter rhythms make “CAFO” a true test of anyone’s learning ability. Abasi isn’t speaking the same language most of us are; he’s taking it much further. People probably won’t ask you to play this one around the campfire too often but attempting it is a great way to find out how good some folks have become in the 21st Century.
10. “Jessica” – The Allman Brothers Band
This is one of the all-time great rock instrumentals for a reason: it has it all. Dickey Betts was inspired by Django Reinhardt and his own infant daughter at the same time and came up with this showstopper. Groove, tone, twin guitar harmony, an indelible hook, and plenty of space to stretch out make this a summation of much of what made classic rock great. If your band can play this, not only do you all play well but you play well together. Sometimes, that is the hardest trick there is.
About the Autor: This post is written by guitar teacher and musician Mike O’Cull, professional music enthusiast, teacher, blogger at GuitarGeary, podcaster, and songwriter. Mike O’Cull works with and covers the most compelling artists from around the world. His writing work has appeared in countless venues over the last twenty years.
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