In this edition of Heavy Blog’s Best Of, we’re taking on the mighty guitar solo. For as long as metal has existed, solos have been a staple of the genre. They might serve as a platform for the freedom of musical expression, or as trophies of technical excellence. Many of the best do both. In either case, solos showcase the guitar as an instrument of unparalleled versatility and beauty. The flexibility and space solos are granted allow them to be among the most creative and experimental aspects of a song, and many tracks simply wouldn’t be complete without them. So, in hopnor of these superlative solos, we at Heavy Blog have compiled this pantheon of our all-time favorite solos!
Wishbone Ash – “Throw Down the Sword” (Argus)
While Wishbone Ash aren’t metal, they are often credited with originally utilizing a technique which would birth many of the first metal bands. That technique is the use of dual lead guitars, something which should be exceedingly familiar to modern metal fans; Iron Maiden for example drew direct inspiration from Wishbone Ash (if you listen closely, you can hear a very familiar chord progression on this track. Hint: think of the Nile as you listen to this track). It was on Wishbone Ash’s most important and celebrated album, Argus, that the full extent of this technique was first given light.
The absolute high point is on “Throw Down the Sword” and its fantastic solos and bridges. Even before the main solos erupt, you can hear how the two lead guitars pick on each other’s parts and create a wonderful melody with the vocal lines. The solo in question begins at three minutes and forty seconds. From then on, it’s endless goosebumps as the two guitars coax each other into greater and greater heights. Hear the precision in composition here: how each note of the solo feeds into the other, how they together create something which seems to feed on itself.
Everything culminates at four minutes and nine seconds as the solo reaches its first peak. The two lines then break down the basic notes on that peak; when one is busy being epic and majestic, the other dips low and focuses on phrasing and subtlety. This technique continues through several crescendos, making sure that we never get bored during this two minute long solo. That’s perhaps the true genius: many other bands would have fallen into repetitions but Wishbone Ash, by utilizing their trademark band structure, manage to keep us hooked throughout a musically taxing endeavour. For that, and for its historical importance, this remains one of the best guitar solos ever.
– Eden Kupermintz
Meshuggah – “Stengah” (Nothing)
Bet you didn’t expect Meshuggah, of all bands, to pop up on this list. Which is understandable enough: it’s often forgotten that behind the colossal, earth-shattering grooves put out by lead guitarist Fredrik Thordendal, the man possesses absolutely inhuman soloing skills and an inimitable jazz fusion-esque style to boot. Sure, he may hold all that close to his chest for the vast majority of Meshuggah’s music for the apparent sake of keeping the grooves going, which makes sense given the sound they generally go for. But immediately following the cosmic chaos that constitutes the midsection of “Stengah”, Thordendal gracefully pulls out a free jazz solo that smoothly weaves across the thick grooves below, somehow making melodic sense and even musical movement out of the single-note riff being played by the rhythm guitar. One could argue that the simple yet masterful solo in “Straws Pulled at Random” proved a bigger classic than that of “Stengah” as cuts from 2002’s Nothing go, but the latter solo’s effortless free jazz tendencies ever so slightly edge it out as being the better one in my eyes.
– Ahmed Hasan
Metallica – “One” (…And Justice for All)
Can a guitar solo make goose pimples burst from your skin in a combination of fear and silent awe? The answer is: yes. And that solo is from one of Metallica’s most beloved tracks, “One”. (Although the massive solo at the end of this track deserves some credit, I’m actually talking about Kirk Hammet’s introductory solo, occurring about forty seconds into the track.)
Dalton Trumbo’s infamous anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun—the subject that inspired the lyrics of “One”—makes this little solo even more haunting than it already sounds. Joe—the book’s protagonist—has what is referred to now as locked-in syndrome; due to a grenade blast in the trenches of WWI, he has lost all of his senses but touch. He doesn’t know where he is, or what happened, or even what time it is. He’s scared and alone, and as far he knows, he might be dead, but he can still feel his heart thumping in his chest.
Despite only lasting around thirty seconds or so, Kirk Hammett manages to convey Joe’s sense of loss, confusion, and existential dread through his guitar in this solo. Listen to how he starts off soft, echoing the main riff slightly and then bursts into a high-pitched guitar rake, possibly symbolizing Joe’s waking and subsequent realization of what’s happened and how he can never go back to his previous life, now that he is dead but still breathing.
– Jimmy Mullett
Ne Obliviscaris – “Painters of the Tempest Pt. II” (Citadels)
It’s only right that my favourite album from my favourite band contains my favourite guitar solo. When judging solos the first thing you think about is, on a cursory listen, does it sound good? The answer here is, of course, fuck yes. But then you dig deeper into what it means to have a good solo and you start to think of criteria with which to compare it to other solos you’ve heard.
Do this for long enough and you arrive at a checklist. Is it technically challenging? Yes. Is it self-indulgent or ostentatious? No. Does it stand well on its own? Yes, there is enough substance here to make it an enjoyable listen in and of itself. Does it work well within the context of the song? Yes, it enters on the back of a beautiful violin solo, works perfectly with the drums and rhythm guitars to build this movement to its crescendo, and then ends with a nice fade-out into the next movement. Is it memorable? With a wonderful volley of melodies and tremolos you’ll be humming this song all day whether you know the track or not. Does it make you feel something? As subjective as this question is, in my case, yes.
Thus it really is a special piece of music and it ticks all the boxes, so if you can find me a better one I’ll be a happy man indeed.
– Karlo Doroc
Between the Buried and Me – “Selkies (The Endless Obsession)” (Alaska)
“Selkies” may be Between the Buried and Me’s most popular song, and for good reason; it’s full of character, from the iconic phasing keyboard riff that opens the track to the spacey and chilled-out “sweet relief” section that changes the game in the song’s second half. Without a doubt, “Selkies” is a melodic powerhouse and is a prog metal classic, but what makes the track such a chilling epic is the guitar solo that spirals out of that “sweet relief” interlude from guitarist Paul Waggoner. At 4:42, Paul compliments the clean tones with a tastefully emotive solo borrowing from blues and jazz.
Then, at 5:20, the song reaches its climax when the band turns that passionate chord progression into an explosive reverie wherein Waggoner weaves some soaring leads into a monstrous display of flawless and awe-inspiring sweep picking. It’s been over a decade since Alaska was released, and “Selkies” has never failed to deliver the goosebumps thanks to Waggoner’s unmatched blend of shred and feel.
– Jimmy Rowe
The Faceless – “Xenochrist” (Planetary Duality)
Planetary Duality is a landmark record in tech death, and highly revered to this day for its incredible guitar work, precise balance between technicality and accessibility, and the fact that it’s about aliens.
The record’s 32 minute runtime features no shortage of solos from lead guitarist Michael Keene, whose characteristic alien-sounding lead style owes itself to his liberal usage of harmonic minor scales and augmented triads, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the solo of “Xenochrist” (1:43). But what’s particularly notable about it is the second half (1:59), where the solo’s otherwise heavy backing instrumentation transitions into ominous arpeggiated chords, making for a perfect segue into an intensely atmospheric moment out of nowhere. Keene’s harmonic minor noodling immediately gives way for more sparse and open-sounding phrasing, ending in a quick whole tone flourish before the song more or less resumes again.
Yet those few atmospheric seconds manage to arguably form the very centrepiece of Planetary Duality, capturing the very core of the sound that nearly the entire album seems to be built outward from, and giving the listener a quick peek into the musical ideas underneath the otherwise distortion-heavy surface.
– Ahmed Hasan
Pantera – “Floods” (The Great Southern Trendkill)
Make no mistake, Pantera’s late guitarist Dimebag Darrell was one of the most expressive and explosive lead guitarists in the history of heavy metal. Though the man boasts dozens of legendary solos over his career, none of them have ever managed to reach the climactic heights of the solo in “Floods.”
Maybe it’s because it’s buried deep within the band’s least successful (and criminally overlooked) album, but Dime essentially managed to duplicate the tear-shedding brilliance of David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” solo and run it through a metric ton of distortion. Set up perfectly with the return of the track’s opening theme, the band kicks back in and the listener is met with a triumphant series of well-timed pinch harmonics, soaring pentatonic rock licks and an overall incredible sense of melody, tension, and release.
Oh, not to mention the classic ending which finishes things off with an insane whammy bar dive that sounds more like a horse being choked to death than, say, Slash. In an age where guitar solos were arguably as disliked as they’ve ever been in the grand scheme of metal, Dime kicked out arguably one of the greatest of them all.
– Kit Brown
Gamma Ray – “Rebellion in Dreamland” (Land of the Free)
I’ve always been fascinated by solos. Although their prevalence and function varies among genres, they’re about as ubiquitous a feature of metal as you could possibly find. I also think they sound real nice. In my mind, a truly great solo reimagines the spirit of a song into a protracted moment of pure musical expression unrestrained by convention or style. This is what Gamma Ray achieves in the epic “Rebellion in Dreamland.”
Don’t be fooled by the verse in the middle of the solo; I consider the solo to run from 4:40 to 7:00.
With the final echoes of the passionate chorus proclaiming that, “Here, in dreamland we will not obey / The masters!”, Kai Hansen’s gorgeously bent, perfectly-held note heralds the beginning of the monumental solo. The rest of the soloette rollicks through more screams and wails than a banshee convention before knocking into a quick, shifty little riff that speaks to me of hope after devastation.
And then Player Two, Dirk Schlacter, enters the arena. His half of the solo manages to outshine the remarkably excellent first half via the best use of restraint, feel, and fretboard I’ve ever heard. Through some intuitive sense of melody and feel, Schlacter knows just when to hold a note, exactly when to bend a string, and when to just shred. The solo is light on its feet, quick without being breakneck, graceful but immensely powerful. Taken with the first half, it’s the best solo I’ve ever heard.
– Andrew Hatch
In Flames – “December Flower” (The Jester Race)
You wouldn’t know it based on the last decade of output alone, but there was a time when In Flames were Gothenberg, Sweden’s golden sons and progenitors of an entire musical movement. You could make some solid arguments in favor of The Jester Race being the most important melodic death metal record, perhaps only second to At The Gates‘ Slaughter of the Soul (which, to be fair, only preceded The Jester Race by about three months).
The record spawned genre classics such as “Artifacts of the Black Rain” and “Moonshield,” but one oft-forgotten In Flames deep cut, “December Flower“, stands out due to its remarkable guest solo from (now former) Dark Tranquillity guitarist Fredrik Johansson. Its quality transcends adequate description on my behalf, but it’s definitely one of my favorite solos of all time; it’s a technically showy solo that is performed with astounding precision, and has a bit of a neoclassical feel to it. It’s almost unfair that the best guitar solo in the In Flames discography is a guest spot, but that doesn’t disqualify the solo from getting the recognition it deserves as a phenomenal display of instrumental know-how and melodic wisdom.
– Jimmy Rowe
De Lirium’s Order – “Autistic Savant” (Veniversum)
I think a guitar solo needs to check off a lot of boxes. It needs to be impressive and it needs to be indicative of what you can write that no one else can. Enter Finnish death metal band, De Lirium’s Order. This band isn’t the best band ever, but they’re damn good. On their most acclaimed track, “Autistic Savant”, they have a solo that serves the songwriting in a quintessential way.. It’s not there to make the guitarist more interesting or make the song more dynamic. It’s more complex than that. It serves the song in a way that guitar solos unfortunately, don’t characteristically serve the music.
It takes the original riff of the song and evolves it. They choose notes that would be interesting with that main riff. They bring it up several octaves and play runs in the same mode and key the riff is in. It’s super cohesive yet elegant in it’s execution. The guitarist displays what the song could be under a different light. The note’s seem unconventional, but only in the order they’re played. It’s so powerful because it acts as the flesh and blood to the death metal backbone of what would otherwise be just a decent track. I hate myself for saying this, but it’s transcendent. And that’s without saying how it acts as an homage to Chuck Schuldiner’s signature style, borrowing some of his technique but choosing notes and landing on them in a way that make it worthy of his mention.
Ultimately it’s an amazing and underrated solo and you owe it to yourself, if not to see how far a musical style like Chuck’s could go, then to listen to one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.