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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The 10 greatest simple guitar solos

There’s an unspoken rule amongst guitar players that everything comes down to speed. Even though the instrument might not have been meant for the crazy two-hand tapping lyrics of Eddie Van Halen, all guitarists put their speed and agility above making a statement on the guitar. Even though fast guitar solos have their palace in history, it takes true professionals like The Beatles and Metallica behind the fretboard to make the guitar sing. 

Although some guitarists might scoff at these simple solos, every one of the examples below is just as important as the vocal melody going on in the chorus. Despite not having that many notes to choose from, these leave a statement from their first listen, having a singable quality outside of the body of the song. 

When constructing solos, it’s more about leaving space and supporting what the rest of the band is doing. Each of the guitarists found in this collection might be capable of doing something flashy to make people pay attention to them, but their art comes from being able to refine their guitar playing in their own lane and making something beautiful with the bare essentials.

While the solo might not take that long for some intermediate guitarists to pick up, the beauty behind the creation almost makes the virtuoso guitarists look a lot worse. Guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen may brag about playing a thousand notes per second, but these guitarists are saying more with a handful of notes than virtuosos can say with a thousand.

10 greatest simple guitar solos

‘Champagne Supernova’ – Oasis

Despite Oasis’ successes, Noel Gallagher never claimed to be the greatest guitarist in the world. The beginnings of Oasis were always about him copying some of his favourite players, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was practically a love letter to the artists he adored as a kid. However, when professionals play nothing but fundamentals, they can make the simplest guitar phrases sound huge.

When starting off on guitar, most aspiring musicians are shown the pentatonic box, which is just five notes played up and down the strings. That musical box holds the basics of rock guitar soloing, and ‘Champagne Supernova’ never leaves that box during the first lead break. After coming out of the first chorus, Noel plays the main lick using only four notes, five counting the bend that he does in between.

Though the pentatonic box tends to have a minor feeling attached, the position that Noel plays the solo in makes it feel like it’s being played in the major key, fitting in perfectly with the vocal melody. Though Paul Weller eventually laid down another guitar track to this song, this line is always what most people think of when recalling ‘Champagne Supernova’.

‘Ain’t Talkin Bout Love’ – Van Halen

When talking about the easiest guitar solos in the world, Eddie Van Halen doesn’t enter the conversation. From the start of Van Halen’s first album, Eddie was already blowing minds everywhere with his tapping technique on the six-string. For someone who often put every other guitar to shame, ‘Ain’t Talkin Bout Love’ contains a solo that is extremely straightforward by Eddie’s standards. 

Granted, the technique behind this song is reversed, with the main guitar line having a fair amount of precision behind it. When it comes time to launch into the solo, Eddie hangs back, favouring a droning note on the high strings of the guitar and only putting one semi-flashy towards the end before his whammy bar brings us back down to Earth.

For any budding guitarist, this song offers a great goal to have in mind when getting started, being able to play the first few measures with one finger and then building up the strength to play the final bit of the solo. It might not be the most intimidating solo in the world, but every wannabe guitar virtuoso has to start somewhere too. 

‘Seven Nation Army’ – The White Stripes

The entire mindset behind The White Stripes was to keep things simplified. Jack White wanted to bring rock and roll back to its basic form along with Meg, who was crucial to his vision coming to life. While any sports fan can sing the riff from ‘Seven Nation Army’ these days, the solo has a little bit more flair to it than meets the eye. 

When crafting the tune, White had the idea of writing something that could be a James Bond theme and stumbled upon that famous first opening lick. While the solo might go off in weird directions, White’s slide guitar skills offer another interpretation of the main melody, playing it in a higher register and adding a few more blistering notes to make the guitar sound like it’s crying out in pain.

Although, when looking at the solo tabbed out, it looks like a shot-for-shot recreation of the riff, with most of the notes having the exact same rhythmic structure from start to finish. Then again, this solo was never about writing something original. It was about serving that main melody line, and listening to this section feels like hearing the riff in a completely different way.

‘Holiday’ – Green Day

Billie Joe Armstrong isn’t the greatest guitar soloist in the world. Throughout his time with Green Day in the 1990s, most of the songs Armstrong composed led the way with pounding chords, often with Mike Dirnt providing the breakdown on the bass. When Armstrong decided to make a sprawling rock opera, it was time to bring out the guitar solos, and he brought the perfect amount of taste to ‘Holiday’.

In the context of the story, this entire track is a condemnation of the Iraq War. As the guitars get more crunchy in the bridge, Armstrong’s guitar solo slides up and down the minor scale, taking a few leaps here and there while arpeggiating some of the chords.

While there isn’t anything too complicated going on, what’s important is what’s going on in the chords behind him. Since the riff is changing chords every few seconds, each note plays a different role, ending on a C chord and Armstrong peddling away on a high E to squeeze all of the tension he can before breaking things down to his monologue. There’s always a cinematic scope to rock operas, and this guitar solo helps keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

‘Nothing Else Matters’ – Metallica

By the time Metallica made The Black Album, they intended to make things a lot simpler. Their last few albums had some of the most complex thrash metal imaginable, and they wanted to see if they could expand their horizons with producer Bob Rock behind the mixing desk. While there’s a ton of emotion poured into the solo for ‘Nothing Else Matters’, Kirk Hammett doesn’t appear on the track at all.

Since most of this song was personal for James Hetfield, he played almost all of the guitar on the final mix. While the main figure of the riff is just plucking the open strings on a guitar, Hetfield saves a lot of his fury for the solo, bringing a healthy dose of anger while never breaking out of the pentatonic box. Compared to most metal guitarists, there’s a bluesy tone behind this solo, as Hetfield gets out all of his frustration about not being able to see his significant other while out on the road.

While Hetfield never played solos that often, the complex part comes from the layers of harmonies he added onto the main riff, laying one guitar line on top of another until it became a bonafide guitar orchestra. Hetfield might be known as the raw muscle behind Metallica’s rhythm section, but this solo also has a fair amount of heart behind it as well. 

‘Something’ – The Beatles

George Harrison earned his place among the best of the best throughout his career with The Beatles and beyond. Although Harrison may have been focused more on songwriting for most of his career, his touch with a guitar slide made melodies that could make jaded rock fans well up with tears. Harrison may have been the most lyrical guitar player, but the solo on ‘Something’ sings from the moment it starts.

As Harrison was woodshedding ideas with The Beatles, ‘Something’ stood out as a tune that practically wrote itself, singing about being in martial bliss with Pattie Boyd. Across this solo, Harrison weaves in between the chord changes, taking a few cues from his buddy Eric Clapton by playing blues leads around the verse track. In keeping with the tone of the lyric, the guitar lines are the musical equivalent of one’s heart leaping out of their chest because of their love for someone.

While it might not have been the most complex solo in the world, Harrison was fearless when it came time to record it. During the session at Abbey Road, Harrison was overlooking the orchestra overdubs and decided to play his solo with the session musicians, playing the note perfectly among the orchestra. Harrison was used to writing in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, so no amount of classical session musicians was going to spark fear in him.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nirvana

Kurt Cobain was the best worst guitarist in the world. While he learned most of the fundamentals of guitar backwards, his ear always led him to the right notes when penning Nirvana’s biggest hits. Amid all of the complex solos that Mike McCready laid down in Pearl Jam, Cobain learned a valuable skill all guitarists need: when in doubt, play the melody.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was bound to be a hit before the song even ended, with Cobain shouting the chorus begging to be entertained by the masses. Although the verses calm things down, the solo plays the exact same melody that Cobain sings in the verses with a biting guitar tone. As opposed to the smooth sounds of the verses, this feels like Cobain is bringing up the verse parts to take centre stage.

There are even a handful of technical screwups in the final mix, like Cobain bending up to the high notes in the verse and not quite getting there in the end. Any amount of technical mastery that was thrown out with this solo didn’t matter, though. The next wave of grunge wasn’t about complexity, and not having the bends be perfectly in tune was just another layer of authenticity. 

‘Californication’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers

John Frusciante had an uphill battle in front of him when rejoining the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although he had kicked ass for the ‘Funky Monks’ in the past, years of addiction had drastically affected his motor skills, and he had to start at ground zero when coming back for Californication. Though the guitar performance might not have been as biting as it was back in 1991, the title track showcased Frusciante’s ability to do a lot with a little. 

For the first few bars of this solo, Frusciante only plays one three-note melodic phrase, only adding little flourishes in between to break it up. As the solo builds up tension, Frusciante adds some more notes into the mix, using the melancholy tone of the chords behind him to tell a story with his guitar. 

Since the melody shifted to a new key during this section, this is like seeing the more hopeful side of what California has to offer, as Frusciante plays a melody that feels more hopeful before being brought back down to Earth with the main guitar line. Just like the lyrics would suggest, the solo gives a look at the wonder of Hollywood, but one can find themselves back down at the bottom before they’re ready for the ride to stop. 

‘Gravity’ – John Mayer

The guitarist community has always walked a fine line with John Mayer. Though his laid-back brand of pop-rock made him uncool for most of his glory years, he had done his homework on some of the best guitarists in the world and was willing to throw down when he needed to. Though the album Continuum is a crash course on everything that MAyer can do behind the fretboard, his best moments are when he’s limited. 

For the entire solo of gravity, Mayer sticks to just two guitar strings, sliding in and out of notes rather than playing something that sounds like scales. As he weaves his way up the neck, his bends are perfectly in tune before coming back to the slides. Though it’s easy to just play the notes, sliding as Mayer does makes the guitar sound more like a human playing, as he ramps into notes instead of hitting them with pinpoint accuracy.

In fact, this solo is actually deceptively challenging for the more intermediate guitarists, having to focus on the exact pitch that they’re hitting and making sure that each note stays within the scale. Other guitarists might like to clown on a solo this simple, but no amount of guitar shredding could make up for his taste on the instrument.

‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ – The Ramones

When punk rock began, it was always in direct response to the flashy side of rock and roll. Whereas prog acts like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were expanding their horizons in terms of what could be done on their instruments, the Ramones were looking to make to-the-point pop songs played at breakneck speed. Johnny Ramone was never one for soloing, and his one shining moment might be the world’s first anti-guitar solo.

Most of ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ is simple, only having three chords throughout its runtime and jumping up a whole step to bring some urgency to the second half of the track. As Ramone lays down his solo, he peddles on one note for the entire runtime, keeping within the key but never straying from the one note that he ‘wrote’.

What makes the solo even funnier is that the note is a high E, which is the same pitch as the highest string on the guitar. So if aspiring guitarists were feeling particularly lazy, they could play this entire solo without even touching the neck of the guitar. Playing this might not teach the complexities of the guitar by any stretch, but Ramone’s message was clear: I’m no David Gilmour, but I’ve still got soul.

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