There’s no greater payoff in rock music than a well-executed guitar solo. A good solo can amplify and reaffirm the themes of a song, driving the narrative home. A good solo can also play against context, creating dramatic contrasts and delightful surprises. While a number of eminent guitar gods have received their due, there are many other lesser-known shredders who have ripped holes in the universe, a few bars at a time. Here for your consideration are a number of weird and wonderful guitar solos that will have you saying “Wow, what a solo!”
Entries follow the format –
Skip directly to the guitar solo if you must, but it’s a far, far better thing to listen to the whole song. The contrast and context surrounding a solo are often essential to its appeal.
This is what happens when the transgressive experimentalism of Free Jazz meets the transgressive experimentalism of Extreme Heavy Metal. Thorendal’s solo disrupts the lurching, tortured smash-and-bash of Concatenation not by being heavier or faster than the surrounding music, but by being complete atonal jazz flatulence. It sounds like Thorendal is not playing guitar, but rather red-faced, puff-cheeked toots on a saxophone. The sometimes-synchronization of Thorendal’s seemingly random squeals with the other instrumentalists is impressive to say the least. Thorendal has authored many strange solos for Meshuggah, but this one stands out. It just so un-metal and un-guitar like, and because of this it’s a complete hoot, one that will make you want to spazz out again and again.
Helmet grudgingly gained some fame in the 90’s as dressed-down, no-nonsense alternative rockers scowling through their 15 minutes on MTV. It’s strange to think that such anti-social music was once widely disseminated by major media outlets. Particularly anti-social is Page Hamilton’s guitar solo on the time signature-switching, confrontational and lyrically cryptic “Repetition”. Here Hamilton plays against the staccato syncopation of the “Alternative Metal” framework of the song, delivering a blistering, overdriven, jazz-influenced monstrosity of a guitar solo that sounds for all the world like the dying wails of some biomechanical sea mammal. There is some sort of reverb on the solo, which means you can hear the soot-covered room in which Hamilton labors. It’s also easy to visualize the scene – sparks illuminating Hamilton’s tortured visage as he attacks his guitar with a circular saw or some such power tool.
This solo is exquisite for sounding so completely unexpected (even when you know it’s coming). Towering Flesh is somewhat of a Grindcore anomaly, long-winded by genre standards at 3:34. There are dynamically varied sections that deal in sped-up and sludged-down metal styles, gilded with JR Hayes’ maniac screams. The solo comes right after a tense buildup, which would make sense, except that it’s delivered in a neoclassical, sweep-picked style usually reserved for much more ostentatious “Cock Rock” and “Butt Metal”. It’s a definite oddball in such an otherwise raw and menacing song. But where Pig Destroyer experiment, we prosper. Because of the weird solo, Towering Flesh is a standout in Pig Destroyer’s catalogue and Grindcore as a whole.
Kayo Dot’s Wayfarer is a long and hazy journey – strange impressionist orchestral folk channeled via the avant-garde. However, late in the song, a white-hot column of guitar erupts from out of nowhere, flaring and taking flight like some cosmic bird of myth. There’s a wonderful sense of space, narrative and drama conjured by this short and relatively uncomplicated solo. The outburst enlivens the soul, then it is gone, its only legacy a soft cloud of glowing plasma sweeping gently across the horizon.
Camel are a British Progressive Rock band. They are not as well-known as Punk Floyd, Rash, and Maybe, but are still worthy of consideration. Especially worthy is Andy Latimer’s brilliant guitar solo from Lunar Sea. After five minutes of tedious “progressive” noodling and farting around, Latimer says enough and cuts loose, unleashing a preternaturally melodic masterpiece in dulcet tones. There is so much drama in the fretwork, so much adventure and romance caught up in each note. The entire band awakes in accompaniment, swept up and carried relentlessly forward in the rollicking eruption.
The Dillinger Escape Plan
For fans of Extreme Metal, Sugar Coated Sour represents a watershed moment. It is the lead track on Calculating Infinity – a violent cubist revolution which upset notions of what rock music could be. The new rules are heralded by simulated computer noises, rhythmically impossible meter-deconstruction and frantic screaming. Within the first thirty seconds Weinman lays out his first edict in two parts. First, a section that sounds like a genome transcribed by way of guitar scales, played lightning-fast to Chris Pennie’s inimitable drum punctuation. There is a harlequin-esque dénouement, then, the second section – a full-blooded and fleet-fingered jazz solo as mellifluous as it is unexpected.
Nick Cohon or Matt Solis
This solo would be dreamy on its own, but it’s the preceding audio that really softens the emotional ground. Cormorant mix in excerpts from the Australian Government’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, delivered by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It’s a powerful piece of speech, and perfectly incorporated. Hearing the words makes one wish other world governments had the courage to publically and officially address the injustices lurking in their history. After Rudd, Cohon/Solis brings the sentiment home with a gentle but insistent touch.
In moderation, neo-classical heavy metal solos are wonderful. The sweep-picking and finger tapping sections are impossibly fast, and it’s fun to imitate them by making “BLULULULULEELEELULULU” sounds with your mouth. Most of Obscura’s songs have some ultra-melodic, very enjoyable solo in the middle, breaking up their dark brand of spacy tech-death. It’s a good songwriting strategy, and it’s easy to fall under the spell every time.
Peyss or Axel
Out of a maelstrom of towering sludge emerges this weird chicken-fried thing. It just goes to show that metal musicians generally don’t believe in doing anything half-assed, even if it’s a totally incongruous guitar solo. Between the quality guitarwork and whatever happened at 1:10, Innerty provide important tonal shifts, showing a playful side that builds sympathetic feeling (not all metal bands are evil). Without them, the leaden chuggings, lumberings and dry howlings of Sphenoid would be a chore.
Leo Setiawan and/or Jeff Arwadi
Coming on the heels of earnest group-shouted vocals and riding atop an ultra-groovy drum pattern, this solo brings home the emotional bacon by simply shredding out loud with an eye toward melody and drama. It’s easy to get caught up in the wave, and easy to be sad when it peters out.
2:52 and 4:30
These are actually flute solos, but since I don’t see myself writing a “12 Pensive and Somber Flute Solos” anytime soon, I’m including them here. Played after wistful verses and over measured hybrid rock-jazz drumming, McDonald’s solos overlay the sad, lonely themes of the song with faint, illusory flutters of hope and beauty (as one can often feel in a reflective moment of unbelonging). These snatches of melody would sound good on a good many instruments, but something about the tenuous, flighty sound of the flute elevates them to a level of ethereal delicacy that fits I Talk to the Wind like a hand in glove.
2:05, 3:26 and 4:50
There are three of them, and the first one is more interlude than solo. However, they all contribute to the languid menace that makes I Love You Too so terrifyingly mellow. Each diffused and muffled squall paints a slightly different contour of what can only be a pack of howling phantoms pressing heavy and decrepit upon on a doorway between worlds. There is such rich ambiguity here, the guitar solos teetering on the edge of menace and comfort, warmth and decay, love and despair.