A quick search on google reveals that not a few people have turned their attention to this question and with some bewildering results. For instance, quite a few top ten lists feature Joe Walsh and Don Felder's guitar work on "Hotel California" by the Eagles which, regardless of the quality of the guitar playing, is cause for immediate disqualification on account of it being "Hotel California" by the Eagles. (Included among these lists is, I'm sad to say, Gibson Guitar's top ten solos.)
Readers of The Guardian, Great Britain's most soulful mainstream news outlet, offered more interesting fare. One reader nominates Slash's solo on "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses:
The best guitar solo of all time is Slash's unholy contribution to Sweet Child O' Mine. It's likely that even those who aren't too familiar with the band have at least heard the song once and been simultaneously astounded by the magnificently nimble fret-work of the guitar God, as he takes you on a religious journey up and down his fret-board for a few decadent minutes.Another reader suggests Keith Richards' guitar on "Sympathy for the Devil," a solo described on Allmusic as "one of Keith Richards' most economic and incisive, like flames licking at the devil's feet." Here's the reader's endorsement:
Richards captures the dark themes of the record with a blistering solo delivered on the back of Mick Jagger's demonic lyrical confession. Listen to how notes are fired from the fretboard like the sting from a scorpion's tail and then as the vocal comes back in the guitar lines weave between the words with accuracy only a legend entering his playing and songwriting prime could muster.Of course, another way to approach the problem is to begin with the question of the greatest guitarist, and then sort out solos afterward. Happily Rolling Stone has already done so. David Fricke came up with the idea of a Top 100 guitarists, which Rolling Stone published here, but Fricke had his own list with his own priorities. Both lists agree on the Number One slot, though. As Fricke said,
In the end, I looked at it this way: Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.Immediately, Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" comes to mind but Tom Morello, in his review of Hendrix, points to a different song:
The most beautiful song of the Jimi Hendrix canon is "Little Wing." It's just this gorgeous song that, as a guitar player, you can study your whole life and not get down, never get inside it the way that he does. He seamlessly weaves chords and single-note runs together and uses chord voicings that don't appear in any music book. His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil.
It is possible that Morello is speaking metaphorically there, but I can't be sure. For my money, though, the most dazzling, incandescent guitar solo of all time is delivered by none other than Prince, whom Rolling Stone criminally awards the 33rd spot on their Top 100 list and whom David Fricke ignores entirely. They should watch this video of the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison where Prince, who had been inducted that same day, appeared three minutes into an otherwise bland rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, et al., and ripped a solo that shook the pillars of heaven. Take a look; have a listen, and watch for the 3:24 mark when George Harrison's son, playing guitar behind Tom Petty, starts grinning like a kid on Christmas just before Prince appears:
Late Update: Reader MS complains with some justice that J. Mascis is not mentioned in this post. As a point of interest, Spin ranks Mascis at #5 in their Top 100 edging out Prince at #6. Compelling, particularly in light of Rolling Stone's insulting placement of The Purple One. But then Spin puts Sonic Youth at #1 which is.... no. Interesting, but no.
Meanwhile reader ER notes the irony in selecting "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as a tribute song since George Harrison famously asked his friend Eric Clapton to play the solo. You have to wonder, then, if Prince performed with the intent of blowing Clapton's solo out of the water. Reader BS wonders "how much of its awesomeness is owed to the hat?" An important question. My impression is: a lot.