We polled members of the Guitar Department at Berklee College of Music on their favorite guitar-based songs. We were going to suggest they reach out with their favorite guitar solos, but that felt too limiting. If their favorite guitar-based song was their favorite guitar-based song because of its solo, we encouraged them to write about that one, by all means, but we were thinking about Wes Montgomery’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” which doesn’t feel like a solo, per se, as much as it is just really great guitar work.
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We also let them know that their picks didn’t even have to be a virtuosic display, because “I Can’t Explain” contains an energy in its three-chord riff that some of the most talented players may never be able to achieve, right? For some of our instructors it was difficult to pare their selections down to just one, so if they asked for more, we let them send us more picks (no pun intended). Those additional tunes are on Spotify (and in the embed below this paragraph). We just wanted to share with our readers the songs that strike a chord with your instructors. (This time, the pun was intended!)
I’m going to go with “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour. First of all: that opening riff is epic! Put aside the fact that Vernon Reid’s solos will melt your face off, let’s just listen to his rhythm playing: the riff interspersed with perfectly executed power chords, exquisite really. Then you get to the chorus where he’s adding fills in between the arpeggiated rhythm parts, then just gives you a taste of the pyrotechnics to come. With the solo at 3:03, Vernon’s technique is impeccable; he has complete control over the guitar at all times, whether he’s superimposing sextuplet phrases over a 4/4 rock beat or using the tremolo bar to make wailing noises with the notes.
My entrant is Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” from Band of Gypsys. For me this performance defines commitment by an artist to the moment. It is one of the greatest examples of an improvising musician transcending the confines of their instrument and entering realms of pure emotion and spiritual energy. Hendrix perfectly captures the angst of the lyrics and the turbulent mood of the times. I’ve been listening to this since my early teens and it still gives me goose bumps, brings tears to my eyes, and makes my hair stand on end, particularly what many guitarists know as “the note” —the incredible sustaining bend that starts at 3:59.
My pick is “Girl Gone Bad” by Van Halen. One of Eddie’s most explosive solos, no one can play like he did on this track. His playing is so unique and he changed everything with the first album and “Eruption.”
On his version of “Georgia on My Mind,” Lenny Breau displays several of the techniques he developed, that become the foundation of fingerstyle jazz.
This is a tie! First, it’s Robben Ford “Blues MD.” Transcribe, learn, and memorize Robben’s amazing solo on this tune and you’ll have a tasty library of progressive blues licks, in time for next week’s gigs! Next, OZ Noy’s “Twice in a While” is a crowning achievement in a solo! Oz marries great guitar licks with motific development in a fluid conversation that builds in emotion, takes you on an epic journey and then brings you safely back home!
Do we have to pick just one?! That’s too hard!
- Favorite solo: Denny Dias on “Your Gold Teeth II” by Steely Dan from Katy Lied
- Favorite riff on a turn-it-up rock song: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by the Rolling Stones
- Favorite one-note solo: “Down by the River” by Neil Young (and many others by Neil)
- Life-changer: “While We’re Young” by Wes Montgomery for its chord solo
- Honorable mention for best acoustic sound and riff-based song: “Hills of Morning” by Bruce Cockburn (below)
There are so many great “guitar songs” which I love, but if I had to pick one it would be “Chromazone” by Mike Stern. Everything about this song just smokes! I love the intricacy of the melody (of course, tons of Chromaticism, hence the name!), the sax and guitar solo, the funky comping. and the whole vibe! It is just amazing.
Mike is one of my favorite guitar players because I love the way he fuses rock and jazz and plays bebop lines using distorted guitar sounds. He is also able to go from playing beautiful soft soulful melodies to then reaching the highest energy in his music!
My answer is the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo. This is arguably the greatest piece ever written for the guitar (and amazingly, not by a guitarist!). Also, the second movement, the most beautiful and moving—the Adagio is one of the most recognized pieces in the guitar repertoire and competes with non-guitar music as well! That theme has been used by Chick Corea in his intro to “Spain” and also by Miles Davis in his classic, “Sketches of Spain.” Rodrigo gave it to the English horn first before it’s stated by the guitar.
It may seem like I’m stretching the answer to the question since there are three separate pieces/movements within this concerto but the three together make it complete and untouchable in terms of the beautiful writing, memorable themes, powerful harmonies, and technical prowess that’s always about the music first rather than show (or shred!) … but it does shred! And often!
I’ve been listening to this since before my teenage years. My parents gave me a Pepe Romero version on LP (not the one in this YouTube) and on my 13th birthday my father gave me the score and a long conductor’s baton. What fun to conduct this as a kid, daydreaming about someday playing it! It took me another 30 years, but eventually I had the opportunity and joy to perform it!
It’s pretty much impossible for me to select just one of my favorite guitar tracks, but I’m gonna go with the epic “Far Beyond the Sun” by Yngwie Malmsteen. First off, it’s an instrumental, so nothing but guitar on this one. Also Yngwie (along with Ritchie Blackmore) is one of my main influences and heroes. This track contains everything that’s great about highly technical metal guitar, jaw dropping technical command and execution, classically influenced lines and arpeggios inspired by the great Baroque and Romantic era composers (Bach, Vivaldi, Paganini), all played with gorgeous violin-type vibrato and a killer tone. This is truely when the shred era began!
It’s always difficult to ever say “my favorite” but on this particular day, at this hour, and in this moment in time, I will offer a guitar instrumental that reached the top of the UK singles chart in January of 1969 and famously inspired The Beatles’ “Sun King.” The song is “Albatross” and was released by Fleetwood Mac in November of 1968 and quickly rose to the top of the UK single charts. (Note that this blues-based era of the band is now commonly referred to as “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” to delineate from future mega-pop incarnations that included Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham.) Being a Peter Green composition, “Albatross” fully exhibits the distinctively deep musical qualities, sensibilities, and attention to detail that the guitarist is revered for. The reverb-thick instrumental starts with the memorable main theme of triad-harmonized chords into low-register single notes carrying the melody. The artistic level of Peter’s time-feel, phrasing, tone, and picking dynamics are characteristically masterful. The next section is an unhurried “twin-guitar” lead/harmony part with second guitarist Danny Kirwan. The execution from both guitarists displays the highest level of detail for perfectly matched phrasing, string bending, dynamics, and vibrato technique. Next, Peter exquisitely executes a delicate high-register slide guitar passage and is then beautifully joined by Danny in more harmony guitar work. “Albatross” concludes with an embellished restatement of the main theme and tag ending fade-out that for me, inspires a replay of the recording. If Peter Green has yet appear on your radar, I recommend a deep dive into his recorded legacy, especially the blues numbers the band recorded like “Need Your Love So Bad,” “Stop Messin’ Round,” “Rollin’ Man,” “Watch Out,” and “Love that Burns.” B.B. King is known to have said “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard. He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” See if you agree!
These songs are important to me, and what was the development of my guitar style. Once I got started, I really put my history together. In somewhat chronological order, they are :
1. “Valleri” by the Monkees: Mike Nesmith “not” playing the solo to the song. I was around 10 to 12 years old when I was watching this regular musical/comedy TV series and saw Mike mimic a studio player’s solo. Fast fingers flying all over the neck. This is the song that made me want to trade in my trumpet for a guitar. I made a deal with Dad that I’d keep playing the trumpet if he bought me a guitar. Later, I found out that Mike wasn’t actually playing the solo, but it was the great studio guitarist, Louis Shelton.
2. “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry: The intro of Chuck’s original version (below) says it all. One of the greatest guitar intros in history. To this day, I play this song at my gigs as one of my signature songs. (Look at my name again and you’ll see why). In addition to the original, check out Johnny Winter on Live Johnny Winter And, and Jimi Hendrix on Hendrix in the West. Both are powerful versions of the song and take the intro further than the original.
3. “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix: My friend brought the Are You Experienced album over to my house, put the record on my father’s turntable, and what came out of the speakers changed my life forever.
4. “Soul Sacrifice” by Santana: Listen to the live versions, either from the Woodstock movie, or the Woodstock soundtrack recording. Early Carlos, showing his intense energy, sound and chops.
5. “Every Day I Have the Blues” by B. B. King: From Live at Cook County Jail, this was my first real understanding of the blues. B.B.’s sound and vibrato.
6. “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin: At the time, pop music was played on AM radio, and “hipper” music was on FM radio. The short version of this song was played on AM stations, but the longer version with Jimmy Page’s more extensive guitar solo, was on FM. Both versions are worth a listen.
7. “26 or 6 to 4” by Chicago: Before this band became a “pop/songwriter” band, they were a great group of instrumentalists. This guitar solo featured Terry Kath’s chops, energy, and linear melodic sense. Once again, you can either listen to the shorter AM version, or the longer FM version. Terry Kath died much too early.
And then, my life changed again. I heard Dizzy Gillespie play a trumpet solo on the Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich drum battle record, and, without leaving my rock/blues roots behind, I turned toward jazz. And these were my next group of favorites:
8. “Nuages” by Django Reinhardt: The version from the Douce Ambience album, but really, any version is great. How can someone with only two working fingers have so much chops on the guitar? The ability to get around the neck of the guitar with his disability, and the melodic sense of his lines.
9. “Four On Six”/“Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Wes Montgomery: Both of these tracks are from The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery album. “Four on Six” is Wes’ signature composition. Check it out below. The thumb, the octaves, the lines! Incredible. From the same album, “Polka Dots…” is a masterful example of melodic embellishment of a ballad. He never really states the melody, but he doesn’t really improvise either. It’s a hybrid of both. Wonderful melodic content, played almost entirely in octaves.
10. Virtuoso by Joe Pass: The whole album changed the nature of solo jazz guitar. Up until the time this album came out—in 1973—all the greats would do an album with their band, and put one token solo guitar piece on the recording. Then came this. An entire album, one man, one guitar, no overdubs. Just great solo guitar playing.
11. White Rabbit, and Breezin’ by George Benson: These two albums represent right before, and right after George became an R&B/pop star.
12. “Third Wind” by Pat Metheny: From Still Life Talking. Really, check out the whole album. The compositions as well as the playing. On this song, the opening riff to the solo at about 1:35 is worth checking out below.